The Editor’s annual discourse on various aspects of the motoring scene
Another Motor Show has come round so it behoves us to consider what sort of motor car it is that we require as we scan the glossy catalogues and study the sparkling exhibits. I understand that it is now practical to install a television set in a motor car, and someone suggested to me the other day, when I was expressing regret at the rapid spread of subtopia, that perhaps such a car will soon form an essential part of road travel in England, inasmuch as at least some of the occupants will be able to concentrate on the BBC or ITA programmes and thus ignore the horrors through which they are passing .. .
If you think I exaggerate the defilement which seems inseparable from transition from the steel-and-aluminium to the tin-and-plastics age, just take a look at what planting a bang-factory at Aldermaston has done to that once-beautiful part of Berkshire, or contemplate the line of pylons which now March across the Surrey heathland by Red Roads Hill (where, long, long ago motor-cycle and car trials enthusiasts used to enjoy their healthy sport) and on over Chobham Common, that one-time popular run from London for cyclecarists and light-car owners. Although this aerial wire mesh is bad enough as it is, I am surprised no one has sanctioned the attachment of advertising hoardings to the pylons as a sort of high-voltage reply to ITA.
Not only do factory sites and their accompanying blocks of dwellings (a friend refers to them as “breeding-boxes”—few people seem to appreciate houses these days) ruin the beauty of the countryside from which they arise, but their presence alters the character of the area for miles around. Even when you are sufficiently fortunate to skirt such desecration the presenee of new spoilation close at hand is hinted at by the streams of drab grit-lorries which make their way to and fro.
It sometimes seems to me that the atom-bomb is nature’s logical weapon against subtopia, because if man is foolish enough to blow-up and knock-down his creations by this means at least there will be room again for the grass and the trees.
All of which lends weight to the idea that for the present-day motorist a car with synthetic entertainment built into the back compartment may be the answer, or, for those unable to afford a paid driver, more ordinary vehicles, which, by possessing good powers of acceleration, speed and retardation, will occupy the minimum time on a given journey and thus will not prolong the misery of travel through subtopia. Daimler and Rolls-Royce in the former category will, I understand, be a feature of Earls Court. and there will he plenty of exhibits in the latter category.
On a brighter note, it is pleasing to observe that, in spite of pessimists’ prognostications, design-stagnation is as far away as ever. In the past we have seen significant developments in engine efficiency, the application of brakes to all four road wheels, the use of more supple springs in conjunction with independent front suspension: the next step would seem to be more efficient transmission of power to the road wheels.
Already the manually-operated gearbox is on the way out and the clutchless or fully-automatic transmission is emerging to the forefront of every designer’s mind. In America, where the horsepower race from big V8 overhead valve engines is raging, fullyautomatic transmission is general, the complexity and power-absorption of such transmissions being of little moment. In Europe the problem is how to couple an automatic transmission to lower-power engines, without killing performance until you have killed the sales of the car. Fleet operators, such as taxi and hire companies and commercial travellers, present the additional problem of providing such a transmission in foolproof and readily-serviced form. Yet, ere long, any car without such transmission will, except for sports models, be as much an oddity as a car without front-wheel brakes would have been in 1926. England, God bless her, pioneered such advances with the Daimler fluid-flywheel, and the Wilson preselector gearbox which was adopted for all Armstrong-Siddeley models; which makes it all the more regrettable to find that a make which combined both these aids to smooth progression, the Lanchester, has gone from amongst us, and that even Rolls-Royce have to borrow an automatic transmission from America!
American transmissions of this sort work—Heaven help you when they don’t—but much development remains to be done, because at present such automatic gearboxes swap cogs too soon, stifling good acceleration, they tend to jerk in spite of possessing highly complex hydro-electric “brains,” and they are suited only to powerful engines which possess good low-speed torque. However, “jerkomatic” transmissions has come to stay and it seems to me that the stage has been reached when a car should possess either fully automatic transmission or a decent close-ratio gearbox with a proper gear-lever rising from it. By this means those who cannot control machinery and those who delight in controlling it properly will both be catered for. I can see no use in continuing for more than a year or two with such half-measures as preselector gear-changes and automatic clutches: I include steering-column gear-levers controlling synchromesh gearboxes in this useless category. Already those French cars, the Citroen 2 cv and Renault 750, and our own small Standards, are available with automatic clutches to render the clutch pedal unnecessary, and it cannot be very long before more expensive cars will look very out-dated unless they have no gear-lever either. Some time ago I was driven by a well-known engineer and a Le Mans-winning racing driver in a Standard Vanguard saloon fitted with an automatic transmission far less complex than those now in production on the other side of the Atlantic. This is the Teramala hydraulic coupling, evolved after twenty years of research on the part of the Italian engineer, Count Piero Teramala, who before the war had brought his Salerni transmission to a sufficient pitch of perfection for a Riley so equipped to win the 1932 Torquay Rally, as readers with long memories may recall. Simplification of the moving parts has eliminated “buzzing up” and it is claimed that, far from increasing petrol consumption, the Teramala transmission gives slightly better mpg than an equivalent engine driving through a gearbox, that it functions smoothly, requires merely the addition of a forward/reverse gear, and that it can be manufactured inexpensively and without using elaborate castings.
Count Teramala is the “darling” of Harry Ferguson, and if his transmission is all that he considers it to be, it does seem that at last foolproof automatic transmission is round the corner and that the train of thought which was the outcome of the fluid flywheel, pre-selector gear-change (and magic like the Constantinesco torque-convertor), developments halted by the advent of the synchromesh gearbox, is about to be taken up again.
Even when automatic transmission of one form or another— already fully-automatic transmission is available on the following British cars : Armstrong, Austin, Bentley, Rolls, Humber, Jaguar, Rover and Wolseley—becomes as commonplace as hydraulic brakes, design will be in no fear of stagnating. There is the bigger problem of transmitting the power to the road wheels in the most efficient way possible and of improving the method of applying braking power to those wheels.
Harry Ferguson thinks he has the answer and many who have been shown his secrets, as I have, believe he is right. The solution may be to drive all four wheels, as is common for military and farm vehicles, and as was tried for racing by Spyker, Miller and Bugatti, as employed on the Railton Mobil-Special in which the late john Cobb motored in excess of 400 mph, and now on the Rover T3s.
The problem isn’t that easy, however, because the conventional four-wheel-drive vehicle scruffs off its tyres on a hard road. Merely providing a differential in the propeller-shaft coupling front and back axles as well as in the axles themselves simply negatives most of the advantages of four-wheel drive in thus eliminating excessive tyre wear. Harry Ferguson, who employs Claud Hill, late of Aston Martin, and Major Tony Rolt, late of Le Mans, on his engineering staff, has shown me his solution and maybe therein lies the car-of-the-future. The application of the Ferguson principle also vastly improves braking efficiency, but I fear that amongst the front-engined, water-cooled, cart-sprung exhibits of British manufacturers at Earls Court we shall see little indication that the problems of automatic transmission, better traction and safer braking are being tackled.
However, it is obvious that great strides should be possible in the next few years, along the lines of mass-production of disc brakes, the simple replacement of brake-pads on disc brakes (pioneered by Dunlop on this year’s Le Mans Jaguars), interconnected suspension, as adopted for vehicles as far apart as the Citroen 2 cv and the Packard, and methods of preventing locking wheels when braking on slippery surfaces, which Citroen has looked to in the DS19 and aircraft engineers already understand.
Another development will be that of universal plastics construction. We have seen in two decades the channel-section chassis frame give way to unitary body/chassis construction in Europe, box-section, heavily-braced frames in America and tubular space-frames for specialised sports cars. Now the all-plastic body/frame looks like an important future development, and one which will kill the menace of the body-presses wagging the tail of the production lines and styling changes involving manufacturers in overheads running into millions of pounds—the new Berkeley miniature sports-car points the way in this direction. Incidentally, it is interesting to see how one development leads to another—front-wheel brakes rendered rigid, front-axle beams unacceptable, which made way for independent front suspension, which rendered practical the use of low-pressure tyres, which focused attention on comfort, calling for rigid chassis, or unitary frame/body structures, which spelt independent rear suspension, and so on. Similarly, crowded roads and the great increase in the motoring population, embracing more and more lady drivers, call for simplified transmission systems and better braking. Tyres themselves have been the subject of recent development, for the tubeless type eliminates the nightmare of a puncture and tyre wear can virtually be ignored—I have covered over 30,000 miles on normal Michelins without a puncture and with tread still left on each of the five covers on my Volkswagen.
Most of the foregoing intriguing matters are for next year or the year after, and our present concern must be to find the car best suited to our purse and purpose. In looking at the main specification it is easy to overlook the details, but these are important in a car you are to occupy for a considerable number of hours each week. I have personal fads and am, for example, grateful that the car I drive at present has its screen-wipers wired independently of the ignition circuit, so that when stationary with the engine off I can still see what is ahead of me, and any scenery which may be worth looking at. Similarly, I am delighted to have a reserve petrol tap—so much more decisive than the warning needle on a petrol gauge—and a petrol tank that can be filled easily from a can, the bonnet, incidentally, protecting the generous orifice from rain while filling is in progress. Incidentally, at one time I would have agreed that to have a car without a starting-handle was a bad thing, but it is only fair to say that the little 6-volt Exide battery in the aforesaid car, although in no way pampered and now 19 months old, has never failed to start the engine, even after five-day spells, of inactivity in the open.
I like the doors of a car to shut decisively, even if it is necessary to open a window to enable them to do so, for then you know they are water and dust-proof. I do not love a foot-dipper because with it, sooner or later, you have to dazzle someone momentarily while you use the clutch pedal to change gear. An interior lamp which illuminates the car’s interior when the doors are opened imparts an air of luxury to any class of vehicle, and I am exceedingly fond of those excellent Continental-style lamp-consoles which protrude stalk-like under one’s hand from the steering column. Quite why at driver is thought to need a warning lamp to tell him he has his headlamps full on I can just comprehend, but I do not understand at all why this warning lamp should project a violent mauve light into his eyes ! In an age of warning lights and indlicators instead of gauges, a proper oil gauge or water thermometer is an asset indeed, and I prefer direction indicators to “flashers,”– nor am I troubled if I am required to cancel these by hand. I particularly like a car which, merely by locking the doors, render petrol and tools immune from pilfering— and its as a firm believer in Castrol as a masterpiece in oil, and a lover of freedom, I am dead against the tied-garage system. And,finally, although the years roll by, l can still manage to manipulate a gear-lever and possess sufficient strength to turn a steering wheel unaided . . .
These fads may not be your fads, but Earls Court is the place at which to compare one car with another in respect of those details which will add or detract considerably from your enjoyment when you sally forth on the open road, bound (can you find it ?) for our glorious countryside.—WB.
Looking back with Mr.H.W.Butcher
From time to time Mr. Harold Butcher has shown interest in items about happenings in the Herefordshire country where he grew up which have appeared in Motor Sport and, realising…
V-E-V Miscellany, March 1978, March 1978
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