Matters of moment, May 1980

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A miscellany of mishaps 

“The answer is in the plural and they bounce” — Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, 1869-1944. 

Most of the news one sees or reads about these days is distinctly depressing and that which has a motoring flavour is no exception. First, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Geoffrey Howe, made “April fools” of us, as so many Chancellors have done before him. To increase vehicle-licence duty by 20% and petrol tax by 8% represents not just a fresh burden on savagely-mulcted car owners, but a price-burden on the whole Nation. With the increase in licence duty rising even more steeply for heavy commercial vehicles, this is a tax on Industrial transport that cannot but put up prices all round, in a time of run-away, galloping inflation. 

Those who fail to appreciate this, thinking that today’s car owners are sufficiently wealthy to withstand this small licence increase of £10 a year, fail to take into consideration the indisputable fact that more costly transport means more expensive goods. And if you know little about that, ask any housewife — she will know that a pint of milk now costs the equivalent of more than 3/-, an insignificant loaf of often indifferently-baked bread more than 6/6d. So, by increasing car-tax, which has gone up from £10 a year to the new £60 a year since the flat-rate method was first used in 1947, Sir Geoffrey has clobbered us all. Is there any wisdom in this, at a time when the spending cut-back in the public sector will reduce public transport services, making a private car more than ever a necessity in rural areas, especially with the Government trying to attract labour to such places, to deploy it where unemployment is heaviest? Note that on every gallon of petrol you buy you now contribute nearly 45½p in tax, and that motor taxation now brings in to the Government over £6,000,000,000 a year. Yet, of the so-called “Road Fund”, which Churchill raided in 1926, in future only about 30% of it will go towards upkeep of Britain’s vital road network . . . 

However, car owners have long been among the hardest hit of the community in terms of tax, the enormous essential usage of private cars by the work-force of the country not withstanding. However, there is nothing we can do about it at present, so let’s leave the mishap of the Budget and turn to other mishaps of May. Before we do so, though, we wonder how the petroleum world will explain away the fact that, in the midst of the alleged world-shortage of fuel, there is a glut of petrol in Britain at the moment, yet it costs more here than in Germany, although politicians pride themselves on Britain now being a major oil-producing nation, with the valuable spirit squirting out from the floor of the North Sea, and ICI petrol beginning to go on sale at the pumps? 

The next “mishap” concerns that great Easter marathon, the East African Safari Rally. G.P. will be explaining how it went, in his “Rally Review”, elsewhere in this issue. The sad truth has to be noted here, if only in fairness to the fact that we used to enthuse editorially when a car from Britain or Europe pulled off the top honours in this dusty shop-window for rugged motor cars, that again the Safari Rally has been won by Datsun. It must still be a tough event if Mercedes-Benz, which we regard as the best-engineered car in the world, suffered a broken back-axle on one of their competing cars! We have observed before that it is the Japs that British Leyland and the rest of the European motor manufacturers have to beat — that Nation of the Risen Sun that exported 3.2-million cars last year, but imported a mere 50,000 or less. A British publisher has just seen fit to release a full-scale book relating the high engineering standards and superb styling of Suzuki products, and Eberhardt von Kuenheim, BMW Chairman, has said that Britain needs to learn Japanese and understand the Japanese way of thinking if she is to combat the ever-expanding competition from the Orient. Of inflation and the last Budget we might say with Falstaff that “I can get no remedy against this consumption of the purse; borrowing only lingers and lingers it out, but the disease is incurable”; and we might well follow Hamlet over the Japanese menace: “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a seas of troubles, and by opposing end them? That is the question,” The BMW Chairman believes that the cure is not protectionism by imposing sanctions, but better products that customers will be satisfied, even eager, to buy . . .

Finally, for one more setback is surely enough for one month, as we close for Press comes news of the call-in of Lancia Betas due to rusted-through rear engine mounts, which it is said reduces the value of comparatively recent cars of this make and model to that of scrap. The full facts are not available and we are sorry for Andrew Andersz whose task it is to explain them, or explain them away, to the Media. Lancia has been for so long one of the most respected of cars, a grande marque. Now it appears as if the quotation which heads this Editorial applies, and bowed will be the heads of those who remember the sheer excellence of former Lancia top models, from advanced vintage Lambda to the splendid little Aprilia and the B20 GT and Aurelia, etc. Excessive salt on winter roads can be blamed for much deterioration of our prized motor cars — if it were not for the Demon Rust, think of the wonderful bargains there would have been in old Jaguars, Mk. IV Bentleys, Daimler Majestic Majors and the like — but this Lancia mishap would seem to be the worst manifestation yet. One hopes that the Lancia name will not go tarnished for too long, although maybe W.B. was right when, after road-testing a Beta 1800 in 1974, he observed that it was a refined car of considerable character that should give pleasure to the family-man while being acceptable to enthusiastic drivers and that at its then-price of £2,096 it had to be regarded as quite an achievement; however he concluded his report with the words: “But it is not a Lancia.” . . .