On The Road

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It is instructive to find out about different aspects of motoring, to discover how the other half lives. So every now and again I like to drive a commercial vehicle. When the Continental Correspondent does likewise he usually settles for something quite different from a private car, like trying his hand behind the wheel of an enormous Daimler Roadliner ‘bus chassis or riding in the cab of one of Robert Wynn’s heavy loads. I tend to take it more easily, choosing a commercial with the comfort of a car and using it for some practical transportation of goods.

This year, for instance, I have been sampling the latest Volkswagen one-ton van. I have appreciated the good points of the VW Combi for a considerable time—the spacious three-seater cab in which no engine-box intrudes and in which you ride in quietness, for the engine is away behind and under the floor, and the low-loading through the side door. With the former 1,192-c.c. engine these VW transporters got along astonishingly well, at around 30 m.p.g., and they appealed to those who had small racing cars, dragsters, etc., to convey to and from meetings. The first VW commercial came off the Wolfsburg assembly lines in 1950. After 100,000 had been built the new plant at Hanover was opened and commercial-vehicle production transferred there. That was in 1956 and the 500,000th VW of this type had been made by 1959. The millionth commercial was made by 1962 and it took only another 5½ years to make another million, the two-millionth VW commercial, a red Clipper, being completed in February this year. It was presented to Aktion Sorgenkind, which helps children who are mentally and physically disabled.

Recently these vehicles have been appreciably improved. They have the 1,600-c.c. engine with vertical fan, which develops 57 (S.A.E.) h.p. at 4,400 r.p.m., and the new trailing-arm i.r.s. The cab has been improved, with larger windscreen, two comfortable seats, swivelling fresh-air vents, safety-belt anchorages, etc., and there is a dual-circuit braking system. The model I tried was the van, which cost £790 at the time of the test, inclusive of paint finish, spare wheel, seats, heater, demister, etc. It has a sliding side door, which, with the low-level floor, makes loading easy; the engine platform somewhat obstructs the rear door but is lower than on previous models. This van is but one of 30 commercial variants, which include insulated and deep-freeze vans with British-built bodies, the pick-up, low-loader, caravan, taxi, ambulance, and seven- and eight-seater Clipper.

The 177 cu. ft. of stowage space swallowed a lot of furniture on my outward journey and a Matchless scrambles motorcycle on the return haul. I drove the 350 miles without relief in the course of one Sunday, without fatigue, the VW cruising at 55 m.p.h. and returning approximately 30 m.p.g. of two-star fuel. It was rather noisy, because the cab on this version opens into the body, and I thought the gear-change less smooth than on the older VWs. Road-holding was good, on Uniroyal Englebert tyres. I recommend the latest VW Combi to those who want to shift moderate loads in car-style comfort and economy.

* * *

Much high-pressure publicity heralded the announcement of the Ford Escort, Dagenham’s first small car since the Anglia, which costs from £605 upwards. I hold the view that too much pre-trial publicity is apt to make us hypercritical of the product one is later to try. It was the same with racing cars like the V16 B.R.M. and those sprint Coopers into which big vee-twin J.A.P. engines were to be installed. Both were announced as top of their class and when they failed to achieve success, criticism was the inevitable outcome. The Ford Escort was presented as the small car of the decade, something quite revolutionary. Which it is not. It is a very good little car of its kind, which in time will no doubt sell as well as its predecessor, of which Ford got rid of more than 1.8 million. This may seem bad for the British economy but, as a sticker on the Escort’s back window proclaimed, British Ford aim to take export orders worth £225,000,000 this year.

When it was demonstrated to the Press I gave my P.A. a holiday in Morocco and he duly reported on driving the very exciting Twin-Cam Escort and other versions. I took a cautious line, not then having driven or seen a 1968 Escort. I have since had considerable experience of the 1300 GT model in this country, and this is what I feel about this new Anglo-American small car with the Japanese wheel bearings.* (* A reader has drawn our attention to an advertisement in which a Japanese company claims to supply wheel bearings for the Escort.)

The performance is effective for seeing off those early-morning A35s. You get an indicated 50 m.p.h. in 2nd and 70 m.p.h. in 3rd from the very willing push-rod, cross-flow, Weber-fed engine, but it has to work pretty hard for its keep, running at around 5,000 r.p.m. at our top legal speed. I remarked previously that it would have to be seen whether Ford’s retention of leaf rear suspension and a rigid back axle would prove acceptable on these lighter Escorts. The fact is that on the rougher by-roads the car feels as if it has those elliptical wheels, although the deletion of the radius arms from the back axle on all save the Twin-Cam Escort has not given rise to axle tramp. But this uncomfortable ride is unfortunate, because it is on these very by-roads that the positive and quick rack-and-pinion steering and the excellent balance and road-clinging of the Pirelli Cinturato-shod Escort GT through fast corners is so enjoyable; being bounced off the seat causes fatigue, which would not be so if the suspension were better suited to a 778 kg. car.

There is also some wind-noise round the one-piece body sides and much engine-buzz, and a trace of “zing” at times from the impressive four-branch exhaust. The gear-change I thoroughly approve of, but the test car had a horrid clutch action and on its difficult take-up the clutch makes sounds like initial slip. There was also pronounced transmission snatch. The old-fashioned but convenient central handbrake had a ratchet which did not always hold at the first application, and the seats, more shaped and spongy than those of a Cortina, are not entirely comfortable. I didn’t like the only front-compartment stowage being a distant n/s shelf (no cubby, no door pockets), impossible to reach, I would imagine, if you were wearing safety harness, and difficult anyway, and I definitely dislike the tumbler-switches for lamps and wipers which are low-set on the facia and need concentration to reach, especially in the dark. Foot-operated screen-washers sound like a luxury touch but they don’t work automatically with the wipers. The action of the choke, in close proximity to the cigarette-igniter, is crude. The heater functions admirably, as does the modified form of Aeroflow stale-air extraction. The rotatable air-vents on the facia distribute more air, warm or cold, than the smaller, more-widely-spaced ones on larger Fords but lack individual control, independently of the main heater. There are coat hooks but no vanity mirror.

For getting about the place the Escort GT is a great little car. It settles for a cruising speed of 70, has a high standard of road-holding and cornering, these being its outstanding qualities, together with only 17 b.h.p. less than the 1.6-litre Cortina GT, and very good servo disc/drum brakes. The excellent 71-b.h.p. engine can be taken to 6,500 rpm. without anxiety but is docile from below 2,000 r.p.m., and in brisk driving the Escort GT gave 27.5 m.p.g. of 4-star petrol and nearly 30 m.p.g. on the quieter journeys. It used a pint of oil in 780 miles. The driving position of the Escort is good, the very small steering wheel well placed but blanking to some extent the four nice-looking small dials which cover battery condition, oil-pressure, water heat and fuel contents, and which, with a clear-reading 110-m.p.h. speedometer and 7,000-r.p.m. tachometer, occupy a binnacle before the driver. A 9-gallon tank gives a range of around 280 miles in ordinary driving but when extended the fuel thirst is not much less than that of the Cortina GT or a good 2-litre. Good points include the accessible six fuses and junction box, a high-mounted front number plate, safety-holds for the front seats and rubber-tipped bumper overriders.

Generally, this is a car in the utility class and I consider a Cortina GT better value at an additional £100. I am sorry the Escort cannot be had in 4-door form and I find after trying it that I still want a hybrid version, with the suspension characteristics B.M.C. think important in modern small cars but with the splendid competition-bred power unit made by Ford.

* * *

I am not a religious man, tending to pray only when the thing is sideways-on under full opposite lock. But as I drive about the country and encounter new churches, I now cast an eye away hoping not to see something which I regard as a very retrograde innovation on the part of the God-fearing. It was some years ago, when we were down at a small specialist car-manufactury in Wiltshire, that we first encountered the things. Because this factory made its own bodywork it knew a good deal about glassfibre. And along one corner of the body shop were some long, tapering objects. Something to do with boats, perhaps? But no. They were plastic steeples, all ready, with their little bags containing the necessary attachment bolts, for mounting on the roofs of any tin shed or wooden outbuilding or similar edifice which an R.A.F. or Army camp had allocated as a place of religious worship.

I put these plastic steeples in the same category as synthetic bells which peel from village church towers as a hidden tape-recorder unwinds. They make a mickey of religious values, surely? Or is this because I am living in the past, preferring, for instance, Brooklands to Brands Hatch?

* * *

When I hurried up to Silverstone for the V.S.C.C. Pomeroy Trophy Meeting in March in the Ford Escort GT I went by my cross-county back-route from Hampshire to the bleak wastes of Northants. I published this route years ago but will refrain from doing so again, because it provides me with a useful escape from the congestion of Aylesbury and beyond when returning home after a big meeting at Britain’s first post-war circuit. As I traversed it again this year I noted one or two changes. Those prolific and ugly and costly direction signs I was complaining about last month, for instance, have begun to mar even this remote countryside. But how oddly they are being erected! They point the way to minor hamlets at one end of Grendon Underwood but are happily absent at more frequently used junctions at the other end of the village. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before further disfiguring signs go up—notwithstanding the country’s dire need to economise and obviate unnecessary expenditure!

I wondered whether the open prison at Edgcott is intended to accommodate motorists who fall foul of the innumerable laws we tend to break every time we start our engines. I was sorry to see that a modern glass-and-concrete building has intruded into old-world Buckinghamshire, where not all that long ago T. H. White used to take his falcons to introduce them to the noise of occasional motor cars, and that ugly street lamps have begun to creep about the outskirts of Dadford. And it is a pity that the once-picturesque white bridge over the Blackwater at Eversley is now a nasty tubular steel and wiremesh structure.

At the top of the long leafy hill out of Stonor before you drop steeply down under that arch of trees into Watlington there is a new staggered junction, with a warning to GIVE WAY in 75 yards. These warnings to GIVE WAY or STOP in a given number of yards are on the increase—it is in 100 yards at the top of Beacon Hill near Farnham, 85 yards or whatever in other places. As the big signs are often illuminated whereas these distance markers are not, it cannot be that they are intended to help in times of fog or darkness. Will some intelligent person please tell me how they are justified—just when it is important to know that the next, clearly marked junction is not 80 but 95 yards ahead, for example?

* * *

The A30 is still a very pleasant route out of London, being tree-lined and not too heavily built-up, once Egham Hill has been negotiated. Moreover, traffic along this outlet to the West Country has been speeded up, notably by road widening on the hills and the elaborate new flyover at the railway bridge before Bagshot.

This being the case, it is most unfortunate that the level-crossing at Sunningdale causes such infuriating hold-ups. Accidents which happen on the straight stretches of road both sides of this crossing this summer will almost certainly be the result of bunching that occurs every time traffic is halted to allow a local train to cross this busy highway. In view of the fact that further down this road, at Blackwater, it was deemed desirable to bridge the railway line around 1929/30, how can the M.o.T. sit back and let the crossing at Sunningdale remain, especially now that so much more traffic is involved and its speed of flow has been unproved by the costly fly-over at Bagshot? Action, Mr. Marsh!

* * *

Something really should be done about the traffic congestion at Putney Bridge. This is terrible on week-days but when it is just as had in the middle of a Sunday afternoon the matter stands out as serious. It took me nine minutes to get over the river at this point on the last Sunday in March, at around 3.30 p.m. The trouble is that traffic bogs up in the curved approach from the New Kings Road and even when the lights are at go, often cannot start to move because the residue of traffic from Fulham High Street is still on the crossing. Then, approaching the bridge itself, a wide island and ‘buses turning against the three-lane traffic cause further hold-ups. Moreover, there is no lane discipline, so that those correctly in the right-hand lane for turning into Lower Richmond Road after the bridge has been crossed are impeded by drivers turning right out of the middle lane, added to which no filter lights were working on this particular Sunday.

Two policemen stayed propped up on the guard rails watching the muddle for quite a while before one of them went into the road for a little point-duty work. I bet Mrs. Castle wasn’t driven home by this route when in office.

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