In which the Deputy Editor reviews his 1979 motoring activities
It doesn’t feel as if a year has passed since I last wrote this annual review, and looking back through my diary for this flash of time I wonder how I have managed to fit in the long list of cars driven, the countries and events visited, the production of 12 issues of this magazine and a semblance of relatively normal life as well. I confess to fighting shy of this regular feature, for much as D.S.J. feels that events of the ’50s were too recent to be worth recounting, I’m more realistically inclined to that view about the last 12 months. However, no year is bereft of exciting experiences in this job, though some years are remembered as a better vintage than others; 1979 had its moments, but on the whole it was a so-so year, unenlivened by any serious competition activities and with few outstanding new cars to titillate my fancy.
Indeed, a major problem to motoring journalists today is that so many ordinary production cars are so good and do most things so well that outright criticism, let alone critical comparison, becomes extremely difficult. This fits in with D.S.J’s theory of “Euro . . . boxes” mentioned elsewhere in this issue, all looking alike and performing alike. It is a cynic’s view which doesn’t entirely hold true, but it is a fact that regulations force manufacturers to comply with certain common standards and their market research and computer calculations often come up with similar answers and similar products, at least for the mass market. On the whole the customer benefits because such competition ensures few bad eggs amongst the many. Standards of ride, comfort, equipment, economy and performance in bread-and-butter fussily cars have improved out of all recognition over the last few years, even if this has meant a loss of character us individual makes. Efficiency is the name of the car designing business today and because of this we have a phenomenon which most motoring critics declared impossible with the coming of more restrictive speed limits and the energy crisis; model for model most cars handle better and are both faster and more economical than their direct predecessors, a reversal of the trends we saw a few years ago.
All this is by way of leading up to my pet hobby horse for this year’s review. In the light of these advances in design and engineering it is sad that BL, the backbone of the UK motor industry and a mainstay of our economy, seems to have fallen behind every manufacturer in Europe in terms of product planning, product development and consequently product desirability. Apart from Jaguars and Rovers at the top of the pyramid, the BL range is largely a mess of ageing, unsophisticated, almost antiquated products which aren’t in the same ball park as most of the competition from Europe — including Ford UK — or Japan. It is no use bleating “Buy British” if the goods won’t stand comparison.
BL’s shortage of competitive new products and the dwindling market share has undoubtedly been compounded by lack of capital investment and continual industrial disruption. But in my opinion a large contributory factor has been a complete lack of management foresight and grasp of the market. Take for instance the gross over-estimate of demand for the SD1 Rovers. This two-box hatchback is an excellent car, but did it not strike anybody at BL that many people continue to prefer a three-box conventional vehicle in this so-called “executive” class? By ignoring directly-comparable replacements for the conventional P6 Rover and Triumph 2000/2500, complementary to the SD1, BL opened the floodgates to Volvo, Audi, Ford, BMW et al, and one doesn’t have to know much about the motor industry to judge how successful they are.
I hope that the introduction this year of the Mini Metro will be the start of a new era for BL and that their product planners will be allowed to keep pace with the rest of the world’s motor industry.
However, BL can take heart from the fact that product planners and designers backed by one of the largest and most successful motor manufacturers can still come up with rubbish. My Lemon Award for worst car tested during the year goes to the Ford Motor Co. in Detroit for their Ford Mustang Ghia Turbo, a car so lacking in performance, quality of manufacture, practicality and refinement that I can’t understand how it passed the UK Type Approval tests, let alone why Ford spent a fortune in making sure it did.
Thank goodness that my year began on a much more inspiring note, with a BMW 635CSi, the satisfyingly brutish and fast, be-spoilered coupe which BMW delivered in place of the rather unsatisfactory 323i mentioned in last year’s notes. This 218 b.h.p., 140 m.p.h. car marks a return to the taut, responsive, sporting motoring almost abandoned by BMW after the demise of the 3.0CSL. With the help of a close-ratio five-speed gearbox, its 3.5-litre engine boosts 1½ tons from 0-60 m.p.h. in 7.5 sec. and to 100 m.p.h. in 20 sec., sizzling performance which is matched by excellent and enjoyable handling, considerably improved over the 633CSi thanks to uprated suspension and a limited slip differential. Sheer performance is balanced by pleasing flexibility and the classical smoothness of a short-stroke “six”. Higher gearing makes the 635 much less fussy than earlier big BMWs. Beautifully styled and finished and ergonomically excellent. the 635CSi is a most desirable, if very expensive, luxury sports coupe. Since the test, for the 1980 model year in fact, BMW GB, now wholly owned by the Munich factory, have revised the coupe range on the UK market, The 633CSi has been dropped and the 635CSi is offered in a variety of specifications: with a choice of close-ratio five-speed or overdrive ratio five-speed manual gearbox the latter with conventional selection pattern), or automatic, and with or without spoilers.
Almost from the sublime to the ridiculous, I stepped out of the 635CSi in the Standard House car park directly into a bright orange Fiat 127 Sport, a precocious little hatchback with a high-revving, Weberised, 1,049 c.c., s.o.h.c., 70 b.h.p. engine which will buzz this three-door hatchback up to 100 m.p.h. And buzz is the word, as the tachometer swings round to 7,200 r.p.m., but great fun to drive, with kart-like handling, direct steering and good brakes. A fun rural run-about or commuting car, alas with nasty flat spots, poor cold starting and a rubbery gearchange.
Much more suited to my kind of motoring was the Fiat Mirafiori Sport which followed sometime later. The Sport tag is well deserved, for this two-door, 1,995 c.c., 115 b.h.p., four cylinder, twin-cam engined basis of the World Rally Championship 131 Abarths, is both quick and possessed of the most delightful handling. Taut, forgiving and almost roll-free, the 112 m.p.h. Mirafiori Sport can be chucked around like a good rally car, its mettle controlled by Pirelli P6 tyres. Nicely trimmed and with extraordinarily powerful Carello headlights, this Fiat is rather garish in appearance and noisy in operation, but will please any enthusiastic driver. The test car broke reverse gear.
Another Fiat to come my way during the year was the latest version of the brilliant mid-engined X1/9, which I had rated so highly, in my road test in 1977. I am disappointed to say that this 1,500 c.c., five-speed model did not appeal so much as that early, 1,300 c.c., four-speed car. Certainly it gets along a lot more quickly, with some 85 b.h.p. available from its longer stroke, Ritmo type engine, and is more relaxed at high speed, but the engine is not so sweet and the gearchange on the test car was pretty awful. Nor did that car feel to handle so well as the old model. The facia layout has been improved, but the revised seats seem less comfortable than the old. What has broken the spell for me is the adoption of American type bumpers. Not only do they ruin the pretty lines, they add five-inches to the length. Was it really necessary to spoil this Targa-topped little pearl in Europe for the sake of Transatlantic ideals? Still a desirable and brilliantly-designed sports car, however.
On the subject of mid-engined cars, before the month of January was out and in the most unsuitable conditions of snow and ice, Lotus at last gave me a crack at the Esprit S2. There were problems, like a “duff” starter motor which kept me all night at a party and almost made me miss a flight to the Renault 18 launch in St. Tropez, and criticisms like a lack of refinement in engine noise and harshness. But otherwise what a tremendously rewarding and exciting car to drive, with possibly the best balanced, most forgiving handling of any mid-engined car in current production, so responsive too to opposite lock correction in the snow and communicative through the seat of the pants. Roadholding in the dry is phenomenal, brakes impressive and performance from its all-aluminium, 1,973 c.c., d.o.h.c., 16-valve, 160 b.h.p, engine quite exceptional if the engine is revved to exacerbate the noise failings. The Esprit fits like a glove, goes like hell, is impracticable yet so enjoyable that all its failings can be forgiven.
It was nice to be able to heap praise on another British car too, this time a modified one, the Janspeed Rover 3500 Turbo, with a Rotomaster turbocharger and SU carburetter attached to each bank of its V8. Janos Odor had upped the Rover’s power output by some 40 per cent, and mixed astonishing mid-range performance and a top speed of approaching 140 m.p.h. with uncanny flexibility and smoothness. A remarkably good, bolt-on conversion. There was refinement too from the elegant Peugeot 604Ti, in this five-speed guise a deceptively fast and long-legged performer, so flexible as to be almost a three-gear car, so probably best bought as an automatic. Bosch K-Jetronic injection fuels the gruff, 144 b.h.p. V6, which will spur this so-comfortable big saloon, with a ride and handling combination close to that of the XJ6, to 60 m.p.h. from rest in just over 9 sec. It is exceptionally economical for its size — I got 22¾ m.p.g. overall — and very well equipped, at a most realistic price.
I have always admired the good looks of the Lancia Beta Coupe and even more the HPE, but the latest revised 2000 HPE in which my wife and I gave that so very brave, modest and fascinating aviator Sheila Scott a lift to the opening of Paul Huxford’s new Ferrari dealership in Fareham, was a disappointingly rough, yet almost brand-new, example. I sent it back for an engine mounting to be put in order and in the meantime ran a 1300 Beta Coupe, a most entertaining car, its shorter-stroke twin-cam engine so much sweeter and free-revving than the bigger engines and with remarkable performance from 82 b.h.p., The handling seemed livelier than the bigger Coupes and HPEs. The only external difference is the choice of 5J steel wheels in place of the other models 5½J alloy wheels.
Another advantage this sporty little coupe has over its bigger brothers is the lack of torque reaction through the front wheels, so noticeable when the 2000 HPE was returned to me. It is a great pity that the power steering offered on l.h.d. 2000 models will not fit the r.h.d. cars, because it damps out all that unfavourable reaction. Even after repair the 2000 HPE felt a little rough and inferior in the handling department to others I have driven. Possibly a Friday car? These latest coupes have revised facias with tidier instrumentation, except for an invisible digital clock, improved switchgear and very tasteful tweedy trim. Electronic ignition, a thermostatic control for the air cleaner and a so-called “vacuum controlled power valve” on the carburetter are among the under-bonnet changes. The 2000 Coupes and HPEs have steel sunroofs as standard.
I can’t remember whether it was because of the Lancia’s engine mounting or because the sun was shining, but I chose to take my Alfa Romeo 2000 Spider Veloce to visit the Jaguar factory at Browns Lane, Coventry, with W.B. Our purpose was to try the new Series III XJ 4.2 and 5.3, about which I can only reiterate that they are the smoothest, quietest and most refined cars in the world, the 4.2 vastly improved by its more powerful PI engine. The blame for the subsequent lack of a full road test lies entirely on my shoulders, for BL’s ever helpful Jenni Raby has frequently offered a test car, but I have kept delaying on the basis that I would like to use it on a suitable long Continental trip, much as I did with the XJ-S a few years ago. Having acknowledged this, I must do something about it! As always we spent a fascinating day at the unique plant, lunched by MD Bob Knight and guided by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic Andrew Whyte, whose services at Jaguar will be sadly missed by we journalists now he has quit to join us on our side of the fence.
Later the same week I flew to Dijon to drive a variety of new Colts in shifts back to England, of which the most notable was the innovative 1400GLX Hatchback, with unique “Super Shift” two-range transmission giving eight forward gears. A normal gear lever controls the four forward speeds, while a separate control offers a choice of “power” or “economy” — low and high ratios. With deft movements of both levers it’s possible to whizz up and down through all eight ratios, but that isn’t the point. It sounds very complicated, but actually functions efficiently and simply. This chubby little hatchback gets along quite well thanks to an efficient, 1,410 c.c.. s.o.h.c., transversely mounted engine driving its front wheels, but its ride is choppy and the seat cushions too short. I tried too the 2-litre Sigma Estate, a good looking, well-appointed and nicely finished load carrier with five gears and Colt’s smooth, four-cylinder, “Astron 80” Balancer engine, but Guild of Motoring Writers’ Chairman and AMOC member Tom Leake and I had most fun and a remarkably fast, vintage style drive from south of Paris to the Channel coast in a Mitsubishi L200 “One Tonne” pick-up. I don’t think Colt Director Jack Morris-Marshan will ever forget his fight to keep up with that swinging, bouncing tailgate in his sporting Colt Sapporo 2000 GSR Coupé!
An Alfasud 1.5 Super spent a week in my hands, but was later written up by W.B. after a spell with him in Wales. I can’t miss this opportunity to say what an outstanding car the Sud has become with the torquey, crisp and full of character, 1½-litre flat four. The combination of outstanding chassis behaviour, subdued road and wind noise (better than many big, expensive cars), ride comfort, the nifty five-speed gearbox and the bigger engine makes this four-door Sud — or the two-door Ti — something of a bargain.
After many attempts Motor Sport at last obtained a Triumph TR7, one of the first in come off the new line at Canley, Coventry, and said to incorporate many improvements. I was unimpressed. The TR7 is very much a saloon dressed up as a sports car and to that end has a most comfortable and well-appointed two-seater cockpit and is quite pleasant and easy to drive when not pressing on. Show it a corner at any sort of speed, however, and it becomes flustered, wallowing and pitching and badly upset by bumps, yet with reasonable roadholding. The rear axle bottoms all too easily. Performance is good, with 0-60 in a little over 10 sec. and a 110 m.p.h. maximum, but what could be a good high-speed cruising ability in the fifth gear of its very pleasant Rover SD1 gearbox, is marred by mild vibration. The engine is rough and noisy when persuaded to work hard, there is some annoying transmission whine and sympathetic body boom periods occur above 4,000 r. p.m. All right around town maybe, but not a car for serious, press-on motoring. Far better to buy an RS2000 or Golf GTi at a similar price. The convertible model, due out in the UK within the next few weeks, should make more sense.
I used the TR7 to travel down to Bill Lake’s beautiful home in rural Surrey, to keep a date with W.B. and Lake’s glorious 1922 Grand Prix Sunbeam. It was more of a day out for me, at the behest of W.B., who was doing the work, and quite unexpectedly entertaining. Somehow I managed to squeeze into the tiny mechanic’s-seat alongside W.B. for a memorable and windswept ride in the Sunbeam, whose history he chronicled so thoroughly in the June issue. That wasn’t all. As the sun was still shining on this May day after W.B. and the photographer had left, Bill decided we should have ourselves a bit more motoring fun. “Would you like a run in the C-type?” followed by, “What shall we try next — the DB3S perhaps?” as we surveyed his enviable collection. What could I say? So the Surrey lanes, freshly whipped by the blast from the Grand Prix Sunbeam echoed to the deep boom of the Jaguar’s exhausts as I had my first drive in a C-type. Not just any Jaguar C-type mind you, an ex-Ecurie Ecosse car impeccably restored in appropriate colours. The Aston Martin DB3S is an immaculate production model and made an interesting comparison with the Midland Motor Museum’s ex-works car I tested in 1978: standard drum brakes against disc; single-plug cylinder head against twin. I was surprised how inferior the production car felt in performance, handling and especially braking to the works car, even on the road, though still a marvellously exciting and very beautiful sports car.
On to less charismatic, though nonetheless entertaining machinery, I found myself the rather unwilling focal point of attention in the somewhat vulgarly ostentatious, velvet-trimmed, metalflake finished, Rapport Turbo Range-Rover. Ignoring this non-compulsory customising, this turbocharged, Fairey overdrive-fitted machine was splendid. I’m a great fan of Range-Rovers in any case and this single-turbo example was a revelation, with a top speed of 110-112 m.p.h., 0-60 in 11.3 sec., considerably improved mid-range acceleration and low speed punch and the ability to make full use of the overdrive top gear.
Later in the year the introduction of a face-lifted Range-Rover gave we the chance to try the full off-road capabilities of the Solihull marvel. I spent the day charging round BL’s development course in the jungle-like terrain at Eastnor Castle and came away almost stunned with disbelief at the vehicle’s ability to conquer slimy 1 in 2 slopes, deep, mud-filled craters, giant tree roots and other indescribable conditions. I tried my hand in both six-cylinder and V8 Land-Rovers too, but it was the performance of the Range-Rover, which tackled everything with quiet and unflustered disdain, which really impressed.
Since I discovered Ferraris I’ve endeavoured not to pass by any opportunities to sit behind their wheels and from that point of view 1979 was a good year. On a dull day at Silverstone last April I tried the comparative circuit merits of Vic Norman’s 250GT SWB Lightweight Berlinetta, Nick Mason’s ex-Ecurie Francorchamps 250GTO, and Mike Neilan’s ex-Maranello Concessionaires and JCB Group 4 Daytona, an interesting exercise in progressive development of the competition Ferrari Berlinettas. Sometime later Vic Norman loaned me the 250GT SWB for a fortnight, involved in which was an exercise to collect Stirling Moss from his Mayfair home to take him across to a promotion in the East End. I passengered on the way across, whilst a bright-eyed Moss relished every minute of his re-acquaintance with a type of Ferrari in which he had so much success. He confessed that the model was one of his favourite cars and wished in retrospect that he had bought and kept one of his famous Rob Walker cars. By coincidence, Norman has since obtained and begun to rebuild to original specification the second of those two cars, Moss’s 1961 TT winner, which was later rebodied by Drogo for Chris Kerrison. My Ferrari year ended in the splendour of a 400i Automatic, road tested in the December issue.
The year was one for making acquaintance with and acquiring enthusiasm for Bugattis, too, firstly with Mason’s fine type 35B in that Silverstone test session, its eight cylinders gloriously on song, its behaviour on the GP circuit far less dated that I had expected. Incidentally, I did an injustice in the story at the time, crediting Gordon Allen with the production of this 35B’s complex new roller-bearing crankshaft, when the Brineton Engineering Co. Ltd. of Walsall should have taken the credit. On that same Silverstone occasion I also tried Steve O’Rourke’s 450 plus b.h.p., Modsports Jaguar V12 E-type, a very light car which Michael Cane has sorted extremely well, but to which I was unable to do justice thanks to a driving position made for a 6′ plus O’Rourke and slick tyres in the rain.
Reverting to Bugattis, I went with W.B. to the Press Test Day in Hertfordshire, organised by the so trusting and generous members of the BOC as a prelude to the Amazing (as indeed it was) Bugattis Exhibition. W.B. described the day and the cars at the time and there is insufficient space to deal with them all again here. Suffice to say that I drove four straight-eights: Geoffrey St. John’s 1933 Type 55, Barrie Price’s 1936 Type 57 Roadster and 1925 Type 35 racer (the latter on Bovingdon Airfield), and Hugh Conway’s 1928 Type 43, rounding off the day with a pretty little 1½-litre, 1924 Type 23 Brescia, down a little on compression on two of its four cylinders, which owner David Sewell had driven all the way from Derby for our benefit. Of the road cars I enjoyed the attractive Type 55 most of all, its Super Roadster body powered by a 145 b.h.p., d.o.h.c. Type 51 engine.
At a pleasant Press Day at Goodwood House, Mercedes-Benz introduced their T-series estate car to the UK market and subsequently Erik Johnson kindly loaned me the top model from this fine range, the 280 TE, for a few days, mainly to collect four fashion-conscious ladies and an unbelievable amount of luggage from Heathrow. It swallowed them all with consummate ease, while its so smooth luxury soothed these weary souls after their long-haul flight. As of this moment Mercedes’ first production estate car is undoubtedly the best in the world and a good buy if you can afford it. If you can’t, let me recommend the Renault 18TS Estate, so quiet, smooth and comfortable for its size, with good handling and ease of driving. I spoke so highly of the road test car in my “local” that a regular persuaded a relative to buy one without even a test drive!
From eminently practical to totally ludicrous road transport and a never to be forgotten drive around Hertfordshire roads in Rod Leach’s road legalised, 1968 CanAm Lola T160. I thought it was going to be an experience I would wish to forget when a flashing blue light drew alongside, but this was to be a friendly conversation with simply curious — and who could blame them — boys in blue.
A month or two later I aired a much more sensible, though still very “hairy”, racing cum road car on the Goodwood circuit and the surrounding roads. This was the very famous, ex-Jack Sears Willment Shelby American Cobra, registered 39 PH, which has been so very beautifully and accurately restored by Nigel Hulme. Its behaviour made nonsense of some of the “flak” the Cobra takes, a little vintage maybe, but so predictable and controllable and brutishly fast. A car I covet.
Two stunning projectiles came from the Talbot camp, the Sunbeam Lotus, powered by a 150 b.h.p., 2-litre, 16-valve, all-aluminium, in-line-four Lotus engine and a sort of poor man’s Sunbeam Lotus, the 2-litre, push-rod Sunbeam Cheetah, developed and built as fast road car/weekend “eventer” by Dawson Auto Developments for Stag Hill Motors in Surrey. I drove the Lotus version only in France on the Press Launch, so will reserve the final judgement on what appeared to be a sensational sports saloon until a road test car materialises. The 145 b.h.p. Cheetah was a real flyer, offering 0-60 m.p.h. in 7 sec. and 112-118 m.p.h. depending on gearing, but had a bad ride.
One of the perks of the year was undoubtedly a trip to California to try two racing Mazda RX-7s at Sears Point Raceway, north of San Francisco. The RX-7 is selling like hot cakes in the States encouraged by success on the circuits in the IMSA GTU Challenge. I drove Bob Bergstrom’s very fast Doell Racing RX-7, and rode with Japanese F2 driver Katayama in the Mazda Technical Centre, Los Angeles-prepared car with which he, Terada and Yorino finished fifth overall and first in class in the Daytona 24 hrs. These Wankel engined cars were superbly prepared and handled well. A standard, California specification RX-7 took me down the spectacular coast road from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where there was time for a quick trip round the magnificent Briggs Cunningham Museum, every car on show an historic gem. An Avis Ford Thunderbird served to teach me what real American motoring is about — it’s not all as bad as that Mustang Turbo would suggest. Mazda RX-7s served me well in the UK, too, first the road test car, then a long term test car, which we shall be featuring soon.
To contrast with the American trip I also went to Russia, an adventurous, snow-bound drive from Helsinki to Leningrad in the jet-like Saab 900 Turbo, after a day spent on a frozen lake learning the rudiments of front-wheel-drive control on ice from the genial Erik Carlsson. But that’s another story for another day, when I finally put together a long-planned Saab feature.
Many other cars have passed through my hands in the course of the year, some of which, like the Volvo 244GLE and Datsun 280ZX, still await road test. The Datsun will appear soon together with impressions of Janspeed’s outstanding turbocharged version. Others appeared too recently to warrant further comment. I had brief excursions in Sid Beer’s imposing MG 18/80 Mk II, hood down on a sunlit but chilly winter’s day, the gearbox and slightly-Beer-tweaked steering particularly good, and in one of his more recent MG prototypes, this with a very pretty body, hydrolastic suspension and push-rod A-series engine. My Jaguar 3.8 Mk. 2 was used when opportunities allowed and the red Alfa Spider came into its own on a sun-drenched holiday in the South of France. Hexagon gave it a respray over the winter to put it back to mint condition, then third time out, last week, some b….d drove his bumper down the scalloped nearside in Cavendish Square car park, without leaving a name or address. I was heartbroken. — C.R.