Driving some Straight-Eights
In that extremely worthwhile book “Lost Causes of Motoring,” Lord Montagu remarks that “the straight-eight principle stalks like some sinister skeleton through the story of motoring’s lost causes.” His Lordship qualifies this comment by turning to Cecil Clutton’s fascinating parallel in “The Vintage Motor Car Pocket Book” between the incidence of the small 6-cylinder car and the intervention of the Official Receiver.
To support his argument Lord Montagu cites Lanchester, Hillman and Sunbeam as building straight-eight engines just prior to their demise as separate entities, and Belsize, Arrol-Aster and Hampton as breathing their last “to the silken purr of eight cylinders in line, while Wolseley, Alvis and Triumph did nothing to enhance their bank balances by excursions into this sphere.” He further brings in Beverley-Barnes, Marendaz Special and Burney as uninspiring straight-eight designs, and reminds us that of America’s “big three,” only Chrysler listed a straight-eight in vintage times. The conclusion he draws is that “while there is an element of truth in Clutton’s theories, there is to my mind a far closer relation between the eight-in-line and the bankruptcy courts.”
I am not particularly impressed by either argument. Glutton merely drew attention to certain small-output firms or the vintage days which went out of existence soon after introducing comparatively small 6-cylinder engines, firms like Calthorpe, CaIcon, Hampton and Cluley (although omitted from the aforesaid pocketbook), Lea-Francis, Turcat-Mery and Vernon-Derby. They would presumably have expired in any case, sales of their well built but comparatively expensive 4-cylinder small cars having fallen so low in competition with mass-produced vehicles of similar horse-power that the excursion into the 6-cylinder market was a move made in desperation, by factories ill-equipped to survive, no matter what they tried to build.
To condemn the small six on this score alone is ridiculous. and while I agree many of them, the Austin Light 12/6 not excepted, were pretty chronic, Cyril Siddeley, Georges Roesch, Louis Coatalen and the board of Wolseley Motors Ltd., for instance, pulled it off respectively with the Twelve, 14/45, Sixteen and Hornet. The position of the 6-cylinder engine today nearly four decades later, is another matter, and flexible mountings, pioneered by Chrysler and Citroen, put the four back in the picture many years ago. Today the in-line six is fostered in England only by Alvis, Aston Martin, B.M.C., Humber, Jaguar, Rover, Triumph and Vauxhall, and the American journal Car Life is emphatic that the six has fallen from grace in the States, its comment (which will hardly qualify this journal for Pontiac’s current advertisement for their 0.H.C. 6 cylinder Sprint!) being :—
“The 6-cylinder automobile engine no longer is the American standard. Where once the V8 engine was installed in an automobile designed primarily for a 6-cylinder power plant, the reverse now is true in a major portion of the U.S. automobile manufacturing industry.
“Though current 6-cylinder cars are a lot of automobile for the money, the American public no longer seems interested in simple utility and economy. As the level of affluence in the U.S. has increased, so has desire for automotive performance above that provided by 6-cylinder engines. As wealth has increased, so have the length and girth of automobiles. This added weight requires V8 power to provide the desired level of performance.
“In the past, service and repair of 6-cylinder engines proved less time-consuming than for V8s and therefore was more economical. However, in recent years, V8 engines have become more reliable to a degree that little or no attention is required prior to 50,000 miles of operation. Thus V8 engine maintenance has become almost as economical as for 6-cylinder engines.”
Be that as it may, and reverting to the straight-eight, it is true that many famous manufacturers went into liquidation soon after introducing such power units—to those named by Lord Montagu could be added Panhard-Levassor, Amilcar, Delage, Minerva, and others, omitted because he was concerned only with Britain’s lost causes. Such engines were expensive to develop and build, possessed difficult problems of balance and carburation which not every designer solved by a long chalk, and called for strong and spacious chassis for their effective installation. Yet I do not think Lord Montagu has picked the best examples with which to damn their kind!
The Lanchester straight-eight, the work of George Lanchester and introduced in 1928, was one of the best of such production engines and only faded out because its makers were soon afterwards absorbed by the B.S.A./Daimler combine. The Alvis was a front-wheel-drive sports car which suffered more, possibly, from the complexities of its transmission than from an ineffectual engine. The Triumph straight-eight was that remarkable plainbearing twin-cam crib of the famous Alfa Romeo and legal action rather than mechanical imperfections caused the death of this Dolomite. That “of America’s Big Three, only Chrysler listed such a machine in the vintage era, General Motors abstaining until 1931, while Henry Ford would have none of it at any time,” as Lord Montagu has it, surely shows merely the good common-sense to appreciate, as Wolseley and Hillman did not (nor did Standard and Riley with their vee-eights), that 8-cylinder engines were inappropriate for a number of fairly obvious reasons for cars in the medium-size and lowish-price class. Certainly, to ignore the straight-eight power unit on account of bankruptcies of certain companies which were building such engines at a time of the notorious financial slump is foolishly short-sighted. Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Packard, Duesenberg, Stutz, Isotta-Fraschini, Leyland Eight, Ballot, O.M., and Renault thoroughly vindicated the eight-in-line, properly engineered and applied, and had the Wolverhampton Sunbeam survived it would have had a straight-eight engine designed by none 0ther than Georges Roesch. although Coatalen had, I confess, earlier dropped his 30-h.p. and 35-h.p. straight-eight models rather hastily in deference to the 6-cylinder models.