Matters of moment, May 1979


With petrol prices already rising, towards the expected £1 or more per gallon, there is one infallible way for one section of the motoring community to cut the cost of the essential fluid. That is to run a car that gives a lower m.p.g. than the one at present in use. The most elemental of arithmetic shows that one can cut the cost of the personal petrol-bill in half, simply by using, for instance, a car that does 36 m.p.g. in place of a car that consumes petrol at the rate of 18 m.p.g., or by using one that manages 44 m.p.g. instead of 22 m.p.g., and so on. The prospect of thus reducing the price of petrol to around a token 50p a gallon must surely have a wide appeal; or must eventually, as inflation, and prices generally, continue to rise.

While there are those, ourselves included, who may have preferred large, high-performance cars to the little ‘uns in the past, the prevailing and future economic trends point to growing usage of small, petroleconomical cars, even to there being something of a new Small Car Cult, from Reliant “Kitten Kraze” upwards. There was a time when even the leading racing drivers saw no shame in running minute motor cars. Indeed, the pre-war Fiat 500 or “Topolino” soon became quite the fashionable thing with them, and this was repeated after the war when many racing-drivers ran Cooper-Minis. Long before that the great Albert Divo did not regard a Citroen 5 CV as beneath his dignity and Earl Howe was happy to let his stable run from an enormous Mercedes-Benz to a little Fiat “Mouse”. In racing, some meritorious performances have been put up by cars with very modest engine capacities. At Le Mans, for instance, since the war, a 611 c.c. Monopole has won the Biennial Cup, a 614 c.c. Monopole the Index of Performance and the Biennial Cup, with a 611 c.c. Dyna-Panhard the runner-up, and there have been similar achievements along the years by 612 c.c. Panhard, 745 c.c. DB, 744 c.c. Lotus, 749 c.c. Osca, 702 c.c. DB, etc. Say, if you will, that the French seem to have had a knack of ensuring that these categories of their famous race went to National products (until Colin Chapman unseated them), the fact remains that tiny-engined sports/racing cars proved that they could last out the 24 hours at Le Mans at respectable average speeds. With the ever-rising costs of motoring, and of living generally, it seems logical to expect to set increasing interest taken in the smaller, more economical cars, for ordinary use. Great Britain is well suited to small cars, which became fashionable here in 1912 and which have had at least two magazines devoted to fostering them. Such cars have advanced so far since then in specification and performance that a new Small Car Cult seems likely. Only in ride and noise-level do they lose out to larger cars, if you accept that it is now regarded as criminal to drive at over 60 m.p.h. on ordinary roads or exceed 70 m.p.h. on our fine motorways. So it could be that soon all but the very largest of people, or those who hold status-symbolism sacred, will turn to smaller cars, in order to reduce their fuel bills by something approaching half those of the big cars they have been enjoying. If we are correct in this, there would seem to be a lucrative market for the first manufacturer who devotes attention to even better suspension and more effective sound-damping in a small-engined car.

We can see the New Cult becoming quite the smart-thing, as well-known motoring personalities vie with one another in owning the more desirable small cars. Some will probably go for those that combine the highest m.p.g. with the plushiest de luxe equipment, others for those giving the highest performance with not too much sacrifice in fuel economy. In this probable enthusiasm for this New Cult, a big contribution could be made by the tuning specialists, and by those who build better-than-standard bodywork, remembering how the former have obtained improved m.p.g. as well as higher m.p.h. from production engines, and how very refined, fully-equipped small cars have been made by Vanden Plas and others. It may be that, with British Leyland reduced to building Hondas in the smaller-car field, there will be a swing to Fiestas, Chevettes, “Fives”, Polos and Golfs, on the part of those who wish to keep sales within the EEC and the Japs at bay and here we may say that, after noting that five Japanese makes took the first five places in the TV “That’s Life” Esther Rantzen “motor-race” (which is really a reliability chart based on the experiences of that programme’s viewers with their cars) we asked how these findings were obtained, because this very influential television programme must have a great impact on potential new-car customers. We were not entirely happy that one car was picked out for a flaming embellishment because “it had caught fire and melted”, and that another car was ridiculed for “hopping like a kangaroo”, by “That’s Life”. No doubt the producers of such a widely-viewed and outspoken programme are 100% careful in how they reach their conclusions. Alas, we cannot tell you how they go about this because in spite of our written request for information, and several follow-up telephone calls, no reply has been received as we go to press from the lady with the memorable smile… .

Reverting to the probability of a cult for the smaller cars, there are already some effective top-of-the-range models of certain makes that merit the attention of those contemplating a move away from petrol-thirsty cars. The Ford 1.1-litre Fiesta S, with its glass roof-panel and many other deluxe amenities, which we have been driving recently, would seem to meet the requirements admirably.


With A General Election only a few days away as this issue of Motor Sport is published, may we offer you the thought that a great maiority of car owners would be likely to vote for the Party which promises to reduce the savage and increasing price of petrol by reducing the tax on such fuel, which tax represents a large proportion of the approaching £1 per gallon threat. This could surely be accomplished by spreading taxation over other commodities, especially tobacco and alcohol, thereby penalising the use of two things regarded as “suicidal” by do-gooders and welfare-staters, while giving a break for once to the “lethal weapons” that have been so over-taxed for so long, and increased taxation on which means a rise in the day-to-day cost of living for every one of us.

Then, it seems that the Seat-Belt Bill will again take a back seat. While encouraging those who belt-up voluntarily, we are opposed to compulsion. In fact, to bring in legislation making it a criminal offence not to strap oneself to one’s vehicle is seen to be unnecessary when the relevant statistics are studied. Thus, the MoT’s estimates of deaths that might be saved by compulsion are far too optimistic. As a letter in the Daily Telegraph has pointal out, the number of road-traffic deaths for all categories of road user is rather less than it was nearly 50 years ago, despite an increase in vehicles from about two-million to over 17-million. The injured, about 9/10ths of whom suffered quite minor injuries, increased by a factor of almost two, but the population has increased by approx. a quarter. Between 1972 and 1977 serious or fatal car accidents have been decreasing, and for many years here fatalities per vehicle mile have been half to a quarter of those in other industrialised countries. Taking the last year for which figures are available, car-occupant deaths in this country in 1976 were 2,520, whereas deaths from suicides totalled 4,246, from domestic accidents 6,250, from lung-cancer 37,090, the total from all causes being 660,000 deaths. The average car driver’s risk of an accident resulting in injury or death occurs once every 180 years, of sustaining serious injury once every 800 years, of being killed once every 10,000 years. In countries where seat belt compulsion is law, results have not been as satisfactory as was hoped, due partly to static belts being worn too loosely.

So, as the Telegraph correspondent we have quoted said, “Compulsory seat-belt wearing is therefore not a special case of overwhelming fundamental value, but a part of the impersonal some would say cold-blooded apparatus of the bureaucratic State. Many must feel that the case against compulsion is stronger than the case for it. As the number of inertia-reel belts increases, the wearing rate will almost certainly improve; but to compel the responsible citizen to forgo his freedom of choice would be as presumptuous and as dangerous as denying that an Englishman’s home is his castle”. Votes would be gained, we suggest, by the Party that promises not to waste any more of the time of the House on this matter of belt-up compulsion. Especially remembering that the Bill was thrown out in 1973, 1974 and 1976, and that drivers who pay exorbitant car and petrol taxes and who are persecuted by radar and parking-wardens will scarcely agree with the late Transport Under-Secretary that to drive unbelted is a minor appendage of the freedom to drive a motor car.


WE APOLOGISE for some unfortunate errors in last month’s issue. We all know that the Ferrari is a post-war make; the cars running on alcohol fuel in the 1936 Mille Miglia were not Ferraris but Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeos, and Mussolini’s Alfa Romeo ran on alcohol from Italian-stills, not on benzoic (p.444). In the caption to the picture on p.459 Ken Thomson is wrongly described as Reid Railton, and we regret the mis-spelling of Lt. Col. “Goldie” Gardner’s name throughout this article. Also, Gardner’s car had the chassis of the MG “Magic Magnette”, not that of the “Magic Midget”. In the E-type Jaguar picture on p.480 the year quoted should be 1975 as we had it in the text, not 1971. Mrs. Goff Imhoff’s name is Nina, not Nancy, as a correspondent wrote on Page 455.