Having put the April issue of Motor Sport, in the more polite jargon of Fleet Street, “to bed” your editor decided to forsake fountain pen and keyboard for steering wheel and gear-lever.
Austin A50 Marathon
Consequently, the Monday after the first Goodwood Members’ Meeting saw me setting out towards the West Country as passenger in a new Healey 100 belonging to Kenneth Best, Competitions Manager of the National Benzole Company. This cream, badge bedecked sports car was being run-in, so in it we proceeded to Dorchester via the Basingstoke By-Pass, Winchester and Ringwood at a sedate 50 m.p.h., there to lunch with a R.A.C. official observer and a representative of the Austin Motor Company who where taking part in a long-distance fuel economy demonstration thought up by Mr Best.
For this purpose the Austin Motor Company had placed at National Benzole’s disposal a brand new Austin A5O Cambridge saloon. The car had been selected from the Longbridge assembly line by Mr Webb the afforsaid R.A.C. official, and under his observation had been correctly run-in for 1,500 miles. The sump had been drained and refilled with MD 30 oil, the tappets adjusted, the tyres checked to instruction-book inflation-pressures, and we were ready to submit the car to an ambitious Land’s End-John o’ Groats-Land’s End Fuel Consumption Trial, under R.A.C. observation.
The solenoid of the Austin-Healey’s overdrive having ceased to function an agent was sought who could deal with this, after which, and lunch, the four of us set off for Land’s End in the A50. I thus found myself unwittingly circumnavigating the Bishop Ban, for during the afternoon I took a spell of the A50’s wheel and in the course of the subsequent Fuel Consumption Trial I drove for more than half the distance, a total in the region of 1,000 miles.
An unevenful journey brought us to the Queen’s Hotel at Penzance in time for dinner, after which we sought our beds. The next day, until “zero-hour” at 4 p.m., was spent wandering about the sea-front and town in bright sunshine and a bitter wind, while the A50 was greased by the local Austin agent.
Leving the Austin representative to his own devices in Penzance we then drove to Land’s End and whiled away the remaining half hour to starting time by strolling round the hotel (closed) and weighing ourselves on the adjacent weighing machine, after Best had extracted half-crown with which some worldly soul had jammed the slot. Previous to this the car had been weighed with it’s crew of three on a “real” weighbridge in Penzance (25 cwt.) and it’s tank filled to the brim, under Mr. Webb’s eagle eye, with National Benzole.
The plot was to drive normally on the test, never coasting or switching-off, not exceeding 50 m.p.h.. yet pressing on in the hope of averaging over 30 m.p.h. inclusive of refuelling stops. Best took first spell and 35.8 miles went by in the first hour, 38.6 in the second, 100 miles coming up at Oakhampton. and the average speed, by reason of Best’s skilful judgement in passing the dawdlers, going to 39.7 m.p.h. by the third hour.
Beyond the Exeter By-Pass I took over, bringing the Austin into the Broadwater Garage at Kidderminster for its first refuelling stop comfortably before midnight, with 279 miles behind us. Incidents had been few, although an apparently undamaged Austin across the road, partially blocking a corner in Cornwall, had puzzled us, and a motor-cyclist -who had stalled at some traffic lights in Taunton all but wheeled his stricken machine into us as we passed him correctly, after flashing our lamps in warning—such are the hazards of motoring today ! The floods round Worcester had subsided, but occasional wet patches of road and dark sheets of water where fields should have shown up in the moonlight, confirmed them.
Mention of the Austin’s lamps reminds me that the A50 has the longest steering-column gear-changing stalk I have encountered. to that I caught my left sleeve on it whenever I reached for the lamps-switch on the dash. The Lucas lamps gave plenty of light, but were set rather high up in the air. Some practice was needed before familiarity with the aforesaid gear-change was achieved, the lever being spring-loaded towards the upper ratios.
The night passed without incident, Best, who was unhappily suffering with gout, sleeping on the back-seat as I brought the car northwards to Diss, outside Carlisle, where Mr. Webb sought a bed, and a fresh R.A.C. Observer, knowledgeable about Trojans, appeared. The local N.B. man also swept in, in a Morris Minor covered with frost, which was very evident during both our nights in the Midlands. At the grim hour of 5 a.m. on what we were told was a Wednesday, we carried-on, the car comfortably warmed by the heater and nicely ventilated by ventilator-windows front and back, although the fittings for operating these were very inferior to those of a certain German car I had continually at the back of my mind !
What little rain we encountered was dealt with by efficient wipers which went “flip-flap,” drowning an irritating rattle from the metal dash. Best drove, then slept; and gradually we achieved Scotland and ran on through twisting valley roads between snow-capped mountains, the road verges banked in snow and prominent notices announcing broken surfaces, over which the A511’s back-axle danced on its supple 1/2-elliptic springs; tending to steer the car, thus underlining the advantages of independent rear suspension on roads of this nature.
Before mid-day, in spite of losing 20 minutes we had gained on our schedule by getting lost before Inverness, we ran into the Delmore Filling Station at Clachnaharry with the crew in high spirits, the local Press to interview and photograph us, and lunch ready in the adjacent restaurant. With 735 miles behind us Best resumed the wheel for the delightful coastal journey over winding, hilly roads to John o’ Groats. Scheduled to arrive at the most northern point of the British Isles at 4 p.m., we were comfortably before time, in spite of keeping our cruising speed to a strict 45/48 m.p.h. and using the lower gears for only a matter of yards when moving off from rest, Unless third was called for up a hill, which, in view of the A50’s excellent top-gear performance, was seldom. As we swung the car round by the John o’ Groats House Hotel the trip reading obligingly turned up 900 miles.
At Wick we passed the bleak aerodrome and noticed telegraph poles stored in a field as insurance against the winter gales.
As I drove back to Clachnaharry for another welcome meal, and refuel, I reflected on the excellent performance offered by the modern 1 1/2-litre family car, the Austin A50 is roomy, with comfortable seats (although you tend to slide forward on the back seat and its cushion had worked forward), a huge luggage boot, and ample legroom. After the test it proved able to press on at an indicated 60 m.p.h. in complete unconcern, with amply powerful, almost squeal-free brakes.
But this is to anticipate, and as I held the dreary schedule, Mr. Webb again beside me, after Carlisle, I was more conscious of the unusual bonnet-treatment. The air-intake to the carburettor gives, from the driving seat, the impression of a short bonnet behind a vintage-style radiator, yet when you regard the A50 from without it is seen to have a modern, quite long bonnet with an ordinary grille.
Down through Preston, Wigan and Warrington we came, with occasional “heavies” for company, and stray patches of mist, the R.A.C. signs “Oulton Park” reminding me that on the Saturday I was due at the British Empire Trophy Race on this circuit. Best ran us into Kidderminster on the return journey nicely on time, with some 1,471 miles behind us since we left Land’s End. He coped ably with the mounting traffic from there on, taking a brief rest only when it was evident that we should finish about half-an-hour ahead of schedule. A heath-fire near Bodmin provided the only remaining distraction and at 3.33 p.m. on the Thursday Best stopped the Austin triumphantly outside the Land’s End Hotel. Including inadvertent detours from the R.A.C. route the two of us had driven nearly 1,800 miles in 27 minutes under 48 hours. The A50 had given us not a moment’s anxiety and had used less than pint of oil (none being added, nor water, during our marathon. The official R.A.C. figures are as follows :-
Mileage : 1,775.5 miles.
Time 47 hr. 33 min.
Average speed (overall time) : 37.34 m.p.h.
Average speed (running time) : 39.09 m.p.h.
Fuel consumption of National Benzole : 34.04 m.p.g.
Oil consumption of MD 30 : Under pint.
As if we hadn’t had enough we then returned to Penzance, put the Austin representative behind the wheel, and let him drive us speedily back to Dorchester, the “new” A50 now with over 3,300 miles on its “clock,” and only an occasional misfire, probably from a “duff” plug, to endorse this hectic start to its career. The “Antelope” gave us a welcome grill at 9 p.m.—and so to bed.
Week-End With a Simca
The next day I was brought home via Salisbury to Hampshire, there to pick up my Volkswagen, which I enjoyed enormously on a hurried run to the London office—incidentally, two VWs were seen in Wick and one in Penzance, evidence that discerning family-car motorists exist at both northern and western extremities of this Island.
At the office I collected a Press Pass for the British Empire Trophy Race and left in something of a flap, at 4 p.m., in a black cord-upholstered Simca Aronde two-door Grand Large saloon. I have on previous occasions extolled the virtues of the Aronde in Motor Sport; I can think of few nicer cars in which to hurry when one is tired and overwrought. On this occasion I chose to go via Aylesbury, Bicester, Banbury, Warwick and Birmingham. As usual Birmingham proved the stumbling block, but I fared better than usual by following a Dellow which I guessed might be Oulton-bound, before asking a helpful policeman. All would still have been well had not a diversion off the direct route to Wolverhampton been so badly sign-posted that I went sadly astray and, coming finally into the Old-Home-of-the-Sunbeam by a strange route, went to pieces mentally and directionally, coming to the welcome Witchball Hotel at Whitchurch at 10 p.m. only by the generous help of an Austin A70 driver who stopped when he saw me peering up hopelessly at some unlit signposts and the chauffeur of a beautiful 20/25 Rolls-Royce in Stafford, who likewise directed me.
For none of this was the Simca to blame. It is a splendid little car, willing, well-braked and very sure of foot—its “feet” in this instance being Dunlop-shod. The 14 in. in place of 15 in. wheels are said to have improved the roadholding; I know only that this is extremely good in spite of supple suspension, and the steering delightfully accurate and light.
A rather stiff steering-column gear-change, a tendency to not serious clutch-slip, and fussy minor controls obstructed by the steering wheel, together with non-self-parking wipers, a “tinny” dash, prone to rattle, with loose switches, a restricted rear-view mirror in spite of the handsome expanse of back window, rather hard seats, a petrol light which flashed its warning unnecessarily early, supplementing a petrol gauge, and non-lockable, push-in ignition switch (there is a steering column lock), constitute the main criticisms, but these apart, the Aronde is a great and handsome little car. (I like its dual, lidded cubby holes better than the single, huge, outward-sloping tin lid of the A50’s single cubby hole and found its lamps control very comprehensive and ideally placed, if a trifle confusing.) On the run up I was able to dispose of a Mark VII Jaguar which overtook me after Aylesbury and was obviously trying. While I did so I noticed that the little path I used to tread as a boy, between Waddesdon and Bicester, when taking a census of passing cars (often ending “Belsize-Bradshaw 1, Unic 1, Enfield-Allday 1, unknown 8,” or something like that) has now vanished and kerbs replace the grass verges, although I am glad to see that Buckinghamshire uses chamfered 45 deg. kerbing.
At the “Witchball” a colleague was awaiting me with a Bristol 404, in which we did an experimental 0-60 m.p.h. in 13.6 sec. and 0-70 in 15.5 sec. the next morning.
>After the start of the Final of the Empire Trophy Race I was beginning to feel tired and did a thing I have not done before in 28 years of motor-race-spectating—I left shortly before the end of the race, without therefore being able to congratulate Archie Scott Brown on his splendid victory. The Simca Aronde came home nobly, Birmingham easily negotiated in the reverse direction by following the road numbers. It averaged rather better than 40 m.p.h. in heavy rain, including two brief stops and “single-filing”out of Oulton Park.
My aforesaid duel with the Jaguar and the Lister-Bristol’s victory in the British Empire Trophy Race emphasised my opinion that the day of the big-engined car is rapidly drawing to a close. As I pondered this I overtook a spray-flinging Standard Ten and as promptly it whipped past me again, to hold its lead—a twin-carburetter job perhaps, but my opinion about big engines was nicely endorsed . . .
Arriving home at midnight I spent the Sunday working on overdue MSS. before leaving for London in the Simca for the purpose of accompanying my colleague in the aforesaid Bristol 404 for another spell of long-distance motoring.
To John 0′ Groats Again, By Bristol 404
The plot was to motor the Bristol to John o’ Groats, my run in the Austin having familiarised me with the route beyond Carlisle. Into Parliament Square under the shadow of Big Ben came the Bristol and as 10 p.m. struck we set off for the North, the driver’s sister taking away the willing and economical Aronde.
We elected to leave London on A14 instead of Al, but traffic was still thick, so that only 16.9 miles were disposed of in the first halfhour. However, the performance of the Bristol 404 was not to be denied and in 58 minutes we were in Royston and very nearly to the airfield, where the control tower has traffic lights to halt motorists as aircraft take-off or land, after an hour’s running. Cruising at 80/90 m.p.h. this magnificent 2-litre aerodynamic coupe forged along, taking rain, patches of mist and the need to overtake more than half-a-dozen Glasgow-bound S.M.T. coaches in its stride. Stamford was reached in 1 hr. 46 min., Grantham in 9 mm. over two hours, and in less than three hours we were in Yorkshire, although no record-breaking was in mind and a stop had been made for cleaning the windscreen.
On a suitable straight the speedometer was taken up to 96 m.p.h., and here we paused to refuel with Esso Extra in Doncaster a three hour average of over 53 m.p.h. was written-up.
Occasionally other cars were overtaken, a Jaguar (sportingly labelled POLICE) was followed through Aberford, and Scotch Corner was achieved after 4 hr. 23 1/2 min. driving.
Mist over Bowes Moor brought our speed down to 40 m.p.h. and, the driver, who is also Motor Sport’s photographer, feeling drowsy, occasional brief stops were ordered. The rain began in earnest before Carlisle, and the overall average speed after five hours was found to be 54.2 m.p.h.
Soon the rain became torrential, but not a drop entered the car and the two.speed wipers kept the big windscreen clear under these abnormal conditions.
We ran steadily into deserted Carlisle at 3.42 1/2 a.m. and a sign “To Scotland” on A1 was encouraging, Gretna Green being accomplished by 3.58 a.m.
Several brief pauses to refresh ourselves and a slip-up in finding the route notwithstanding, we were passing through Abington as dawn broke and the seven-hour average was 52.8 m.p.h.
We were now well and truly over the Border and with another full tank of Esso the Bristol made light work of the task, the comfort over the broken road surface in the region of Amulree being a revelation. Traces of snow still lay beside the road, although this was April 4th, and the mountains were mantled in white.
At Blair Athol the third fuel stop was made and my knack of nosing out interesting cars did not fail, for there in the garage forecourt was a Lancia Atena taxi. Its owner said it was as good today as ten years earlier and he thought there was another of this rare model somewhere in Scotland.
We had noticed a snow-plough on a locomotive running on the single-track line by the road-side; seen the Shell-B.P. depot by the railhead at Ballinbuig and the frequency of Esso depots in these parts, notably at Avienmore.
Along the valley road the 404 sped, checked momentarily by a lorry carrying a vast overhanging load for the hydro-electric scheme and proceeding along the narrow way without any escort. After twelve hours at the wheel my colleague had averaged 49 m.p.h. inclusive of stops, which embraced a road-side slumber lasting 45 1/2 minutes, after the twisting road to Lanark was behind us.
The roads were now populated mainly by local cars, so that we met a Bristol 400 which I had seen while driving the Austin A50 the week before, and which we were destined to see again on our southward run.
To jaded motorists the road from Inverness to John o’ Groats seems endless, in spite of the fine coastal scenery which is seen for the last 100 miles.
My driver was now wide awake and flinging the Bristol into the corners, making full use of its well-chosen gear ratios to maintain the cruising speed at 4,000 r.p.m. in top gear. We got over the Clashmore level-crossing just in advance of a delightfully Emmett tanker and train, and closed into the North Sea coast some 75 miles from journey’s end, lorries impeding us somewhat until beyond Wick.
I was becoming tired and to keep awake took note of every car met in the last 100 miles, the record of makes using this bleak and lonely road constituting 14 Austin, eight Ford, seven Morris. six Hillman, four each of Standard and Vauxhall, two Wolseley, and one each of Rolls-Royce, Rover and M.G.. Many of the Austins were pre-war models, the Fords were mainly Populars, but recent Hillman Minx were decidedly frequent in Scotland. We had passed a 12/50 Alvis “Beetle-back” in Dingwall, wearing V.S.C.C. and 12/50 Register badges.
John o’ Groats was reached at 12.20 p.m., the trip reading from London being 716.2 miles. This gives a totel time of 14 hr. 20 min., the running time being 13 hr. 24 min., not including about two minutes occupied in slumber-dispelling and screen-cleaning. You can now get out your slide-rules and Blackwell Calculators if you want to work out the Bristol’s average speed. The best hour, incidentally, disposed of 59.5 miles and our best half-hour average was 64 m.p.h.
For our part, we attempted no particular schedule, merely indulging in some fast touring in a rapid car.
What I found interesting was the fact that the Bristol 404 had beaten fairly handsomely the times I established when I undertook a similar fast tour at the wheel of a 4 1/2-litre Bentley drophead coupe in 1938. On that occasion we used the whole of A1 out of London, the odometer made the mileage 702 and the total time, stopping for breakfast. etc., had been 15 hr. 14 min., the running time 13 hr. 53 min.
This portrays, perhaps, the measure. of progress in one-and-a-half decades, the Bristol having less than half the engine capacity.
The journey home, as you shall see, provided endorsement.
While I had been away on the “N.B.” trip my wife had addressed a letter to me c/o the John o’ Groats House Hotel, but, as we had turned round immediately and set off for Land’s End, I had not retrieved this. I was now able to do so, surely the first time anyone living over 700 miles south has been to John o’ Groats twice within a week—but excellent evidence for my wife that I was indeed where I had said I would be. In the deserted lounge of the hotel the Hon. Victor Bruce looked down from a huge photograph, showing him with his Monte Carlo Rally A.C. Six of vintage times. Later, near Thurso, a brass-radiator model-T Ford tourer was espied by a farm.
After lunch I took the wheel of the Bristol and discovered what a splendid motor car the 404 is. I class it as about the nicest modern car I have ever driven. You feel at one with it from the commencement, in a manner I expect of vintage cars but not with modern vehicles (my friends rudely say because vintage cars are safely slow, but I would advance other theories, with which, however, I need not bore you).
The Bristol’s steering is superb, being light yet firm, absolutely accurate, high-geared and free from column judder, and possessing only the slightest return motion, or vibration, when braking. The roadholding is entirely complementary, so that going past slower vehicles or driving close to the road’s edge the 404 can be placed with absolute confidence. It’s suspension is sufficiently supple to provide extreme comfort when travelling at 90 m.p.h. over shocking surfaces, yet roll is absent and neither over nor understeer pronounced—the effect is of a perfectly balanced car which is driven at 80-90 m.p.h. as a matter of course over narrow, winding, cambered roads. In main-road motoring the Bristol can be swung in behind slower vehicles after overtaking with extreme precision and lack of effort, the car not requiring to be “placed” by sawing at the steering-wheel. No doubt the Michelin “X” tyres contribute materially to this impeccable roadholding.
The car tested had the normal, triple-carburetter, 105-b.h.p.engine but this was good for a maximum of almost 100 m.p.h. under give-and-take conditions, with a maximinn of over 70 in third and a comfortable cruising speed of between 80 and 90 m.p.h. In top 4,000 r.p.rn. is equal to about 82 m.p.h. and the power unit is smooth and unobtrusive up to 5,000 r.p.m. This splendid performance is aided by perhaps the most perfect of all present-day gearboxes, ratios delightfully appropriate, selection by a slim, rigid central lever, and the indirects silent in operation. The only midge in the milk is a tendency to miss getting second when changing-down hurriedly and this is soon mastered—in any case, a car calling for no skill of any kind isn’t your cup of tea or mine; we’re not so old that we need hydromatication !
The 404’s brakes are sensitive and very powerful, vice-free and squeal-proof. There was occasionally a suspicion of fade but it never developed, nor did 2,500 miles of 80-90 m.p.h. motoring cause any noticeable wear. Visibility is excellent, the wings like big aircraft needles, both visible from the driver’s seat. The bonnet has a rather pretentious hump of an air-intake, excusable in such a car, but contrasting to the ingenious driver’s view of the Austin A50 aforementioned, the rather American-car snout of the Simca Aronde and the “nothingness” you see through the screen of the rear-engined VW.
Comfort is the keynote. of the Bristol 404, which with a rather more potent engine would come unquestionably into the “Gran Turismo” class, and which in 105-b.h.p. form is very definitely the “Businessman’s Express,” as Bristol’s publicity department so aptly puts it.
Equipment includes deep, comfortable leather-upholstered, fully adjustable chairs with space for luggage and occasional passengers behind them, one-shot chassis lubrication, full instrumentation by proper dials of neat conception, set in a hooded panel before the driver, with rheostat lighting control, anti-draught windows, a wooden dashboard, screen and window sill, deep wide rigid door pockets and a vast, full-width wooden under-dash shelf, ventilator rear windows, a small but fully-effective rear-view mirror, spare wheel accommodated in the near-side wing, matched by the battery on the off side, the fuel filler (rather too small) concealed beneath a flap in the tail which is released by an interior control, good horizontal central hand-brake, very nice, large-diameter two-spoke. steering-wheel, etc., etc.
The body is free from rattles and the doors shut easily, assisted by leather “pulls.” Wind noise is not excessive, conversation in an ordinary voice being possible while running up to 100 m.p.h. The two-speed wipers have been referred to and there are manual throttle and ignition controls, tastefully arranged, while the test car had fog-lamp, Lucas “Flamethrower” spot-lamp, its switch rather inconveniently placed, heater, and radio with speakers built into the roof.
Over bad roads the back axle “bottoms” but this has no adverse effect on the 404’s outstanding stability.
Over 2,711 miles’ testing at high speed the 404 averaged 21.3 m.p.g. of Esso Extra and used 2 pts. of Castrol XL. The only grumble I have with this beautiful hand-built motor car is its high price, £3,300 5s. 10d. inclusive of p.t.
Staying at the excellent Abington Hotel on the Monday night, my colleague brought the car home the next day in a manner which emphasises the Bristol’s very high degree of usable performance and road-ability. The run was made between the hours of 8.55 a.m. and 4.10 over traffic-infested roads, into the heart of London. In this time we disposed of 366.7 miles (and in this distance saw two Bristol 403s and another 400). The first hour found us held up by traffic blocks in Carlisle (59.3 miles), and four minutes of the second hour were devoted to putting in Esso (54.4 m.p.h.). The next hour involved a long halt at a one-way section and the passing of an Army convoy, but Scotch Corner had been reached in 2 1/4 hours and the three-hour average was 48.3 m.p.h., stops included. Doncaster and Retford were negotiated during the fourth hour (50.9 m.p.h.) and Grantham was reached in five hours, the overall average speed now 54.9 m.p.h., although 1 1/2 minutes were lost when I insisted on buying oranges and chocolate. The 404 proceeded to average 51.7 m.p.h. between Grantham and Stamford and, as another fuel stop occupied six minutes, the running time for the entire 366.7 miles was a mere 7 hr. 3 1/2 min. The “open” road average for six hours came to nearly 55 1/2 m.p.h. not deducting the refuelling and shopping stops—express indeed. The best hour’s motoring disposed of 59.3 miles, the best half-hour average being 62.4 m.p.h.
Reverting to my pre-war run in the Bentley, we logged the homeward journey from Strathaven, the 387 miles to London being covered in 7 hr. 43 min., or 7 hr. 32 1/2 min. running time; the best hour’s mileage was 56, 62 m.p.h. being averaged for one half-hour. The Bentley showed little if any sign of our fast driving, while the only blemishes on the Bristol’s record were a broken throttle spring and failure of the rev.-counter, which before we re-crossed the Border had made a noise like a frenzied band-saw and then ceased to record. Whereas the Bristol’s Michelin ” X” tyres showed scarcely any wear, on the Bentley, a heavier car carrying three occupants, two of the India tyres were completely worn out on the outward journey.
It seems, then, that in spite of more traffic on our roads, the 2-litre Bristol of 1955 is a faster touring car than the 4 1/2-litre Bentley before the war—again proving my contention that the age of many litres is nearly over. I am rather intrigued by my personal motoring during the eight days covered by this article. It certainly left me refreshed, in mind if not in body, as to the expanse of this Island, from West to North.
This sort of mileage may look like chicken-feed to our Continental Correspondent, and I drove only about 1,800 miles of it, but that eight days did include four full nights in bed, a day’s work and attendance at a motor race. Why is it, I wonder, that you and I never tire of motoring ? The C.C. says it’s because you do not normally tire of living and that Motoring is a Way of Life . . .
Incidentally, where do the daily paper scare-writers put the dead and dying they tell us are strewn along British roads on occasions like this ? In all those concentrated 4,000 miles I saw only two accidents, one a minor collision, the other caused by a lorry’s trailer shedding an axle at the A2/A14 fork, causing the trailer to swing out and pulp another lorry—but I saw no evidence of personal injury in either case.—W. B.