[In last month’s issue we took Douglas Tubbs to task for acclaiming the American automobile at the expense of British sports-cars. We promised not to edit his reply. Here it is.—ed.
IN the February issue, my good friend W. Boddy accuses me of having a bee in my bonnet. This month, at his invitation, I intend to let it out to see who will get stung.
In the article to which my critic objects, I was arguing that present-day English sports-cars are nothing like fast enough, either in relation to present-day “racers,” vintage-type sports models or the modern touring-car.
Now I am quite aware that the expression “sports-car” means different things to different people; that to some it means an open body, a fold-flat windscreen, a bathing-cap and a tuned speedometer, and to others a stark monster in which to laugh at comfort and drive at road-racing speed.
Luckily, however, for the purposes of argument, there is one type of car which no reader of this paper, however tough, pansy or prejudiced he may be, will call a “sports-car.” I refer (how right you are) to the much-deplored “Yank.” Having driven one in its native habitat over a longish mileage, I do claim to know some of the American car’s good points. Of course, my knowledge is now completely out of date, since it was acquired in a 1933 Ford which had already run 50,000 miles when it came into my hands, but I put down some of its more notable accomplishments in my article, and pointed out that for a second-hand 3½-litre drophead coupe costing £140 new, the top speed and acceleration were remarkably good. I might have added that if it had been a two-seater instead of a coupe it would have gone faster still and cost even less.
Although to me at that time, since I had been driving only fairly slowish European touring cars, and one or two three-quarters-of-a-litre sports models, the Ford seemed to have very fair performance, I very soon found that it could not compete with its newer and more expensive rivals such as the Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Buick, Packard. Chrysler, La Salle and Cadillac touring-cars with their larger engines and finer finish. I was tempted to become very British Enthusiast and tune my motor; for a “souped-up” V8 can go very fast. In the end, however, I couldn’t be bothered: but I had learnt that if you spent as much time on tuning the engine of a Buick, say, as some of my friends have lavished on their Singers and Morris Eights, the resulting car would be very rapid indeed.
In my dialogue article (which was not reproduced in full) I tried to set down in the form of a saloon-bar argument the “selling-points” which lead one man wanting a fastish car to buy a Ford V8, and another a “30/98” Vauxhall. I don’t think I was particularly unfair to either car; it was admitted that the “30/98” is not the ideal touring-car for the busy man, and does not shine at low speeds or over rough going. On the other hand, the Ford’s steering and road holding were quite as heavily slated by my imaginary Vauxhall owner as they subsequently were in the article to which this is a reply. On the whole, I think the battle went to the Vauxhall . . . . from the sporting motorist’s point of view, because, for all its crudity, the “30/98” was faster than the more recent (and smaller) car, held the road better, had better steering, and possessed the quality known as “feel.”
However that may be, neither the Ford nor the Vauxhall was held up as perfection. It was certainly never a case of “American-and-Vintage-versus-the-Rest.” The two cars were merely two of the possible choices open to the man who hasn’t got very much money and yet wants a car to go fast in. My summing up went something like this: “Both these cars are light for their size. That is the secret of the performance which has made them both famous in their day. Now, thanks to what modern Grand Prix racing has taught us about suspension, they are both equally out of date.”
Surely the only real grievance the European “sports-car” driver has against the American car is that the springs are too soft for good cornering and that the steering is low-geared and woolly. Put these things right and you would have a very fine touring-car indeed. I do not say, and I never did, that “our modern sports-cars, some of which even the Vintagents admit to be the best yet built, are just low-performance toys in comparison with the Yanks.” But living in the U.S.A. for a time taught me that the American “family” motorist takes as his birthright car-performance which people in this country regard as definitely “sports.” So far the average American is still rather uneducated in the matter of road holding and steering gears, but there are signs that in the near future certain firms at least, notably Nash, intend to give him reasonable chassis-design, as well as more powerful motors, larger bodies and cretin-proof transmission.
When these reforms come about in the States there will be a lot of large and medium-sized English machines calling themselves “sports-cars” to distinguish them from their even more sluggish contemporaries, which will be left without a raison d’etre.
In defending certain British cars against my ill-mannerly comparisons with the Lancia, the Fiat and the B.M.W. my friend Mr. Boddy comes very close to admitting that they are in many respects as lamentable at steering and holding the road as the Awful Yank. He argues that the English “family car” owner “reserves his hurrying for the straightaways” like the average American, and for the same reasons. If drivers do not appreciate good cornering and do not recognise decent steering when it is given them, why, I am asked, waste time and money giving them i.f.s. that they will never bother to grease?
Well the answer, in this year of grace, is fairly obvious. After forty-five years of motor cars (or six years of the modern type of Grand Prix car, which comes to much the same thing really) it has become evident that the old, old choice, “Comfort or Speed” no longer applies.
Gone are the days when a comfortable touring car had to corner like a fishing smack, and to travel in a really fast car at less than 45 m.p.h. was like riding on a camshaft. The driver of to-day has every right to demand comfort at all road speeds, high or low, so much has research and racing taught. In some of the more recent designs he gets it. And all the British cars that beat the B.M.W., the “10/12” Fiat and the Lancia “Aprilia” on comfort throughout the speed range, as well as being faster through the swerves, have my unbounded admiration.
Up to this point I have been dealing with the “touring car”: the sort of machine represented by the Pontiac, the Austins, the Opel, the Renault, the Standard and the D.K.W. In short, the kind of thing that no one could possibly call a “sports model,” whatever its performance or engine size. Perhaps Mr. Boddy will quarrel with some of my international examples, but he will see what I am getting at.
Ever since the Prince Henry Tours (1908-11), a contemporary points out, there has been a public which demands something a little different from the “utility-car” of this sort. In order to get the extra speed and power he craves, this type of customer has been willing to make considerable sacrifices of comfort, accommodation, smoothness and silence, so that his car shall travel more like a racing-car and less like the touring article. The motor-cycle manufacturers sell machines called T.T. Replicas to this sort of client., and in the motor-car trade there are innumerable “Brooklands Models,” “Speed Models,” “Le Mans” types, and so on, catering for this market. Some makers have made nothing else. Some have made a practice of catering for both markets the “Chummy” Austin, for example, and the “Ulster or the 3-litre Bentley which used to come up in two colours of label, blue or red, according to performance.
The great road races in Ulster, at Le Mans and elsewhere fostered this differentiation and gave us such cars as the Lea-Francis, the Aston-Martin, the M.G. Magnette and the old-type Bentleys. Some in their day have been very fast. Exactly how fast the Editor is better equipped to judge than I. At all events, Birkin claimed that his four-seater blower 4½-litre Bentley used to do 135 m.p.h. and I’m not presuming to query his figures. Look at it how you like, some of these great sporting cars of the past, such as the “38/250” Mercedes, the large Bentleys and, for that matter, some of the Alfas and Bugs. used to rush along the road faster than the elegant Ritz-carriages which have seduced our Editor from the strait and narrow path.
When you are discussing sporting cars, Mr. Editor, there is no occasion to sneer because a car is “an open, high-efficiency job,” or because you can’t wear a lovely Fedora hat in the sort of saloon car that is placed at Le Mans these days. This sort of machinery is a “sports-car” it has no pretensions to being a courting-carriage, and it is useless to apply the same standards.
For the same reasons it is absurd to cite the 4¼-litre Bentley and the V12 Lagonda as “modern sports-cars,” whether they are a little faster or a little slower than a good Le Mans type car of ten or more years ago. The old 4½-litre is not to be compared to the new 4¼-litre Bentley; they have nothing in common except the name. The cars with which to compare the “four-and-a-half” of ten years ago are the Delahayes, Delages, Talbots and Bugattis one saw at the last Le Mans, Connell’s Darracq, and the team Lagondas which came in third and fourth.
Beside these cars the much-adored Ritz-carriages with their “box-like bodies and heavy construction” show up for what they are . . . . the highest development of the touring car we have yet seen. That Bentley Motors are alive to this is shown by the announcement of the Mark V “Corniche,” and the Lagonda Company is to bring out a Le Mans model after the war.
I do agree with Mr. Boddy that it is to the credit of the latest Bentley and Lagonda saloon cars that they will still do a hundred, despite their splendour; but, in view of their traditions, and of the high speeds reached by even the humblest American sedans, is 100 m.p.h. so very quick for a medium-sized closed car with over four -litres of engine and costing over £1,000?
Finally, before I stop pitting my “Sense of Proportion” against the Editor’s, I should like just to repeat that in this day and age neither the touring car nor the sports-car need be either uncomfortable or difficult to control; but I do insist that by current touring-car speeds the “sports-car” must be fast!
[We rather agree with Tubbs that our cars could be faster. We should like to be able to buy all the speed available when the war stops and advertisements flow so freely to City Road that we shall tire of driving a fleet of Mark Vs. But we do not agree that America is showing us the way to do this. The British sportsman mostly wants to go fast round corners as well as along the straights and on a taxable h.p. of 12 or so. One hundred and twenty m.p.h. sports light cars are possible but not commercially; see our recent outpouring “On Selling Sports-Cars.” Again, not many folk will now pay £1,500 for a car to get wet and dusty in. So the closed high-performance cars which Tubbs chooses to term “Ritz-courting carriages” are now our sports-cars. We object to other Americanisms besides soft suspension and low-geared steering; lily gear levers, frozen-milk fittings and birdcages, for a few. Tubbs writes of “the quality called feel”; to us it is qualities. If our family cars are slow and uncomfortable, isn’t the buying public to blame? A friend’s 1932-3 B.S.A. front-drive van wore and handled remarkably well; Scroggs has recently reminded us of what the British two-stroke Trojan could do. If Tubbs had to buy a German car to get a two-stroke engine and f.w.d. it is because our utility motorists just love to lurch and roll about on half-elliptics at 32 m.p.h. many feet from the road-edge (or at 20 m.p.h. round bends), propelled by engines fundamentally the same as those Renault and de Dion gave to cautious Frenchmen about forty years ago.—Ed.]
The L’Ecurie de L’Elphant Blanc,” which extended an invitation to enthusiasts to visit it any Sunday, in last month’s issue, wishes us to emphasise that it can now be found at : —18, Birdhurst Road, South Croydon. One member usually sleeps in the garage Saturday nights! There is possible free stabling for a genuine racing car. Can anyone find Gordon Woods a crankcase for a 15 h.p. Riley Six?
Truly, madly, Healey
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