Readers discuss the Strachan stir-up



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[In the April issue, R. C. S. Strachan suggested that the sports car is doomed to disappear from the new-car market. Mr. Lowrey’s reaction to this theory was published in the correspondence pages last month and three more replies follow—incidentally, the views expressed all take different angles and would seem to offer convincing collective disposal of at least the fundamentals of Strachan’s argument. —Ed.]

Douglas Tubbs Agrees—Unless Sports Cars Become Lighter and Faster

WHEN Mr. Strachan asks: “Is the. Sports Car Doomed?” he is in reality asking “Why are modern sports cars so heavy?” Ever since the great days of 1929, when sports cars WERE what they set out to be, the British sports model has been getting heavier and heavier. As soon as our excellent little engines are developed to give more power, the body-folk insist on surrounding them with touring bodies of bastard Le Mans cut. Not Le Mans bodies like the excellent cars that have run there in the last few years, such as the saloon Adlers, B.M.W’s, Bugattis and Talbots; but. corpulent copies of the old Bentley cars of ten years ago.

Now the Vintage tradition is an excellent thing; the Bentley victories at Le Mans are the enduring proof that, ten years ago, the British sports model was indeed the best in the world. In those happy days you could drive almost any British sports model on Continental roads and be sure that no foreign machine of the same size could beat you in a dust-up.

The rot set in when the slump of 1931 prevented the Bentley company going on racing. The public takes a long time to learn a lesson, and a long time to forget a thing when once learnt. The old-fashioned concept that a racing car had to have a pointed tail and an outside exhaust-pipe had at last yielded, by the end of our “Bentley Boys” epoch, in favour of “racers” having four-seater bodies, stoneguards everywhere, and cut-away doors.

What a blessing that was to the Trade! Anyone with a fairly lively chassis could clap on a nice four-seater body with fold-flat screen, and the proud purchaser had only to buy half a hundredweight of assorted sports extras from Mr. Derrington to have a really-truly sports car—at any rate, the passengers got some nice fresh air. Happily, that was not the whole story. The M.G. Magnas and Wolseley Hornets were fairly light in weight, and their engines could be tuned and modified until the original seventy-mile-an-hour car was doing ninety or more. From that time on it has been a race between the engine and the body. The Le Mans type body is so much like a touring car’s body, that little by little the public has insisted upon having more and more of a touring car’s comfort and weather-protection, until each extra horse-power found by the engine research people goes, not to making the car faster, but is mortgaged in advance to the coach-builder. Many of the machines sold as “sports models” to-day are actually heavier than touring cars of the same engine-size. On the Continent, the trend has been in a different direction. The iron of the old-type Le Mans car had not entered into the soul. When the British broke themselves of the race-winning habit, the French or the Italians and the Germans did not pack up and go home; winning speeds have shown a steady rise. Moreover, not only have foreign sports and racing cars not got heavier, but, on the contrary, touring cars have steadily got lighter and availed themselves of what racing teaches about steering, holding the road, and streamlining. Unhappily for us, our great days came before the Automobile Club de l’Ouest threw away the old four-seater tourer regulations and allowed the modern aerodynamic body to give the sports-racing car something for nothing.

The years roll on, and disclose the British Patriot still rolling along in his ersatz Vintage-Le Mans-sports car, which gets heavier and wider every season. Several of our most famous makes have even had to fit larger engines so as to satisfy customers that this year’s model really IS faster than last season’s. Some have merely tuned-up the speedometer. . . . .

It really is incomprehensible! Here are we with horse-power taxed at twenty-five bob a time, and every gallon of petrol giving nine pence to the Exchequer, and yet we STILL drive square-ended anachronisms. It isn’t that we can’t build streamlined cars; even without the example of the little 1,100 cc. Fiat, which gives 40 m.p.g. at 60 miles an hour, we have the Gardner M.G. and Embiricos’ “4¼” Bentley to learn from if we wish. Streamlining gives “something for nothing,” as you can prove, in a purely negative way, by sticking your hand out of the window at forty miles an hour or less. A properly streamlined motor-car will go faster, use less juice, and pull a higher gear than the olde worlde sort; yet, because we did not use streamlined cars in the heroic age of British racing, the roads are full of the oblong anomalies which we call “sports cars.”

Now I am quite aware that all this is heresy. Notwithstanding I am going on to throw one more brickbat before I duck. Our sports cars, that is to say our M.Gs., our Singers and the other small open cars, have not got the way they are through any fault of their own, but have been steadily “put upon” by the trials boys. The manufacturer of small sports cars has to contend with numbers of keen trials-drivers, some old hands at “mud-plugging,” but many driving in their first competitive event, all eager to make some sort of showing. How is it to be done?

Two very successful trials car spring at once to mind: let us take them, if you will in chronological order. The first is the Frazer-Nash. Here we have a sporting machine, with no concessions to the elderly relative or to the maiden who signs letters “Sedan Fairy.” Here was a car that the expert could win “premier” after “premier” with, despite a bottom gear of about 11 to l or so. A powerful engine, giving its horses at low speeds, body very light, solid back axle, and high-geared steering, were the reasons. Now for the trials driver’s choice six or seven years later: The body has become quite luxurious, giving, despite advances in metallurgical knowledge, a hard task to the small motor. However, there is one way by which even the heaviest vehicle can be got to the top of the steepest hill; the method made familiar to winter sportists by the funicular railway. This is the method adopted for modern small sports cars. Willing little engines, yielding most of their power only when turning really fast, gave scope for bottom gears of 19 to 1 and over; the place of the funicular’s cogwheels was taken by knobbly tyres (the use of which on a Frazer Nash used to be social suicide) and, having locked the differential, the modern slime-stormer was ready for almost anything. Anything, that is, off the main roads. The mistake the manufacturers made, it seems to me, was in not catering for both their publics.

Well, there you have my moans.

Is it too much to hope that when our people start making motor-cars again, the vehicles catalogued as “sports cars” will be LIGHTER, FASTER, BETTER STREAMLINED and HANDIER than anything we know at present, touring or sports, English or foreign? If that is asking too much, Mr. Strachan is quite right, the sports car IS doomed.

Denis S. Jenkinson says Vintage Restoration is the Answer

MUCH as I hate to, I can’t help agreeing with Mr. Strachan, that the ideal of the sports car we believe in is out of date and dying. It is regrettably true that the British conception of a sports car, i.e., true vintage motors such as the “12/50” Alvis, 3-litre Bentley, “30/98” Vauxhall, etc., has practically disappeared from the new-car market, and is only being upheld by Alta, Frazer-Nash, and H.R.G., each of which, as Mr. Strachan states, are expensive. The reason, I think, is obvious—mass-production. These three cars are all essentially handmade and therefore cannot attempt to compete with, say, M.G., Morgan, or S.S. as far as price is concerned; though as far as value for money is concerned, give me the hand-built job every time.

If the manufacturer attempted to mass-produce a “vintage type” car it would be a failure, for that means making use of pressings and castings which can be turned out by a machine in their hundreds in next to no time, and a vintage type just cannot be made that way.

The twentieth century demands progress and, in the car world, progress means increased performance, which is obtained in two ways; either by streamlining or by getting more power from a given size of engine. Naturally, the manufacturer prefers the cheaper course, namely, streamlining.  Here, I think, we have the whole crux of the matter, as to why the vintage car has disappeared, with the aforementioned exceptions, from the new-car market; it is not a case of lack of support. It really boils down to a question of how much money a manufacturer is prepared to spend on improving the performance of his cars.

As an example of the modern trend, take the Bentley “Corniche,” capable of 120 m.p.h., which is obtained largely due to improved streamlining, and, on the other hand, the Alta can give the same speed, purely by improved engine-design and power-output, and with no attempt at streamlining by means of masses of tinware. Imagine an Alta with fully-streamlined shell (Sacrilege!). Performance would certainly be exciting, but. . . .

Either we, that is the lovers of the vintage motor, must (a) give way to the modern trend and fall in with the horrible over bodied tin masses that are being presented to us as sports cars; (b) continue to pay high prices for a hand-built “vintage-type” modern; (c) persuade manufacturers to study engine-power more than aerodynamics and give us Continental performance with “vintage” lines; or (d) we must carry on as we have done in the past decade, and restore the true vintage motor whenever possible.

I am all in favour of the last myself, for there are plenty of vintage cars that have been restored and had fair sums of money spent on them, that will give an equal performance to many modern sports cars; the numerous Bentleys which can top the 100 m.p.h. mark are ample proof of that. Admittedly, one cannot do one’s hundred per in such comfort, or with interior heating and the radio on, but then who wants to? No true vintagent worries about things like that, and if your rebuilt performance motor needs manhandling at high speed, and gearchange requires both hands instead of the little finger, who cares? These are the things that make real motoring the joy it is. The true enthusiast, whether he runs a “30/98” or a “Chummy,” does so for the sheer joy of motoring, not to be able to brag that he touched 100 m.p.h. Where is the joy in doing high speeds in one of the modern mechanical contrivances that closely resemble one’s front living-room, compared with that of doing the same speed in a genuine vintage motor, in which one has to work, as distinct from indulging in the knob-pulling and button-pushing of the modern. Recently I had a good example of this, for I did a journey of 25 miles in the comfort of the rear seat of a modern Bentley saloon, cruising in silence at 80 m.p.h., with only the rev.-counter showing around 3,500 to indicate that there was machinery under the bonnet. The return journey was accomplished as passenger in a “Brooklands” Riley, sitting sideways with one arm over the tail, and with eight stone of humanity on my lap, all in a cockpit little more than 3 ft. wide. Cruising at 65 m.p.h., deafened by the roar of the wind, plus the healthy sound of 1,100 c.c. giving of their best, mingled with a genuine exhaust note and the whine from a straight-tooth rear-axle, made the return journey a hundred times more enjoyable than the faster speed of the modern car. Everyone to his tastes, I suppose. . . .

I may be spurned by society for perpetually smelling of petrol and “R,” and my trousers may be covered in oil and never have any creases in them, and my cars may be quietly shooed round to the back entrance of respectable dwelling-houses, and not even tolerated near a high-class hotel, but as long as the motor is vintage and can be classed as a thoroughbred, I shall never worry.

It’s up to the true enthusiast to make sure that the vintage sports car doesn’t die. If the manufacturers won’t give us “vintage types” we must rebuild our own and the lucky ones can even build theirs from scratch. Where’s the money coming from? Yes, that is rather a problem at the moment, I admit, but I’m certain it’s not unsurpassable.

The present time is a very important phase in this vintage car question, for after the war there will be even fewer true sports cars left and we must do all we can now to preserve all the vintage cars which we can find.

K. N. Hutchison asks “Why Argue?” —Sees a use for Utility, Sports, Vintage, American and Continental Cars

THERE have been many interesting discussions upon the comparative merits and otherwise of the Vintage versus the American car and Continental models versus British cars, etc., etc., and it has not been unnatural for MOTOR SPORT to emphasize the outstanding features of the sports car as against the more family-type of car.

Let us, therefore, try and get back to the basic cause of a state of affairs that seems to reflect badly on the British utility car and understand why it compares so (apparently) unfavourably with its American, vintage and Continental rivals. Perhaps under investigation and bearing in mind the peculiar conditions under which British cars operate and exist it may be shown that they do not compare so badly after all.

Firstly, I think one should appreciate that the whole design, development and existence of British motoring operate under a perfect hell of a handicap—to wit, an excessive taxation in the form of a tax on the horse-power of the machine used.

This evil spectre has a finger in every motoring pie and influences almost to disaster both manufacturer and consumer alike. The manufacturer is forced to make the smallest-engined car he can commensurate with the largest body to satisfy his customers because they, poor souls, already taxed almost out of existence wish to be able to get the most use out of their machines without having to pay about £1 a week for the rather doubtful privilege of what amounts to “permission to use their cars on the King’s highway, subject to running costs and restrictions ad lib.”

The result is a machine that is grossly over-bodied, far too heavy, under-tyred and with an engine that, game though these small engines are, would not pull the skin off a hot rice-pudding. Moreover, there is no financial margin left over for any refinements in constructional design such as independent suspension, front-wheel drive, overdrives, etc., etc., because John Citizen, who in the main knows nothing of what a thoroughbred machine can be like and cares still less, prefers such refinements as the manufacturer can afford, to consist of silk blinds, door-pulls, ash-trays, cubby-holes and what-nots. In the main, I think the average small English family car (we are not considering sports models) does its job extremely well, and if one accepts the fact that it cannot give either American or vintage performance, the machine will nearly always give jolly good value for money in a dull but “plodding” sort of way.

Anyway, it is very unlikely that the British Government will ever substantially reduce motor taxation (one will probably have to pay to walk after this war is over!) and therefore I feel that the general character of the small British family car will probably remain very much as it is now for some time to come. Also, there is no getting away from the fact that its peculiar character seems to suit about 90 per cent. of the motor-owning population of the British Isles.

When it comes to Continental cars, I think it is only fair to remind readers that most writers who have extolled the virtues of the “foreigners” have, oddly enough, selected the outstanding Continentals for their comparisons—i.e., the Lancia, B.M.W. and Fiat—all of which are much more expensive than the average English family “barouche.” It is worth bearing in mind that there is a mighty lot of cheap rubbish produced from the Continental factories as well—to wit, the Opel, Hanomag, D.K.W. and small Mercedes models. These will not compare at all favourably with the British Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Ford, etc., either in performance, finish, reliability or quality of workmanship and design. The expensive types mentioned above certainly perform better because in all cases they have a good power-to-weight ratio, and modern features such as independent suspension, etc.; also they are larger engined and more expensive than the average British car such as we are discussing. These features naturally make them sporting machines in spite of their having been designed as family cars, and this in turn leads to their being driven in a fairly hard way by English owners, at any rate.

What such cars—driven as they invite being handled—would be like in 40 or 50 thousand miles I do not know but, personally I would rather buy a third-hand British car than a third-hand continental one.

When you turn to the vintage front I do not really think that these bear comparison with anything. This is not meant rudely, because the vintage “stars” such as 3-litre Bentley, “30/98” Vauxhall, “12.50” Alvis, Frazer-Nash, etc., were, in their day, representative of the best that money could buy in their respective classes. Being almost hand-made in small numbers, they were all very expensive, and because of their cost they were made well and of the best “ingredients.”

For anyone who does not mind a bit of discomfort and occasionally dirtying his hands, a £30 or £40 “vintage” plus £100 for overhauls and modifications is probably the best motor-car investment going when translated into terms of cost in relation to performance plus wearing qualities.

But you cannot compare cars that went out of production ten or more years ago with something we have with us to-day. Price and public requirements to-day are quite different.

It is when you analyse the American development that you come nearest to a motor-car serving its owner purely as a utility machine. Let us disregard the engineering-minded motoring enthusiast for a moment. We are agreed, as enthusiasts, that 90 per cent. of the English motorists on the roads to-day know little or nothing about the mechanical design part of their machines, and I expect the proportion of such motorists in America is even higher. After all, it is quite natural that if a man cannot appreciate a fine change-down at peak r.p.m., or a fast open corner, taken at a speed at which the rear wheels just begin to edge out, then he will never indulge in such experiences. It follows that if he does not do such things then he does not require such refinements as i.f.s., or beautifully-made gearboxes with four speeds in them.

Add to these psychological aspects the more material facts that his Government does not bleed him white to tax his car (a few dollars a year will cover any h.p. in the U.S.A.) that apparently most of the world’s petrol supply is on his doorstep and retails at about 8d. per gallon, and that his country’s motor manufacturers, not being handicapped by high car taxation, are not continually trying to get a quart out of a pint pot, and have a huge market of potential car-owners, and there you have the reason why all American cars are of large nominal horse-power. This large horse-power allows for large and roomy bodies and excellent performance on the straightways (which constitute the majority of American roads) and good acceleration. When you reach the state of mass-production enjoyed by the American car manufacturer, it hardly costs any more to make a 30-h.p. engine than it does to make an 8-h.p. one, and obviously the low purchase price and running costs enjoyed by American motorists enable them to select the large-engined car as their standard of motoring instead of the small one.

There have been several attempts to introduce the “baby” car to the Americans, but so far all have failed, as well they might, because who would want to drive about in an 8-flea powered sardine tin when it costs hardly any more to own a Chevrolet, Dodge, small Buick, or Ford? Naturally, all these desirable features of American motoring attract huge numbers of would-be motorists—all buying and using their machines entirely as hacks. Service stations abound and all and sundry use them as such. These conditions create a class of user who knows nothing and does not want to know anything about his machine—probably half of them never even open their cars’ bonnets. If the car gets dirty—a dollar wash; if it squeaks—a dollar grease-up, and if something breaks —a few dollarsworth of replacement parts. To cope with this horde of uninitiated customers, the American manufacturers have developed a very wonderful machine —almost fool-proof and eminently reliable, but its very development has caused it to lack one thing—personality. (I don’t mean the kind of personality that skittishly takes you backwards through a hedge if a corner approaches too fast, but personality born of quality, design, racing, ancestry, tradition, etc., etc.) The Yank has no individuality of its own—they even all look alike nowadays—and that is probably the reason why they never have and never will appeal to the real enthusiast—you see, he just could not be proud to own a Yank.

And so, when all types are considered, I think that the only conclusion one can draw is that each type well serves the majority of its particular group or class of buying public and that no one type of car can be directly compared with another.

I suppose the ideal stable would contain one or more of each type, but as that is impossible for most of us, we can but continue to associate ourselves with the type that gives us, individually, the greatest pleasure.