Road-Test Miscellany, May 1974

The Editor Contemplates Three Very Different Cars, From Vauxhall, BMW and Fiat

The imposition of an overall 50 m.p.h. speed-limit, which we have had to endure on all our roads until recently, put a bit of a curb on road-testing. To progress along wide open Motorways at this sedate pace distorted fuel consumption figures very little, but sufficiently to make anything published somewhat unrealistic should the Motorway limit be lifted which, praise-be to the new Transport Minister, it has been. To traverse winding between-towns and cross-country roads at the same sad speed reduces all cars to a dismal common-denominator. If it persists for too long we may well see a drop in British safety standards, because good cornering power and powerful braking will become of lesser account, just as American automobiles reduced to cruising along freeways at comparatively low speeds are notorious, by European standards, for weak anchors, soggy suspension, and unresponsive steering and handling.

For this reason the pleasure of trying new cars has diminished. But to show that my love of driving has not been entirely dissipated, I have now resumed a road-test programme. In this context I find I have recently sampled three very diverse motor cars. The first of which I will deal with is the latest Vauxhall VX 4/90 from Luton.

The Vauxhall VX 4/90

Before driving this yellow-gold car away from the Luton factory it was arranged that I should meet for lunch some of the Vauxhall executives, in the persons of Jim Hebdon, Director and Treasurer, Dave Bratton, Assistant Chief Engineer: Passenger Vehicles, who Is Luton’s top car-man, American Ed. Taylor, the Styling Director, Geoff. Moore, Director of Publicity, and Derek Goatman, who aids ageless Miehael Marr in running the Public Relations Department—a formidable assembly of top-brass. Conversation ranged over many subjects, from the acquisition and restoration of pre-war cars, of which Vauxhall Motors has a fine collection, to future Vauxhall policy in respect of smaller-engirted economy cars (not at present in the pipeline, I gathered) and eompetition-participation. Incidentally, it was pleasing, to me at any rate, that although the Vauxhall Wyvern is nowadays flanked by the Omnipotent letters “GM” of General Motors, going across the road from where I had parked the BMW 520i, and where the Vauxhall factory expanded in the mid-1930s, You encounter in the office block where we were to lunch, the unchanged oak-panelled foyer. It is much as it was from 1907 onwards, in the days when Laurence Pomeroy was designing some notable Vauxhalls, which were to culminate before the First World War in the immortal 30/98, and from the balcony of whtch hall those in charge could emerge from their offices to keep a check on those toiling below.

As with the 30/98, the designation VX 4/90 was introduced to imply a sporting-model Vauxhall. I am startled to discover that I road-tested the original VX 4/90 nearly a dozen years ago. The Vauxhall range since those days has been a complex one, so I was scarcely surprised that, when I sought assistance over lunch in unravelling it, no-one was very ready to remember! The Victor dates back to 1957 and the Viva, which was the smallest-engined model, then based on the Opel Kadett, to 1964. The first VX 4/90 was a disc-front-braked 90 m.p.h. version of the current Victor, using a twin-carburetter 71 b.h.p. engine. The Victor appeared in revised form with o.h.c. I.1/2-litre and 2-litre engines in 1968 and the Viva CT was evolved by the simple expedient of putting a 2-litre Victor engine in the smaller body shell. The VX 4/90 was updated in 1970 and given a twincarburetter engine, as used for the Firenza Sport SL, by 1972. This engine has sidedraught carburetters on a cross-flow head and a belt-driven oh. camshaft with ingenious means of easy tappet-setting.

The present Vauxhall range is not as varied as, for instance, that of Ford-of-Britain, but it is an effective coverage, of Viva, Magnum, Victor, VX 4/90 and Ventora in the usual body-type and engineering permutations soon to be joined by the exciting looking Firenza “Streamliner”. While scanning briefly Over recent Vauxhall history, it is only honest to admit that for some time the famous name was tarnished by ideas which did not quite come off and idealisms which did not add up. Fortunately, all this seems to have been resolved. Last year MOTOR SPORT reported favourably on a number of Vauxhall models used as a base by the tuning-shops and as recently as last February, in reporting on a road-test of the Magnum 2300 Estate, a colleague described current Vauxhalls as “excellent performing, beautifully styled, value-for-money cars”. As an aside, no-one at the aforesaid luncheon seemed anxious to explain why the name “Magnum” has replaced that of “Firenza” for normal Vauxhall models while “Firenza” has been transferred to the remarkably-styled, fast, latest-model, which we are all itching to drive; except that it is a nice name! I like to think that all this development, and the restoration of Vauxhall’s good and great name, has been influenced by resumed competition involvement of the Luton product, in various guises, via Dealer Team Vauxhall, news of the activities of which goes out commendably promptly to the Press.

The present VX 4/90 is, then, a sporting version of the medium-range Vauxhall saloons and, as such, is presumably just the sort of car to which enthusiastic family-men will now turn, apres-Budget, with costs to be cut and foreign cars said to be expensive to buy and maintain. The engine will pull smoothly from 1,500 r.p.m. in top gear and runs at 3,200 r.p.m. at an indicated 70 m.p.h.

Just how well the 1974 VX 4/90 goes can be illustrated by comparing the performance figures for the 1962 model, with its push-rod engine developing a gross 81 b.h.p. at 5,200 r.p.m., against the present car’s 116 b.h.p. at 5,000 r.p.m. on a far lower c.r. (8.5 to 1 against 9.3 to 1), the newer car having a wheelbase of 8′ 9″ instead of the more cramped one for 1962 of 8′ 4″.

Such is progress! On the road the presentday VX 4/90 handles well, has very nice, smooth-acting, light steering, and is only noisy if the engine is extended towards peak revs., the tachometer reading to 7,000 r.p.m. There was some exhaust reverberation occasionally and, of course, coming off a BMW, the body shell appeared to be a lightweight, with a few rattles.

The suspension, coil spring all round, is curiously unhappy on rough tracks, yet on the road does not appear to have been stiffened-up unduly to provide better-than-average handling. The brakes, a combination of disc and drum, have servo assistance, and work as modern brakes should. The gearbox is controlled by the usual, rather-long Vauxhall lever, which controls a good, only slightly baulky, change. One point must be stressed— the very full equipment of the car. The only extras deemed desirable on the test-car were exterior mirrors, Carello fog-lamps to supplement the dual Lucas headlamps, and a Vauxhall press-button radio. Otherwise, the standard mod. cons. are considerable, including a Triplex heated rear window, facia-level universally-adjustable fresh-air vents, adjustable, front seat squabs and two-speed electric screen-wipers with pulse action. Upholstery is in onyx perforated Ambler—which looks, and even smells, like leather these days.

Apart from full equipment, the modern VX 4/90 has an exceedingly useful fuel range. Cruising at “various speeds” for much of the M1 and M6 Motorways (the 50-limit was then in force), pottering about, and driving quickly from Mid-Wales to Swansea, the fuel consumption was a highly creditable 33.3 m.p.g. As the tank holds 14.1/4-gallons, this enables you to drive some 470 miles before refuelling. A hand choke-cunt-throttle is fitted.

This spacious, comfortable four-door saloon has a big boot, obstructed, however, by the upright spare wheel. The clearly-calibrated instrumentation covers oil pressure, time, fuel-contents and engine-heat, there are dual stalk-controls, a big if shallow un-lockable facia bin, and a sensibly-calibrated, if not too effective, heater. Overdrive has been deleted. The pull-out lamps-switch actuates also the facia and roof lighting and there is a fitted carpet. Vauxhall still operate their Quality Control procedures and Euro-Service 365 Maintenance Plan and the styling of the VX 4/90 is effective, the lines being like those of the Cortina which is a Dagenham Ford best-seller, but with the inclusion of traditional Vauxhall bonnet fluting. At one time Vauxhall used American makes of tyres, Firestone on the 1962 VX 4/90, but the 1974 car was on Pirellis.

Altogether, this Vauxhall is a 100 m.p.h., accelerative family saloon which should do well for Britain especially if our speed-limits are raised or eliminated on all roads. Prices have risen recently but at the time of the test and just before Labour’s “non-inflationary” Budget, the VX 4/90 sold for £1,527.50, automatic transmission costing £102.92 extra.

BMW 5201 and BMW 3.0Si

It is said that foreign cars cost too much when spares are required. This is not easily denied, so it is important to establish how often such expenditure is involved. The BMW 520i which has given me much pleasure for some considerable time has required only routine servicing in a matter of 11,300 miles. But the other day I was informed that it might have unsafe brakes. This was a question of whether the rear independent suspension might be chafing a brake line. It was a thing which could be rectified in half-an-hour or so, at BMW’s Great West Road Service Station.

While the four-cylinder car was being thus checked over, I was lent a 3.0Si, which might justifiably be called a BMW Big-Six. When it was brought to the office under Raymond Playfoot’s efficient delivery service we had to move two other BMWs before the 520i could be got out, such is MOTOR SPORT’S-recent BMW orientation. The 3.0Si was not truly a test-car, but I cannot resist from commenting on its smooth flexibility, and how pleasing it was to experience again the very good BMW power steering. I amused myself writing recently about the top cars of the early 1920s. It is reassuring to know that in this Healey-age (Chancellor, not car!) luxury vehicles are still available for those who deem them worth their price, as this Big Six BMW undoubtedly is. Under prevailing circumstances a rough check showed it to be giving rather better than 28 m.p.g., and when an XWX Michelin deflated over-night the jacking system was found to work easily.

The Fiat 126

From the sublime to the very useful. I have been using the ex-IOM Fiat 126 now for a distance of over 2,000 miles. It has given absolutely no trouble, although I once let the battery go “flat” through carelessly leaving the ignition on. This was soon put right by my Wynall W4 charger and proved that the battery is easy to remove and re-install in the front boot. I have given up checking the Fiat’s fuel consumption but it must be running at 48 m.p.g. at the very worst. I got better than 55 m.p.g. front a previous 126 by using more thrifty driving methods and I hope soon to be convinced that these entertaining and so-practical little Fiats can be made to achieve 60 m.p.g./50 m.p.h. simply by speaking sternly to the Weber….

Meanwhile, I find their air-cooled, twin-cylinder, motorcycle-engine-capacity Fiat 126 the ideal shopping hack, although I am quite happy to drive it 200 miles or more in a day, if necessary. I concede that if you must take four people in a tiny car a Mini or similar saloon is superior, although this is cruelty to both humans and cars. But as a two-seater with occasional child, dog or luggage space behind’ the main scats, you cannot beat for inexpensive first-cost, fuel economy and ruggedness the little fellow from Turin. It used to be the dictum that rear-engined cars could not be effectively heated within and that their remote gearboxes could never be nicely linked to the gear lever. VW gave the lie to the latter from Beetle days and now the 126 follows on with a most seductive gear shift, apart from which its heater is almost too effective, even in winter, and demists the rear window without need for hidden “electrickery”. The engine, too, has always been an instant starter, and this tiny Fiat can out-corner some notable larger cars.

Quite definitely a no-snags car, although after its seven days’ and nights’ thrash round and round the IOM motorcycle TT course by a Police team the brakes are beginning to feel tired, after more than 11,000 hard miles, but the Pirelli tyres have plenty of tread left.