THE ETHICS OF THE QUALITY CAR
a ASthe prospect of the end of the war becomes more real the thoughts of many enthusiasts must be turning to the garages, stahles zind hams where, mounted OR blocks and slirotilled in sheets. many elderly sports cars await IlappieV days. After five years or inure (rf ” utility ” or Service motoriinr. such cars will seemt
s,range to us %Own these days return ;strange range the thick rim ur the steering wheel, the heavy, imsif lye move. meld of the high-geared steering, and the sound of the straight -cut gears. Yet there are many of us Idv, win welcome the first opportunit y to discord our modern -vehicles and i4et back to a car which, hy now, may lw 20 years old. why. I wonder ?
Even behire the war the vintage car enthusiast was looked upon 1,y time majority of motorists either as an irresponsible’youth who rail an old car as a eheap, noisy and dangerous toy or, if’ he was of maturer years, as ;1 crank and a diehard—a kind of mechanically-minded William Morris. (I refer. of course. to William Morris, of Keliiiscot, and not to the redoubtable Baron Nuffield.) When he takes to the road again lw will inevitably appear as an CVell more eccentric figure, harried, no doubt. by many new regulations framed to tit modern ears. which will not fit his: short of eomplete rebuilding.
What, then, is the real reas(m for Ihis strange preference for cars which many people would say should have been consigned to the scrap heap years ago? Is it merely sentiment, or 1.1w desire of the young and impectiniials to cut a dash ” ? In some cases the answer to the second question may be yes, but I think this is only a half truth. and that tlw real answer has a notch more profound significance. not only for the motorist hut for the Motor Industry. Before the war the Vintage Sports Car Club numbered amongst its menthe”, ninny people who were not primarily interested in competition and who could well afford a modern car. but who drove ? an elderly vehicle for preference. To tile majority of present-day motorists this
L. T. C. Rolt has some revealing things to say to those who hail modern, massproduced monstrosities as a national achievement. Before the war he ran a couple of ” 12/50″ Alvis cars and appeared in Veteran C.C. events in his 1903 single-cylinder Humber. Nevertheless, what he writes here is not an outpouring of a vintage-car crank, but a very pungent warning to the Motor Industry and motor-car users alike.
Read and digest !—Ed. C taste seems mystifying hecause, as they point_ out with triali, many modern ears of quite moderate price are (.apable of matching, or even excelling, the vintage car in point of speed OVcr a given journey. The real reason, I submit, for the attraction of the car of yesterday is its quality. and that those who appreciate this quality expect something more from a car than is revealed by’ performance figures They are not so much concerned with vi at the car does as how it does it, and how long it will go on doing it. In other von’s, the vintage car appeals to those w 1110 regaill a car as soinething of intrinsic value, as an end in itself. and not merely as a et Inviii lent. means ()I getting from !dace t place. The average modern motorist. on the other hand. holds the latter N’iCW., and beyond this his taste is only influenced hv speed, or the ” snot) ” vain(‘ ol si.ie and superficial glitter which wit/ impress his nei?iiihours. His stimdards, in fact. are quantitative, being measured iii m.p.h. and m1adgets. These two skipdards of judgment 110 not apply only to !moor ears, hut to everythingwe use : lo our house,. furniture, crockery. focal, clothing and what you will. If we regard all these things merely as means to an end it Lecontes pertinent to enquire what that end is. Ghviouslv. it is the husiness of living, but if we derive no satisfaetion from all the articles of use with which we are surrounded. then. indeed. living becomes a dreary business. and in the
pursuit of means the ends disappear. Thus, although this is an article about motor cars, its ethics apply with equal force to a hundred-and-one other subjects. Many factors combine to produce the quality in a motor car which gives the connoisseur that almost indefinable sense of satisfaction which he feels as soon as he settles himself in the driving seat. In the first place, before he takes the car on the road there is a sense of solidity and rightness about the steering column, the dashboard, the gear lever and handbrake which reveal that the designers and builders have worked with similar standards in mind ; in other words, that they were craftsmen who took pride and satisfaction in the thing they made. To put it in yet another way, the car reveals that its makers did not solely regard it as a means to earn a living and profits for the company’s shareholders, but looked upon a good job as an end in itself. When the car is on the road its quality becomes manifest in other ways : in the roadholding, in the positive accuracy of the steering, and in the progressive response. of the brakes to foot pressure. Because of their careful perfection of workmanship all the controls have a precision and delicacy of movement which enables a driver equally sensitive to feel their function as they answer the skilled touch. This last quality is not only a source of pleasure and a reward for skill, it breeds confidence through a sense of control over the car so complete that the driver feels ” a part of the car.” lie is in perfect sympathy with the car and with the makers of the car who have made possible this sympathy. Finally, there is the
pleasure of the knowledge that these qualities are not, and cannot be, skindeep ; that bonnet and floorboards conceal no shoddy improvisations of pressed steel and piano wire, but materials and workmanship of dateless excellence which, given the care they deserve and invite, will continue to function and to delight the discerning eye for many years.
Now all these qualities are strictly utilitarian, that is to say, they are not “frills,” their purpose being to ensure that the car will perform its function in the best possible way and for the longest possible time. Yet so utterly false have our modern standards of value become that these things are considered, if they are considered at all, as luxuries, and the word “utility,” which simply means usefulness, has come to mean a shoddy, short-lived and intrinsically worthless article, so much so that if we were informed that we would only be permitted to drive ” utility ” cars after the war, we should probably give up motoring and take to cycling.
” Ah ! ” says the realist who moves with the times, “the trouble with the kind of car you describe is that it is not an economic proposition to-day, and that if it were built, it would only command a very small market.” The latter criticism is true, because the standards of the modern motorist have been lowered by advertising propaganda and goods of progressively inferior quality. Yet if standards can be lowered they can also be raised again, and the reason why such a renaissance cannot take place is to he found In the words “economic proposition.”
What this phrase really means is that from the production point of view a successful car is one which earns the greatest return to the shareholders of the company manufacturing it. This is the primary concern of the Industry ; the standards of the producer and ,consumer are secondary considerations. ‘.he former are under direct control, while the latter can be influenced by sales propaganda to take what they are given. In effect, the shareholders of a motor company levy a tribute upon which no limit is set and which is quite unearned. They take out but contribute nothing, with the result that their “pound of flesh” is exacted from the producer, who can never receive the due return for his labour, and from the consumer’ who never receives the quality he should expect for his money.
Twenty years ago, when the Industry was highly competitive, it could be argued that this tribute or profit was a justifiable return for the risks which the investor incurred, but at the same time this very stress of competition compelled the manufacturer to pay greater attention to the consumer’s needs. To-day, however, when the bulk of car production is in the hands of a few vast monopolies, the argument of risk can no longer justify unrestricted profits, and, what is more, the consumer exercises practically no control over the product. Since our vintage cars were built we have made great technical advances, particularly in the sphere of metallurgy, the science upon which, more than any other, developments in design must wait. Consequently, we can see the faults of these old cars, and many of us know how they could be corrected and improved. The 1939 Grand Prix racing car is proof enough that the present-day designers and craftsmen of the Motor Industry are not unworthy of their forerunners. Yet the most rabid motor-racing enthusiast must surely admit the falsity of a system which increasingly confines such skill to the construction of a few freak machines for sport and publicity at such a fantastic cost that machines of such quality (and I emphasise quality and not the performance which is a particular byproduct of it) are quite beyond the reach of the individual. The argument that the lessons learned in racing are later applied to the commercial product is a dangerous one, for it is only half true. Principles discovered by racing practice may be applied commercially, but over their commercial execution it were wise to draw ;t veil. Every designer knows what happens to a prototype, or, for instance. a system of independent suspension, when, a Production Planning Department have adapted it for mass production. These planners are concerned NVith ” the commercial proposi tion,’ ‘ the job which will show t he ?re:t test profits. and it is to the credit of the designer than even after this mutilation, w I ich Ica VCs his (I’M almost unrecog nisable, it is still remarkably reliable, however i I trit isically worthless it it tay have liceome. At the same time, 110W ever, the designer is foreed to bear in mind the machines. materials and me thods whielt ” eheap ” production has evolved upon the principle of inereasing ” profits ” by saying labour costs, ill other words, by reducingthe reward of the actual produeer. Si i lee t 1 i i cannot be done directly by reducimv W’ages it is done indirectly by inereasiug output per man by mass-prodiu.tion, a method which depends upon a continual expulsion of
production for the sake of production if mass unemployment is to be avoided. Assuming, therefore, that the Industry continues to develop on the same lines alter the war, we 111:1Y rfelY expect a flood of shoddy and shortgliVed ” cheap ” cars and ail intensified advertising campaign accompanied hy ” selling ” changes
in desHt to ensnre that cars are bought and discarded :ts rapidly as paper-hack novels. I could produce ninny examples to prove that increasing knowledge is not, under stall a system, aeeompanied by the improvement of the article produced, but in the limited space available here one only must sallice. Not many years ago it was the custom of the majority of reputahle manufacturers to use a specially totich. close-grained quality of cast iron for cylinder filoeks and, after casting, to leave the blocks to weather for three months or more before machining. The longevity of the vintage car in this respect is thus no accident. This practice is now no longer followed by the mass-producer for two reasons. First, the principle of casting block and crankcase in one unit would involve musing costly material merely
to form the crankcase where its special qualities are not necessary. Secondly. anti more significantly. a soft quality, unweathered casting is deliberately chosen to save machining costs. In terms of intrinsic value, in materials and workmanship, the ” cheap ” car is a fallacy. The huyer actually pays an exorliitant sum for a worthless article. The production of a small saloon car selling at about £100 was hailed before the wan as a marvellous feat, and the makers basked in the reputation (sedu lously fostered) of being public ‘benefac tors. Yet by means of saurian machines. and by the degradation of the actual producers to the status of robots, this car Was produced at a cost in labour and materials of £15 or even less. The int !Iasi(‘ value of the car is, therefore, XI :1. and the buyer pays away 4;85 to distributors and dellers and to meet vapital charecs. Of these, the last named revel c the lion’s share. Capital, in the large mass-production plant. i. represented very largely by ihr clabora machinery and equipment so that in eitcH the machines art the robot represcokt fives of the shareholders, set there to earn incomes for their masters at the expense of producer and consumer. So far as the latter is concerned it should he oly% ions that the mass-produced car, by qualitative standards. is not cheap but highly costly, and since we are all consumers, tire inference is that in an age of
mass-production on these lines our money becomes increasingly valueless in terms of the quality of the goods it will buy. I have in in-year-old car which, when new, cost .g.250, and was regarded as cheap runabout. Owing to the lack of technical experience at the time it was made, it, is crude and archaic in function, yet its value in materials and workmanship is infinitely higher in proportion to
its price than tliat of the £100 car of 1939. The fact that it is still in good mechanical order and has never been re-bored surely proves this. Unfortunately this iwoeess of degeneration is by no means confined to the so called ” popular ” car but, with singularly few exceptions, it is apparent inn t he higherKlee(‘ article also. I3y 1939 many famous makes had been absorbed by the insatialile maw of combines which proceeded to make capital out of the reputa tion their names had earned in the past, with the most disastrous results ; and at the expense of the mistispecting pur chaser. Behind a distinctive radiator and a badge which had beeome a hallmark of quality, there lurked a nonde script, standardised mass-produced en gine unit similar to that litted in the ” popular ” car, but garnished perhaps with an aluminium head or chromium plated pipes and head nuts. I.: en the proud radiator itself was a useless piece of hypocrisy fulfilling the same false
function as the pretentious facade which conceals the evils of a jerry-built house. Is there not something wrong with a system which calls for the essential qualities of a good car ” unconimercial” Luxuries while
it equips ‘• utility” cars with useless metal ? Even the manufacturer who had kept out of’ the toils of ” big-business ” tvas unaltle to avoid the second-rate, owing to the vicious monopoly in auxiliary equipment.
If we survey the pre-war Industry itt search of those manufacturers who still put quality first, one name immediately springs to mind, that of M. Ettore Bugatti. Because of his consistent demand for quality his designs reverse the accepted modern technique by reducing complex machining operations to a minimum and calling, instead, for the maximum of skilled fitting. If we accept the modern trend of design as true progress, then we must regard Bugatti as an eccentric, but no one who has looked under the bonnet of a Bugatti, even the humble Type 1,0, can be in any doubt as to the result he achieves. Critics will say that in this country the lingatti has a reputation for unreliability, but it should be remembered that these ears (and this applies to other vintage cars) were not built by fools for fools and are, therefore, not foolproof. A craftsman has a right to expect that his work will command from the owner the attention and understanding which it deserves, whereas the average Bugatti in particular, and most vintage cars in general, have passed through many hands possess iii more enthusiasm than skill, and have suffered treatment which would have sent less worthy cars to the seraplicap years ago.
1′ To sum the whole matter up, the gloomy moral seems to be clear enough. Without a “fundamental change in our economic system, a change which it would obviously be out of place to tlisetiss here, there can be little hope of a return to quality. The roads of England are more likely to be jammed solid with a mass of pressed tin before this will happen. Meanwhile, the enthusiast who appreciates quality in a motor car. the quality that the vintage car displays, is not a sentimental crank. Far from it. 11c is performing it vital service by unlioldime to one industry at leas!, a critical standard in the face of that which industry dictates. If he eontinues to do so. and if Inc succeeds in educating others. then in turn the Trade may H., influeneed, mai at least a few ears may In built in En, land after the war in which quality and not ” cheapness ” is the first consideration.