Contrast in Cars

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In a series of pre-show tests the editor experiences —

The excellence of the Jaguar

The chic of the Vauxhall Victor

The frugality of the Fiat 500

In order to remind myself, before being confined to Earls Court and confronted with the artificiality of glittering cars on show stands, that a motor car’s correct habitat is out on the road, negotiating heavy traffic, hitting it up along arterial highways or storming the high passes, I was able, on my return from Monza, to lay on road-tests of three strikingly contrasting cars.

The Jaguar Mk. VIII

First there arrived at the office in all its bulk and splendour a Mk. VIII Jaguar Automatic. Not the most appropriate Jaguar for a Motor Sport test, you might think. But I made the best of it, metaphorically turning myself into a moderately-affluent Company Director, not quite able to encompass a chauffeur-driven Bentley or Rolls-Royce (it’s a question of the radiator, Snodgrass!) but requiring an impressive, comfortable car capable of virtually driving itself.

Having — again metaphorically — donned black coat and striped trousers and dictated the last cable to a slim ash-blonde secretary, I ascended into the broad driving seat of the Mk. VIII and set out to discover what Sir William Lyons’ most opulent model is like. The external impression of a very large, startlingly wide car of commendable dignity persists for some miles, but it isn’t long before you discover that the handling qualities are such that driving the Mk. VIII in heavy traffic and along narrow streets isn’t the nightmare you expected it to be. The steering is a bit spongy and requires no less than 4½ turns lock-to-lock but the lock is good and the task of getting the car straight after a corner is facilitated by exceedingly powerful castor return action. Decidedly heavy to park, so that automation applied to the steering as well as to the transmission would make sense, the action is pleasantly smooth and light in ordinary use, nor are road shocks transmitted. Moreover, the Jaguar corners with precision and there is no disconcerting roll-oversteer to spoil one’s judgment in swinging back into the traffic stream after a piece of rapid overtaking.

The brakes, too, vacuum-servo assisted, call for praise, because a mere caress of the pedal stops the big car very easily from high cruising speeds. The action is vice-free and gently progressive, only emergency anchorage resulting in mild judder and some squeal.

To a gentleman used to dominating the Board Room and perfunctorily sending juniors about their business, a few near-misses due to restricted visibility, until the driving seat has been raised or a cushion inserted under the striped pants, is not likely to be a matter of great concern, but the fact remains that the screen pillars are rather thick and the driving position low — Mk. VIIIs encountered coming towards me seemed invariably to be driven by a bald dome bisected by the rim of the steering wheel. Presumably the average Jaguar owner has attained a position in life where he is immune to the embarrassment of attracting attention, because as handed over the tyres squealed loudly at every change of direction. More air in the Dunlop “Road Speeds” effected a cure and improved stability at the expense of a rather harsher ride. The suspension is not unduly soft, although heavy braking dips the bonnet, to the detriment of caviar and champagne attempting to avoid too intimate acquaintance within the ample Directorial stomach.

There is no question but that the Jaguar Automatic is profoundly easy to drive. It has but two pedals, a broad brake pedal and a treadle-type accelerator. All gear-changing is automatic, a lever behind the steering wheel selecting P, N, D, L or R, after which it is left severely alone. These symbols, gently illuminated after dark, stand for Park (to hold the car safely at rest), Neutral (without which you cannot operate the starter), Drive (which is obvious), Low (required only when the timid descend an Alp) and Reverse. Otherwise, all is done for you by the well-trained Borg-Warner slave-gremlins beneath the floor. In London traffic very attractive; elsewhere a lazy way of enjoying motoring. But I cannot altogether agree with Stirling Moss that such transmission is the ideal. Approaching a corner there is the frustration of not being able to change-down manually, and although the Jaguar is arranged so that kick-down on the accelerator selects a lower ratio, there is a delay factor in thus obtaining maximum acceleration which could be lethal when overtaking slower vehicles with superfine judgment. Moreover, although normally the Borg-Warner transmission works very smoothly, enthusiastic tramping on the gas does stir matters to the point of jerkiness. But stay, I am a Company Director who doesn’t want the trouble of changing cogs for himself, and if the drag of the automatic gearbox, coupled to the very real performance available from the 3½-litre Jaguar engine spells fuel consumption in the region of 17½ m.p.g., falling to around 14 m.p.g. if you hurry, what is that to one motoring on an Expenses Account?

In fact, there is provision for the enthusiast to quell the Borg-Warner gremlins in the pursuit of greater performance. If I find myself in a gear-leverless automobile I prefer to resign myself to it and have little use for an overriding appendage that requires to be used like a gear-lever. Yet to have Mr. B.-W. change-up early and ignore power that should be there for acceleration is exasperating. Jaguar neatly provide for this with a little flick lever on the screen sill which enables you to hold in middle speed without automatic interference. Using this it is desirable to cast an eye at the tachometer, because the 190-b.h.p. twin-cam, twin S.U., six-cylinder engine goes smoothly to its normal rev.-limit of 5,500 r.p.m. and beyond, providing a maximum of over 80 m.p.h. in this gear, which disposes of long columns of perambulating tin-ware. Normally, automatic upward changes occur at 39 and 68 m.p.h.

That the Jaguar possesses remarkable performance for its size is evident from its maximum of well over 100 m.p.h. and acceleration in the order of 0-50 m.p.h. in 9 sec., 0-80 m.p.h. in 20 sec., and a s.s. ¼-mile in 18½ sec. It is essentially the modern equivalent of the old royal Daimlers and regal Rolls-Royces — a car which builds business prestige and provides first-class travel away from the anxiety of bulls and bears and inflationary spirals! The engine, inaudible when idling or cruising the car at 80, a little intrusive if acceleration is the requirement, has won many Le Mans races, and the car itself handles sufficiently well to win a Monte Carlo Rally — in the hands of a certain Mr. Adams; to whom, however, renewed congratulations!

Apart altogether from its road performance, the Jaguar will in no way disappoint those whose companies have spent £1,997 on one. The appointments blend in completeness and practicability to a point where surely there is nothing more, or greater luxury, to crave — in this respect the Mk. VIII is the equal of motor vehicles priced at more than twice its figure. Only the few minor rattles which intrude — there was, too, a trace of petrol fumes with full tanks—remind you that this sumptuous saloon hails not from Crewe — and can be bought for so much less than £5,700.

To endorse this, let us go over the interior appointments. The instrument panel, screen and window sills and the lining of the roof and pillars are in restrained polished wood. The deep seats have sensible armrests and are upholstered in soft leather, and on the floor are thick pile carpets. Extendable ash-trays are exactly to hand, the rigid pockets provide ideal stowage for the day’s Times, the inside door handles incorporate the neatest of trigger releases, and there is a clock — not functioning on the test car — in the rear compartment. There are cubbyholes both sides of the facia, with polished-wood lids, the passenger’s lockable, and the action of the catches, and the smooth movement of the lamps-switch, denotes more than words can convey the dignified luxury underlying the purpose of the Jaguar.

The steering-column is adjustable, the instruments are recessed in the panel, and lit by non-dazzle violet lighting. The foot headlamps dipper is a big rubber-covered knob working, again, with a pleasantly light action. The heater has a simple knob and fan-switch control, the push-button H.M.V. radio works admirably, cigar lighters flank the door pillars in addition to one on the facia, and separate fuel contents gauge, small ammeter and combined oil pressure and water-temperature gauge are provided. Oil pressure is normally 60 lb./sq. in. and water temperature stays at 70 deg. C. with an odd tendency for the gauge needle to surge. The Smiths speedometer and tachometer read, respectively, to 120 m.p.h. and 6,000 r.p.m. (the “red” is from 5,500-6,000 r.p.m.). About the only details over which Sir William’s minnions have nodded are the masking of the total mileage reading when the speedometer needle is at its customary 80/90 m.p.h. and interference with vision of the central rear-view mirror — which is of the excellent flick-for-anti-dazzle variety. A very useful passenger’s map pocket under the facia, turn-button locks for all doors, fresh-air ducts opened by two wire handles beneath the scuttle, an air-vent in the scuttle quickly openable by giving a tiny control a half-turn, recessed interior lamps in the rear compartment, very high seat backs, opening quarter-lights for the back windows, two-speed screen wipers, map lamp, screen squirts, a little under-facia handle which winds out the radio aerial in 6½ turns, swing-up “pulls” for the rear-seat occupants, anti-dazzle vizors, with mirror in the passenger’s, which clip onto the roof (but they don’t swivel sideways), and a grab-handle for the front-seat passenger are some of the Mk. VIII’s “showroom” features.

Even now the list isn’t exhausted. There are picnic tables on the back of the front-seat squab and a useful magazine container, hidden compartments conceal, respectively, a tool-kit in the off-side and a grease-gun in the near-side front doors, the full-beam indicator lamp is sensibly subdued, a window illuminates “TRF” when the direction flashers are in use (these didn’t always self-cancel efficiently), the heavy doors have strong spring-loaded cam-and-roller “keeps,” and lockable flaps incorporating the caps comprise the petrol fillers in each rear wing. The Jaguar has two separate petrol tanks, one holding eight, the other nine gallons, providing an automatic reserve from a facia change-over control, and a fast-touring range of nearly 300 miles. The front-door windows call for only two turns of the handles to open them fully; the rear windows 2¼ turns. The front passenger’s quarter-window was very stiff to open; with these open wind noise is appreciable.

Splendid, indeed, the Jaguar Mk. VIII has a sun roof. Under the bonnet reposes that beautifully-finished twin-cam engine. The luggage boot lid is easily released by unlocking and turning the left-hand handle, and the lid is automatically held open, or released, by the aid of an enormous internal strut. The capacity of the luggage boot is ample for the biggest collection of golf-bags, fishing tackle and seal-skin suitcases it is possible to conceive, although the spare wheel is also accommodated therein, vertically mounted.

To conclude, this is not a car for the Toads of this world but it represents fast, safe transport for all save morons. In company with the Dunlop disc-braked 2.4 and 3.4-litre Jaguars, it is a very fast, very luxurious saloon, the like of which isn’t made in America or on the Continent of Europe, so that the Coventry firm is likely to continue to obtain valuable export orders. Whether the Company Director owner would have appreciated the brake squeal and blown exhaust gasket the test car developed I don’t know, because this happened after I had disposed of it to the photographer. But I really wouldn’t mind a Mk. VIII myself. Mon Dieu, I must be ageing.

The Vauxhall Victor

The next car which came along for trial was the much-discussed Vauxhall Victor. I was loath to depart from my metaphorical Company Director status and wondered whether if I directed a quite small company, or if the Shareholders had been difficult over Dividends, a Vauxhall couldn’t justifiably replace the Jaguar. However, Luton sent along a normal Victor and I felt sure that if I were able to write-off a vehicle against Income Tax I should have specified a Victor Super. So I decided to take on the guise of a modern young man living, no doubt in Barnet, in a modern house with conspicuous sun-trap roof and white paint, with a wife, slim and stylish — but not, I hope, addicted to “the sack” as a fashion trend. Accordingly I metaphorically put on my best suit and suede shoes, picked up my bowler and tightly-rolled umbrella, tapped the barometer (if you have a sun-roof you presumably have a barometer), and set off to congested Wardour Street. Here, Shaw and Kilburn extracted the Press Victor from their garage after much complicated shuffling round of other people’s Victors, which gives their drivers excellent practice in manoeuvring in confined spaces but must give their fire-insurance brokers grey hairs.

At last I was away and the immediate impression was how easy the latest Vauxhall is to drive. In the press of rush-hour Oxford Street traffic I found it easy to combat the taxis, visibility through the panoramic windscreen and rear window being a great feature of the Victor, while the steering is light and quick and the gear-change easy, enhanced by synchromesh on the lowest ratio. There is less roll than I had anticipated from brief acquaintance of an early model.

I began to understand the success of the Victor — there is visible evidence on our roads that it is already selling strongly. On paper there is nothing advanced or particularly attractive about its specification, which embraces non-independent “cart-spring” rear suspension, a three-speed gearbox which is never attractive on a small-engined car, and Americanised styling which I consider vulgar. However, the more miles I piled up in this 1½-litre Pontiac the more I began to understand its appeal to the ordinary motorist. It looks modern in a trans-Atlantic way, is commendably easy to drive, is “sure-footed” even on wet roads, and it undercuts the Austin A55, Ford Consul, Morris Cowley and Wolseley 1,500 in price, while Rootes only compete on this score by simplification of the Hillman Minx.

That, of course, is not the whole story. The Victor hasn’t quite the acceleration or speed of the A55 or Minx in spite of a rather more powerful engine, it is thirstier, yet interior space is about comparable — and the more compact Wolseley 1,500 will leave it well behind. Yet at the price undoubtedly it fulfills a demand, not only here but in Export markets. There is room for four persons in comfort, five if need be, on comfortable seats. “My” Victor had gold-flecked upholstery. The flat-floored luggage boot, the lid of which is spring-loaded and locks automatically, is of very generous dimensions, somewhat to the detriment of leg-room in the rear compartment. The spare wheel is upright in the boot, but a neat wheel cover is available as an extra. The dash panel is a scaled-down replica of the bumper motif, and the minor controls rather horrid in a loose-fitting, flamboyant way. The glove locker is unnecessarily deep for the easy removal of objects entrusted to it. The doors possess excellent sill-locks, there is but a trace of distortion in the panoramic screen and then only when driving in shadows, the handbrake, which you twist to secure, is clumsy, but the steering-stalk gear-lever, to the left of the column, is one of the best of its kind. Two-speed screen-wipers are provided.

Fuel and temperature gauges do not mean very much, being vaguely calibrated, the small road wheels patter on uneven surfaces, and bad roads emphasise the desirability of replacing a beam rear axle with i.r.s., while the engine is fairly noisy when accelerating. It will run to 55 m.p.h. in middle gear, although normally the change-up is made at around 41. A top speed of 76 m.p.h. and 30 m.p.g. are not outstanding, but the ride is good, apart from some irritating judder of the body/chassis shell on bad roads. There were some rattles, one probably attributable to a loose exhaust pipe, and the throttle action was a bit snatchy when driving at a crawl. The test car hesitated occasionally, suggesting a fuel blockage or faulty ignition circuit. Top gear suffices down to less than 20 m.p.h.

The wrap-round screen necessitates a curious undercut scuttle — sooner or later you bang a knee on this scuttle projection; perhaps the idea is that, crippled on a demonstration run, you will be obliged to buy a Victor . . .

The view of the wide, flat bonnet, relieved only by two curved chrome strips, is singularly uninspiring and I am sorry to see that the proud Vauxhall flutes have fallen from the bonnet altogether, having got caught up, however, on the sides of the body. The uncovered steering-wheel is unpleasant to the hands, although provided with useful finger serrations. The seats are comfortable, but their cushions could be of more generous width. Although, from without, the Victor seems a large car for its capacity, from within it appears quite compact, the good view of front and back wings making for easy parking.

The brakes are light to use and effective, excessive roll when cornering is absent, yet the car doesn’t feel quite as stable as many of the small Continental saloons I drove before the war. But it can be steered with reasonable precision. The horn note is unpleasant but at last I have found another car besides the Volkswagen in which the quarter-window catches are secure against car thieves! The front windows need less than 1¾ turns of the handles to open them fully, the back ones 2½ turns, and the steering combines a good lock with just under 3½ turns, lock-to-lock. The direction-flashers are actuated by a little lever to the right of the steering-column but its action is too light, so that the wrong flasher can be inadvertently selected. The roof lamp, too, remains “on” unless the doors are completely shut, whereas usually a door-lock that has caught will extinguish the light. There is rheostat-controlled instrument lighting. On the car tested twin fog-lamps, an optional extra, were fitted. The Victor did not encourage me to take it on a long drive, yet it provided useful, foolproof transportation, its outstanding merit being that it is effortless to control. At the basic price of £428 you get a very modern car for a modest outlay.

This is apparently the sort of car the people want and the Vauxhall branch of General Motors certainly provides them in ample quantity and in a great variety of colours.

The Fiat 500

Just before the Victor was due to go back to the vaults of Shaw and Kilburn I drove it over to Wembley to collect a Fiat 500 for test. Forerunner of a host of miniatures from factories all over Europe, the smallest Fiat represents the same jolly proposition that the original 500 did some 30 years ago.

Miniature cars are going to be very much a topic of discussion in the immediate future, so I was glad of an opportunity to become well acquainted with the example from a factory where some 900 baby vehicles are now produced daily. I needed no metaphorical role, for this is the car of the Italian — or English — peasant, so I merely wore the clothes in which I am most comfortable and behaved normally!

Leaving home after breakfast, I found it easy to average 37 m.p.h. to Poole in Dorset, and rather better to my chosen destination at Bridport. The little car had been baulked by lorry traffic in the lanes initially and on the main roads thereafter, so I am confident that on clear roads of this kind 40 miles could be put into each hour — which, from 479 c.c., should satisfy everyone. Driven hard like this and used after arrival for much pottering and restarting, I obtained 54 m.p.g. of Esso Mixture.

On this journey and subsequent motoring which brought the day’s mileage up to 300 between breakfast and early dinner, with several stops en route, this diminutive Fiat hummed along cheekily and felt indestructible. It cruises at a speedometer 50 m.p.h. and down-grades sent the needle to 60, the best timed speed being 53 m.p.h. The speedometer is marked for maxima of 16, 25 and 38 m.p.h. on the indirect gears and the engine does not wish to exceed these limits by more than a few m.p.h. However, with liberal use of the gearbox there is unexpectedly good pick-up and the gear-lever, short, rigid and right to hand, is a delight to use. Very rapid changes are possible, though as the lever is strongly spring-loaded towards third and top-gear positions a light touch can give rise to mistakes. Reverse is rather difficult to locate and the lever tended to unscrew.

Apart from a gear-change which helps to row it along, like the 2 c.v. Citroen the Fiat 500 possesses outstanding brakes and roadholding to offset deficiency in speed. On dry or wet roads alike the little car goes round corners safely without the driver having to back off much, if at all, from cruising speed and the brakes are entirely adequate, even to locking the wheels when powerfully applied. The ride is firm, so devoid of roll, yet apart from mild pitching over certain surfaces this tiny car is outstandingly comfortable and stable over atrocious roads. The steering is geared three turns lock-to-lock, the Fiat turns inside a London cab, and the steering is outstandingly light and accurate, adding greatly to the joy of motoring the 500 at its limit.

All this adds up to pleasurable driving merely for the sake of driving, yet this is a car intended for utilitarian transport. Up to 40 m.p.h. the vertical-twin four-stroke o.h.v. engine is smooth and not too noisy — pressed hard all manner of noises intrude, the level of engine noise being very high and rather reminiscent of a two-stroke. This was tiring on a long day’s drive, even to one who likes cyclecars!

Seating is comfortable for driver and one adult passenger, each in a small bucket seat. As the wheel arches intrude the pedals are offset to the left, but it doesn’t take long to get used to this. The little engine runs smoothly, and only if in gear with the clutch out does the car rock like a tree-top cradle. Trim and equipment are limited to that which ensures a selling price of £300 in Italy and a weight in keeping with 13 b.h.p. Behind the seats an unupholstered cavity, access to which is by tilting the front seats, does very well for accommodation of infants or a sideways-on grown-up — like a ‘bus-driver, they bring their own cushions. If vacant, this space will accommodate all the luggage that a couple of peasants would have, and more. A strap is provided. There are no door pockets, but a useful rigid parcels container is fitted below the facia. A typically Italian ignition key also operates the lamps. Tiny levers on the floor — an idea borrowed from Renault — actuate starter and choke. There is a full-size pull-up hand-brake lever between them. A hand-throttle like a thin wire skewer is useful, another loop of wire releases the front bonnet catch, little handles on each side of the dash open fresh-air vents, a diminutive lever behind the seat brings in so much hot air you cannot bear to touch the base of the hand-brake, and to work the direction-flashers you reach out for a lever in the centre of the facia, which incorporates a winking warning light. The horn has a delightfully penetrating note redolent of Italian motorways! The flashers are important, because the window glass is fixed, only the decently-large quarter-lights opening. These turn over-centre to send a gale of air through the car, but opened thus the driver’s traps the knuckles at the first left-hand corner! All windows are of Sekurit plate safety-glass and the plastic rear window provides good visibility. But if you need fresh air that badly you can roll back the top — and refix it from within the car when it rains as it can in England and Italy. The wide doors make entry and egress a dignified procedure; there are rubber door “keeps,” one of which severed, and small handles which act as convenient pulls.

The only dial is a 60-m.p.h. speedometer with total mileage recorder (devoid of decimals), warning lights within this covering lack of dynamo charge, lack of oil pressure, side-lamps “on” and shortage of petrol. It is not all utility, however, for there are twin screenwipers that really do clean the glass and which self-park if their tiny switch is momentarily pressed down, a matching switch operating the speedometer lamp, twin vizors, and a rear-view mirror incorporating an interior lamp. This mirror tends to blank forward vision. The doors, which trail, lock. Reverting to the wipers, they function independently of the ignition, which I like. The fuel tank, strapped-down spare wheel, tool roll, and shallow Marelli Magnet battery live under the front bonnet, but there is room for a one-gallon can on top of these.

The engine is in the right place for a miniature car — at the rear — and is air-cooled. It runs rather hot, the bonnet handle getting almost too hot to touch, but the rear “seat” is reasonably insulated. The engine itself comes to no harm and its oil filter requires cleaning only once in a blue moon.

There is nothing unduly cramped about the Fiat 500, either in accommodation (unless you are abnormally tall) or performance. It represents adequate everyday motoring and enthusiasts will delight in driving it long distances. Novice drivers will be able to amble at 20 m.p.h. or so in top gear without snuffing out the game little engine. The body rattles only over disgracefully rough roads. I used the Fiat for exploring various relaxing places along the famous Chesil Bank — it seems that this has had it as a holiday spot, because notices proclaim that the Portuguese Man of War, a jelly-fish which looks like a blue plastic bag and whose sting can prove fatal, has arrived there to discomfort and alarm bathers. However, the pleasure of listening to the thunder of the surf on the bank from a vantage point up on Portland Bill remains . . .

Having refuelled with the cheapest grade of Cleveland in Bridport, I was interested to discover what consumption the Fiat would return under truly exacting conditions. I drove it home at full throttle, the speedometer frequently at 60 m.p.h. and never below 50 on that fast road from Dorchester to Basingstoke. The compact size of the 500 not only enables you to park expeditiously on a peasant’s sixpence but allows the driver to edge up beside lorries to facilitate overtaking, the pick-up from 30 to 40 m.p.h. in third gear contributing to these time-saving tactics. After the fast run home the car was used to take the children to school, for which no vehicle is more appropriate, necessitating a cold start (which needs a fair amount of choke), and for local fast-pottering. This time the figure was exactly 50 m.p.g. It seems certain that the Fiat 500 will never do less. Yet, with larger cars returning upwards of 40 m.p.g., I could wish it would do more and I should be very interested in any miniature able to add either 10 m.p.h. or 10 m.p.g. to its performance. I was also disappointed that it “pinked” on cheap petrol.

Experience with the new Fiat 500 suggests that these tiny motor cars have a future, however. Apart from fuel economy their dimensions render them highly acceptable under modern traffic and housing conditions. At its English price of £556 7s. the Fiat is only for enthusiasts but under European Free Trade it should sell here in thousands. Why our big manufacturers do not follow the lead of Astra and Unicar in producing a model of similar capacity and dimensions I cannot understand. The longer they leave it the harder it will be to compete — already the Fiat 500 represents a 55 m.p.h./50 m.p.g. 2/3-seater in which every part has been designed with extreme skill and the prototypes exhaustively tested. The result is a fascinating if frugal little vehicle which feels as if it will stand full-throttle for ever and which handles impeccably. I normally object to Press cars which carry publicity stickers. The 500 came to me with “Fiat Leads the Way” on its near-side rear window, and this I found amusing as I shot past car after car of twice the size and four times the engine capacity.

If Motor Sport does not “salute the Victor” it does lift its hat (Company Director’s homburg, Barnet bowler, or peasant’s soiled beret) to Dr. Dante Giacosa on having designed a miniature car in every way worthy of the great Turin plant that produces it. — W. B.

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