Picking up Sam's Gauntlet
[IN THE AUGUST ISSUE CECIL CLUTTON PERPETRATED HIS CONTROVERSAL ARTICLE “VINTAGE – MODERN AXIS.” HERE IS A REPLY, FROM AN EXPERIENCED MOTORIST, AND, LET US WHISPER, ONE WHO OWNS A “30/98” VAUXHALL AND A FRAZER-NASH.—ED.]
IT is with roughly the feelings that might be experienced by a 5 ft. tall bibliophile if condemned, in some fanciful dream, to ten three-minute rounds with Tommy Farr, that the writer pens the following comments on the article published in the August issue of MOTOR SPORT, under the heading of “Vintage-Modern Axis.”
Mr. Clutton’s experience is such as to equip him as a candidate for dictatorship of either age, and the writer offers as an excuse for venturing this criticism the fact that he has owned and consequently driven for many thousands of miles the finest examples of vintage cars of the 1920-1930 era, as well as a representative selection of modern types. Without experience of both sides of the picture accurate criticism is impossible.
Mr. Clutton’s article ranges from Bentley to Austin Seven, and covers on its way a selection of Continental cars of all types. It is essentially a comparison: a comparison between cars—not exclusively “sports-cars” in the strict or vintage sense of the word—made in the two periods 1920-1930 and 1930-1940. This comparison is fundamentally unsound. It presupposes that the modern era offers types which may be compared. With the exception of the Bugatti and H.R.G. it does not. This is no fault of the designers or manufacturers: the blame, if blame it be, lies with the people who buy the cars. They pay the piper and, traditionally, they call the tune.
No longer is there a market for a machine of indifferent comfort, lamentably lacking in weather protection and needing a strong arm to start and steer it, and the assistance of an even stronger leg to stop it. Now are wanted roomy, draught-free bodies, voluptuous comfort for conductor and companion, and irreproachable reliability. Add, when considering Transatlantic examples, coachwork with curves as seductive as a Cochran Chorus, and you have a picture of the ware s of the dealer of to day.
And who shall say that in thus deifying these sybaritic attributes the modern buyer is more in error than he who in previous years worshipped at the shrine of Power?.
The vintage type car is not wanted to-day—from Mr Clutton’s own pen we have proof. The type 57 and 57C Bugattis are, to use his own worth, “the apotheosis of Vintage design.” Now there is a saying which runs roughly: “If a man . . . . make a better mousetrap than his neighbour, though he build his house in a wood, the world will make a beaten track to his door.”
So if the modern motoring enthusiast wanted the vintage tradition in modern form, logically the “Maid of Kent” should be packed with pilgrims to Molsheim every time she leaves the shores of Dover. But she is (or was) not, even though with a chassis price of under £700 the Type 57 Bugatti is probably the finest value in “good” cars. that is to be had. Yet the roads to Cowley and Coventry grow more congested every day. The “Jew-boy’s Bentley” has captivated all creeds.
It is patent even without the evidence of the Bugatti that the past ten years have given sufficient enlightenment to builders to make a car to vintage design that would be an all-round advance on its prototype. The “30/98” Vauxhall was an amazing car, but its most ardent admirers must agree that its brakes, be they “string” or “water” type, would suffer by comparison with the modern “mechanical” or “hydraulic” equivalent. With modern metals and knowledge a magnificent “New-Vintage 30/98” could be produced. And who would buy it?
It will be argued that our taxation system has resulted in the death of such cars as the “30/98” Vauxhall, the bigger Bentleys and the “38/250” Mercédès-Benz, and the resurrection, from their ashes, of a race of undersized fledglings—M.G.s, Singers, B.S.A.s, and Morgans. All these command ready sales, but the one true vintage type, the H.R.G., is far less favoured. The H.R.G. is as simple almost as the G.N. to which H. R. Godfrey gave his initial years ago: of low horse-power, it goes nearly as fast as the average “30/98,” twice as far on a gallon of petrol, and it stops and steers admirably. And how many are to be seen on the road?
With the modern Bentley Mr. Clutton is scathing: the V12 Lagonda may be all right in a year or so, and he deigns even to mention a class yclept (by MOTOR SPORT) the Anglo-American Sports Bastard.
Perhaps here a story may be related. The writer was driving a “30/98” Vauxhall one day, fast, down A5. Into the driving mirror came the image of a car still well behind, but catching up. Instinctively, it is feared, the “30/98” increased speed and the chase was up. It culminated 20 miles further on—at one of those all too frequent places where strong men dig a big hole in the highway and post a revolving disc with, seemingly, one word—”Stop”—written on it, in charge of an expectorating ancient. Daring the enforced wait the driver of the modern Bentley—for such was the make of the pursuing car—proposed a large one at the nearest, over which incidents of the chase might be discussed. Bluntly, the Bentley (that conglomeration of all that is horrid—vide C.C.) had, in spite of its comfortable saloon body, held a really good “30/98.” The maxima were almost identical and in the matter of brakes it is the sincere hope of the writer that the Bentley driver’s nervous system was not stressed as was his own. In short, the car so much maligned by Mr. Clutton did all that the much vaunted “30/98” could do, in greater safety, greater comfort, greater silence, and, oh, so much less strain on the driver.
It would be idle to argue that the American sports or semi-sports cars could have lived in that chase, but by virtue of their large engines and light bodies they offer acceleration figures which make up for the fact that corners must be taken slowly unless one wants to run completely out of road at inconvenient moments. Their comfort is that of a club armchair, their price amazing, and if something goes wrong, the next garage round the corner will install a new engine complete for about the price of putting a big-end in one of the more expensive English makes.
There echoes from every vintage stronghold—”Ah, but the modern car won’t last—where will it be in ten years, in five years time?” Perhaps somebody one day will explain why a car should last. It is no more logical to demand at least ten years life than it is to suggest that your girl friend should wear this year’s hat for the next three seasons. [Or that you should keep the same girlfriend for three seasons.–Ed.] Each succeeding year brings improvements, so why not have them every year? There is not one motorist in five thousand to-day who cares twopence whether his car has independent front suspension (except to boast about to his friends), so long as he does not get jolted over that rough bit of road on the way to the golf club. Or who minds whether his steering is Bugatti or V8 Ford so long as he can get round that awkward corner by the cinema car park. Price, and the size and shape of the body, sell cars to-day.
Mr. Clutton having for two powerful pages damned the British efforts, turns towards the end of the article to an eloquent eulogy of the smaller Continental cars. He mentions the 1,100 c.c. “Balilla” Fiats as “having been raced with great distinction, especially in the hands of Gordini . . . . ” Have not M.G.s in a variety of sizes been raced with far greater distinction in the hands of drivers in many instances less capable and experienced than Gordini? The origin of this legend that Continental cars are better than our own has ever been elusive.
A well-known member of the V.S.C.C., compelled by present circumstances to journey in a modern 9 h.p. saloon, gave a demonstration drive to other Vintage enthusiasts not very long ago. Things that happened on corners and during the brake test would have made Dunlop shareholders rub their hands in anticipation of next year’s improved sales, and a somewhat breathless party was decanted at the saloon bar entrance. From behind a pot a voice, timid as though it knew that “walls have ears,” said, “You know, if that car had its speedometer marked in kilometres and had been built in Bergamo or Berlin we’d hail it as a masterpiece of automobile design.” Perhaps it’s just the British tradition that nothing goad comes from Britain until it is history.
Perhaps it is because British layout and bodywork are conventional that the unusual in the Lancia and Fiat 500 most be revered. The Rover Fourteen may be compared with the Lancia or (Mr. Clutton’s word again) the “admirable” Citroen. The Rover is better finished and lacks the smell and drumming of the Lancia and the weighty steering of the Citroen, and the bill is less. The Fiat 500 became a popular pet and sold largely on its adequate accommodation for a very small tax. The Austin, less picturesque, has quite as much room, is infinitely more reliable and does not rely on an engine that screams to high heaven to get performance. The Austin has tradition behind it, and the public, realizing this, refuses to be seduced from its sanity by the temporary appeal of an untested termite from Turin.
The British small car Mr. Clutton dismisses as inferior to the French Peugeots and Citroens. He offers no explanation. Is it not surprising, if this were true, that the name M.G. appears in so many sports-car competition results, both at home and abroad? Do the names of Peugeot or Citroen?
An effort has been made to show that even if modern cars are breaking away from the traditions dear to the Vintage enthusiasts’ hearts, all is not lost. Mr. Jones the tinker, Mr. Smith the tailor, Mr. Brown the candlestick maker, rich or poor, can take their families to the seaside on Sunday (plus a perambulator, four deck chairs and a picnic basket) in their 8 h.p. British baby and return with hands, however sticky with Margate rock, unsoiled by handling the tool kit, and knuckles not bared by winding the handle. Trials hills can be climbed that failed everyone a decade ago. From the minor speed event to the world’s record, times have come down and speeds gone up. All this during ten decadent years? Ask the next man you see putting 1/11½d. worth of cooking petrol into the tank of his 1939 motor-car, and he will tell you that all is right in the world of cars.
[Any more to be said, on either side?— Ed.]