Bankruptcy and the Straight-8 engine
From the Rt. Hon. Lord Monatgu of Beaulieu
I was gratified to read the Editor’s kind remarks about my “Lost Causes of Motoring,” though I cannot help feeling that Mr. Boddy has, perhaps unwittingly, ascribed to me statements that specifically I did not make in the book.
I never stigmatised either the small “six” or the Straight-eight as inherently bad designs. I think most of us would agree that the, 30-h.p. Lanchester of 1929 was first-class in every way, while the same would go for two of the small 6-cylinder machines that Mr. Boddy mentions by name—maybe nostalgia has dulled his memory of the other two, which were, let us face it, pretty horrible. What I did, and still do, postulate is a relation between the introduction of a straight-eight and the intervention of the Official Receiver. All the cases I cited in “Lost Causes” were historically correct. I will, of course, concede that all the companies concerned would probably have failed to side-step disaster at this point whatever they had done, and I would be less than honest if I could suggest what course of action might have been taken by Arrol-Aster, Belsize, or Hampton to save themselves. But let us face it, the type is expensive to make, while for an assembler it can hardly be a wise course to make a larger, longer, and thirstier scissors-and-paste job just to stay in the fashion.
Of course there were good straight-eights, though the examples Mr. Boddy cites are puzzling. O.M. never offered such an engine to the general public, and Leyland called it quits after making 16 admittedly superb cars. While he is undoubtedly right about Monsieur Ballot’s competition machinery, I have never met anyone with a good word for the Type RH, which was the company’s last effort before being swallowed by Hispano-Suiza, in any case. Renault’s big eights survived for a decade, but were said to handle badly—I can’t verify this statement as there do not seem to be any around for me to try. Not being an expert on American cars, I cannot assess in detail the reasons for the demise of Duesenberg, or Stutz, but the former died in 1937, and the latter in 1935, and they were both making straight-eights in their last years, albeit good ones. Isotta-Fraschini were kept going in later years on their Government contracts for marine and aircraft power units, and precious few of their final 8B model were made.
This leaves Packard and Alfa Romeo. The former’s total output for sale to the public amounted to 300-odd units, and during the whole currency of the 8-cylinder cars they had a saleable “six” to keep sales going. Packard at first sight appears to support Mr. Boddy’s thesis, but does it ? Might it not be fair to say that one of the factors contributing to Packard’s downfall was their obstinate adherence to eight cylinders in line at a time when everyone else in the States, bar Pontiac, had gone over to the vee formation ?
Don’t get me wrong, I like straight-eights, and in fact enjoyed driving my Type 30 Bugatti to Portugal and back two years ago. I like the feel of the engine, I like a long bonnet in front of me (outside our outmoded British roads, that is!). But historically they seem to represent bad economics, especially in times of financial stringency; and maybe it was unfortunate that the zenith of the “straight-eight craze” coincided with the Great Depression of 1929-32. If we had encountered a similar worldwide slump in the middle 1950’s, we might be saying the same thing about V8s too.