Matters of moment, March 1953

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Criticism of British cars

In the Motor Show number of Motor Sport  last year we published an outspoken criticism of modern British cars in the form of a letter from George H. Poske, air-line pilot and garage owner, of Peru. This letter has drawn a startling response from readers who are in full agreement with our correspondent  —  startling because their letters, a selection of which we have published, show up the British motor car under overseas conditions in a very poor light. Emphasis is also laid on this state of affairs by the comparatively few letters received which expressed disagreement with Mr. Poske’s remarks and the generally weak arguments put up to meet facts furnished by “the opposition.”

Certainly this is a serious matter, fully deserving of the present Editorial attention. We have been told Mr. Poske’s original letter should never have been printed. We have been accused of being unpatriotic. We have been informed that we are biased against British cars.

We are prepared to meet each and all of these charges. It is because we are patriotic and because we appreciate the extreme importance of expanding sales of British cars in overseas markets that we have hastened to provide opportunity for the airing of these grievances against the British motor industry; it is our belief and hope that by doing this those engineers and technicians responsible for the cars at which criticism is being levelled will be able to act quickly and effectively to set matters right before export markets contract for British products.

That the matter is serious and urgent, have no doubts. We have ourselves experienced bad faults in British cars here at home, which would be infinitely more inconvenient had they happened in the Far Places where it is so important that sales of British cars should not fail. Some of these shortcomings have been referred to in articles about staff vehicles which have appeared in Motor Sport.  But we could enlarge on them considerably. They include a Midlands product which had gearbox trouble, shed a wheel, and wore out its steering-gear within a few months of delivery. Other cars of this make, owned by friends, have played the same tricks on their unsuspecting owners.

Indeed, picking up a club magazine the other day we read an article on one of these cars, written by a well-known driver, in which it was mentioned that, although carefully run-in and serviced, in less than 10,000 miles the “automatic hood and window-raising and lowering apparatus lost most, or all, of its automaticity” and the radio ceased to function. The car manufacturers “repudiated all liability” for the hood trouble and the owner spent six months trying to discover who made the mechanism!  Just one week outside the guarantee period the gearbox dropped a tooth. A replacement box wouldn’t budge out of bottom cog, due to an agent’s maladjustment of the steering-stalk linkage. This box became too noisy after 15,000 miles; the next replacement disintegrated after 500 miles while being carefully run-in. The car was out of commission for a couple of months because the makers had run out of spares. The fourth gearbox lasted 5,000 miles before throwing a tooth in third gear. The makers did some replacements free, others at half-cost, but “are still haggling about the labour costs.”  Other troubles concerned brake fade, shock-absorber failure and steering failure at 30,000 miles. The car was sold shortly afterwards.

We had some experience of their service methods ourselves, on the occasion of the aforesaid wheel detaching itself through shearing of the studs. Although the P.R.O. said only one type of wheel existed for this model, the first two replacements dispatched had a stud too many, the next scored two studs too many, and when a four-stud wheel did eventually get through it was the wrong colour. If this made us choleric 80 miles from the works, how should we have felt with 8,000 miles and lots of water between the stranded vehicle and its creators ? Their P.R.O. remained unabashed—soon after the steering had failed, (in less than 10,000 miles) we met him in the glamour of the Motor Show told him of the latest trouble.  ” What do you do with your  —  cars?” was the helpful comment.

There have been big-end failures, blown gaskets and worse with another make, less than 10,000 miles old. That there is widespread unrest at these examples of faulty design and/or assembly of home-produced cars is evidenced by letters from amongst the most recent batch of correspondence on this sad subject.

One reader, quoting from a letter received by him from a friend, states that it contains the following comment on three years usage of a British car bought in England and taken out to Northern Nigeria:  “Last night I returned from the garage where I had left my poor English car in the hands of the agents for repairs — cracked chassis frame, faulty front shock-absorbers, body-securing bolts, door catches, etc. So far this year I have had to spend £180 on it and now there will be another bill. They can say what they like about Austin A40s going from London to Cape Town in 10-1/2 days but British cars of the type that we can afford are useless after 20,000 miles or two years. Admittedly they will do what Yankee cars can do but in the process they will suffer much more. After three years and whatever mileage done, a Yankee car sells for a good price, whereas the British car practically has to be given away. I was misled by the outward condition of my car last November, when it appeared to be quite good. This third year and mileage over 20,000 has shown me how foolish I was not to have sold the car.”

Our correspondent concludes that the comparison his friend makes between British and American cars appears to be “the same as that expressed over and over again by British car users in various parts of the world.”

 Another letter, picked at random from this dismal pile, reads:  “In vain did I look in your last issue for a manufacturer’s statement on the letter of Mr. Poske. Are we to assume, from their silence, that such a state of affairs is known to them?

“Many of us connected with the trade know of some shocking things associated with modern British cars. Recent examples include a car of popular make supplied by a Birmingham agent who would substantiate the facts, that had five tyres break up in under 2,000 miles. Who, among us, does not know the make of car which gave continuous clutch trouble ? Who has not heard of the gremlins which live in a certain gearbox, of the toy shock-absorbers, the springs which ‘go soft,’ and the shoddy equipment which the vision of libel actions forbids me to name ? Most of us have, unfortunately.

“Let this state of affairs stop now, before the foreigner learns and the damage is done. Appeals to the manufacturers only fall on junior clerks’ ears, so can we look to the motoring Press, especially Motor Sport  which champions honestly-built cars, to publish the grumbles, to shame the manufacturers into doing something ? “

So it goes on. So the evidence builds up of British products not coming up to scratch in the face of overseas conditions and in competition with foreign-built cars.

This is not good enough. We do not profess to know the reason for failings of cars which on the drawing-board look thoroughly sound. One reader has this to say: “It is important that the critics of the quality of British cars should understand the reasons for such deterioration, because it affects so many things produced in Britain. The situation is a legacy of the war and earlier post-war years; in the former we had:  ‘Don’t you know, there’s a war on?’   And the latter was the sellers’ market, with its abuses of quality and price, and the employees’ laissez-faire  ‘Couldn’t care less, chum.’ This attitude is always the result of restricted competition and the bolstering-up of the inefficient and unenterprising to the detriment of the competent and conscientious.

 “When the leaders of industry once again feel confident (and are allowed) to abandon a system of flat-rate reward, employees at all levels and in all industries may be rewarded in proportion to their efficiency and conscientiousness. And then we shall see a halt to the emigration of the enterprising and imaginative; better materials and end-products will become available because the men who are interested in such things are encouraged and rewarded to the relative prejudice of the slacker, the soap-box boys and the ne’er-do-wells. At present the latter preponderate and the former are at a disadvantage. How can we get good quality and service in such conditions ?  Enterprise must be encouraged; the ‘couldn’t care less’  attitude heavily penalised; and every heart put into the chaps who are interested  in producing something good for its own sake. Then —  and not until — we shall enter another ‘Silver Ghost era.’ “

Whatever the reasons, action must be taken to remove the causes of complaints and criticisms and restore the reputation of our motor industry to “Silver Ghost” status.

Rather than try to muzzle the technical Press (and attempts have been made to muzzle us), the industry should open its eyes to what our readers are writing and should offer an explanation of its difficulties and its future intentions.

In some cases faulty design is to blame for lowered reliability in the field. Are designers aware of their mistakes? Have they plans to rectify them?  In other instances, poor service facilities are complained of. What steps are manufacturers and agents taking to get better supplies of vital parts to outposts of Empire and backs-o’-beyond?

Tell the Press these things and we can counter the rising tide of anti-British feeling by telling of errors eradicated, better cars and service facilities on the way. The British industry has never had a better chance to test its cars conveniently and quickly in matters appertaining to overseas requirements than recently. The M.I.R.A. test ground at Lindley, with its three-mile perimeter circuit, 1.4 miles of Belgian pavé, half-mile of corrugated-concrete, 1-1/2 miles of cross-country track, 200 yards of noise-generating surface, its shallow water splash, its wading trough, its dust tunnel, its 125-ft. radius steering pad, its long-wave pitching track, its 5-in. high sine wave 20-ft. single-bump, and its 5-in. deep sine wave 20-ft. dip, offers admirable testing facilities. Yet not one P.R.O. has written a letter to us about the use his company makes of Lindley, to counter the many letters of complaint we have published of poor springing, cracked chassis frames, useless shock-absorbers and the rest of it. (We note from M.I.R.A.’s seventh annual report that out of 4,070 vehicle-hours logged at Lindley in the last quarter of 1951, 2,100 were accounted for by heavy commercial vehicles.)

Naturally, Motor Sport  is concerned with the success of British cars in races and competitions generally. Here our percentage of successes is satisfactorily high and we take heart from this fine showing of British cars, for it proves that our designers know how to obtain power and performance equal or superior to that of foreign competitors. Alas, the car-buying public proves less ready to be dazzled by race and rally victories. Our gallant attempt to allay the Poske criticisms of high-performance British cars by remarking that after all we had won the Monte Carlo Rally and Le Mans race, instantly brought forth comment from readers to the effect that such cars are known to be specially prepared and that the car-buyer is concerned primarily with how production-models behave in his and her hands. One of the correspondents quoted earlier in this Editorial concludes thus: “Let us banish this Le Mans-winning business, and get down to brass tacks; some of the Coventry-Birmingham gentlemen should thank their lucky stars they don’t live in Russia …! “

Racing and rally successes certainly do sell cars in appreciable numbers, but only if the production cars so sold are satisfactory to the purchasers.

By all means let British manufacturers support competition motoring, but let them set in order their tottering houses, when the boost of a big race or rally victory will be long-lived and not of limited and temporary effect.

Since Mr. Poske’s October outburst was (dare we say, bravely ?) published by Motor Sport, we believe two of our largest manufacturers have sent representatives, post-haste to Peru to investigate the charges against them. This is a sensible and praiseworthy action. But were we informed?  No!  These business and technical emissaries slunk off on their mission with a secretiveness which would have done credit to the “Man Who Never Was” scheme (with apologies to the Sunday Express).

This unhappy tide of criticism from users of British cars overseas springs from facts. We are confident the British industry, if it takes the trouble, can counter the charges and set its house in order. But it must be done today; tomorrow is not soon enough.

As patriotic Englishmen we feel we are only doing our duty in allowing our correspondents to air their grievances for, thus forewarned, the British manufacturers concerned may be persuaded to act. Now it is high time for the P.R.O.s of our leading British companies to climb from their lofty pedestals and, as a change from sending out miles of statistics about sales, specifications, clinical and canteen facilities and the like (figures can be made to prove anything, you know !), use the correspondence columns of Motor Sport  to reassure potential buyers of British cars abroad that more durable vehicles and better service facilities are on the way.

***

Sighs of relief in certain quarters?

Mercedes-Benz have announced that they will not take part in sports-car races this season, as they are well satisfied with the results of 1952 with their still-experimental 300 SL cars and will now concentrate on preparing for 1954 Formula I racing.

***

No racing at Boreham

Those of us, who enjoyed the excellent racing organised last year at Boreham by the W. Essex C.C. will be sorry to learn that this year racing at the Essex circuit is banned. The Daily Mail, which sponsored the big fixtures there in 1952, seems to have withdrawn its support. In consequence, The Motor Racing Company, which is linked with the Greyhound Racing Association, has also ceased to back the W. Essex .C.C., at any rate for the time being.

The company states that it has no objection to races being held at Boreham if the owners of the circuit sanction it, but this the manager of Co-Partnership Farms Ltd., resolutely refuses to permit.

Consequently, the W. Essex C.C. will this season use Snetterton Circuit, retaining the same (provisional) dates as already published for its Boreham fixtures but changing International fixtures to National, the first of which will be on May 30th. The International date of August 1st has been cancelled as clashing with an A.M.O.C. fixture at Snetterton.

The loss of Boreham’s interesting three-mile circuit is a grave reminder that first-line motor races with an International entry cost more money then a club or company can usually find and that if Daily Press backing is withdrawn, so must be the motor racing. We commiserate with the W. Essex C.C. over its unexpected change of plans, very much at the last minute, but feel sure it will stage some excellent racing at Snetterton’s Norfolk circuit nevertheless. (Official  W.Essex C.C. announcement — page 110.) (Web page 12).