We Must Progress

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There are people who say they do not want progress, but they are only fooling themselves, for without progress no-one would have invented the wheel, Otto would not have designed his 4-stroke engine cycle, John Boyd Dunlop would not have invented the pneumatic tyre and we would not be enjoying motoring today. What these people mean when they say they don’t want progress is that, they want progress to stop at a certain point that suits their taste with regard to certain things. They may want car design to stop at Edwardian or Vintage times, but they do not want to draw water from a well, use an earth lavatory or read by candlelight. If they are truthful they will admit that it is not so much “progress” that is worrying them, but the “rate of progress”, and their real trouble is that they cannot keep pace with it all. The reaction to this is quite a normal one and that is to develop a fixation on some point in time at which their brain can cope with the “rate of progress.” When only a handful of people were engaged on car design and development the “rate of progress” was relatively slow, but now that many thousands of people are working at the problem the “rate” is much higher. This can be illustrated very easily in the engine-tuning world, in the sphere of special cylinder heads or camshafts. It was not so long ago that there were only one or two people manufacturing special cylinder heads, and they were not very imaginative, but today there are literally hundreds available, all trying to out-do each other, so that the “rate of progress” in cylinder-head modifying and manufacture is forging ahead at a very high rate. The same thing applies throughout the motor car world.

Some firms make progress very slowly, others press on at a great rate, some make big steps every ten or fifteen years, others make continual apparent progress by disguising old components in new clothes or body-shells. On all sides there is progress of some sort, though not all of it is in a forward direction, much of it has a definite sideways bias, and some is even in a backward direction, this last direction being doomed to failure and extinction. Will we ever forget those abortions schemed up by designers described as “Steering column gear-change mechanisms”, or some of the horrible “economy cars” that were built not so long ago? You can have your progress little by little, the way Jaguar do it, this being called “development of a proven design”, the lineage of the XK120 of 1949 being easily discernible in the E-type of 1969, or you can have it in great lumps like Citroën, with the primitive vintage cars that lasted up to the mid-thirties, when the F.W.D. “Traction-Avant” series began, which in turn lasted up to the mid-fifties when the DS series of advanced cars began. Jaguar progress is simple and logical and the “rate of progress” is easily accepted and understood; but Citroën progress which came in a great leap forward unnerved a lot of people who could not cope with the “rate of progress”. They ought to try driving a 1935 “Traction-Avant” today. I await the Citroën step forward of 1975 with eager anticipation.

Technical progress is going on all the time and while some thinkers are way ahead of the rest of the world, some are so far ahead that we cannot take them seriously, but we should. A progressive motor empire should channel these brains into “advanced-thinking departments” in the hope that the firm will eventually progress enough to absorb some of the discarded thoughts from these advanced thinkers. This is, in fact, being done and it is always exciting to meet young engineering and design students who are working on “advanced thinking” for firms such as Ford (England) or Rootes, even though to look at the products offered for sale would not make you believe this. In January I wrote a story about an Advanced Vehicle Project from the Rover factory, showing that the cars of the 1970s that we are going to want, need not emanate from Italy, Japan or America, but can be born in the Midlands of Great Britain. This particular Rover was the mid-engined 3½-litre V8, a thoroughly usable and practical car with the docility and performance of an E-type. Mid-engined GT cars are one facet of design that is fast coming into everyday use and it cannot be long before a big quality-manufacturer produces such a vehicle at a normal price, and when he does the “Vintage style” GT cars, such as Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ferrari, etc., will become obsolete overnight. There are plenty of these type of cars available already, but in very limited production and at an exotic price, with negligible service and spares network. It was probably Eric Broadley who first convinced the world about the future of GT cars, when he produced that wonderful little Lola coupé, in 1963, with a V8 engine in the middle. This was the new conception of GT motoring we all said, and Ford proved it by turning the Lola into the race winning GT40 and subsequent road car. Lamborghini, Ferrari, and de Tomaso have all produced mid-engined road cars, the Mangusta from the last named manufacturer now being in quite large production for such an expensive motor car, but all these cost over £6,000 and are not yet in the everyday practical consumer category. In the smaller and not such high performance category Lotus offer the Europa, and Matra the V4 Taunus-engined Model 530, while there are numerous very-small-production cars based around Mini components available. I always felt that Porsche could have put the mid-engined 904 racing coupé into limited production as a road-going GT car, but by then they were committed along the 911 path, with the engine behind the rear axle, a position that is fast becoming as obsolete as putting it in the front of the car. You only have to study sports-car racing over the past few years to see where the engine should be for the ultimate in road-holding and performance. The converting of racing practice into everyday road practice will come, and it must be with us by the 1970s. Jaguar’s development of the C-type and D-type into the E-type, and Ferrari’s development of the original 250GT Europa, through the GTO to the GTB, both show the obvious logical development and this thinking must continue, even if neither of those firms are able to do it.

In Italy experimental projects to test public reaction are regular happenings and the Italian motor industry encourage this by giving such cars and designs space at their Turin Motor Show. In Great Britain the S.M.M.T. gives no encouragement to the individualist who is trying to formulate new ideas, so that one-off styling or engineering exercises to test reaction have no place at Earls Court, and even the Racing Car Show has difficulties. While the Earls Court Motor Show was in progress a one-off experimental car, bristling with interesting features and new ideas, was on show in a big London department store. This was the Ikenga, designed by David Gittens, and built around a McLaren-Elva Group 7 chassis. It featured such things as pneumatic operation of the cockpit top, for ease of entry, over-riding mechanical operation if the pneumatics failed, closed-circuit television for rearward vision, large luggage-carrying capacity behind the rear axle assembly, a “swing-away” steering wheel, and other interesting features. The body shape and finish were such that if Bertone or Farina had designed and built it people would have drooled over it at Turin or Geneva. Because it was designed in London by Gittens and built in North London by Williams and Pritchard, a lot of people could not be bothered to look at it, but it was their loss, not the Ikenga’s.

At the Racing Car Show, on the Marcos stand, there was an experimental car from the agile brains of the Adams brothers, Dennis and Peter, from Bradford-on-Avon in the West Country. One interesting feature of this car was the idea of getting in and out, very experimental on this first model, but being enlarged upon in the second one. With roof lines getting lower and lower as driving positions become more and more reclining, coupé bodies present increasing difficulties as regards doors. Already on GT40s, Miuras and the like it is a ease of “down-on-hands-and-knees” to get in. The idea that Dennis Adams is working on is to get in through the roof. That sounds odd, I know, but if the roof is 35 inches off the ground and you can make it slide back, taking part of the side of the cockpit with it, the problem of getting in is no more strenuous than getting into a vintage sports car with a cut-away bodyside and no door. It is a simple question of dropping the concept of “getting down, in and up”, as we do now on coupés, and thinking in terms of getting “over and down”. Like Gittens and his Ikenga, the Adams and their Probe 15 find the way ahead full of antipathy and unhelpful criticism, principally because they come from London and the West Country. If they came from Turin or Modena they would probably be hailed as brilliant designers.

Also at the Racing Car Show was an interesting one-off car that could easily mark another step forward towards the new GT motoring. Like the Rover BS coupé this was purely a research vehicle and comprised a lengthened Lotus 47 mid-engined coupé with a 3½-litre Rover V8 engine squeezed into the engine compartment. It was built by special arrangement with Lotus for the GKN Industrial Group as a high-speed test vehicle. At one time, GKN, or Guest, Keen and Nettlefold, used to mean nuts and bolts and wood screws, but today it comprises a vast engineering empire supplying bearings through Vandervell Products Ltd., castings through Kent Alloys Ltd., shafts and joints through BirfieId Transmissions, forgings through GKN Forging Ltd., pressing through GKN Sankey Ltd., special alloys for cylinder heads, etc., through BKL Alloys Ltd., and a myriad of bolts, clips, fasteners, stainless steel parts, filter parts, steering ball-pins and so on. The GKN Group of Companies supply a remarkable number of components to our Motor Industry and this special Lotus 47, fully equipped for road use, will be at the disposal of the various parts of the Group for test purposes. Without question it was one of the most exciting and desirable cars at the Racing Show Car, but like so many “specials” it is a one-off and not for sale. It is registered GKN 47D, so if you come up behind it in traffic don’t try and keep up when the road clears, for though it looks like a normal Lotus 47 or Europa, it has a Rover V8 engine in the back, and should out-perform most other road cars.

Almost every way that you turn you find exciting new cars or experimental projects, and though we may be stuck with Ford’s idea of an exciting new car in the over-publicised Capri, I can’t help feeling that new conceptions must come soon. We are on the threshold of the 1970s and all around us people are bubbling over with new ideas, much of the thinking closely allied to racing. In 1965 I could do 150 m.p.h. down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans in a production car that was virtually the 1955 Le Mans winner. I want to do 165 m.p.h. on the same stretch of road in 1976 in what will be virtually a production version of the 1966 winner. We must progress and I feel sure that is the way we are progressing.–D. S. J.

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