On The Road

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Automatic transmission is now well established and many experienced drivers pretend they enjoy a car better if it has no manual control over the gears. If 90% of their car travelling is in heavy traffic they can perhaps be accounted honest men, on the grounds mainly that such driving is tiring for the foot which has to engage and disengage the clutch. Otherwise, there is surely a touch of dishonesty in their willingness to forgo the pleasure of using a good gearbox and having it in the gear you want to use, precisely when you want the car in that gear?

I have had a fair share of automatic gearboxes recently and while I can see that in a one-car family an automatic box with control over its gears, as found to perfection on the B.M.C. “Minimatics”, has a good deal to recommend it, I consider that a one-owner car should either be purely automatic or have a decent driver-controlled gearbox.

A completely automatic transmission in which the driver does nothing beyond using two pedals is unfortunately not possible—you have to have a reverse selection for proceeding backwards, and a neutral, and a means of locking in a low ratio for descending hills or getting, engine-braking on slippery roads. So the beautiful simplicity of so-called fully-automatic transmission has already gone overboard. At least they could have let its settle for P, R, N, D, L control of the wonderful and surprisingly dependable mechanical-electrical-hydraulic-vacuum mysteries inside the box, like that of Vauxhall’s “Powerglide”, which I have remembered because they have this year issued a useful training manual explaining how to service it! But designers, ever anxious to improve but, at the same time, complicate a good car, did not leave it at that for long, or some of them didn’t. We have the D1 and D2 additions to the Borg-Warner gate, the L, D, D3, D4 of Porsche’s semi-automatic “Sportamatic”, the Rolls-Royce’s R, N, 4, 3, 2. 1, the 1, 2, 3, 4, D of the Minimatic, VW’s P, R, O, 3,2, 1 and even complications like means for altering the speeds at which the automation leaves one ratio for a higher one, and so on. Added to which, there is the dreaded “kick-down”.*
*I deplore the plea for standardisation of all controls, as liable to produce a dull “sameness” without any material contribution to safely, and, anyway it is commercially impractical. But as automatic transmission is simplification, let us also simplify its application, not complicate it.

So I still prefer to be allowed the prerogative of engaging the gears myself, even with synchromesh intervention. Especially as a lever controlling an automatic gearbox seldom works with the smoothness of precision of a good manual gear-lever, unless it is electrically coupled to the box, as on a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. . . .

However, if I were making a fortune selling motor cars instead of scratching a living selling words, I suppose I would insist on having an automatic in the model-range. As Volkswagen have done. And I must say I found the VW 1600TL Automatic a very good car, and particularly so for driving in towns. It has very useful step-off and, although the gearbox is not quite sure of what ratio it should be in at around 35 to 40 m.p.h., the changes are made very unobtrusively. Moreover, there is plenty of “steam” from this fastback saloon. The floor selector-lever for the transmission gives hold-1 and hold-2, as well as a 3, or “drive” position and although this works harshly in comparison with a normal VW synchromesh change, it provides extra performance when wanted. Cruising at the British-70 the engine was having a very easy time. The new trailing arm rear suspension has eliminated the dreaded oversteer but the ride is lively. The interior is simple but beautifully finished, with big comfortable seats, and the minor controls work very nicely. The brakes are powerful if a bit noisy. On the test car there was an irritating rattle from the region of the steering column. I got 26.2 m.p.g. of two-star petrol and after 400 miles the dipstick, which is isolated from the engine, as the latter is buried under the floor of the rear compartment, showed that no oil was required. As good and as rugged as ever, this Automatic VW (now with 12-volt electrical system and which U.S.A. customers can have with Bosch fuel injection) sells. for £1,247 18s. 4d., as tested.
* * *

Its just a coincidence that the name Fiat implies a commanding make of car, for the word stems from the initials of the company—Fabbrica ltaliana d’Automobili, Turin. I have heard it rendered by the irreverent as Fun in a Taxi, and when I was a boy there were Fiat taxis on the Streets of London. I do not think I ever rode in one and I doubt if, today, so much as a picture of one remains, nor, being a shy and reserved young man did I have much fun in taxicabs. Private cars were another matter. . . .

But whether you render Fiat as “fiat” or “F.I.A.T.” or link the name with cabs, the fact is that this great concern is now the largest producer of motor vehicles in Europe. It would not be true to say that Fiat have never made a bad car, a sentiment which is more applicable, perhaps, to Lancia. But they have made a mighty lot of good ones, from the pre-war Topolinos and present 500F upwards. And one of the nicer Fiats is the exciting new twin-cam Tipo 125A saloon, which I was lucky enough to drive over the Easter weekend.

The 1,608 c.c. 90 b.h.p. 4-cylinder 80 x 80 mm. engine has a light-alloy head and the two overhead camshafts are driven by a toothed belt. Unlike G.M. or Vauxhall, Fiat have the decency to put a shield over this otherwise exposed driving belt.

Like all modern Fiat saloons, the 125 is sensibly equipped and very nicely finished. It is not a sporting saloon like the Ford Cortina-Lotus but a very good touring saloon, its rather supple rear suspension by long ½-elliptics with a minimum of spring leaves putting it in the latter category. Indeed, this Fiat has suspension which gives both a lively and lurchy ride, although it corners better than the old 1500. Like many touring saloons these days it is a genuine 100 m.p.h. car and one which will cover a s.s. ¼-mile in 18½ sec., and it corners nicely, and has a good driving position. The engine is quieter than the single o.h.c. power unit of a Vauxhall 2000 or, for that matter, a Rover 2000. Yet the value of twin o.h. camshafts giving efficient-combustion chambers, cross-flow porting and high revs, is evident in a third-gear maximum of nearly 85 m.p.h. it the usable 7,000 r.p.m. is indulged in (the five-bearing engine remains reassuringly smooth at such speeds, although the tachometer indicates a normal maximum of 6,200 r.p.m.) and in uncommonly good fuel economy, my overall figure coming out at 27.9 m.p.g. of four-star petrols. This is somewhat better than I used to get from a push-rod Ford Cortina GT. Driven hard the Fiat 125 would, I think, still return somewhat better fuel economy figures than a Ford Cortina-Lotus under similar circumstances. Especially as, with an 8.8 to 1 c.r., 100-octane isn’t required.

Typically Fiat, the 125 goes in for stalks and warning lights. There are three of the former, two l.h. ones for turn-indicators (which have side repeaters) and lamps selection, dipping and flashing, and a r.h. one for working the screen-wipers, either intermittently or all the time. To wash the screen a foot-button has to be pressed; why this is no longer combined with the wipers I cannot imagine.

The shaped seats are comfortable but the driver sits rather low behind a somewhat high-set steering wheel and there is no disguising the fact that the slippery upholstery is imitation leather and its foam-underlay is rather too resilient. But the driving-seat adjustment is 100%, both fore-and-aft and for setting of the non-sprung reclining squabs. The latter have an additional fine adjustment by turning the knob at the base of the seat cushion which, lifted, alters squab rake over more liberal angles; but this turning action was far too stiff. The interior of the body is well fitted out for those who like the interior of their cars to resemble a padded cell. There is a decor of unpolished dark-veneered imitation wood for the facia, the floor of the central oddments-well, and around the gear-lever, but not on the doors. This tries to give a touch of the Stuttgarts to the Turin product, but the effect doesn’t quite come off. . . .

The gears are changed by a well-placed central lever which is strongly spring-loaded to the right, so that first and second gears go in grotchily, the changes between third and top being much nicer. The central handbrake is conventional and the steering, geared 3½ turns, lock-to-lock, is on the heavy side, with mild castor return and a rather rubbery action. Of the aforesaid warning lamps, these are provided for sidelamps-on, choke-out, handbrake-on (a flashing light), and low fuel level, as well as for the usual services, such as low oil pressure (PRESS) and no charge (G). The horn-pushes are so close to the steering-wheel rim that I sometimes blew a note I didn’t intend. As is usual on Fiats, the lamps have to be switched on independently of the main control, two big, adjacent press-buttons being used, the second one for instrument lighting.

The equipment is all that could be desired in a car of this class and far better than is found in many family cars. There is, for instance, a small but lockable and lined cubbyhole, an under-facia shelf (it needs a better “lip”), roof-grabs and coat-hooks, a lighter, a rather vibratory anti-dazzle mirror, vanity mirrors in both vizors as on a Rover 2000, neat roof lamps, one each side, and a big 120 m.p.h. speedometer, a matching electronic 8,000 r.p.m. tachometer (an extra), and an electric clock, these being Veglia Borletti instruments. The aforesaid warning lights are supplemented by a casually-calibrated fuel gauge and thermometer, and under the facia on the right, apt to be masked by items carried on the shelf, are a hand-throttle and a choke control.

The Carello 367/361 dual headlamps give an excellent driving light, there are Marelli electrics, and on the test car the alternator fed an Exide negative-earth battery. The servo all-disc Fiat-Bendix brakes worked well and progressively but a little suddenly and one of them tended to drag, while they squealed somewhat. The tyres were 13 in. Pirelli Sempioni (Cinturatos would have been better on wet roads) and there was a Motorola radio. The fuel filler is under an o/s flap and, like that of a Rolls-Royce, has a screw cap. The body has air extractors, facia face-level, rotatable flap-coverable air vents, ¼-lights, and is of typical Fiat shape, blended with modernity. The doors shut nicely and have sill internal-locks and little pull-out internal handles. The light bonnet top is self-propping but the flimsy stay has to be manually released and before the lid locks down the under-facia toggle has to be pushed in. The boot is truly commodious, its lid locks, and the spare wheel travels out of the way, underneath the floor.

I regard this twin-cam Fiat 125 as a very nice motor car, with enough individuality to give it character of an essentially practical nature. It is quiet running, notably economical for a 100 m.p.h. 1.6-litre saloon, very nicely finished and, up to the mile-a-minute mark, it can give a Ford Cortina-Lotus a run for its money, although not handling so firmly. Fiat have a highly competitive range of cars and the Tipo 125, at its “new” price since the Budget of only £1,081 16s. 2d. inclusive of taxes, is one of their most challenging.
* * *

I used this excellent Fiat for a quick run to Wales on the Thursday before Easter, returning to Hampshire late on the evening of Good Friday; there was no traffic congestion in either direction. On the way down, I foolishly disregarded the fuel gauge reading and, missing the not very bright warning light, I ran dry. This entailed a walk of about a mile back to New Radnor. As the scenery is impressive in this area this was no hardship, except that although I tramped long and hard on the bell-wire at a Shell station in the village, it was a long time before anyone came; the Police Station next door seemed to be just as fast asleep. They relax, in Radnorshire!

On the Bank Holiday I went to Thruxton in the Fiat. Apart from the fact that the first three drivers in the Formula V race appeared to be staging a duel, the first accident befell the only girl-driver, and right in front of the stands at that (they are open-topped, so I refuse to call them grandstands), Miss Nadin, not content with hitting the wall at Club going on to leap into the air over that odd concrete kerb on the outside of this swerve and over it again, to shoot back across the course. One of the very few drivers really motor-racing was Jochen Rindt, his quick recovery from that spin in the Winkelmann Brabham-Cosworth on oil going into Club corner during the F.2 race, which landed him in the ditch, further underlining his outstanding ability.

I apologise for harking back to Easter at this late date, which is due to the early deadline we have to observe, as a monthly, because otherwise the creaking flat-beds cannot cope with the big print-run by the 1st of the month. Incidentally, one Thruxton item most of the reporters overlooked was that, at this meeting, the B.A.R.C.’s new circuit was opened officially by the Club’s President, the Rt. Hon, the Earl Howe, C.B.E., D.L., J.P. Afterwards he drove round the circuit in Mrs. Cherrett’s 2.3-litre s/c Alfa Romeo, choosing this car because his famous father used to race them. But what a pity he didn’t use Sir Ralph Millais’ actual Alfa Romeo, which the former Earl Howe drove at Le Mans, It was a pity, too, that someone slipped up, the F.V. cars running up their engines all the time the National Anthem was being played after the course-opening ceremony. But Thruxton got off to a good start and merely needs logical development—Mr. Hugh Fortesque Locke-King would, I feel, have been unable to understand the toilet “facilities” as they were on Easter Monday! And have been surprised, perhaps, that he couldn’t drive out from the inside of the course in his Itala any more than I could in the Fiat, while racing was taking place . . . . Reverting to the F.2 race, it was a great credit to Cosworth that every competitor was using one of their Cosworth-Ford engine. But for me this detracted from the racing. It may make for close competition but in my view it is an essential of good motor racing that make-versus-make is very firmly superimposed over driver-versus-driver.

I was interested to see how long it would take to get away from Thruxton. Walking to the Fiat after the last race I suppose I was trapped in the Paddock for about 20 minutes. Then, by using part of the course and the old aerodrome entrance-road, we were away. There was a solid line of traffic on A303 into Andover, so I turned first-left and resorted to the one-inch Ordnance Survey map. Had I not confused Over Wallop with Nether Wallop, this would have been more advantageous. . . . But at least I drove along completely clear roads until Stockbridge. Here no policeman was present to help at the very difficult crossing from A3057 onto A30. Once Over, a fairly fast run resulted until a blockage beyond the A303/A30 roundabout. In company with a Jaguar I turned right for Micheldever but on reaching A33 down the back lanes the crawling traffic was just as bad, going towards Basingstoke, although two policemen were controlling the A33/A303 fork. It was a relief to turn off into the lanes again, towards Dummer and, eventually, home.

After this the faithful Fiat was used for all manner of tasks, including going to Silverstone on two consecutive days in connection with the always-enjoyable V.S.C.C. Meeting, for which I intended to use the more appropriate 1930 Sunbeam, only to discover that the M.o.T. certificate had expired—so much paper work and controls, these days! In all we drove the 125 1,200 miles, after which, making the customary inspection of oil level with the very “buried” dipstick, I found it had used only a quart of lubricant. Some people still think o.h.c. engines are oil burners and from some factories they are. But not in the case of this excellent twin-cam from Turin.

Coming back to a familiar car immediately after driving others is sometimes revealing. But going from Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow to the Rover 2000TC, the only item I noticed straight away was what a thick rim its steering wheel has. Coming back to the same Rover after a pleasing spell in the Fiat 125 I found there was just nowhere to comfortably accommodate my right elbow. Incidentally, I have often wondered whether driving continually in one car brings about any particular occupational disease? Could the pain I get in my right thumb joint, for instance, have any hearing on holding the Rover’s wheel a trifle unnaturally because of the attitude adopted by the right elbow? Readers who are members of the medical profession may have some comments. . . .

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