Motoring Miscellany, May 1968

There always seems to be something to drive, or just cars to “mess about with,” like some people “mess about with boats,” and before the European racing season got under way I found myself with more than enough to do. While the E-type was having the engine looked at, the Jaguar Press department lent me a 420G Jaguar, with 4.2-litre engine, power steering, automatic transmission, air-conditioning, electrically-operated windows and just about every aid to comfort that the Jaguar engineers could devise. It was felt that I should spend some time in this car to see how the other half live and drive, but after a week I was happy to get the E-type back and continue proper motoring. The 420G is Jaguar’s biggest and best, only bettered by the special one that Sir William Lyons uses, which has a glass partition between the front and rear seats. I suppose such a vast monument to luxury is all right if you normally think like that, but as a vehicle to use for my normal purposes it was not an experience I would want to try again in a hurry. With just two seats in the vast front compartment your passenger seemed so far away that you felt you wanted to communicate by passing written notes, and there was a feeling of unfriendliness in the distance apart that you sat. The automatic transmission was just what it should be, for while in control of this great machine I felt completely detached from real motoring, so that a normal clutch and gearbox layout would have seemed incongruous. When I left the Jaguar works in Coventry I put the selector lever into “Drive” and did nothing more until I got to Hampshire, which is my idea of an automatic car. It was all very effortless and relaxed and on the open road, round long fast curves the 420G did not feel at all bad, though it gobbled up petrol at rather an alarming rate. The 4.2-litre Jaguar engine was incredibly quiet, and the level of wind and tyre noise was admirable, but the heater fan seemed unduly noisy by comparison, the whirring noise spoiling the comfortable illusion of silent travel. The electrically-operated windows were amusing, the driver having all four under his control from a switch panel between the front seats, and the back seat passengers having over-riding controls for their windows. At times it was tiresome that you could not lower the windows without having the ignition switched on, such as when picnicking in the back seats in the car park before the Race of Champions. If you wanted to speak to the outside world you had to clamber over the front seats and switch on the ignition before you could lower the rear windows. Presumably anyone who buys a 420G would have a permanently installed chauffeur in the front at the ready to switch on the current! It would probably be him who also suffered when checking the oil and water, for the front-hinged bonnet safety-catch release is on the right and the dipstick and water header tank are on the left. A small design detail, but a tiresome one for whoever has to open the bonnet and check the levels, as it involves unnecessary movement around this very large car.

It was an interesting interlude to use the 420G for a few days but I would not like to contemplate being destined to live and motor like that at all times. When I got back to Jaguars they said “Now, how about a vehicle with central driving seat, four-wheel-drive, mid-engine 5-speed preselector gearbox, all-round independent suspension, disc brakes and monocoque body/chassis unit?”. At which I stepped forward, only to be told that it weighed 4½ tons! This was a military scout car called a Ferret, designed and built for the War Department by Daimler. A more diabolical device would be hard to imagine. This is a “go-anywhere” vehicle, powered by a 6-cylinder Rolls-Royce military-unified engine, driving a 5-speed Daimler preselector gearbox and then transfer drives and enclosed shafts run to each wheel. The driver sits between the two shafts running to the front wheels, the gearbox being behind his back, and in the central transfer box is a forward and reverse set of gears, so that in theory the vehicle can go the same speed in each direction. Because the specification calls for this advance and retreat ability at speed, the steering has no castor angle, which makes it pretty horrible to drive on normal roads, as you have to consciously steer it all the time. To make matters worse the driver has his legs where the steering gear ought to be, so it is mounted high up and the steering column hangs downwards and you operate the steering wheel more or less from underneath. The body/chassis unit is a welded box made up from numerous great sheets of armour plate, and the wheels are sprung on a double-wishbone layout, with coil-spring/shock-absorber units like a racing car. Visibility from the low driving seat is very limited, but the commander sits up in a turret and can give the driver encouraging cries. The noise of all the gear drives is really something and on full chat, at over 50 m.p.h. everything is singing, including your ears. On rough stuff this cumbersome device rides remarkably smoothly, and will negotiate almost any type of going, including rivers or lakes, there being a waterproof apron that pulls up all round the upper-structure and the whole thing floats, the knobbly tyres driving it along in water, and the front wheels steering it, though I did not try this particular trick. The Rover firm kindly let us take it on their test-ground and it was most amusing to wallow and lumber about in mud and ruts and over undulating country, but it was a continual fight with the steering wheel and it was a terribly tiring thing to drive. As a means of carrying two people on cross-country trips it seemed complicated and unwieldy, but it carried all sorts of fiendish equipment so that the commander and his driver could indulge in a little war of their own before charging away in whatever direction it happened to be pointing. I did not attempt to get up any speed in reverse, or to change up on the preselector gearbox while reversing, but it was such an unpleasant vehicle to drive forwards that I am sure it couldn’t have been any more unpleasant going backwards. Presumably I do not have a logical military mind, but the Ferret seemed to me to be an example of design-specification getting out of hand.

Returning to more normal things, from my point of view, I visited Brands Hatch and Goodwood while some testing was going on and at both events I had the chance of a ride in a Group 5 racing saloon Ford. At the former circuit it was with Fitzpatrick in a Broadspeed Ford Escort, and at the latter with Keith Greene in an Alan Mann Cortina with Cosworth EVA Formula Two engine. I cannot work up any enthusiasm for saloon car racing, much to the annoyance of many readers I’m afraid, but there it is. I’ve watched Group 5 saloons. I’ve driven them and I’ve been driven in them by skilled and competent drivers, but the whole thing leaves me quite unmoved. It all seems to be an immense amount of effort and ingenuity for not much of an end-result. After some fast laps with the two drivers concerned I felt that the whole thing was rather unruly and unnecessarily wild-and-woolly without being exciting or satisfying. At about the same time I took part in a race for journalists at Wimbledon Speedway, driving small Stock-Cars and this was equally wild-and-woolly and a lot of fun, these Spedeworth-promoted race meetings being good entertainment, and well organised, but bearing no relation to serious motor racing as we see it on our circuits, but then it is not intended to. On the rolling-start grid for these Speedway events, with as many as forty cars on a quarter-mile oval, the fast boys are put at the back, and that makes for instant-exciting activity. In normal circuit racing; where the fast drivers are on the front of the grid, you get a procession until such time as the leaders lap the tail-enders and then there is some highly exciting “traffic-driving” to watch. In Stock-Car racing you get this skilled “traffic-driving” from the word go, and some of it is very skilled indeed. The interesting thing is the number of people who are involved in serious racing who take an evening off now and then to watch a Stock-Car meeting, and all are agreed on the high entertainment value, and all for a few shillings outlay as a spectator.

I like variety, especially in motoring and competitive events, so on the way to a gathering at Silverstone I looked in on a practice day at the Santa Pod Drag Racing centre, near Newport Pagnell. A brand new quarter-mile has been laid down, with a billiard-table surface, with permanent timing equipment and wiring built into the layout. Enthusiasm for drag-racing is gaining momentum all the time and the variety of special cars to be seen in the paddock is always interesting, and the “new look” Santa Pod track should do much to boost this enthusiasm. The Silverstone visit was to attend a gathering of “Griffiths Formula” cars, those unfortunate sports cars of the 1945-1955 period that the Vintage Sports Car Club do not want in their ranks. Such cars as C-type and D-type Jaguars, Aston Martins, Le Mans Replica Frazer Nashes, early Ferraris and so on, all interesting vehicles but with no useful purpose. The Griffiths Formula people are keeping these cars united and through various Clubs are arranging some races for them as well as social gatherings. The particular meeting I attended was held in the new Clubhouse of the Silverstone Supporters’ Club, a very pleasant building sponsored by Firestone, on the outside of Woodcote Corner, and an ideal place for such club gatherings.

This visit was also instrumental in my spending a morning amidst a collection of interesting cars including Alfa Romeo, Bugattis, Jaguars and various other things, all at the home of Guy Griffiths who started the idea of keeping the sports cars of 1945-55 in a group. Among his collection is the lightweight E-type Jaguar that Salvadori used to race and I was able to have a very enjoyable drive in this car and to compare it with my own production E-type. After they had officially given up racing the Jaguar competition department produced a handful of these competition E-types, with alloy cylinder blocks instead of cast-iron, fuel injection instead of carburetters, and racing-type springs and shock-absorbers. Although set up for club racing this lightweight E-type was quite tractable on the road, although up to about 50 m.p.h. the suspension was very hard and everything seemed to crash and bang about, but by the time you got to 80 m.p.h. it was all working very nicely and continued that way. The fuel-injection engine really did pull hard at all speeds, there being more than enough power for road use at anything over 3,500 r.p.m., while at 5,000 r.p.m. it was impressively smooth and really starting to work. This was an exhilarating car to drive on the road and had a delightful way of digging its rear wheels in when you put the power on through a corner, so that it felt very stable. Getting back into the normal E-type afterwards made it feel all floppy and mushy in comparison for a few miles, until I got used to the production version again.

There always seems to be some function taking place at Brands Hatch and one visit was to see the Howmet TX, the turbine-driven car that competed in the B.O.A.C. 500 race. Unfortunately the day chosen for this gathering saw four inches of snow fall on the circuit so the whole affair wits washed out, but it did allow the opportunity to go on the skid-road operated by the British School of Motoring at Brands Hatch. Although this skid-road forms part of the B.S.M. High Performance Course, it is also available on its own to anyone who just wants to find out about full-lock slides and spins. For £2 12s. 6d. you can spend an hour on there, using the B.S.M. car and having the expert knowledge of an instructor to help you. Even if you don’t intend to indulge in any skids or spins on the public roads it is not a bad idea to put in a bit of practice every now and then, just in case you should suffer “the dreaded side-slip.” Whenever there is a fall of snow I endeavour to find an open space and do some full-lock slides and power spins, just to find out how my car feels under such extreme conditions so that if I ever get into such a position inadvertently, I shall not be caught in the unknown. The B.S.M. have little time for the ordinary skid-pan circle, where you merely waltz round and round, and have built their skid ground as an L-shaped road, with a downhill bias so that you can learn about skidding while taking a normal left or right hand corner, and if you are skilled you can control the skid along the subsequent straight. It has a well-watered surface and you can also practise the effects of locked wheels on stopping and steering, or crash-stops on slippery surfaces. For £15 a motor club can hire the skid-road for an afternoon, complete with two cars and instructors and cats run suitable events for their members, and this is already quite popular.

On a beautiful sunny day at the same circuit Mercedes-Benz held a select test-day for some of us to drive their latest range of cars, including two 2-seater 280SL coupé. Unfortunately they did not have one of the new super-saloons available, the 300 saloon with the 6.3-litre V8 engine, as at the moment they are only being built in left-hand-drive form, but no doubt the day will come. Driving the comfortable and solid touring saloons on a race-track does not give a true impression of their worth, but it was nice to meet Karl Kling again, now in his 58th year and driving just as forcibly as he was in the mid-‘fifties when he was racing for Mercedes-Benz and he took me round for some fast laps in the 280SL. As light relief from the 250, 280 and 300 models there was a Mercedes-Benz “Unimog,” which is an all-purpose, go-anywhere cross between a tractor, a pick-up truck, a tank, a bull-dozer or any other type of work-horse. Powered by a Mercedes-Benz diesel engine it has two or four-wheel-drive by selection, lockable differentials, 6-speed gearbox, enormous ground clearance, double-reduction hubs, huge knobbly tyres and can have an attachment of small flanged wheels to permit it to run on railway lines. In its very low first gear it lowers itself down steep inclines in a most remarkable manner, while its long-travel independent suspension allows it to clamber over most obstacles. It was able to demonstrate its abilities over some of the rubble and boulders that are being used to extend the paddock area.

Until such time as the Ministry of Transport take over the design and manufacture of motor vehicles there will always be a miscellany of vehicles available, each fulfilling some particular role or expressing some whim of a designer and while the opportunities keep arising to drive a variety I shall enjoy doing so, even if some are only for trying once. It will be a sad day when the Ministry of Transport standardises all design down to a basic minimum, as they seem to be threatening.

D. S. J.