The Editor’s Annual Discourse on Miscellaneous Aspects of the Motoring Scene
A young theological student — he had just made a long winter journey down from Mirfield College in a primitive Grand Prix Salmson, wearing his cassock for protection and remarking on the difficulty of coming down to a Christian speed in towns after mile after mile of fast cruising — once told me that the well-balanced citizen does not dwell too deeply in the past. The future is of greater importance.
However, that was before the advent of the H-bomb, Asian ‘flu, creeping inflation, and artificial earth-satellites; on the whole, I think now that it is more prudent to look backwards.
Certainly, as you wander through Earls Court Exhibition Hall on the occasion of yet another London Motor Show, it is hard not to recall many once-famous cars that have gone quietly out of production.
At the first post-Armistice Show luxury cars on the one hand and economy vehicles on the other fought for orders. A slump put paid to many of the illustrious designs in the former category, and the arrival of the Austin Seven sent most of the cyclecars and the cruder light cars packing. In a sense, each between-the-wars Motor Show emphasised a particular trend of mechanical fashion in the motoring firmament. For example, 1924 was undoubtedly “four-wheel-brake year” and uncomfortable was the salesman whose product was one of the very few still without this aid to rapid, skid-free stopping. Later there was a rash of the small six-cylinder cars, Armstrong-Siddeley and Wolseley Hornet pointing the way, and there was also a “straight-eight craze,” when those seeking the acme of smooth-running disregarded an inconveniently long bonnet and technicians had a splendid time arguing about the merits and demerits of different crankshaft arrangements and inlet manifold layouts.
Perhaps you remember the days of the Weymann and Gordon England flexible fabric bodies? The underlying idea was to find a body which would stand up to the weaving of a vintage chassis on bad roads, but the convenience of a car you could wipe over with a rag instead of polishing no doubt helped the theme along — until another innovation, in the form of independent front suspension, called for a rigid frame and undermined the reason d’etre of M. Weymann.
The trend continues, because last year’s Show saw the beginning of the abolition of clutch pedal or gear-lever, or both, and this Earls Court Exhibition is likely to go down as “disc brake year.”
It is nostalgic to look back on some of the very famous cars which caused critics and public alike to flock to the stands they occupied. The old Austin Company, now merely part of a vast Corporation, scored three undoubted “bull’s-eyes” with the famous Twenty, Twelve and Seven models. In the sports-car field announcement of the 3-litre Bentley, OE 30/98 Vauxhall and 3-litre Sunbeam created a storm of suspense and excitement, so that it is sad to realise that today’s Bentley is just a Rolls-Royce with a different radiator, the Vauxhall has become a scaled-down American family outfit, and the Sunbeam a fast Minx,.
Although famous names still remain, many of the great makes have lost their identity with the past. The Riley Nine took the world by storm when it appeared, in fashionable Monaco saloon form with that willing little high-camshaft, hemispherical-head engine, late in 1926. This year I shall not be surprised to encounter Riley fanatics wearing black armbands on Stand 160, since for the first time this fine car appears bereft of a Riley engine.
The British Motor Corporation has likewise removed some of the character from Austin, Wolseley, Morris and M.G. Apparently Big Business makes this pooling of engines, chassis components, and body pressings virtually inevitable; Hillman looks like a Rapier, a Ford Zephyr is outwardly similar to a Consul ,and in America a whole range not just of models but of makes stems from a limited number of engines and body pressings, skilfully juggled and disguised.
Change is inevitable, and as the years roll by relentlessly you find the names of once-famous cars on ‘buses and lorries, and motor-cycle makes distributed amongst the latest litter of miniature cars. Not all this to the good, but at least the present-day motor car represents excellent value-for-money, engines of all sizes achieve remarkable fuel economy (which is just as well, considering the price of petrol!), and it won’t be long before all cars obediently drive themselves with practically no intervention from their owners.
Inevitably prices tend to rise and will continue to do so while employees demand fatter and fatter pay packets. Incidentally, the profession to which I belong hasn’t forced a wage-increase since time immemorial, perhaps because technical writers are mostly non-U (which in this case means non-Union). So the journalist’s conscience is clear. And on this subject of the rising cost of living, all credit to Sir William Rootes, who has pegged the prices of his cars in spite of the increased cost of steel and labour. This is a courageous act, second only to that of Sir William Morris, who, with a slump in progress, slashed the price of his Morris-Cowley from £375 to under £300 on the eve of the 1921 Motor Show. Whether the rising cost of living will bring success to the new breed of miniature cars or whether Mr. P. W. Copelin, Managing Director of the Vauxhall Motor Company will be proved correct in his assumption (Victor sales support his contention) that there is a minimum size of motor car for optimum value, time alone will tell. Just as it remains to be seen whether the Industry will take notice of a statement made recently in Los Angeles by Mr. George Walker of the Ford Motor Company, who said that more attention to American styling in foreign cars could play an important role in bringing about a sound and dynamic economy in Europe.
On the subject of more personal economy, I have driven the new Fiat 500 and award its designer full marks for the manner in which it handles and covers the ground — but I am not deaf or addicted to wearing ear-plugs when I go motoring, and if I am to put up with the noise and necessarily cramped accommodation seemingly inseparable from a true miniature car I want not 50 but a regular 60 m.p.g. of cheap petrol. You cannot scale-down the human frame and I wonder, therefore, whether Citroen, with the 2 c.v., hasn’t the better answer to peasant-transport?
On this matter of the most minimum of motor cars, I read recently with pleasure an article in a weekly contemporary about the miniature cars at the Frankfurt Show, by one who was fortunate in being allowed by his paper to get free of his desk and roam far afield to personally inspect all the new German models. It was over the initials “H.M.,” who always commands my respect. On this occasion, however, I disagree mildly with certain of the opinions expressed. “H.M.” holds the view, which I have heard expressed before, that if miniature cars appear on the road in great numbers they may become an embarrassment to other drivers. While cyclists are permitted to saunter along two and three abreast and until horse-drawn drays are abolished from our roads, it is unfair to even the less frisky miniature cars to suggest that they constitute any greater obstruction. If it is maintained that cyclists, the well-behaved ones, pull over to let faster traffic pass, what of the hordes of “heavies” which occupy our roads, many of which cannot get up slight gradients at more than 15 m.p.h., belching cancer-producing black fumes, or exceed 30 m.p.h. on the level? Or trailer-caravans proceeding, from conscience or necessity, at the legal 30 m.p.h.? The slowest miniature car is surely both quicker and less wasteful of road and parking space? Certainly the Fiat 500 in no way represents an obstruction of the kind “H.M.” visualises. In his survey of the German miniatures he touches on the difficulty of endowing such vehicles with satisfactory suspension.
The 2 c.v. Citroen, apart from its advantages of passenger and freight accommodation and driver-visibility, seems to have most of the smaller specimens whacked, because, if its very supple, balanced springing does not “approximate to that of the larger cars to which we are accustomed,” at all events it is damned comfortable! I see that “H.M.” calls for 55 m.p.h. and 55 m.p.g. from tiny cars as the minimum target, but with the comfortable, conventional Standard Eight able to achieve 50 m.p.g. I would elevate the petrol consumption requirement of the miniature to a full 60 m.p.g.
When it comes to sports and high-performance cars the world dreams of Maseratis and Ferraris but, almost without exception, is forced to buy less-expensive cars. In this field Britain is able to supply some of the best, and such makes as Aston Martin, Frazer-Nash, Jaguar, M.G. and Triumph need no recommendation from Motor Sport beyond that given to them previously in our road-test reports.
In the field of high-performance allied to luxury this country makes cars without equal. In this specialised category Armstrong-Siddeley, Bentley, Bristol, Daimler, Jaguar, Lagonda, Princess (nee Austin), Rover and Rolls-Royce carry on admirably the tradition of a dignified past, when a red carpet was synonymous with the haze of sleeve-valve smoke, the whir of Lanchester epicyclics or the unobtrusive arrival of a Silver Ghost. Some of the beautifully appointed cars of 1957 also represent excellent value for money, notably the Rover 105S and 3.4 Jaguar saloons priced at less than £1,700 inclusive of a savage purchase tax.
When it comes to popular cars the Morris Minor 1000 and Wolseley 1,500 have a great deal to commend them and, were it not for the fact that I wake up in the night screaming about evaporated anti-freeze and loose hose-joints, I might consider replacing my faithful air-cooled saloon with one or the other. However; this much maligned little vehicle serves me as well now as it did when it was a shining new model nearly three years ago, handles better than before now that the back wheels are shod with Michelin “X” tyres, is only just beginning to consume a modest amount of Castrol, and has never boiled over or frozen-up. Admittedly I would like to see Wolfsburg lengthen the body by a few inches and put 1½-litre barrels on the astonishingly reliable engine, but, as with Citroen previously, they apparently don’t intend to make other than minor changes until sales fall off from their present sustained high level.
Meanwhile, I suppose British firms will continue to tell me that air-cooling doesn’t work, that independent rear suspension is unnecessary, and that the only conceivable place for the power unit is over the front wheels, with a water-radiator out in front of that, I had dared to hope that the British Motor Industry would introduce a host of advanced new cars at Earls Court this year. I can only hope they will do so in 1958 and that sales will be maintained meanwhile. Mercifully, our automobile exports have risen recently. But if European Free Trade is introduced have we cars that will be able to hold their own against such desirables as Alfa-Romeo Giulietta, Porsche, Renault Dauphine, Gordini, Borgward Isabella, D.K.W., Goggomobile, V8 B.M.W., Fiat 500 and other motor cars at which many readers of Motor Sport look enviously, only the figures on the price-tags preventing them from buying?
This time last year I attended a demonstration by Harry Ferguson Research Ltd. of a vehicle which was to provide traction and braking far superior to that of any existing motor car. This remarkable project of a remarkable man — Harry Ferguson once drove his famous tractor down the steps of Claridge’s to prove its adaptability to a doubting Russian reporter — has since hung fire, but just before the Show opened Mr. Ferguson told me that he is “working harder than ever and will be finished very shortly” and that his “is not a local project, but a whole world-wide project, compared with which our Ferguson System was a mere detail in commercial opportunity.” So I await further news with intense interest and feel perhaps I should murmur this warning to Wolfsburg and Detroit, Coventry and Luton . . .
Vanwall won three Grands Prix this year. Jaguar’s Ecurie Ecosse won at Le Mans. Let us follow up these triumphs with catalogue cars which will outsell foreign rivals in all categories. In particular, let the British Motor Industry listen without rancour to criticism of its products, the superiority of which it should prove in the world’s races and rallies.
I had intended looking only backwards in this article, so I will conclude by recalling a car which provoked a storm of criticism when it was first introduced, but which survived to become one of our most successful models, after its manufacturers had taken heed and altered some of the shortcomings which had received much publicity. That car was the 20-h.p. Rolls-Royce. As soon as it was announced and for months thereafter it was the subject of correspondence in The Autocar, which condemned, amongst other things, its three-speed gearbox, central gear-change, unit construction, hand-operated radiator shutters, imitation Delco coil ignition, and lack of front-wheel brakes. Throughout the deluge Rolls-Royce remained silent. One by one the critics ceased to condemn and, after being endowed with the classic right-hand gear-lever, a four-speed gearbox and front-wheel brakes, the Rolls-Royce Twenty became respected equally with its elder brother, the great 40/50 Silver Ghost. Indeed it became virtually the first Rolls-Royce-built Bentley, after being given a suitably different radiator, just as, they tell me, this is the sole difference between the modern Bentley and Rolls-Royce; to have the latter radiator is apparently a piece of snobbery that costs £150.
Rolls-Royce Ltd. tend to be conservative and although their present use of an i.o.e. valve layout kills the old legend that these cars were a triumph of manufacture over design, when I drove a modern Bentley last year I felt that there must be some explanation for the high proportion of braking power which is applied through the back wheels. Remembering that it wasn’t until 1925 that this company seriously introduced four-wheel braking of a kind which had been employed on the 1919 Hispano-Suiza and how, even then, they used smaller drums on the front than they did on the back wheels, the thought occurred that perhaps Rolls-Royce engineers have never really overcome their distrust of front-wheel brakes, which fashion forced them to provide, and that this may be the reason why I had to be careful not to use the full power of their mechanical servo system on slippery roads.
With this possible reminder that although the outward appearance of great cars has changed their character can remain deeply embedded in the past, I commend you to the great exhibition at Earls Court, where the cars of tomorrow make an impressive show in this brave old world. — W. B.