It's Showtime Again



The Editor’s Annual Discourse on Miscellaneous Aspects of the Motoring Scene

The London Motor Show is here again, which makes this an opportune moment to consider divers aspects of the motoring scene in the rather dicey-peacetime year, AD 1958. Moturing becomes more and more the premier pastime of the civilised world and little wonder, because, with private flying moribund and boats still a little too-specialised for the proletariat (the writer included), the private motor vehicle represents a logical extension of human activity, a machine in which arms, legs and brain are employed to overcome man’s pedestrianism.

Fortunately—although the bull-dozers and concrete mixers continue to thrust and churn in an insane drive to turn every hamlet into a village, every village into a town, every country town into a pocket metropolis, and to this obliteration of the green grass and open fields, and general defilement of the countryside, have come innumerable gaunt pylons and overhead cables, with which the Electricity Board will eventually turn what country is left into one vast birdcage—fortunately, for a few years at all events, motoring should still be worth while in this once green and pleasant land. I use the term motoring in its broadest sense, as understood by those who like exploring unknown routes and who enjoy emerging from built-up areas into open country as well as deriving pleasure from the car itself. No doubt there are plenty of people to whom the chief joy of car ownership lies in servicing the machinery they command and driving it to its limit when it is not in pieces in the garage. When, perhaps a couple of decades hence, all the country has been cemented over and fields exist only as isolated, jealously-guarded, fenced-in ” museum ” exhibits, these ” motorists ” will still be able to enjoy themselves as they unleash their cars towards maximum speed along the great motor-routes. But when that day comes those motorists who see in motoring something beyond mere transport will be better off in the Underground, because, when all our towns have merged and our roads are just one endless ribbon of tarmac between uniform concrete kerbs guarding a continuous built-up area, the very purpose of motoring for relaxation and pleasure will have passed.

As those ghastly electric pylons march over the face of England, encroaching on the beauty of Hampshire, closing in at the foot of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon’s estate in Sussex, enclosing Surrey, with one even mounted on top of the once-well-known Red Roads trials hill itself, perhaps I can be excused for taking this pessimistic view. However, friends who aviate assure me there is really plenty of open country left in this overpopulated little Island, so maybe the motor car will continue to provide pleasure, traffic congestion eased to some extent by our brave new motor-roads, at least for some considerable time to come.

On this assumption, let us look at the motoring scene as it is reflected in the glittering exhibits at the Earls Court Motor Show. Here we see some courageous new models and a number of makes, like Sunbeam, Humber, Riley and Wolseley, which, by their very names, owe much of their present-day prestige to an illustrious past, to which their present manufacturers and technicians can claim no heritage. We see the Rover casting-off some of its individuality of outline in the new 3-litre model, the steel body shell (Rover formerly preferred aluminium) of which is made by the same company which presses out your Prestcold refrigerator. But we see B.M.C. making a sensible effort to restyle its cars with the Italian flair of Pinin Farina, whose first sortie is the new Austin A40. Although this ingenious Little car isn’t all that handsome when seen in full side view, which emphasises the almost impossible task of combining good looks and a spacious interior in a really small car, this is an excellent attempt to combine the advantages of the estate-car with the conventional appearance of a normal saloon. Whether the buying public will take to it or not remains to be seen, but I think this new approach will be far more acceptable to the average family motorist than the miniature ‘buses which represent another method of providing maximum luggage (and in their case maximum seating) accommodation in a small vehicle. The ordinary owner will never, I think, take kindly to the forward control and high noise level of vehicles like the Bedford Dormobile and Thames 12-seater. What, however, is wrong with the estate car or station wagon itself for those who must needs take piles of luggage, the dog, the parrot and, like Macdonald Hobley, even the kitchen sink with them when they motor?

That more performance is considered desirable is evidenced by increases in engine size, Hillman going up by 104 c.c., Bristol from 1.9 to 2.2-litres, Jaguar from 3.5 to 3.8-litres, Armstrong Siddeley from 3.5 to 4-litres, Aston Martin from 3 to 3.7-litres and Rover to 3-litres. So many luxurious saloons now come close to or exceed a maximum speed of 100 m.p.h. that the once ” magic century” can now be regarded as the “commonplace century.” Certainly no sports car, other than toys like the Frisky Sport and Berkeley, and low-priced versions such as the Turner and Austin-Healey Sprite, deserve the appellation of “sports” unless they are capable of timed three-figure speeds.

Other than for such sports models, I think four seats is the practical minimum in a modern motor vehicle. When the adolescent human first grasps the pleasure and freedom which ownership of personal transport provides he may well be blinded to other social attractions and will purchase a solo motor-cycle. (If his sense of balance is as poor as mine he would probably buy a single-seater or monocar if such were available in any numbers.) Soon, however, the desire for female companionship prevails and either a pillion pad (the ” Tansed ” seat of our youth) is attached to the motor-cycle or a two-seater car is acquired. For a while this two-seater is the only possible kind of vehicle, for the chosen one is the only person with whom the driver wishes to travel and more than one passenger-seat might result in the embarrassment of having to invite parents and friends. Not for long, however! Soon another desire has exerted itself and additional space is required for the firstborn. The population of this Island being what it is we can conclude that most of the female population bears children (in the plural), and as children grow up surprisingly quickly the four-seater family car is the best-selling type.

So B.M.C. were wise to embark Farina on the spacious Austin A40. For some time the re-engined Austin A35 has been thought by many people to be superior to the Morris Minor 1000 and if the body styling and convenience of the new A40 proves acceptable I think it may steal sales from the Morris Minor 1000, which–and it has had a splendid innings–is now outdated. In which case the Morris division of the B.M.C. will have to think again, although the splendid roadholding of the Minor, achieved quite simply by torsion-bar i.f.s. (the Austin design-team prefers coil-springs), small wheels, one at each corner, and sensible weight-distribution, will remain for ever a testimonial to Alec Issigonis, who designed it. Incidentally. just as I was puzzled as to why the 948c.c. Morris was called a Minor 1000. so do I fail to see why the new Austin is called the A40 when its engine develops only 34 b.h.p.

Although this 1958 London Motor Show contains several new British cars—there are the new Humber Super Snipe with inclined valves operated by push-rods from a single “downstairs” camshaft as on a motor-cycle, the race-bred 3.7-litre twin-cam Aston Martin, and the completely equipped Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire, with valve gear copied by Humber, for example—I am disappointed that in this atomic age of sputnicks, guided missiles, Colour T.V. and ether advanced technicalities, our cars invariably retain such archaic items as propeller-shafts, cart springs, rigid back axles, vulnerable water radiators, and engines divorced from the driving wheels. I hope that, when I have examined in detail these old-fashioned cars at Earls Court, at least I shall find an increase in such small but desirable items as interior coat hooks, screen-wipers wired independently of the ignition circuit, accurate petrol gauges, sensible door locks, scientific crash-padding, spare wheels carried separately from the luggage compartment (or at all events so that the wheel can be removed without disturbing the luggage, as is done so well on the Skoda 440) anti-dazzle facia warning lights, and the scores of similar convenient items which every practical motorist wants but which so few design-teams comprehend. I hope, too, we shall soon see an end of absurdly small petrol tanks, which make frequent refuelling pauses a troublesome necessity—the B.M.C. is amongst the worst offenders in this respect.

This year’s trend is towards more performance via bigger or more efficient engines, and increased employment of disc brakes and automatic transmission. The last-named leaves me rather cold because if a driver is too old, too lazy or merely so unskilled that manual gear-changing is unacceptable, some of the pleasure has surely gone from his or her motoring and, indeed, a danger-element may well have intruded? But the growing popularity of disc brakes is a very excellent trend. Already one is not merely content to know that a car has disc brakes, one has come to compare the different makes of disc brakes. For some time I regarded Dunlop discs as the last word, especially as applied to all wheels of the Jaguar XK150, until I experienced the efficiency, power and progres. siveness of Girling vacuum-assisted disc braking on the front wheels of a special Ford Zephyr—now I give top marks to the Girling system. Competition is the essence of efficient development and it isn’t only in respect of brakes that you find it. There is plenty of rivalry between different systems of automatic transmission, while in the tyre field the battle between nylon and rayon rages, with most of the points at present in favour of nylon, a rivalry I can view with disinterest while I motor in security on Michelin metallies!

Whichever type and make of car you decide on for your future motoring, you will benefit by the new motor-roads which are at last under construction in England. From that useful book issued by the British Road Federation*, I see that, whereas there were just over three million motor vehicles on our roads before the war, last year the number had risen to nearly 7.5million. So new roads are long overdue. Especially as motorists last year contributed over £480-million in taxation but under £120.5-million was spent on the roads of this congested little country. Although the level-rate private car tax of £12 10s, is apt to seem fair on the face of it (although already it has risen by 10s. from the rate of a few years ago), do not overlook the savage fuel tax, which, to the average motorist who probably buys 335 gallons of petrol a year, represents an additional tax of more than £40 per annum! While I am delighted to see that we are throwing great trunk roads across the land. I wonder how many accidents are caused during the construction process, through the curious methods adopted? In recent weeks we have had the congestion to traffic flowing into London occasioned by the construction of Chiswick flyover (a delay of five minutes being experienced at this point the day before this was written), the blockages at Staines Bridge because widening of the footpath on both sides was commenced during the height of the summer traffic flow and before the new road bridge has been opened, and the dangerously narrow two-lane flow round a bend on the Kingston By-Pass, necessitated because the road is being widened appreciably at this point. Moreover, nothing whatsoever has been done to ease congestion in Staines itself, nor were the fly-overs to replace roundabouts on the Kingston By-Pass, which was a fine new road when I was a schoolboy but which today is antiquated and notorious, completed for last summers peak traffic flow. But, in spite of our shocking roads, our dense traffic and the growing congestion in our towns. I am glad to see that the motor vehicle isn’t nearly as lethal as the scaremongers believe. In spite of the aforesaid increase in motor traffic since 1938 fatalities during that time actually dropped by over 1,000 (again I quote the B.R.F.), which bears out the sensible theories of Mr. J. D. Williams, of the Rand Corporation, which were quoted in last months Editorial.

Some makers show at Earls Court attractive open ears and converti les but after the wet weather of last winter, the summer, and now this autumn, I doubt if they will be easy to hawk in this country, where I am informed that there is, a “waiting list ” for umbrellas. The British climate confines the open car to certain (not necessarily the fastest) sports models and vintage car enthusiasts, although, as I drive around in a small saloon which can easily, and literally, be hermetically sealed, I have a guilty concience that this isn’t “motoring,” which is a term implying travel in healthy contact with fresh air and sunlight.

However, whether it be motoring or not, my past three and a half years’ private-car experience has shown me that the least-expensive small car can run 60,000 miles without its engine having to be torn apart for attention to bores, rings or bearings or the heads removed for valve grinding and that, after this mileage, it should only just begin to consume noticeable quantities of Castrol oil, have scarcely marked its second set of tyres in spite of swing-axle i.r.s., possess paintwork virtually as good as new and doors still dust and draughtproof. And that, if its capacity does not exceed 1.2-litres, it should still return better than 40 m.p.g.. of petrol, and be immune from freezing-up or boiling over.

With street-fighting and hooliganism now, alas, liable to break out in London and with petty pilfering not unknown on the Continent, a thiefproof car is desirable. Door handles that won’t twist off, quarter-lights which cannot be opened from outside with a “blunt instrument” and similar safeguards are worth having. In this respect I am glad to know that the car I use almost daily has these features and that petrol supply, spare wheel, tools and luggage are rendered burglar-proof merely by locking the doors.

With these observations I will leave you to ream this great Motor Exhibition, seeking the car of your choice..—W.B

* – Basic Road Statistics, 1958 (B.R.F., 26 Manchester Sq,)