The Editor’s Annual Discourse on Miscellaneous Aspects of the Motoring Scene —
Looking at the current motoring scene as we arrive at another International Motor Exhibition at Earls Court it can be said truthfully that the British Motor Industry, like the voters in the recent General Election, has “never had it so good.”
British manufacturers have at last woken up to the need to contest the foreign challenge and this year in London the Motor Show will contain many splendid new British cars — models like the front-drive rubber-suspended Austin 850 and Morris Mini-Minor, the o.h.v. four-speed Ford Anglia and Prefect, the all-independently-sprung “greaseproof” Triumph Herald and the “Easidrive” Hillman Minx, and, in more expensive price-groups, new cars like the very fast Daimler V8 SP250, the Sunbeam Alpine, the latest Jaguars of up to 3.8-litres, and the new V8 Bentley and Rolls-Royce which offer peaks of comfortable and luxurious high speed transportation never before attained.
These new cars from Coventry, Birmingham, Cowley, Crewe and Dagenham meet tough competition from abroad, and competition, whether to the chequered flag or record sales, improves the breed of motor car, which is still mankind’s primary mechanical plaything. I sometimes wish that the World’s automobile factories would reach saturation point, because while customers queue up for cars mass-produced in thousands upon thousands every working day, real competition does not exist and ugly, uncomfortable, too-noisy and even unreliable cars continue to be manufactured. However, World prosperity points away from stagnation for the great automobile sausage-machines and prosperity is preferable to a glut in motor cars, so you can pass this thought by.
While the workers can rely on their Trade Unions to chisel wage increases to enable them to meet the inevitable rise in the cost of living and while the boss-class reacts to new wage demands by raising the cost of the product instead of accepting lower profits or paying smaller dividends, prosperity of a kind will continue. But the middle-man who is non-Unionist, far from a directorship, in fact, just a conscientious slave, is very unfairly placed. Which merely reminds one that the real value of money is its purchasing power and that when comparisons are made between one car and another the common-market prices of these products should be taken into consideration.
Increasing congestion on our roads, congestion which the B.R.F. estimates will represent a vehicle for every 35 yards of public road and street in three years’ time, serves to establish the small car firmly at the top of the World’s markets. As I have said, British designers have introduced some exceedingly promising new models in this lucrative field. They have still to face stiff competition from the Volkswagen a car of which Ford of Dagenham obviously are afraid. Although this remarkable design appears to have changed little in the post-war years, this is because Wolfsburg seems to be content to hide its light under a bushel. In fact, the engineering quality of the VW undergoes continual refinement, as a list of over 180 modifications introduced between 1949 and 1958 confirms. Many of these concern minor, hidden improvements, but of the sort which are significant to engineers. Consequently, the beetle which breeds so rapidly that it has the honour to be both universally despised and widely acclaimed meets the challenge of the new British small cars mainly on the grounds of quality and operational economy — the newcomers should be able to surpass it in respect of performance and controllability, for they have had over 20 years in which to catch up!
I am surprised when I hear those occasional pleas for a quality small car, because that is exactly what the modern Volkswagen is — unless, by quality is meant veneered wooden instrument boards, lots of ash-trays and real hide, by gad, on the seats. Certainly it seems that you cannot have it both ways; the so-brisk babies made by the B.M.C. are noisy and crudely-finished but they out-accelerate even the well-finished new Ford Anglia which, in turn, is faster than the quality VW. But with Ford of Dagenham goaded into poking fun at the VW and General Motors adopting a horizontally-opposed air-cooled rear engine and swing-axle i.r.s. for the new Chevrolet Corvair, I imagine that Dr. Ferdinand Porsche continues to rest in peace . . .
The battle of the small cars will be keen, but at the other end of the scale only Britain makes cars truly fit for V.I.P.s. These gentlemen find what they want amongst a range of fine motor-carriages which are now very fast as well as exceedingly plush, such as Armstrong-Siddeley, Bentley, Daimler, Jaguar, Princess and Rolls-Royce. You see these splendid cars outside ancient monuments in which the ageing gentry live crippled by rising rates and taxation and outside those new mushroom factories which sprang up during the war to produce a satisfactorily expanding turnover for a new generation. I sometimes feel that former allegiance to makes other than Jaguar in this sphere is the sole reason for sales, because on a first-cost/performance basis Sir William Lyons so easily leads all the others . . .
But at whichever end of the price-scale you buy your motor car it remains the mechanical commodity that gives the greatest pleasure to the user. From its very advent the motor car represented both a fascinating plaything and a means of escape from civilised living. It continues so to do. If you doubt me on the first score, ask people like Speedwell, Alexander and Aquaplane who exist to put fun into motoring. As to the escapism theme, although the motor vehicle has an obvious utilitarian value, 605,000 new cars and motorcycles were registered last year in this country compared to 241,000 commercial vehicles, ‘buses and taxis, and it seems reasonable to assume that the majority of these were bought primarily because they give pleasure and convenience to their owners. Whether the Sunday jaunt down to Brighton, say, is as pleasant on the crowded roads of today as it was twenty years ago, with fewer vehicles but far more likelihood of punctures and petty troubles, is a debatable point. Certainly our once-deserted countryside is now disfigured by rapidly expanding housing estates and criss-crossed by high-voltage cables. The “village” in which I have lived since the war has, in the course of a decade, grown into a country town with unsightly kerb-stones and rows of sodium street lamps replacing grass verges and the occasional dim gas-mantle. And when a notice reading “On this site will be built a new Church to the glory of God” was replaced on the same tree with one that proclaimed “Choice Houses and Bungalows for Sale,” I felt that the Almighty Himself must have amalgamated with the speculative building trade.
The motor car and motor coach are to blame for this wildfire spread of urbanism but for some decades yet there will still be Scotland and Wales, Wiltshire and Norfolk and other deserted countries and counties to which the motor vehicle provides escapism. That is, when its owner is not caught in a traffic jam, flying over Chiswick, or thundering up to Birmingham at 100 m.p.h. And in “plaything” terms the motor car stays far ahead of the light aeroplane, the small boat and the model railway. I used to say that no one talked so continuously and earnestly about his hobby as the motoring enthusiast but now I find that nearly everyone is an “enthusiast,” even if some of them discuss the best blend for a two-tone colour scheme or the merits of agitated metal-filings versus hydraulics-in-agony for obliterating the gear lever instead of dissecting speed and acceleration figures. These enthusiasts differ from those whom you and I regard as enthusiasts in their driving as well as in the tone of their automotive conversation; they go along habitually at 40 m.p.h. (by their speedometers), whereas the others go as fast as their cars and road conditions will allow! But they are enthusiasts of sorts nevertheless.
Due to this universal love of motor cars the circulation of this magazine has risen to levels unsuspected a few years ago and it continues to rise, which is why the publicists of our great motor industry ply motoring journalists with hospitality until they lose their waistlines and grow grey hairs with the excitement and responsibility of it all.
I have been fortunate during the past twelve months in driving many different cars. But some that I would dearly like to try have evaded me, such as the Peerless, Jensen 541R, Lotus Elite, Princess, Dyna-Panhard and Aston Martin DB3. However, you cannot have your Martini and drink it and because Motor Sport is fearless in its opinions some manufacturers presumably consider it imprudent to submit cars to us for test, while after reading in a contemporary about the 3-litre Rover I came to the conclusion that it is too good to be true, so that I wasn’t surprised that this one also evaded us. It is a fact, nevertheless, that most manufacturers now have exceedingly good relationships with the Press and not only provide lavish hospitality but cars, not merely for a “run round the block” or for a short weekend, but for serious road-test, i.e., for periods sufficiently long for the tester to gain a true picture of the vehicle. In this respect Citroen used to be outstanding but I think their “record” is shortly to be handsomely beaten by the B.M.C., who are submitting a Morris Mini-Minor to me for an even more exhaustive test, which suggests they have full confidence in their new product.
If I may be permitted to express some personal opinions and preferences, I think the greatest sales will go to makers whose cars embody the acceleration and speed necessary for enjoyable driving on the crowded roads of today — with so many lines you mustn’t cross, motoring is becoming every day more like driving a train — and that implies sensibly-plotted gear ratios and willing engines. Small cars should return really impressive fuel economy burning medium-grade petrol, or else out-perform others in their class, e.g., the new B.M.C. mini-motors. I think the family man will still look for conventional size and shape and be likely to eschew coffins on castors, which suggests a triumph for the new Fords. I consider that Britain builds quality cars which in the eyes of our diminishing nobility and gentry better those made anywhere in the World, with the new V8 Rolls-Royce as the epitome of this theme. I am absolutely certain we have nothing to worry our heads about when it comes to sports cars and that with the introduction of the Aston Martin DB4G.T. the Italians can keep their Ferraris and Maseratis. And finally, whatever the class of car under consideration, I want it to have not one or two but all of the following desirable items: heater, adequate screen demisting, radio, screen-washers, self-cancelling wipers, a headlamps-flasher, stalk controls for indicators and lamps, a hand-operated dipper, door pockets or adjacent equivalent stowage for maps and oddments, combined ignition key and starter switch, wipers and interior lamps wired independently of the ignition, courtesy lights that really illuminate the interior, at least one fog lamp, non-dazzle facia warning lights, door “keeps” that work, a proper rear-view mirror (I was “pinched” for speeding this summer!), rainproof ventilation, a decimal reading on the trip odometer, automatically-opening bonnet and boot lids, a reserve petrol tap, and a fuel range of at least 300 miles — add or subtract to suit individual requirements! Apart from these preferences I do not advocate standardisation, either of instruments and minor controls, or of styling that makes it difficult to distinguish a Fiat from an Austin!
In conclusion, I am sure the British motor industry is all set for great achievements, in which the Government should go with it remembering that this year road users are estimated to be contributing in taxation £564 million to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. There seems no reason to fear that saturation level in motor car output is anywhere in sight, especially as last year one major political party expressed the hope that soon every family will have its own car and the other party, which was returned with such a convincing majority at the General Election, hopes that in ten years’ time there will be one car to every two families. Providing the middle-classes are not relegated to the position of also-rans in the wages race that seems extremely probable, for at present there are a mere 8½ million private motor vehicles on our roads, and only 2,177,000 persons employed by road transport! Before the time comes for every family to own a car we can only hope that the Government will have decided to devote more than one-sixth of what it derives from motor taxation on more and better roads. When every family in Britain has all the cars it cares about (already we have the most congested roads in the World, with 29 vehicles per mile, second being W. Germany with 21.9) the British motor industry may still avoid stagnation through saturation by exporting its splendidly varied and attractive products to eager owners in outer space. Meanwhile it exported vehicles to the value of £330,000,000 about the home planet last year, when the Government was extraordinarily lucky that traffic, which includes 76 per cent, of freight transport, still continued to flow and did not become immovably bogged down on our inadequate roads and parking places. With these thoughts in mind I propose, tremulously, a toast to the future. — W.B.