Letters from Readers, November 1955

N.B. — Opinions expressed are those of our Correspondents and “Motor Sport” does not necessarily associate itself with them. Ed.

The Vintage-Car Controversy

Mr. Rawnit has revived the evergreen topic (or should I say hardy annual) of Vintage versus Modern. The letters in reply in your August issue are all thought-provoking and spur me to a few comments. I also have a suspicion that Mr. Rawnit is just having fun with us, but I don’t mind rising to a bait so long as it is a good one.

Flt.-Lieut. Peter Hull says. “. . . we have to face the fact that ‘acres of tin’ is inherent in modern design . . .” True enough except that for “acres of tin” it would be more correct to read “acres of porous sheet iron of somewhat unstable composition.” That is the grim and rusty truth of the matter, but if I were paying out what I consider a very fair price for a new car, say, £1,200 plus, I should feel morally entitled to aluminium panels and wings, and so be free from the nuisance of everlastingly chasing rust underneath and in all sorts of inaccessible places. Yes, I should look for that at least, and it would be rather nice to have a nickel-steel chassis frame, as some of the better cars of the 1920s had. But no doubt that is asking too touch in the 1950s.

I don’t think I am particularly pro-vintage — not really: I know as well as anyone that life cannot stand still and that to try to fix the past is, in the long run, to slip backwards. I keep my vintage Invicta for high days and holidays and try to hold an even balance. Perhaps I am too good at seeing both sides of an argument, but comparisons are instructive and it is interesting to attempt an assessment of Modern versus Vintage qualities. After all, it is part of the history of our time.

Well, here goes. I think that on the whole the current engines are intrinsically superior to those of the past (any past). If in most cases they do not last so long that is probably because they are designed to produce more power for a given weight and cylinder capacity. You cannot have it both ways and it is hardly a reflection on the engines themselves. If you took a good modern specimen and reduced its compression to a vintage figure of about 5½ to 1 it would probably last as long as any engine of the like size ever did.

A similar line of reasoning may well be applied to other units: gearboxes and back axles. I don’t like an entanglement of bits of wire and bell cranks extending by devious routes front the steering wheel to the gearbox but that again is nothing to do with the box as such. There was certainly no virtue in the old sliding pinion type of box and the fact that some of us may derive a snobbish satisfaction from our ability to use the things without making a noise every time argues a somewhat subjective virtue to say the least. It is not the fault of the units themselves if some of the manufacturers now tend to use them in sizes which are on the frail side for the weight and power of the particular vehicle. That last sentence may put it rather crudely, but I think it sums up the situation. The manufacturer knows that at all costs he must feed a steady supply of work to his chain of service stations. Hence the cars must not go on too long without wanting something done to them.

I agree with the Modernists that brakes today are universally superior, but the position does not seem to be quite so clear as regards steering and general handling qualities. It appears that in spite of our i.f.s. and under-steer, and all the rest of it, some of the current models are rather disappointing in these respects. But this is such a vast subject that I would rather not stick my neck out on one side or the other. I suspect that the judgment of any individual will depend largely on the qualities he is looking for.

As regards general accessibility for servicing and maintenance it is obvious that the modern car is in almost all cases much inferior to the product of the 1920s. I imagine that even the most enthusiastic partisans of modernism will hardly care to join issues on that proposition. Here again I think the service station angle has a lot to do with it, As I remarked above, these places have got to live and they perform a very important function. I am not grousing about it; I simply point it out as an economic fact which is inherent in the nature of the industry today. As a matter of fact I have been told by a man who was present that one of the greatest tycoons of the motor industry once said as much in the plainest possible terms in the course of a private talk to his senior executives and engineers.

But whatever we may think about modern engines, gearboxes, and back axles, it is the cars themselves which are another story. I mean the actual body shell and the chassis (if there is such a thing). I agree that in all probability nothing very different is possible for quantity-produced cars under present conditions, but that is no reason why we should like it. Most of these shells really have nothing solid in them and they are rusting away from inside almost before they get on the road. it seems that it is almost beyond the wit of man to prevent it. Stop it in one place and it promptly crops up in another.

And not the least important economic angle with these cars is the insurance one. The modern shell construction has proved to be fatally vulnerable if anything happens to brush against it. The breakers’ yards are littered with the carcasses of cars, some of them only a year or two old, which have received a knock and have been judged by the insurance engineers to be unrepairable. The engineer has advised his company to pay out a total loss and be done with it. With the cars of the 1920s repair was usually a fairly reasonable matter in similar circumstances.

After the war the insurance companies all had the idea that as the new models because available on the home market and the older cars disappeared off their books, their claims experience would improve. In the event they have been bitterly disillusioned. The contrary is proving to be the case and what is coming out is that the average modern car is not really amenable to any reasonable repair methods, that if once it gets bent it should be thrown away as you discard a tin kettle when it leaks. Unfortunately, they cost rather more money than tin kettles.

That is the position and if in due course you have to pay yet higher rates for insurance you will know why. In this matter it is part of my business to know the truth, but insurance companies are all naturally cautious and very slow to revise their underwriting arrangements. If the man in the branch office, or the inspector, tells you something different, please remember that they only know what their last printed instructions were, which may be two or three years old in some cases. They seldom have any idea of what is actually happening. Only a few men in the underwriting department know anything about that, and they will think rather more than twice before they reduce rates to anyone. In a department of the insurance business which hardly pays, or doesn’t pay at all, their natural tendency is to play for safety and tighten up on everything.

I will conclude on a more pleasant subject than the worries of underwriters. A few days ago I examined an 11.4 Humber of about 1924. It was shabby but showed signs of being well looked after, at least mechanically. There were few signs of corrosion (not as many as you expect to find on, say, a 1950 car) and the wings still felt solid and sound. It was really a pleasure to open and shut the doors. I did it several times just because they closed and latched themselves so sweetly: And that is after 31 years. The paint, what was left of it, looked like the original.

Of course, I could say as much, and a lot more, about my 1927 Invicta. The body structure is obviously as sound as it was when new. Recent investigation has confirmed that. For 28 years I have been waiting for signs of corrosion to appear on the aluminium wings and body panels. I am still waiting. As for the chassis, it is 3 per cent. nickel and I have never found any rust on it which was more than a microscopically thin surface oxidation, entirely free from pitting. Similarly there have never been any spreading of rust underneath the paint.

Yes sir, it is hardly surprising if some of us have a feeling about honesty in motor-car building.

By the way: on the subject of the “funny hats” which seem to have incurred the ire of certain people. According to my observations there is an average of one one funny hat in evidence at each V.S.C.C. meeting, and it is usually the same one! And in any case, why not? What’s wrong with a “funny hat”? What about motor cars with “funny” grins on their faces?

I am. Yours, etc.,
John Ahern.
London, N.W.8. 

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La Belle Citroën

Attracted by the editorial story “November Journey” (Motor Sport, December, 1953) and after due investigation. I had no misgivings in reversing the procedure of Croup-Captain Altham (Motor Sport, August, 1953). exchanging any vintage Rolls for a Citroën Big Fifteen.

Whereas the pre-war Derby products enjoy a standard of material and craftsmanship which we shall never see again they have no performance for present-day conditions, the Citroën gives use endless pleasure with its great stability, beautifully precise steering, wonderful springing and ability to get from A to B quicker than most other vehicles.

I would also like to acknowledge the thoughtful letter from “Tractioniste” (Motor Sport, February. 1954). Citroëns might do worse than to incorporate some extracts from his letter in their own inadequate instruction book, for correct servicing is of vital importance to these cars. Citroën agents have tales to tell of cars which are just not as good as they should be simply because of ignorant handling by garages who are not qualified to service or repair a Citroën.

Since “Tractioniste” pleads for those who may become second or third-hand owners of Citroëns may I assure him my car has been undersealed, greased with a lever-actuated grease gun at the correct intervals and had a Fram oil filter and a Drok upper cylinder lubricator.

I trust that when I exchange VPE 493 for another Citroën in due course its purchaser may continue to have the touble-free miles I have experienced.

I am, Yours, etc.,
C. K. Shone.
[. . . and wait, Sir, until you have seen the new Citroën DS19! — Ed.]

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Racing and the Catalogue Car

I was delighted to read your article on “Racing and the Catalogue Car.” This subject could not be over-emphasised and deserves reiteration in future issues.

Too much money seems to be spent on “prototypes” whose salient features rarely reach the production line. A good example is the chassis of a certain successful Le Mans competitor; after six years of “prototype” development, the production model still bears it no resemblance. The only parts which are common to both cars are about twenty years out of date and not always reliable. No doubt the improvement of the production breed is purely psychological.

How wonderful it would he to buy a catalogue model and, by intelligent super-tuning, convert it to a machine as potent as the current works vehicle (as you could in the Bentley days). Has anyone ever made an XK140 accelerate as rapidly as the D-type, and what about 200 m.p.h.?

The problem is not that the “prototypes” are too fast, but that the production models are too slow since they lag too far behind.

If a really good cheap sports car were manufactured tomorrow, which had an appeal as widespread as the Volkswagen, what would become of the vintage and pre-war cars which would suddenly appear on the market? Enlarged breakers’ yards, or perhaps a narrowingof the dollar gap?

Modern tycoons, some of whom seem peculiarly disinterested in motoring, would find it difficult to produce such a people’s sports car. At present, flashy appearance seems to be preferred to sound engineering design; apply this to the above, and the shoddy result would not bear contemplation. On the other hand, a small firm of enthusiasts would probably be able to produce exactly what is wanted.

Finally, have Triumph and Austin-Healey exactly the right idea? It seems, to the observer, that the interior trimming in these cars is rated higher by their makers than improved roadholding and more b.h.p.; their counterparts 30 years ago would have been called luxury touring cars. As for the delectable Ace: on inquiring of an Earls Court “salesrnan” (who was very occupied with its m.p.g. and luggage room) why the engine was not further tuned, he replied (in other words) that they didn’t want to, since, that would make it go faster! Obviously, tycoons’ brains operate differently from enthusiasts’.

I am, Yours, etc.,
C. B. Mynott.

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Cars in Films

Having read and contributed to, with great interest, your article “The Motor Car in Fiction,” I thought I simply must add my list of cars seen in films.

The first one which comes to my mind is the enormous “China Cabinet” style Hispano-Suiza in “Beat the Devil,” with Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre. This magnificent carriage, although destined for destruction in the film, was bid for by six members of the cast after shooting had been completed. Then there was the humble Hudson in the beginning of the “Glen Miller Story,” with James Stewart, which was replaced by a Pierce-Arrow later in the film.

In “Vice Versa” there was a very temperamental de Dion Bouton which had to be started by a blow from a mallet! Also, one remembers the yellow Austin Seven of one impecunious student which took part in the highly-amusing street chase in “Doctor in the House,” with Dirk Bogard. This also reminds me of the amusing incident which occurs at the beginning of “Doctor at Sea,” involving a Rolls-Royce and the small Standard of the young doctor.

Lastly I seem to remember a green Lagonda somewhere under an overwhelming pile of luggage being driven by a rather harassed Kenneth More in “Raising a Riot.”

I am, Yours. etc.,
M. J. Williams.

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A Callenge from the Anonymous Breed

After reading several copies of your magazine, the undersigned would require to know whether it is a publicity matter for Volkswagen, and wondered whether you have ever become acquainted with the successes of British motor cars.

The aforementioned challenge you to publish this.

We are, Yours, etc.
“British Bulldogs.”

[We gladly comply with your challenge, “Bulldogs,” but would remind you that it is hardly British to write anonymously to someone who openly declares his enthusiasm for genuinely good cars. — Ed].

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Large or Small Engines?

I agree with your correspondent Mr. Andrew Lloyd in his remarks “the main consideration is not the fact that the Bristol put up a rather better average but an appraisal as to which car would go on maintaining such averages the longer without running itself into expensive trouble.”

I am the unfortunate owner of a Bristol 404 sports coupé. It would be an ideal car for a driver who has no wish to exceed 50 m.p.h., but it is certainly no car for fast driving. My car (a 1955 model) has only completed approximately 5,000 miles, and has already been back to the factory three times. They can do nothing about my complaints, which are much too numerous to waste valuable space in your paper, and they state the car is normal. They also state the car is not designed for racing (I presume they mean fast driving), but the only racing my car has done is two laps in practice in the Leinster Trophy Car Race — approximately 16 miles, when the car had to be withdrawn as dangerous.

The Bristol people were aware when I purchased the car that I intended using it for competition work. Was I at fault, therefore, to believe the following (which is an extract from their catalogue)?

“The Bristol 404 2-litre sports coupé combines the high performance of a competition car with the docility and dignity of a town carriage.

“To permit full exploitation of the outstanding performance of the 404, with its high power/weight ratio, a powerful and efficient braking system is provided.”

The Bristol people might not like my remarks, but why do we never see a road-test for their 403, 404, or 405? Your readers might be very wise not to purchase a car which had not been road-tested by some reputable motor paper.

Incidentally, I notice the 404 is no longer being advertised; I believe this car has been known as “the businessman’s express” — yes, a very tired businessman!

I am, Yours, etc.,
J. Tookey.

[Motor Sport was allowed a Bristol 404 for extensive test this year and has been promised a 405 whenever the occasion arises. Perhaps it was unfair of Mr. Tookey to use a “businessman’s express” as a sports/racing car, and in any case the Bristol 404 and 403 have since been discontinued. — Ed.]

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That “Sunday Express” Attack on the VW

I was astonished and dismayed at the pathetic attempt of one of the Sunday newspaper’s motoring journalists to boost British motor cars!

Readers of that paper on October 9th will recollect that a VW was pictured with illustrated remarks alleging certain faults in it. The accompanying article compared this car with a “new British car nearest in its class.” A picture of the British car was not included and no mention was made of any faults found in it, and presumably there are none.

I imagine Mr. Glenton, the journalist concerned, now feels that the “worried” British motor manufacturers are relieved that the public are at last aware of the shortcomings of the product of one of their competitors and that the demand for British cars is now assured.

I feel sure that, in fact, Britain’s motor industry will deplore this example of bad taste in journalism and are quite confident of their ability to market and sell products by virtue of good quality of design and construction, rather than on the distorted and public exposure of the faults of their competitors.

Furthermore, Mr. Glenton should remember that while motorists or would-be motorists are always interested in road-test reports, they are quite capable of making the necessary comparisons to suit their personal needs.

I am; Yours, etc.,
S. H. Carter.
Ashtead, Surrey.

[This is but one of a great number of letters we have received, following Mr. Glenton’s distorted attempt to sneer at the VW in the Sunday Express. He presumably thereby hoped to stem the rising sales of a car which is proving its worth the world over, but none of our readers appears to have fallen for this journalistic stunt. The Editor of Motor Sport put a reply to Robert Glenton in the Post before 11 a.m. on the day the attack appeared, which, if it is published, should provide the answer our readers are urging us to make. — Ed.]

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Wanted: a Car-Purchasers’ Society

There is a point which I have not yet seen taken up by anyone in the correspondence or, indeed, in the pages of your much appreciated paper.

The motor industry has its trade association in the S.M.M.T. The distributors have the B.M.T.A. and the M.A.A., buy the motorist has none of these things. In other words, if he has justifiable cause for complaint as regards the implementation of the warranty or the service by the manufacturer or his agent, where does he go?

To illustrate my point, here is an example as to what happened to a very close friend. He purchased a British sports saloon costing over £1,500. After a few days’ motoring the clutch gave up the ghost and was repaired quickly and efficiently by the makers. Driving in the rain, water entered the car and the boot in several places. The car was about to be taken abroad and a temporary repair was effected, which reduced, but by no means cleared, the trouble.

After a Continental trip of some 1,800 miles a list was brought back itemising about twenty-five to thirty jobs which needed rectifying. The makers admitted liability to most of these and were prepared to put them right without charge. The owner, who like most of us needs the car every day for his business, asked for a car to be supplied to him whilst the aforementioned modifications and repairs were carried out, and was told by the makers that he could hire one from them. After a good deal of acrimonious telephoning and letter writing they deigned to reduce this hire charge by half. To get his car put right my friend had to accept this. After leaving the car for more than ten days, it was found that several of the items complained of still had not been done and a man had to be found on the spot to rectify these. Upon using the car for a few days it was found that water entered the body still to a very large degree, but now in another place to the one previously put right.

It is indeed a poor testimony for our specialist makers if a car with so many faults is allowed to leave the factory without adequate road-testing to find these snags and put them right before the customer takes delivery, not afterwards. And then, when a large number of items are admittedly wrong, to expect the customer to be penalised for having bought the car by making him pay hire charges whilst his own vehicle is put right. So I ask again, to whom does the unfortunate purchaser complain? The makers are not terribly interested (in this case the car was bought directly from the factory), so there is no one to whom to appeal. Small wonder, then, that there is so much “unpatriotic” enthusiasm in the columns of your journal and many others for the Continental vehicle, which, although by no means free from faults, at least has considerably fewer of them and bears strong witness of close inspection prior to leaving the makers. The stories (which may well be only 50 per cent. true) that reach one, of people taking delivery of mass-produced popular cars in this country and their failings, are legion. Could this possibly be a reason why European cars are out-selling ours on the most important Continental and Overseas markets?

For a variety of reasons I sign myself —
London. W.1.