Road-Test Miscellany, June 1976

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The Saab 99GL Combi Coupe

The previous Saab tested disappointed but the new Combi coupe made considerable amends. Indeed, once I had become used to a number of Saab practical peculiarities, I enjoyed driving this 2-litre four-seater coupe with the lift-up tail-gate (it rises automatically, actually) and folding back seat that gives just over 6-ft. of luggage space, in a 53 Cu. ft. space, restricted as to height only where the back window curves into the tail. There is no sill to hump luggage over and the seat-folding arrangements are simplicity itself. A good load carrier, then, this latest Saab coupe. A detachable shelf is provided, which forms another stowage space and acts as the boot-lid, when the back seat is in use. The interior of this loading-bay is upholstered like the rest of the car and the exterior of the two-door body is finished in Lacroe paint.

Saabs have a good reputation for ruggedness and in-built safety. The seats are particularly nice to sit on, but the squab adjustment knob is too close to the driver’s door, which has loose pockets along its length. There are clear instruments, a steering wheel with the horn-push across part of its spoke (not always convenient), and accurate rack-and-pinion steering asking just over four turns from one very effective lock to the other. Except for some front-wheel pull when power is used towards full lock, there is no indication, apart from enhanced traction, that this is a front-drive car.

The o.h.c. Triumph Dolomite engine started instantly after a night out in the snow, with a little manual choke, and gives 100 DIN b.h.p. on a 9.2-to-1 c.r., so that I was surprised that it took so well to two-star fuel. Surprise turned to gratification when it returned 33.5 m.p.g., a tribute to the single Zenith-Stromberg 175 CD/2SL(E) carburetter. The fuel gauge is very vague. The gear lever has small very precise movements that I liked, reverse guarded by a smooth slide-up collar surrounding this short, stiff lever. There are all the Saab characteristics, including the ignition key inserted into the console, locking the gear lever in reverse, and like a VW from the Beetle-age, the 99 is generously shod, with 165 x 15 radial-ply tyres, on this 2,750 lb. (kerb weight) car, Goodrich GT-200-Steel on the test car. The heavy anti-shunt bumpers and the lines of a Saab may not appeal to everyone, but it is a chunky, well-finished and sensibly equipped proposition. In 953 miles nothing went wrong apart from a piece of internal sound-damping material coming adrift near the front passenger’s feet, and no oil was needed, but both doors were very difficult to open with the outside catches, the near-side one almost impossible for a girl to open. There are many refinements, like the now-famous Saab headlamp wipers and washers, colour slides to show the positioning of the triple heater/ventilator controls after dark, mud flaps behind the wheels, console-located interior-light switch, etc.

The rear-hinged bonnet has a front-located safety catch and pushes back into place in BMW style; the release is on the “wrong” side on r.h.d. cars (puzzle find the dip-stick!) and I noticed the passenger was provided with a rest for the clutch foot but I wasn’t. The pedals are also very much off-set to the left. The anti-dazzle vizors are too shallow to be effective, there is no vanity mirror, and I disliked the “fasten belts” light, while the headlamps full-beam warning strip-light also dazzles. The head restraints which are part of the front-seat squabs are non-adjustable and rather obstructive.

The five-bearing, alloy-head Leyland engine asked for no oil and by the end of the test I had become accustomed to feeling rather as if I were delivering a lecture from a pulpit at St. Mary-le-Bow, the short bonnet being invisible beyond the curved windscreen and its sill if one sits reasonably far back. A 2-litre full of individuality and commendably thrifty of petrol, Saab enthusiasts will, I think, take very kindly to this load-carrier, the price of which is £3,362.58.—W.B.

Mercedes 280SE/Ford Cortina 1.3 / Princess 1800HL

In March a colleague reported on the very impressive Mercedes-Benz 450SE, which reminded me that it was a long time since I had ridden in majesty behind the three-pointed-star of Stuttgart. So Erik Johnson provided me with a Mercedes product at a different end of the price-scale spectrum, in the form of a 280SE Automatic. There is very little need to say much more than that it reflected the morecostly model (£10,950, compared to £8,350 of the example I was testing) in the excellence of its control layout, its in-built comfort, its handling and its subdued air of worthwhile luxury. It was more noisy, naturally, as the engine took hold—the first twin-cam Mercedes I had driven since trying Gerry Palmer’s 1924 Targa Florio.

This electronic fuel-injection, “anti-pollutive”, 2.8-litre power unit pokes out an adequate 185 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m., or 160 net b.h.p. with a dual compound carburetter It had the automatic transmission used on the 350-series Mercedes, with hold-controls and selectors operated by a gated floor lever. Revised rear suspension, related to that of the experimental C.111, and the extremely good segmental-rack power steering, gave excellent handling and I was impressed by the brakes, which combined progressive action and real power in a notable combination. Refinements too numerous to re-iterate, including headlamp-washers, central door-locking, most acceptable seats, etc., made this return to Mercedes motoring a memorable experience and one which made me forget temporarily the delights of driving a BMW. Fuel consumption of this 120 m.p.h. car, with its adequate acceleration, came out at 22.0 m.p.g.

It has been my practice to endeavour to test something new over Easter and this year my “egg” was a Ford Cortina 1.3 four-door saloon, in a very appropriate shade of light blue. It had the new economy “Sonic” carburetter. In spite of this, and the modest capacity of its push-rod engine, it proved to have excellent pick-up when coping with London traffic. Alas, we had given Ford very little time to allocate it to us, and once on the M40 on the Friday evening before the Easter vacation its speed fell off, to the accompaniment of distressing poppings from the carburetter, until it became prudent to motor along the hard-shoulder of this M-way.

A visit to the highly obliging and efficient Ford Main Dealers in Hereford for some overdue servicing restored matters, although fast Motorway cruising still had a tendency to upset the Autolite plugs. But I can see why the Cortina remains a best-seller; threemillion of this Mk. III version had been sold by last October. It provides all the accommodation most families need, does everything well, and the excellence of the gear-change alone endears it to me. Its thirst for 4-star fuel ran from 33.4 to 32.8 m.p.g., although the car was pressed hard and for some of the time was not in perfect tune. The price is £1,804.

Next I took over from Longbridge a Princess 1800HL. At first the Hydragas suspension seemed a trifle soggy and the power steering not as precise as I would have liked. But as one got to know this smallest-engined Princess these impressions vanished and admiration grew. Particularly when, fully laden and with the fuel tank filled to the brim, handling was found to be safe and enjoyable. If the push-rod, long-stroke power pack was very noisy when extended, it propelled this shapely car effectively. In conditions of rain after a long dry-spell, the Goodyear G800 GP 70 tyres aided the notable f.w.d. cornering powers, when other cars were seen to have left the road.

The braking is commendable, too, the nylon-brushed, triple-adjustable driving seat earns full marks, as does the fuel capacity of 16 gallons. Driven harder than most owners might ask of it, I got 27.3 m.p.g. of 4-star. We went to the VSCC Silverstone Meeting in this excellent Princess, which seemed the right thing to do, on a day when Prince Bira’s ERAs were the centre of attraction. In a considerable mileage this British car proved very likeable. Apart from the clutch-pedal rubber falling off and the lockable lid of the capacious cubby-hole jumping its catch on rough roads, some reflection in the instrument glasses, and a notchy gear-change, I have no complaints to register. The Princess 1800 is a British car to be recommended. If the gearlever is merely something with which to change gear, compared to the pleasure derived from using a Ford gearbox, there is the merit that this quite large £2,714 (with extras as tested) saloon feels campact from the driving viewpoint. The test Car was finished in an impressive, lined Brazil Metallic paint.—W.B.

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