The Editor Considers the Position of Britain’s Sports Cars
In the past sports cars from British factories have paid dividends to manufacturers—and their shareholders. With a tough struggle ahead of us for export sales it is opportune to take stock of our 1957 models.
For the purpose of defining a sports car I am going to discard the classic dictum that it is any car through which it is possible to walk wearing a top-hat and substitute the formula that it must he able to out-perform the faster British saloons and that it must have an open body so that its owner can enjoy that excellent tonic, fresh air.
In this Island, where, no matter how brightly shines the sun in Le Touquet or how brown the debutantes are roasting themselves in Nice, we are usually hemmed-in, not only on our roads but by the weather, there is much in favour of a closed car. I am also aware that closed sports/racing cars can be faster than open versions and less fatiguing to drive in long-distance races. But for successful dollar-sales I guess we want sports cars that are both open and able to get away from the sedans.
The American who has tired of his centrally-heated luxury home, his heated swimming pool and his air-conditioned commuting wheeled-boudoir will surely crave the exhilaration of driving an open sports car. If he is addicted to racing he is likely to prefer the freedom and visibility provided by an open cockpit — although we saw a spate of intriguing coupes at Le Mans a couple of years or so ago and although I believe Stirling Moss may drive a Maserati coupe in this year’s Mille Miglia, the trend has not continued, even with full-width screens demanded at Le Mans last year.
We still manufacture open sports models, although their ranks have been decimated in recent years — the latest Singer may go like a Gazelle but it isn’t open to the four winds like the former Roadster. The Sunbeam Alpine hats been replaced by the smaller but slower saloon Rapier. The open two-seater introduced by Alvis after the war has been dropped, which is possibly just as well, because it was more of a prop for elegant girl-models than a sports car. Aston Martin have ceased to make the DB3S, Allards are made only to order, Austin long ago abandoned the A40 Sports and open Rileys are in the p.v.t. category, more’s the pity. The promising post-war H.R.G. hangs fire because no one wants to make it.
Of those British sports cars that remain, how many are sufficiently fast? Once upon a time, when the T.T. took place in Ulster and Bentleys were victorious at Le Mans, any car that could touch “the century” was considered very exciting. Today all manner of comfortable, spacious and luxuriously-equipped saloons do that and more—the 3-litre Alvis, Lagonda, S-series Bentley, 2.4-litre and Mk. VII Jaguar, Bristol 403, Jensen 541, Rover 105, Riley Pathfinder, and the Daimler One-O-Four with built-in make-up set and ladies’ silk umbrella, to name a few. Consequently. to justify its existence and its price, it seems reasonable to demand a maximum of at least 110 m.p.h. before a car earns the title of sports model.
How many of our open cars qualify? Before we start to assess them, let me say a few words about the bogy of comparative prices and restricted engine sizes. Our 100-m.p.h.+ saloons (some may be 100 m.p.h. minus if a strong wind is blowing, but they do “the magic century” as near as makes no odds) have engines of from 2 to 4.9-litres capacity. Our sports cars range from 3.5-litres downwards. We are apt to point out that if their performance falls short of that of the sports models of Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa-Romeo, Lancia, Porsche and Pegaso, so do the prices — far shorter.
Is this of such importance outside the Home Market? In America petrol is cheap, money plentiful. In Italy some are very poor, others very rich, and the specialist sports car firms cater for the latter.
In England, where petrol is scarce as well as expensive and we are heavily taxed on our incomes and what pleasures we can purchase with what is left to us, inexpensive cars are essential. Alas, they are not so essential in dollar markets. In Europe the VW undoubtedly sells because it is cheap; in America it sells in spite of being cheap, because it is pleasingly “different.”
The Sunbeam Rapier, which in two-carburetter form does a genuine 84½ m.p.h., is excellent value for £1,043; to buy here an Alfa-Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce which does 113 m.p.h. with the same size engine you have to pay an additional £2,800. The 1½-litre M.G. MGA sports two-seater can be bought in England for £961. It does just under 100 m.p.h., which is about the speed of a normal Porsche coupe (Porsche think in terms of 120 m.p.h. for their fast models) but the German car costs another £977. That makes a big gulf between these cars at home but is of less importance where the dollars flow freely or the sun shines warmly on the fortunate ones. Then it is more a question of “how fast does it go?” and “does it stick on the road at speed?” than “what does it cost?” and “what does it do to a gallon?”
Accepting the fact that the indignity of heavily-clad occupants in a sports car being beaten from the traffic-lights by a “uniform” driving at big saloon is matched by the exhilaration of reversing this situation, how high should sports-car designers set their sights?
The aforesaid big luxury saloons that exceed the century also reach a mile-a-minute from rest in about 15 sec. and can cover a standing-start ¼ mile in approximately 20 sec. Is it too much to ask that our sports car shall better those figures and out-corner the saloons, as well as being capable of at least 110 m.p.h. when extended? (Personally, unless I could have a sports car to that specification I’d rather forgo the fresh air and motor in closed-car comfort.)
Alas, not many or our cars qualify, built as they are down to prices forced on them by successive Governments that cannot see the vital need for a healthy Home Market. The A.C. Ace may do so with its Bristol power unit, but doesn’t go quite rapidly enough with the A.C. engine, which, let’s face it, was evolved in 1½-litre form 38 years ago and was getting a bit out of breath in the ‘twenties, when Harry Hawker, God rest him, was developing it— even then it needed four valves per cylinder to help it along. I do not think I shall be contradicted in Thames Ditton if I say that when this long-lived engine was introduced to circuit-racing it ran its bearings because the oil surged away from the oil pump. That has been cured and the car goes very well and its rigid ladder-frame has the distinction (for a British car) of all-round independent suspension, achieved, very simply, by Tojeiro transverse leaf-springs and wishbones. I have to judge its roadholding qualities by observation, Jock Henderson, P.R.O., being not only at canny Scot but an expert conjuror, because whenever an Ace has come within reach for road-test Jock has never failed to make it vanish. But it is a nice looking car, and a real sports car, in everything except maximum speed in its 90-b.h.p. form.
The 2.6-litre Austin-Healey 100 Six is likewise too slow, and being heavier than the former Austin-Healey with its big four-cylinder engine, I believe it is out-accelerated by the 1.3-litre Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce. However, Donald Healey has lived with sports cars too long to let it rest there and I feel confident that it won’t be long before hot Healeys are again the order of the day.
Frazer-Nash have never made anything but real sports cars and the latest V8 B.M.W.-engined model lives right up to the A.F.N. tradition.
The race-bred Jaguar is perhaps the greatest of the modern British sports cars. Sir William Lyons, Jaguar Chief, has several attributes that have been responsible for his success, for full employment in his factory when others are on short-shift, and for the sense of contentment and well being that permeate those who hold Jaguar shares and drive Jaguar cars. In the first place he has never been afraid of demonstrating the speed of his cars by officially-timed tests, while being commendably shy of shouting about what his cars will do before they have done it. Then he has used sports-car races both as a testing-ground for the designs of his very able Chief Engineer, Mr. Haines, and to advertise his cars, winning valuable prestige at Le Mans, in the T.T., at Reims and elsewhere. Over and above that, Sir William Lyons has a skilful ability to put on the market cars which are one jump (and sometimes one and a half!) ahead of his competitors in respect of styling, while retaining Jaguar’s world-renowned race-bred qualities of stamina and performance. How he does it at the price—a 2.4-litre, 102-m.p.h., fully-equipped saloon for £1,430 17s. all on, a 129-m.p.h. XK140 coupe for £1,711 17s. ditto—I cannot attempt to explain.
Motor Sport is naturally delighted that these race-bred British Jaguars are so successful. Naturally, there have been troubles. The first of those very beautiful, exceptionally smooth-running, XK120s suffered from severe brake-fade. I recall that I drove one fast for a few miles along winding lanes and the brakes faded so completely that I thought all the fluid had leaked away—until, cool again, they put me into the windscreen. That was soon cured. Then the XK120 coupe didn’t handle properly, but today’s XK140 is a very different car. This article isn’t concerned with coupes but with sports cars and Jaguar offer these in their highest form. The sports/racing D-type is still available and once again Sir William Lyons seems to have had one of his world-beating “hunches” in introducing the Jaguar XK “SS” as an export-only model. It has the 3½-litre Le Mans engine, Dunlop disc brakes, light-alloy knock-on disc wheels, drilled steering wheel and long-range fuel tank but is “civilised” in possessing hood, full-width screen, decent upholstery and trim, luggage grid and bumpers. It retains the classic Jaguar form and sells in America for 6,900 dollars—the now defunct Porsche Spyder, according to a Road and Track road test, cost 6,800 dollars (incidentally, they claimed 121.6 m.p.h., 97.5 in third, 0-60 in 8.2 sec. and a s.s. ¼-mile in 16.1 sec.—my idea of a real sports car!). A real sports car in every sense of the term, the XK “SS” should achieve as great a place in history as did those other great Stuttgart-built “SS” models of yesteryear. Truly, Jaguar occupies today the position held in vintage times by Bentley in the affection of British enthusiasts.
The Cooper-Climax and Lotus-Climax sports cars are what we are after, even with engines of a mere 1,100 c.c., and Colin Chapman’s Lotus can be supplied with disc brakes and de Dion back axle, which makes it an interesting proposition, even in this country, where the Le Mans 75 model sets you back a cool £2,080. Other specialised cars like the Buckler and Fairthorpe should be fast enough if sufficiently powerful engines are available for them.
Obviously the little Berkeley, the Turner, the Morgan 4/4 Series II and the Dellows do not qualify for inclusion, being powered by sober proprietary engines, and the Triumph TR3 would require Le Mans mods. to meet our maximum-speed requirement, although it has the merit of Girling disc brakes on the front wheels. The Morgan Plus Four has the advantage of lightweight construction, which endows this somewhat flimsy car with excellent acceleration, but the Triumph engine does not give it the speed we are seeking.
Those, then, are Britain’s outstanding sports models, which can see off most closed cars and which, if publicised in competitions and backed by a decent sales-service, should continue to sell satisfactorily where people buy their cars with dollars.—W. B.
Products which give satisfaction deserve a few lines. My Timex key-ring watch, which used to dangle from the VW’s ignition-key until petrol rationing caused the car to be virtually laid-up, after which it was transferred to a trousers-pocket, still keeps good time considering its hard life and low price. Its performance would make me trust a Timex wrist or pocket watch if I were in the market for one.
Petrol rationing having caused the Exide battery on the VW, nearly in its third year, to go “flat,” I remembered a 6-volt Oldham Major that might do as a substitute while the Exide was being recharged. This Oldham had been supplied for my 1922 Talbot-Darracq to demonstrate how it could be taken empty from store and would self-charge in half-an-hour after acid had been poured in. It did this admirably but the Talbot is seldom run, had stood for nearly a year without use, nor was the battery emptied as advised when thus mistreating it. However, it seems to have come to no harm and now, after two years, is as good as ever, holding its charge admirably with very little charging and providing a prompt start. I shall let it alternate in future with the reliable Exide.—W. B.
North London E.C.C.
On Sunday, April 14th, this club hopes to organise a meeting of driving tests at Heston Aerodrome, Hounslow, and extends an invitation to members of other clubs to take part, which they may do by effecting sports membership of the N.L.E.C.C. for 2s. 6d. by March 24th at latest (R.A.C. 21-day ruling) to cover one month. They can obtain sports membership application forms and supplementary regulations from G. Bance, 11, Bath Road, Reading.
A Lotus Register
It has been decided to compile a Lotus Register, giving details of every car of this marque in existence. The eventual aim is to collect sufficient information for a publication based somewhat on the same lines as the Bugatti Book.
However, a book of this sort entails a great deal of research and although it is hoped that it will be possible to contact everyone concerned, all Lotus owners are asked to co-operate by sending details of mark, registration and chassis numbers, make and capacity of engine, colour of bodywork, and any notable successes achieved, to Nicholas Syrett, “Newlands,” Spinney Hill, Addlestone, Surrey.
At the council meeting held towards the end of January it was decided that the following meetings should take place at Prescott during the 1957 season.
April 6/7th Testing Weekend.
May 5th National Open Meeting.
June 8/9th Members’ Meeting.
July 27/28th Inter-Club Meeting.
September 8th National Open Meeting.
The National Open Meetings in May and September, when paying spectators are admitted, will be held on a Sunday and the manner of charging admittance to the general public will be announced later.
The council have been encouraged to go ahead with their programme by the fact that during a previous period of petrol rationing some very successful meetings were still held at Prescott.
Hon. Sec.: K. Nightingale, Crescent Copper Works, Edward Street, Birmingham 1.