Matters of moment, March 1974

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Best buy?

The present fuel shortage, industrial crisis and world unrest has had a significant effect on those who regard motoring as a way of life as well as convenience of private transportation and an essential business adjunct. There is all this crawling about at a pathetic 50 m.p.h. maximum, the uncertainty, at all events until recently, of being able to obtain sufficient petrol with which to complete a journey of any length, and the continual elevation of prices to startling high levels.

Then there is the RAC’s adamant 20% restriction on motoring sport.

All these factors must have an influence on the motoring scene. Under the present depressing circumstances it becomes a matter of what is the “Best Buy”, in Consumer Association parlance, in the motor-car field. Sales of new cars are bound to diminish, perhaps almost to vanishing point, especially while the threat of petrol rationing persists. And few of us are so carefree with our money or so financially well endowed as to want a new car, particularly an expensive high-performance one, if it cannot be driven at more than a crawl without the fear of licence endorsement or confiscation. Restricted usage, due to the cost if not the rationing of fuel, means that their existing cars will do quite nicely for a large proportion of the private-car population.

Moreover, businesses which are due to replace expense-account cars or fleets of vehicles can be expected to look for different kinds of vehicles than formerly. Executives are said to be turning to luxury small-cars, like the Triumph Dolomite Sprint, so that 30 m.p.g. will be allied to some of the creature-comforts they have become accustomed to. So there could well arrive, if present problems are not soon cured by the determined efforts of Mr. Heath, a fresh race of such cars – compact, economical, quiet and comfortable and, need we add, decently accelerative, up to 50 m.p.h.! It can be done. Some years ago we were able to effect a by no means painful transition from a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, then Crewe’s top-model, to a Vanden Plas 1100, because the latter small car possessed considerable affinity with the larger and more costly one in several important aspects.

So far as the pre-1931 movement is concerned, one expects the very expensive big cars in a speculator’s market to be largely unaffected because, like antiques of all kinds, an economic slump enhances such possessions, if they can be hung on to. The pre-1914 Silver Ghost is more cumbersome to preserve in this context than a Renoir. But those who gamble in this fashion seem to have ample heated garaging! As for those who enjoy actually using vintage and earlier motor-cars, apart from such restrictions as the VSCC and other organising Clubs may be forced to observe, either compulsorily or ethically, life will presumably continue much as before, although the Light Car Section of the VSCC and the various Austin Seven organisations must be feeling happily smug!

Coming to the question of what to purchase if anyone is inclined to acquire another car in the prevailing chilly climate, there is some argument for going for a suitably fuel-conserving used car, for modern vehicles assembled during a troubled, strike-shadowed three-day week may not be very reliable, while the addition of VAT imposes a heavy financial burden on the purchaser. Those buying new cars, from dire necessity or as a courageous flag-waving undertaking on a par with the Union Jack-flying inspired by the Doily Express, can be expected to shop small, in the Mini Minor and Fiat 126 class. There has, we are told, been a boom in production of the British Mini, news we would welcome if Lord Stokes had not assured us that these fine little motors are sold at a loss by British Leyland.

The prevailing world calamity is not likely to blow away overnight, like the roofs of certain brand-new jerry-built houses. So there is much sense in the announced investigations by Porsche into a long-life car. They showed such an experiment at last year’s Frankfurt Show. Some time ago we heard, from Citroen and others, about ideals concerning engines which would run without needing to be opened-up for 200,000 miles or so. This seemed fine, and perhaps even obtainable, but of less moment when it was remembered that the unhappy shell into which such perfect power units would be installed would not endure for anything like as long.

Salt corrosion from winter roads, the Demon Rust ever hungry in damp climates, and general mechanical wear and tear, soon put paid to the framework of the modern car even though its engine spins merrily. So what is wanted is a long-life power unit in a long-life car. Porsche go further and look not only for twice the present life-span but for 50% less scrap at the end of it, seeing disposal of old car hulks as a problem alongside those of atmosphericpollution and accident-safety. They hope to achieve such results for only 30% extra cost.

Motoring history is studded with creditable attempts to sell long-life cars. The Model-T Ford, because it was made of high-quality steels and was of simple, unstressed design with a foolproof transmission, paved the way and has, indeed, never quite been surpassed in this field. The Austin 7 was a rugged baby, which would continue to run until the last vestige of compression left its diminutive cylinders because the bores had worn oval or the minute valves had burnt away; unless dirt in the oiling jets had first destroyed the big-ends! The old sidevalve, transverse-sprung Ford Populars and Prefects were about the least complicated of all cars, so lasted well, if pursued like so many unitary-construction layouts by the Demon Rust. Ford unfortunately economised on spring leaves; the opposite to Lanchester, who had expensively made their own. Then the Volkswagen Beetle went some way towards the high-reliability, indestructible, universal automobile, eventually selling in numbers of which Henry Ford could have been proud. You now see Beetles the world over, from shiny well-cared-for examples to decrepit but still-serving ones, which endorses the likeness between Model-T and VW, in the era before both companies became more ambitious. American cars of the post-vintage/ pre-war period were excellent examples of the longevity theme, with their lightly-loaded multi-litre power-packs and sturdy bodywork, the simple side-valve Chevrolet known as the “Stove-Bolt Six” (or “Cast-Iron Wonder”) epitomising this trend.

So it is worth listening to what Porsche has proposed, in a category strangely far-removed from their normal high-performance work it must be emphasised, purely as a long-term research exercise. They visualise a rear-mounted, air-cooled 21-litre engine with hydraulic tappets, developing an effortlessly-achieved 75 b.h.p. at 3,600 r.p.m., in a medium-size saloon. Apart from the tappets requiring no adjustment by human hands, durability would be enhanced by large-area bearings, high-efficiency air filtration, and optimum oil purification – assisted by the excellence of modern oils, of course. Porsche see the need, also, to fit a corrosion-proof exhaust system and to ensure that their “everlasting” engine attains working temperatures with promptitude. They extend to the car the same sort of treatment as they suggest for its engine. Apart from a simple automatic (or semi-automatic) transmission, they speak of lightly-stressed suspension, sealed moving parts, shock-absorbers of good quality, special corrosion-free materials for brake lines and brake discs, deep-tread radial-ply tyres, and foam-injection of all vulnerable underparts. The body they see as constructed of either aluminium or stainless steel (or a combination of both), plastics being a problem from the disposability aspect at the end of the car’s 180,000 miles’ or 20 years’ service. Great care would be taken to eliminate ignition troubles and electrical failures.

This is certainly the way the customers may want things for the rest of the 1970s and during the 1980s. Meanwhile, have you noticed how VW are again advertising, in a big way, the basic Beetle, a car that stems from the Porsche design going back some four decades?

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