Matters of moment, June 1987

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All the same?

This is a great time for finding excuses for celebrating motoring anniversaries — such happenings indicate a preference for the past, by those who perhaps despair of the future!

Jaguar has just passed the 60-year mark, and over the coming months there will be commemorations of the imminent demise of the Citroen 2CV (6,721,500 Deux Chevaux and Dyanes have been made since 1949) of the half-century since production of the Model T Ford ended, of the fortieth birthday of the Jowett Javelin, and of the eightieth since the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost proved a petrol car could be as quiet as a steamer. And so it goes on!

All this activity serves as a reminder that individuality among cars is disappearing. Today’s offerings, technically advanced as they are, are becoming more and more alike. Most Japanese saloons look much the same, and now real Hondas, which are excellent cars, are to be built at Longbridge, once the proud home of the Austin; more than 20 million Mazdas have flooded the world market, along with Nissans and the rest of them. These represent sound transport, but not exactly cars of character in their more mundane concepts.

In comparison, the 2CV is remembered as highly individual, with its tiny flat-twin, air-cooled engine, utility body from which the seats could be removed for picnics (or for house furniture!), simple push-pull fascia gear-lever, and that clever suspension which enabled the wheels to remain glued to the cobbles, no matter how much the loveable contraption rolled in fast corners.

The Model Ts, all 15 million of them, had a breath of individuality, with their “foolproof’, pedal-operated, epicyclic two-speed transmission, simple “throttled” engine with flywheel magneto, considerable ground clearance, and that simple transverse springing.

Gerald Palmer’s post-war Jowett Javelin continued the “different” theme, with its six-seater low-drag body, flat-four ohv lightalloy-block engine, and torsion-bar suspension. The ingenious and indestructable VW Beetle had led the way, and the Citroen DS had shown how cars can digress from the common run of automotive engineering for very good reasons, as did the R-R Silver Shadow in later times.

But it was Sir Alec Issigonis who really broke away. His remarkable Mini Minor combined transverse engine with sump gears, 10in tyres, rubber suspension and frontwheel drive in a compact but roomy package, and set a fresh fashion for small cars.

Those of us who attended previews of these cars, or road-tested them, may well ask whether individuality is fading for the ordinary car-buyer? With one or two exceptons, such as the Ford/Fiat infinitely-variable belt-drive transmission, the advent of four-wheel drive and the Japanese development of four-wheel steering, there is, alas, less and less “character” in modern cars.

The only truly different engine is the rotary power-unit in the Mazda RX-7. The rest have scarcely changed in 100 years . .

If the trend continues, the day may dawn when cars are merely utility objects, like beds and cups and saucers. Or do we paint too pessimistic a picture?