America's Cars - by an American




I was interested in Mr. Poske’s original letter anent the alleged failings of British post-World War Il automobiles and/or their manufacturers’ maintenance departments, but the subsequent “alarums & excursions” evoked thereby in your letters column have been highly illuminating. I wonder if you might be interested in some random comments from one who is involved in research, development, and fabrication of prototype wheeled vehicles ?

While I work here in Detroit, my home is at a popular summer resort on Long Island, in the extended metropolitan New York area. In our village of some three thousand population, at least seven makes of English cars, ranging from Morris Minors through M.G.s and Jaguars to a lonely Rolls-Royce, are represented – and some of them in fairish numbers. In the main these were bought, I am sure, because (1) it is fashionable in that area to buy foreign cars, (2) British automobiles have far better sales organisations behind them over here than do Continental makers; and (3) your sports jobs, particularly M.G.s and Jaguars, fill a void in our own automotive field. While Long Island is possibly unfamiliar to many of your readers, it can be said to be ideal territory for your cars – good weather, no hills, an extensive parkway system, and a garage at practically every turn in the road. On top of this; the availability of spares, only seventy miles away in New York, is the best in the United States.

Last September, with the thought in mind that I might locate an exceptional buy on a Morris, Austin, or Hillman, I conducted a little survey of the owners of these cars just before they started drifting back to the City for the winter. However, without indicating that I was contemplating any purchase, I first discussed maintenance with them – and they were a thoroughly vocal lot on that subject ! Although from my viewpoint most of the vehicles should have been in their prime, running in the main between 4,000 and 9,000 miles on their speedometers, I will not pain your manufacturer-readers by detailing the maintenance headaches that had been encountered, or list the bits and pieces that kept falling off their bodies. Suffice it to say that, almost without exception, the difficulties these good people had experienced would, with an American car, have made it utterly unacceptable. The interesting angle of this to me was that, in spite of their dissatisfaction, most of the owners were still quite loyal to their choices. I attribute this to the ride that these cars supplied. Or, as one leading yacht-designer commented, even though three times in four months he had had to import by air spare parts from London, “When may Riley runs, it sure is a sweetheart ! “

Now let me pass on to another point, which, although reference to it has on occasions appeared in your journal, seems to be inadequately understood in your country. This is the question of how, why, and under what conditions Americans use their cars. Although I served half a year with your wonderful Eighth Army in 1913. I do not believe that I ever convinced one officer or other rank as to the average American’s actual attitude toward his motor car ! However, let me try, again by using my own routine, automotive-wise, to illustrate my thesis. While I do drive farther per year than many people, in all other respects I believe that my outlook is typical of Americans. I habitually own two cars, using whichever one does not suit my wife’s fancy at the time ! (I’m old enough to admit to being a “henpecked husband.”) In recent years I have bought in alternate years a Packard and a Ford, the latter because this company makes by all odds the best station-wagon body available. These are entirely “off-the-showroom-floor” vehicles, with the sole exception that I insist upon keeping the standard differential gears normally supplied with three-speed transmissions, even though I equip the cars with Borg-Warner overdrive gearboxes. (Our manufacturers have a nasty habit of using higher differential gear ratios than normal when they put overdrive transmissions into their cars.)

Every third week, on an average. I take an extended trip to the East Coast. To one of my destinations it is 656 road miles: starting at 7 a.m., I can count on arriving between 8 and 8.15 p.m. under normal conditions, and the worst delay I ever encountered, with snow and ice, saw me in bed by midnight. This entire trip, incidentally, is over normal roads, not our so-called super-highways.

Frequently I travel the expressway, however, from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania (we, too, have quaint place names !), to the Ohio line, a distance of 330 miles. Normal running time, with a stop for fuel and a lunch-snack, is 4 3/4 hours, – which is to say that I make a good consistent 75 m.p.h.

Let me stress at this point that this is not a matter of semi-racing driving or even pour le sport. Like 99.99 per cent. of all American driving, it is strictly to get from one place to another.

I do not wish to overwhelm you with statistics, which I could probably do as I must keep accurate records. I will therefore briefly cover the “best” of my last four cars, and the worst.” The best :-

A 1950 Packard four-door sedan, bought new with heater, radio, and numerous accessories, for $2,150, sold at 26,225 miles. Greased and oil changed every 1,500 miles. Overall gasoline consumption rate: 13.1 miles per U.S. gallon. Burned three U.S. quarts of oil per thousand miles in the last thousand I had it. Total maintenance costs $237.75, exclusive of gasoline, which consisted of :

5,200  miles – Door window crank handle broke due to maltreatment.

9,800 „ — Tune up, new spark plugs, ignition points, brakes adjusted.

12,700 „ — Two rear tyres replaced.

19,200 „ — Cooling system thermostat replaced; brakes adjusted.

19;700 „ — Front tyre ruined by hitting sharp iron; bought new tyre and put spare tyre on other front wheel to match it.

20,300 „ — Tune up, new spark plugs, new ignition points, radio repaired.

24,600 „ — Brakes adjusted, body-to-chassis bolts tightened.

Now for the worst of my last four cars :-

A 1951 Ford station-wagon, bought with heater, radio, etc., for $2,510. Greased and oil changed every 1,200 miles. Overall gasoline consumption rate: 15.8 miles per U.S. gallon. Oil consumption rate when sold at 22,500 miles, nil. Total maintenance costs to me, $186.20, which consisted of (fuel not considered) :

3,400 miles — Differential spider gears started grinding: dealer replaced as within warranty period.

5,100 „ — Brakes adjusted, timing checked.

6,500 „ — Differential spider gears again replaced by dealer gratis.

8,200 „ — Ammeter replaced.

10,100 „ — Tune up, spark plugs reworked, points replaced, oil filter changed, headlight connection repaired.

10,600 „ — Differential spider gears replaced for third time, cost being paid directly by the manufacturer.

13,400 „ — Muffler had to be replaced because of rust holes; brakes adjusted.

19,900 „ — Tune up, oil filter replaced, spark plugs and ignition points reworked.

As you can see, the spider gears were obviously a weak point and I made so much of a row about it, basing my case on the fact that I could never know when they would go out of action again, that the Ford Motor Company agreed to sell me a new 1952 station-wagon (which incorporated a lot of genuine improvements) at factory cost. As a result of this offer, I rid myself of a year-old car with 22,500 miles on it and got a new one for a direct outlay of $310.

Now my purpose in describing the above is not to make claim to any virtue for our cars, or lack of it for yours. It will show, however, what by U.S. standards is a thoroughly poor car. The Packard also suggests what we can expect out of a satisfactory one. Consider both cars in relation to the relatively long distances involved, and the cruising speeds attained. Then put yourself in the place of an American considering the purchase of a foreign car.

Should he live on Long Island (or Southern California, or Florida), or wish only to commute to and from the railway station, he can consider one of your cars. But he, nevertheless, will expect it to he maintenance free, unless he is a sports-car enthusiast. And even then, obviously, he would prefer not to have trouble.

Put in another way, the increasing market your cars built up over here between 1946 and 1952 will fall off again to the relatively minor level of oddity-appeal unless you can meet some definite U.S. requirements. And no matter what these may be – the commuters, the sports-car people, the man interested in economical driving – you will lose if you do not provide reliability comparable to our own cars. This should not be hard to do from a mechanical point of view, as our cars are nothing spectacular in this respect. And when weaknesses creep in, as inevitably they will, your agents and your manufacturers will have to stand behind their products far better than they do now. My wrath at the Ford Company about spider gears completely melted in the face of its entirely fair treatment of me, and I shall continue to buy cars from its dealers. Judging by what I heard last September from owners of British cars, and from my own personal experience, I would say that your automotive people could learn much from Ford’s approach.

I am, Yours, etc.,

FRANK SPEIR (Lt.- Col.).

Detroit, Michigan.