With everyone in this sad country compelled to drive at no more than 50 m.p.h. and drivers feather-footing it in an endeavour to make every expensive gallon of petrol take them as far as possible, it is amusing to think how such a speed restriction would have been greeted in pre-war days. There was an overall 20 m.p.h. in the vintage years, it is true. But towards the end of them it was not very often enforced and there was nothing on the National conscience to ensure that a pedestrian pace was observed. Later came the glorious freedom of the open road, but the distinct chance of being trapped if you exceeded 30 m.p.h. in built-up areas. It is droll that today—or shall we say before the need to conserve fuel ?—with cars that much safer and easier to control, and not one of them unable to reach 70 m.p.h. if we except the economy tinies, we are not legally entitled to go over 70!
Although 50 m.p.h. was pretty slow even for most of the pre-war cars, their acceleration was often so pathetic that this furious speed would have been difficult to reach on the average twisty road of the times For instance, it has to be realised that it took 20 seconds for the Trojan to increase its pace from 10 to 30 m.p.h., in which time the 12/60 Alvis of but a few years later, of roughly the same engine size and the heavier car, could get to twice the speed in the same time. To get such pedestrianism in some kind of perspective, a brand-new Austin 12/6, bought in 1931, would have taken fractionally longer to go from rest to 48 m.p.h., its top speed, than the 1974 Fiat 126 from Turin needs to accomplish 60 m.p.h., and there is a little more speed to come, from the tiddler. The 1935 Austin 10/4 did better than its six-cylinder cousin, by a matter of eight seconds, to get to the full 50 m.p.h., so perhaps it is not surprising that Austin’s are said to have sold their surplus stock of 12/6s to a cigarette firm, to be given away as competition prizes, so that it was known in the Trade as “the Kensitas Car”!
The Citroen Big Twelve of 1935 was not much more accelerative than the unhappy six pot Austin and an all-time low seemed to have been scored in the pre-war 0-50 m.p.h. stakes by the 1937 Austin Ruby (58 sec.), until I noticed that the Fiat 500 of 1937 required 63.6 sec.; but there was a difference of 177 c.c. in swept volume. In comparison, the nice little Morris Eight two-seater of 1935 was distinctly a goer—time from 0-50 m.p.h., 32.6 sec. And the 1934 version was even more agile, if con temporary figures are correct. However, I have got drawn again into this matter of how sedately pre-war cars picked up speed only to emphasise my point that even those which could exceed the prevailing 1974 speed-limit of 50 m.p.h. were unlikely to have attained this with any frequency, unless unimpeded along the then-new by-pass roads, due to the very long time it took to get there!
Were there, in fact, other cars besides the Austin 12/6 which would not so much as do the galloping fifties ? Well, the Trojan, flat-out at 36 m.p.h., of course, and there was a time when the Austin Ruby saloon that was lent to a motor journal for appraisal clocked only 51 m.p.h. At the end of the vintage era the 7 h.p. Jowett saloon would not clock more than 47.37 m.p.h., the Singer Junior saloon only 45 m.p.h., or the Swift Ten saloon do as much as 52 m.p.h., when timed over the Brooklands quarter-mile. It is said that there is no substitute for a big engine and at this time there was not an American car which did not reach 60 or more m.p.h. when tested comparatively, the slowest being the Essex saloon, which had by far the smallest (2.6-litre) engine but would just clock the mile-a-minute gait. There were, however, some 1930 cars from across the Channel which were less quick—for instance, the 52 m.p.h. Peugeot Ten saloon and the 54.7 m.p.h. 10/30 Fiat saloon.
Just in case the foregoing examples cause the 30s/40s exponents to say how pedestrian are vintage cars, let us look at similar figures appertaining to 1937 models, of the kind which are now pressing to be recognised as “Milestone motors”. Performance should have improved after seven years, but the Austin Ruby saloon could not even attain 53 m.p.h., the Morris Eight was only able to reach 56 m.p.h., and the BSA Scout which called itself a sports car, was timed at only 64.3/4 m.p.h. At this period there wasn’t an American car which wasn’t good for well over 70 m.p.h. and the foreigners were decently fast by the standards of 37 years ago. For instance, apart from the 570 c.c. £120 Fiat “Topolino”, flat-out at 53 m.p.h., even the oil-engined MercedesBenz would tramp along at 56.1/4 m.p.h., and the Opel Kadett saloon, costing here only a fiver more than a “Mickey Mouse” Fiat, could be worked up to just about 60 m.p.h.
Let me be honest and say that these interesting and revealing figures come from The Autocar—and how sad it is that Britain’s first motoring weekly, which was published before the Emancipation Run of 1896 and which contrived to come out during both World Wars has been put out of circulation (temporarily, we hope) by the Industrial unrest of the 1970s.—W. B.