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The Editor’s Annual Discourse on Topical Aspects of the Motoring Scene
ONCE again it is the time of the London Motor Show and the stands at Earls Court are filled with glittering motor cars each, so the manufacturers tell us, without rival. These cars represent to a very considerable proportion of the World’s civilised population either the most desirable of playthings or one of the most essential business commodities outside the office and factory, or more probably fill both of these roles. Because of this, until recently it was a simple matter to sell anything that possessed an engine and ran on wheels and ready-made markets existed for the astronomical numbers of vehicles that poured from the World’s assembly lines.
Recently, however, a wave of disturbingly cold air, forerunner, it could be, of an even chillier wind, has been felt in Luton, Coventry, Oxford and Birmingham, not to mention in American and French motor car producing cities, as the motor industry has returned to the buyers’ market.
This could be a good thing, in as much as it must result in the eventual survival of the better cars and the complete disappearance of ” shamobiles.” On the other hand, Britain’s high standard of living is closely bound up with a satisfactory sale of cars and while in the past such outputs have been limited only by the time lost through strikes, in the future it will be necessary to ensure that buyers can be found for the quantities of cars manufactured. What with Continental opposition, represented by cars built in countries where they understand fast, hard motoring over long straight level roads, turnpikes, and up-and-down steeply ascending and descending Alps, and the threat of further strike action in this country by well-paid workers seeking ever better rates of pay, it could be that Britain will be in for a thin time. We face competition from America, which has immense numbers of operatives and from Japan and Russia where cheap labour is available; already, Mr. Edward Turner, designer of Triumph motorcycles and recent Daimler cars, has been reported as saying that so intense is Japanese competition in the motorcycle industry becoming that the sale of their machines should not be permitted in this country. Such threats will have to be met by more conscientious inspection at the end of the assembly lines and more intense efforts on the part of our designers and technicians to provide motor cars which are acceptable on all counts in the World’s markets.
Certainly there is no longer room for any complacency in the British Motor Industry. Last year we saw the disappearance of Armstrong Siddeley from Earls Court and the appearance there of not at all bad cars from Russia. This year another British make, in the shape of Allard, has gone under, the identity of the age-old Daimler is for the time being at the mercy of the leaping Jaguar, and another invader has arrived from Sweden, in the form of the Saab.
There are straws blowing in the automotive wind, carried along on hot air, perhaps, but straws nevertheless, which indicate that the Industry is aware that the customer has become a person they have to attract and give service to, instead of someone who, confounded cheek, expected to be able to buy a motor car in exchange for money but who, in return for such is privilege, was to be made to wait as long as possible before getting delivery and who up to now hasn’t been likely to complain too loudly if the two-tone finish fades in a month or so. For instance, at one time it was considered ” infra-dig ” for journalists to compare directly one make of car with another—I am a motoring enthusiast who writes, not a journalist who motors, so I like to consider myself immune from this dictum! — and similarly any manufacturer who publicly resorted to this practice found himself an outcast, considered unfit to mix with his fellows in the S.M.M.T. But now that the buyers’ market is again upon us, this “hale fellow, well met ” and “all-cars-are-as-good-as-the-next” attitude seems to be fading. Some manufacturers are even finding it necessary to slate a rival in order to push their own products. A year ago at the Crystal Palace, which ever was a place for fun, the Ford Motor Company of Dagenham caused an innocent Volkswagen to be brought on to a stage for the express purpose of drawing comparisons between it and their New Anglia, the latter a car which had at long, long, last acquired o.h. valves and four forward speeds. The poor VW wasn’t even allowed to answer back! I tested subsequently both the Ford New Anglia and the most recent version of the Volkswagen and prefer to draw my own conclusions.
I have been reminded of this comparison made a year ago by one vast manufacturer of another vast manufacturer’s products by an advertisement I saw the other day which was issued by a Birmingham firm selling Ford products. This advertisement featured a VW shown behind bars, which looks like further evidence that they are aware of where the keenest competition lies. .. .
More recently still I have been looking at a publication issued by the British Motor Corporation, entitled “The Leading Six.’ In this publication visual comparisons are made between the size, passenger carrying ability, performance and economy of the six best-selling European small cars. B.M.C. do not actually name the five cars they are comparing with the ADO 15, Austin Se7en/Morris Mini-Minor product, preferring to refer to these as A, B, C, D and E. However, the illustrations depict clearly the cars they have in mind, which, of course, are the Fiat 600, the Renault Dauphine, the Ford New Anglia, the Triumph Herald and the Volkswagen. I see nothing unpalatable about this comparison, for the performance figures are taken from those published in the two leading British weekly motor journals and the six cars are compared under a great many headings so that there is no question, as has sometimes been the case of other Companies’ publicity hand-outs, of picking out the best aspects of the B.M.C. car and comparing these only with the same aspects in other manufacturers’ products. Moreover, the introduction to this interesting publication is quite honest in pointing out that most popular makes and types of car on the Continent share the rear-engine concept and have been in civilian production since 1947 in Germany, 1955 in Italy, and 1956 in France, whereas the British cars with which these vehicles are being compared did not make their appearance until 1959, when three new models appeared in this country with front engines, one having front-wheel drive and another independent rear suspension. Having driven a Morris Mini-Minor for the better part of a year I know that, if it is by no means perfect, it is quite the best of the smaller motor cars, having ample room within for four persons and at the same time being fun for the enthusiast to drive. It is also one of the safest cars I have ever driven on snow and ice, and its traction over muddy surfaces is as good as the inability of front-erigined cars with rear-wheel drive to obtain wheel grip under these circumstances is impossible. Consequently, I see nothing offensive about the B.M.C. comparison and I am taking the liberty of publishing with this article a table of their findings, as this must be of considerable interest to a large majority of car purchasers all over the World. The only qualification needed is that since the book was compiled a more powerful version of the Volkswagen has appeared, which naturally to some extent affects the placings shown in this table.
The foregoing brings out the point that the world is hungry for small rather than large automobiles. In the last couple of years American engineers have sought to stem the invasion of Continental products by bringing out their “compacts”, an act which Europeans might refer to unkindly as feeling the need to ” powder their noses.” In fact, while this has had very little effect in halting the Continental invasion, what it has done has been to slow down the sales of the biggest American automobiles as U.S. drivers accept compacts in lieu. Ironically, I have not been able to try the Chevrolet Corvair which I would very much liked to have done, as on paper this looks like an inflated, sixcylinder Version of the Volkswagen. But I have had considerable experience in this country of both the Ford Falcon and the Chrysler Valiant, and would be perfectly happy to use either of them as a regular means of transport on British roads.
As I have tried to convey, the future would appear to be one in which the car-purchaser will be able to call the tune. As it becomes more and more difficult to sell cars easily, a greater and greater emphasis will be placed on publicity and sales methods. We can expect more and more of those fascinating demonstrations such as the recently concluded 10,000 miles at 62 m.p.h. run by three Fords at Goodwood, and Simca’s 124,000 miles at some 65 m.p.h. at Miramas.
Motoring is still the best form of relaxation, in spite of the increasing traffic congestion and the presence of traffic wardens, hostile police, the forthcoming compulsory vehicle tests, and more and more novice drivers and ever more complex regulations to trip up the unwary driver. For me the motor car will always be the most important mechanical extension of my existence, but I am delighted to know that so many people feel much the same about the new-fangled Television, for while they are ” looking-in ” their cars will remain stationary, leaving more space on the roads for myself and my friends. Somehow, at this time of year, there seems a special fascination in leaving the brightly lit halls of the Earls Court Motor Show, at which motor cars are seen under the best possible conditions, where they cannot fail to start, run out of petrol, develop troubles, or indulge in ghastly accidents, and walking into the blackness outside on a late October evening to find one’s personal transportation waiting which, at the turn of a switch, will take one swiftly through the suburbs along the new double-track roads out of the Metropolis and so through the sleeping English countryside, to home. Not only does the motor car provide the most convenient form of individual transportation but, as homes tend to look more and more like office blocks or the wings of country hospitals, and offices themselves have become vast glass aquariums full of typists, differing only in how high they can reach into the sky and how much light they can exude after dark, and in an age when the increasing appreciation of Consumer Research must surely make the interiors of these homes and the exteriors of the humans who occupy them conform to a Best-Buy standard, the motor car will, I hope, remain a symbol of individuality for as long as civilisation survives.
For this reason a very great deal of thought should be devoted to the purchase of a new car. Readers of this journal are unlikely to be mislead by catalogue-illustrations depicting dwarf occupants in vast acres of automobiles, or by exhibits specially finished for show purposes, or by cars on the exhibitors’ stands which appear low mainly because their springs have been specially strapped down to give this impression. Nor are they likely to judge a car merely by the apparent comfort of its seats when it is stationary, as go% of the Earls Court turnstile clickers seem satisfied to do. They are, and quite rightly, likely to consider that no salesman is any longer worthy of his salt who won’t let a prospective customer drive a car hard for an hour and they are likely to remind such salesmen that in a buyer’s market it is the buyer who should call the tune.
I am a bad one to advise on the choice of a car because I like them nearly all, but you, the purchaser, can spend many instructive hours comparing performance figures, dimensions, petrol consumption figures and other measurable aspects of the still considerable variety of makes and models available. With a flat rate vehicle tax such comparisons need only be made on a price-class basis and in this respect it is significant that more and more of our readers appreciate that the only fair comparison of motor car value is on Common Market prices and not on those prevailing in one country or another. I have always felt that Earls Court shows up the motor car in a very artificial manner. But at least there it is possible to go round the stands and see what vast strides have been made in automobile design during the last decade. Never before have cars been easier to drive or more lethal when driven improperly. Never before has such good value, remembering the depreciation of the pound since the War, been offered, or have small cars provided such sparkling performance for such a slender outlay of purchase price and subsequent running costs. Sports cars are faster than ever, luxury cars in the truest sense of the word still survive. Nothing very revolutionary is to be seen at the 1960 London Motor Show but good steady progress is evident, particularly in the growing adoption of automatic transmissions for those who enjoy having the gears changed for them and in the increasing use of disc brakes to bring to heel cars which accelerate and run ever faster. The one thing you cannot see at Earls Court, and for which there is very limited scope for demonstration runs over congested roads round the Exhibition Hall, is performance and it is largely on a performance basis that cars stand or fall. Granted that motor cars are pleasant things to look at, that is about all you can do with them at Earls Court, particularly as so many of the doors are locked, making it impossible to try the location of the controls and the comfort of the interior arrangements. Remember, therefore, that the motor car only comes into its own when you are driving it. Motor Shows are all very well, but it is when you are ploughing through a winter night in the snug comfort of a centrally-heated sure-footed modern saloon, with its efficient headlights piercing the darkness, or motoring in an open sports car with the girl of your choice beside you on a scorching summer day, bound perhaps for a favourite bathing beach of golden sand, or waiting on the starting line for the fall of the starter’s flag at a race meeting, or motoring rapidly into a rally control-point after it successful session of competition driving, that the full meaning of the term motoring is appreciated.
Some cars are better than others for any of these purposes and I only hope, for your sake and those of your passengers, that amongst the wide variety of cars from ten different Nations at prices ranging from a few hundred to several thousand pounds you will find the vehicle best suited to your needs as you elbow your way round this year’s great Earls Court Exhibition.—W. B.