THE SPORTS CAR, almost impossible though it is to define—was it Cecil Clutton who disposed of the problem by deciding it is any motor car through which you cannot walk whilst wearing a top hat ? —has been with us from the advent of the Sixty Mercedes, and is with us still. It is, or should be, the embodiment of motoring for motoring’s sake and to some of us this implies something other than travelling in an enclosed saloon.
Some time ago I re-read a story by John Galsworthy, to whom the fame due has been posthumously achieved by the great success of the BBC filming of “The Forsyte Saga”—even if they blundered over some of the motor references. In this story Fleur drove out of London into the country, enjoying on the journey “the beloved tang” of the air “as the country deepened”, the smoke from wood fires, in “the soft and sober glow” of a fine October day. “After an early tea”, wrote Galsworthy, “she started back, in the now-closed car.” That recalls admirably an age now gone, when to motor meant more than just substituting car for railway train, when enjoyment of the countryside with its many scents and sounds, smells and freshness was an essential part of travelling, those who could not, like the Forsytes, afford the expense and heavy running costs of a landaulette which could be closed up against the bad weather or cooler air of evening experiencing it in open tourers and behind the aero-screens of sports cars. Today, in an era of universal saloons, heated and vented, their windows invariably firmly closed, such joys have been lost, to the majority of car-owners.
The sports car is, fortunately, with us yet, even if it is often used with hood or hard-top up and no longer has a fold-flat windscreen, such as was deemed important when the last m.p.h. was to be extracted over the Brooklands half-mile, or forward vision retained while storming a muddy trials-hill. (Was Morgan the last make to have such a screen, apart from the ubiquitous Land Rover ?)
The sports car has changed in style and conception down the years, but its purpose, the reason for its existence, is much the same. It was at its best in the 1920s and 1930s, being raced as purchased in the former decade, used in trials, after streamline tail had given way to a slab tank, aero-screen to fold-flat, during the latter years. The 328 BMW and Fiat Balilla arrived from abroad, examples of the species in more sophisticated form, but these were still sports cars.
Today International sports-car racing is open to cars vastly removed front the less expensive road-going examples you and I are likely to buy, but in the ‘twenties you found cars such as 12/50 Alvis, Hyper Lea-Francis, Brooklands Austin 7, Salmon, Amilcar and Frazer Nash competing in races such as the Essex MC Six Hours’ Endurance Race, the JCC Production Car Race and JCC Sporting Car Race. Surbiton MC “150”, etc., at Brooklands, and at the Boulogne Motor Week, nor could the much more important Ulster TT be regarded entirely as the preserve of the professionals, with Model-A Ford tourers running alongside (if only momentarily) 0/210 Mercedes-Benz and entries being received of Triumph Super Seven, FN, Ford V8, Gwynne Ten and other comparatively pedestrian automobiles. The outright winners may not have been strictly “catalogue” but these were cars the ordinary customer could visualise buying and driving. I remember that whereas the Aldington brothers claimed that they raced completely standard Frazer Nash cars, Aston Martin simply said that if you paid a bit over the normal price you could have an Ulster to TT specification and that it would be a quite acceptable road-car, as we proved by driving one of the team cars not long back from Ards behind the trams that still ran through Brentford and Hounslow, without oiling a plug, boiling over or being apprehended by the Constabulary.
In such cars you felt an affinity with the road, an appetite for motoring, a cut above the common run of drivers—and you either contracted pneumonia or never caught influenza, on account of all the fresh air you inhaled…. Women, bless ’em, can be blamed. I suppose, for the partial demise of open-car motoring. Man needs them, and they are prepared to accompany him on his outdoor sports, with reservations. They allowed him to indulge his whim for motoring, even accompanying him to see the racing at Brooklands, causing a reporter to remark in 1920 that “It would have been difficult to find a more pleasing and wholesome example of English girlhood and womanhood than that which helped to celebrate the real coming into its own again of the famous racing Track”. They decided that what the boy friend could do, they could do also. They must learn to drive but not all of them being by any means as capable as Harry Hawker’s young wife who, fearing for his safety in the 350-h.p. V12 Sunbeam he was testing at the Track— her premonition was right, he burst a tyre and crashed through the fence—went out to the garage, cranked-up the temperamental, difficult to-start single-seater racing AC and drove it from Thames Ditton to Weybridge) to do so they demanded synchromesh to change gear, windows to keep out the draught, turn-indicators to obviate opening them, a heater, power steering and so on. It is the fair sex, bless ’em, who changed the face of motoring, while contributing materially to present-day road congestion. . . .
Fortunately, for those who either resisted their charms or found the right girl-friends (like that flapper who once figured in a 12/59 Super Sports model in the vintage Alvis ads.) sports cars survived. If it surprises you that they were popular in a period when an overall 20-m.p.h. speed-limit prevailed and most Of them could reach at least 50 m.p.h. above it, there is a parallel today with its 70-m.p.h. speed-limit, even if not so many cars can exceed this by a like margin!
In 1927, a weekly journal managed to list 40 different makes of sports cars in its special sports number, even if a considerable proportion of these were what I would term open sports-tourers, with room for four or five occupants; some even had closed coachwork. The makers concerned were ABC, AC, Alvis, Alfa Romeo, Amilcar, Ansaldo, Austro-Daimler, Bianchi, Ballot, Bentley, Bond, Bugatti, Chenard-Walcker, Darracq, Delage, Diatto, Donnet, Frazer Nash, HE, Hispano, Suiza, Hotchkiss, Imperia, Invicta, Isotta-Fraschini. Lagonda, Mercedes, Lea-Francis, Newton-Ceirano, OM, Renault, Riley, Royer, Salmson, Star, Senechal, Steyr, Sunbeam, Th. Schneider, Vauxhall and Voisin. No wonder the roads of the ‘twenties were so fascinating; It is a sorry thought that, 43 years later, only two of these makes have survived in sporting form. However, although it is sometimes thought that these vintage sports cars had very special specifications, far removed from those of the mundane models of the same make, this was far from being the case. Some, it is true, were made mainly as sports cars only, such as Amilcar, Salmson and Senechal, as with Lotus today. But of the Makes named, only the twin-cam 3-litre Sunbeam and the big supercharged 33/180 and 36/220 Mercedes had engines notably different from those of the touring models, and, apart from this Sunbeam, only the 10/20 Grand Prix Salmson had d.o.h.c. single overhead-camshafts, however, were found on Montlhéry AC, 15/60 Alfa Romeo, 18/50 Ansaldo, 19-100 Austro-Daimler, Ballot, Bentley, Bugatti, Chenard-Walcker, Diatto, Hispano-Suiza, Mercedes and Steyr— Could Britain have been lagging behind? Lagonda used twin tinderhead camshafts. The sports AC, Amilcar Grand Sport, Bond, Donnet, Frazer Nash, HE, OM, Renault and Riley were content with side valves, the Imperia, counted a sports car in 10.8-h.p. two-door guise (!), preferred slide valves, even if the customers didn’t, and the 16/56 Voisin had Knight double sleeves. The 16/50 Bianchi was called the Silent Sports, reminder that nothing is new, and claimed speeds ranged from 61 m.p.h. for the Imperia and 65 m.p.h. for the Super Sports ABC and 19/70 Austro-Daimler (but the Anzani AC had to be stripped before they spoke of 70 m.p.h.) to 118 m.p.h. for the Type 43 Bugatti (faster than the 2-litre GP model) and 120 m.p.h. for the 36/220 Mercedes, although the Renault 45 ”could be tuned up to 120 m.p.h..” from its normal 90-100 m.p.h. I refuse to include the 60-m.p.h. 9-15 Renault as a sports car, and the 10-25 o.h.v. Rover for which only 55 m.p.h. was claimed was admittedly given as a semi-sports ! Not all that number of 1927-Sports ears could do better than 70 m.p.h., however.
It was being explained at this time that sports cars differed from mere touring cars in respect of better power/weight ratio, achieved by higher compression-ratios, different valve timing, larger valves, lighter reciprocating internals and the weight-saving achieved by using scanty open bodywork. Even in 1920 these were the aims, even if, nowadays, an Eric-Campbell able to reach a top speed of 53 m.p.h. and average 30 m.p.h. from Manchester to London would not be regarded as remotely sporting. . . In those days Hillman, Aston-Martin, Calthorpe, Eric-Campbell and Mathis were, however, accepted as reputable small sports cars, but were overshadowed in due course by Salmson, Amilcar and Senechal, after which Britain moved in with Ulster Austin 7, “Brooklands” Riley 9, MG Midget, AC Ace, Singer Le Mans, BSA Scout, Triumph and similar sports cars, largely trials bred. Recalling them, and looking At the accompanying pictures, which capture rather well, I think, the fun of driving open sports two-seaters of the 1920s when they were new motor cars, makes one feel an old man, but fortunately old men are doing rather well these days; look at Jack Brabham and Henry Cooper.
In 1970 those sports models which have survived are built for production-line components, have better weather protection, now the fresh air has gone out of fashion, while steel chassis-less hulls have diminished the power/weight distinctions between sports cars and saloons. But differences still exist. The Mk. IV Austin-Heale Sprite develops 65 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. from a 1,275-c.c. BMC engine which gives 60 b.h.p. at 5,250 r.p.m. in the Mini GT saloon having one instead of two SIT carburetters, although the same power unit delivers 70 b.h.p. in 1300GT guise, and the saloon is probably lighter than the Sprite. The MG Midget Mk. III gives the same output as the Austin-Healey Sprite and weighs approx. 1,700 lb.; the Morris Mini GT saloon of like swept volume has five fewer b.h.p. but is some 340 lb. lighter. The MG-13 boasts 95 b.h.p. at 5,400 r.p.m. from 1,798 c.c.; the same basic engine in the Morris 1800 Mk. II saloon develops 861 b.h.p. at the same speed, to more an extra 105 kg. Jaguar get 265 b.h.p. at 5,400 r.p.m. from the E-type engine, compared to 245 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m. from the same size power unit in the XJ6 saloon, which is about 81 cwt. heavier. The Triumph Spitfire Mk. 3 shares a 1,296-c.c. engine with the Triumph 1300 saloon (and 13/60 Herald) but the respective outputs are 75 (net) b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. and 61 (gross) b.h.p. at 5,000 r.p.m. and the respective dry weights are t4 cwt. and 17 cwt. (Herald-16 cwt.). So sports cars, even when assembled from family-car components. have good reason for existing, even if handling qualities and cornering power between the open and closed models have drawn much closer in the last few decades.
Forget the pleasingly cheeky “Spridgets”, the all-of-a-piece MG-Bs. the more sophisticated Triumph TR6 and the unchallenged Jaguar E-type if you like, but what of the Lotus Elan, limpet-like in its roadholding, with a twin-cam Ford engine giving the same power (115 b.h.p.) as the Twin-Cam Ford Escort saloon, but weighing approx. 1.8 cwt. less? Or that most genuine of modern sports cars, the Lotus 7 Mk. IV in its more potent permutations, or a lightweight “vintage-style” Morgan Plus 8 crammed full of light-alloy V8 Rover power? Sports cars such as these are still desirable properties, whether for fresh-air fun or for pressing on. GT cars are altogether different. Although these initials are applied in 1970 to sports coupes, little saloons and even to a high-speed estate-car, to me a grand touring car is essentially a very fast, accelerative and well-behaved multi-cylinder coupe with just two teats and space for the luggage below a true fast-back roof line. It is the kind of car I would want if I were able to afford a flat in Paris, a villa or a yacht at Monaco and a mistress. It would have to make that journey very rapidly indeed, with only one stop, for refuelling its occupants and its petrol tank….
Amusingly, British Leyland’s publicity boys seem very confused as to what constitutes a GT car even if they would not accept my foregoing-definition of one. For they have issued simultaneously two advertisements, one for the MG-B GT (which I would call a sports-coupé) showing this car running away from a collection of GT-labelled little saloons; captioning it “It’s the real GT they’re after”, and another, for the Austin/Morris 1300 GT. which I regard as a little shopping saloon, labelled “The one GT that just had to be” … !
Good touting cars are a different matter again. . . .—W. B.