The Editor's Annual Showtime Soliloquy

Another year has evaporated since Earls Court closed its doors on the 1962 Motor Show. It has been twelve months of astonishing rather than stirring times, with the Prime Minister in a more precarious position than any Conservative leader since Baldwin, Ernest Marples the most unpopular Minister of Transport of all time, and the Police, who are so adept at relieving motorists of much money for non-criminal offences, baffled over a meticulously contrived Mail Train robbery in which the thieves netted more than £2 1/2-million, tax free.

Whether Macmillan and Marples between them will topple the existing Government at the forthcoming General Election or whether the majority of the voters fear worse to occur under Liberalism or Labour is speculation outside the scope of Motor Sport (thank God), but it is high time that the Government puts the brake on the Police in their eagerness to prosecute and harry motorists while master criminals hide up or roam free. Unless Justice is done in respect of the train robbery all manner of subsidiary robberies and crimes are likely to stem from it, and the Police and those who direct the Force really should learn to differentiate between criminal and technical offences, attempt to maintain Law and Order instead of hampering legitimate transport, and endeavour to restore public faith and confidence in the constabulary, who will not get far without such respect, as the great mail-snatch has proved.

What, indeed, can one make of a country where, on the one hand, a Member of Parliament impertinently accuses innocent citizens in a Buckinghamshire village of failing to foil the train robbers by being unobservant, and on the other hand imposes fines of up to £10 on other citizens who waved down motorists approaching a radar speed trap. Both deal with the prevention of crime and how anyone deserves to be fined for attempting to stop his or her fellow citizens from breaking the Law is beyond me. On the whole the attitude of magistrates and police to motorists, the savage parking fees, the increasing traffic congestion the inadequate suppression of unnecessary noise and turmoil, and the increase in crime and immorality are an unpalatable sign of the times, in which detaining drivers accused or parking offences is bringing Britain a shade nearer the Police State.

It is an age in which the once dignified Banks are so frantic to attract new customers that they have been forced to employ large numbers of counter clerks uninformed about banking matters, so that they pay a paltry 2% interest, on money they borrow from you but demand far higher rates if you borrow from them, failing dismally to compete with the Building Societies, and when money can be made the easy way, at Bingo Sessions, in the Great Government Premium Bond lottery or by robbing a mail train—for although the ring-leaders in the splendidly-contrived mail train snatch may eventually be brought to Justice by our busy police, they have had a mighty long time in which to dispose of the (tax-free) loot.

Meanwhile, more radar traps are being set up to catch the criminal motorist (Hampshire is the latest county to advertise them, by ugly blue notices on countryside trees), although it has never been proved that a single life has been saved by speed traps, and before the cry goes out that everything possible must be done to reduce the “appalling toll of the road” I would ask Chief Constables and others in high places to quote fatal accident figures in relation to vehicle-miles, and to ask themselves whether the average driver’s freedom from collision isn’t quite commendable and, indeed, is showing an annual improvement, in spite of the great increase in the number of vehicles on our inadequate roads. Congratulations, incidentally, to Mr. Marples for at last controlling casually-crossing pedestrians, in one small section of one vast city….

It was in the hope that pressure might be exerted towards getting a square deal for drivers that I suggested in this journal the formation of a fighting organisation dedicated to the task. The M.D.L. is the result; I would just like to put on record that I have not been asked to serve on its Committee, nor have I received any recent communications from it.

Yes, with immorality exposed at Cabinet level, resulting in Lord Denning’s salacious best-seller, and Stirling Moss skating round ethics and religion (when he is not publicising himself and his “doll’s house” in Shepherd Market) in the T. V. Times, it has been a remarkable year.

Motoring remains the most widely discussed subject whenever homo sapiens congregates and many canine members of the animal kingdom also enjoy it. In spite of the anxieties of traffic congestion, parking problems and the existing official dictum of “if it moves, trap it; if it stops fine it,” driving is still very enjoyable and the motor car continues to be man’s most highly-prized possession after his wife and house and is far more individual than most of the latter.

Alas, each year more trees are felled, more new buildings go up, so that there are fewer pleasant places to motor to or through, and eventually I forsee a situation in which it will be a case of the National Trust against Complete Concrete Coverage. Certainly it is astonishing that with transportation accepted as vital to any Nation’s well-being, our roads are subjected to antiquated speed-limits, dug up by local builders, split open for the installation of drainage and sewage pipes, flooded in summer and snowed-up in winter, and rendered increasingly dangerous by innumerable side turnings leading to housing estates composed of fabulously expensive dwelling-hutches, which erupt over the countryside of this once green and pleasant land almost overnight.

Certain sections of the community put their motoring heads into deer-stalkers, yachting caps or the sand and, at the wheel or tiller of the older automobiles, pretend that nothing has changed. I am extremely glad that the veteran and vintage, not forgetting the Edwardian and p.v.t., movements flourish. But those who operate these ancients are damned lucky, for the road surfaces of 1963 are vastly superior to those of 1913 or even 1923 and they do not have to buy petrol in 2-gallon cans, blow their h.p. tyres up by hand or watch out for speed traps worked by ditched bobbies—although I admit that radar traps are far less sporting and equally farcical as accident-preventers in the majority of applications. Light relief from the troubles and trials of modern civilisation is afforded to the masses by the passage or presence of the old motor cars, and I note that Woburn Abbey is likely to copy Lord Montagu and have a motor museum, which has led one brave member of the V.C.C. to state that the idea of the Duke of Bedford in a funny hat plugging rides round Woburn in the old crocks, and driving through hordes of teddy boys, pop-singers and nudists, appals him. We have one excellent Motor Museum in England at Beaulieu, which attracts nearly half-a-million visitors annually, and that, this critic obviously thinks, should suffice.

Turning to modern cars, there was the most commendable display of new models and technical variety at the London Motor Show that has just closed. What with the Rover 2000 that makes use of suspension and chassis features which I always said should be the basis of a piston-engined production Rover when I saw them on a gas-turbine coupé eight years ago, the brand-new Triumph 2000, the Ford Corsair which is the logical refinement of the best-selling Cortina and which, thanks to some lavish colour-advertising, I shall always associate with warm seas, blue skies, girls in swim-suits and chaps equipped with flippers and snorkels, the N.S.U. 1000 of which Motor Sport forecast the salient technical details correctly as long ago at last April, and Vauxhall’s version of the Opel Kadett (an Opel I see my friend Laurence Pomeroy has described as consistent in that the poverty of its interior foreshadows the paucity of its performance, which in turn is matched by roadworthiness reminiscent of the worst design of the ‘thirties). Jaguar adopting i.r.s. for yet another of their models, Porsche beating Citroën to an air-cooled flat-six engine, Daimler-Benz endorsing with the Type 600 my claim that they build the best cars in the World today, and Rootes having in the end to admit that the best sort of rear-drive small car has its engine in the tail, there is no sign of stagnation in automobile design.

We were able to publish the first full road test of the light and lively Vauxhall Viva or Epic and I look forward to driving other brave new models in the fullness of time. I have a hunch that I shall enthuse over the Rover 2000 even though our last road-test Rover expired in a haze of water vapour, and undoubtedly it was the Star of the Show. Indeed, it would appear that Rover strongly challenges Jaguar on the count of value-for-money, with the proviso that it could be quieter and is of interest only to advocates of family-planning. Also, why is it heralded as the car that takes motoring years ahead? Detachable body panels have been a Citroën feature for years, de Dion back axles were used on G.P. cars many seasons ago, and the engine is a normal unit, with reciprocating parts! However, when I am able to drive this Rover 2000 (the road-test had to be compressed into four days, when I was otherwise occupied) I think I shall join the thousands of others who regard this as their next car. It may not be exactly race-bred, although some of its more exciting features were no doubt tried on that now-nearly-historic (by V.S.C.C. rules) Rover single-seater and on the short-lived Marauder sports car; and Rover’s great showing in the gas-turbine field endorses their engineering prowess. The convincing, seemingly casual manner in which the Rover-B.R.M. surpassed its target at Le Mans is some of the best publicity this brilliant new Rover 2000 saloon (which looks somewhat like the T4 Turbine saloon) can have; my personal regret is that I have never driven, or been driven in, a Rover gas-turbine car, whereas Chrysler arranged last month that I should drive one of their gas-turbine automobiles on the public highway….

Those whose memories are not too attenuated derive enjoyment from finding that floor gear-levers are again fashionable, after all the publicity and hot air about the delights of steering-column appendages and that Triumph have discovered the selling-power of a sunshine-roof (only now you refer to it as a skylight) which VW have realised for years and which figured on quite inexpensive saloons in vintage times.

Apart from the widespread adoption today of technical niceties from the long-ago, such as disc brakes, rubber springing, transverse engines and air-cooling, car fashions change with startling rapidity. If you don’t believe me, look at models that were the latest, brightest, most appealing new things a few Shows ago and consider what has become of them. For that matter, pause to commiserate with those who quite recently bought Ford Consul Classics, assured that they had the very newest and best family car from the great Ford Empire. . . .

Before we take a look at the highlights of some of the post-war Earls Court Shows, let me pay my annual compliment to whoever it is who ensures continuity of the Smiths advertisement theme, thus ensuring that we still have models worth looking at—long may the series continue. Particularly since the managerial edict has gone out that I am not to publish pictures of young women in, on or standing beside motor cars, I appreciate the Smiths line and my regret is real that Ford, Jaguar and Rover do not equip their road-test Corsairs, S-models and 2000s with the young ladies who appear in those photographs which remind us that these new cars rely on Smiths instruments. Thus are good cars, good-looking models and World-famous instruments united, to the benefit of the modelling profession, the enjoyment of enthusiasts and the publicising of Smiths accessories—and if my clock of that make loses here and gains there, I promise to took again at those girls and try to think well of it. Ironically, these advertisements do not appear in Motor Sport.

As I was saying, motor-car fashions change almost as quickly as feminine fashions, which is good for salesmen and moneylenders, if bad for savings banks and hire-purchase houses. And fashion is tickle, so that automobile styles change yearly like women’s hats; we go from floor gear-levers to steering-column stalks back to floor gear-shifts, as ladies’ umbrellas changed from long to chubby and back to walking-stick length down the seasons, and whereas once rear-engines driving the back wheels were the enthusiasts’ ideal, now front-wheel-drive is accepted as the better bet. What the future holds it is difficult to predict, just as you never know from one year to the next whether the girls will wear their skirts long or short or be seen in single or two-piece swim-suits. While we shall presumably use cars with the driven wheels at one end or the other for some time to come, four-wheel-drive may become universal in the end and gremlins do the gear-changing (leg-off, preferably by Hobbs) even on sporting cars.

To see just how fickle is fashion, take a look at Earls Court in 1952. As the glistening new 1953 models were unveiled the technical pundits were still sceptical of i.f.s., in case it led to excessive tyre wear (The Autocar expressed a note of caution about this development in its Show Issue editorial!), and one reporter noted that “the steering-column gear-change outnumbers other types but has not yet conquered the sports car.” Five-speed gearboxes, however, were found on the Fiat 1900 and Pegaso and the only front-drive cars at the Show were Citroën and Hotchkiss-Grégoire, the only rear-engined design the Renault 750.

The brilliant new models for 1953 were the Healey Hundred (with Austin A90 engine) and the new Triumph sports car. The VW was not to encroach on the British Market for another year and Ford still produced the s.v. Anglia and Prefect. Morris had scored a lead the year before with the Issigonis-inspired Minor and sought to ginger it up with the o.h.v. 800-c.c. A30 power unit. Practically the only models to have survived without drastic re-design are this Morris Minor and the Morgan Plus Four, and in the comparatively short space of eleven years the names of Allard, Armstrong Siddeley, Delahaye, De Soto, Hotchkiss, Hudson, Jowett, Kaiser, Lanchester, Lea-Francis, Pegaso, Standard, Sunbeam-Talbot and Willys-Overland have ceased to exist. That was the year when the introduction of disc brakes by Girling was big news and only one British car, the Lagonda, ventured i.r.s. Pegaso and both Allard Palm Beach and J2X had de Dion back axles, however, while power-assisted steering was hailed as a “new development,” being an optional extra on General Motors’ and Chrysler cars.

Space considerations preclude a year-by-year review of Earls Court since 1952, although this would underline how quickly loudly-proclaimed ideas are forgotten and disclose many false prophesies. Going back only to 1958, the models of but half-a-dozen years ago look altogether uninspiring. True, the Austin Healey Sprite had just appeared, Armstrong Siddeley were busy with the new Star Sapphire and Bentley claimed that road speeds of 120 m.p.h. were balanced by brakes designed (by Renault in 1919?) to dissipate 1,200 h.p., but Jaguar hadn’t room on their stand for an XK150 or S-type, Austin proudly showed the Metropolitan, and I doubt whether we need regret the demise of exhibits like the Frisky and Opperman Unicar. Rover were using the F-head for their new 2-litre which they now disclaim as of no particular merit, and names like Berkeley, Borgward, Isetta and Peerless were still to be seen, while DAF and Skoda had reached our shores.

Quite obvious is it that car fashions and fortunes change with startling rapidity; equally obviously design shows no tendency to stagnate.

While it may be easy to sell the first year’s output of a new model on appearance or comfort of the seats or space in the luggage-boot, influenced by the females in the family, more and more are customers becoming discerning in the buyers’ market, and the finer qualities, such as reliability and road-holding (Bugatti fanatics are permitted to transpose these items!), are being discussed and demanded, so that it is these and the niceties of control, comfort of ride, feel of the steering, power of the brakes and degree of performance, which we road-testers try to analyse for you, that sell modern motor cars and cause despondency in the Board-rooms of those companies whose engineering staff are still dictated to and overruled by the sales and publicity boys. What a pity that Issigonis remark, made partly in fun, that you have to sit uncomfortably to remain alert in traffic, has been so seriously bandied about in some quarters! And surely when Mr. G. W. Harriman, C.B.E., of B.M.C. said the ADO16 small-car concept will be retained for ten years he meant in respect of its ingenious power plant location, front-drive and splendidly effective suspension and not necessarily in styling and power output?

Whereas, at one time, steering precision and good road-holding were the prerogative of Continental cars, British products have long since caught up. Indeed, I do not think cars can be characterised by the country of their manufacture to anything like the extent they could be when I went to Olympia Motor Shows as a schoolboy, clutching my Trojan catalogue container—Italian cars bred for Alpine driving, French cars for elegance, German cars for rugged autobahn motoring and so on. One unusual German uniformity is noticeable however, namely the use of transverse leaf front suspension on Auto Union, Ford 12M, Opel Kadett and Vauxhall Viva cars. And it apparently takes French logic to realise that unless one is comfortable the pleasure diminishes in the best of cars, vide the very good seats Renault have in the R8.

I suppose the question I am asked more often than any other is what car I would choose had I unlimited means. It is impossible to answer, especially with so many fine new models on the market, although if luxury were the criterion I would still look beyond Rolls-Royce to the Daimler Majestic Major V8 and put the money saved into Rover shares. However, I will end this discourse by awarding a few Editorial accolades, to the following makes:—

Rover, for giving prestige to British engineering in the gas-turbine field and for having the most covetable new car at Earls Court, at a most competitive price.

Mercedes-Benz, for building the present ultimate of the World’s best car.

Ford, for so quickly dropping the Classic, employing Chapman to improve the Cortina and building a universal range of engines and automobiles that are making their mark in competition.

B.M.C., for making the safest-handling, most comfortable mass-production small cars in the World.

Volkswagen, for remaining the most disliked car cited by rival mass-producers everywhere, because with a combination of an age-old design that remains entirely up-to-date, meticulous attention to detail and an impeccable finish they contrive to build the Rolls-Royce of small cars at model-T European prices.

Jaguar, for their so docile 150-m.p.h. E-type that carries on the phenomenal Sir William Lyons’ value-for-outlay policy.

Ferrari, for continuing to make covetable complicated machinery, with no concessions to simplification or price-cutting. Competition victories continue to make the prancing horse the greatest status symbol in the game.

Daimler, because they have shown that spacious, dignified luxury travel does not imply flopping round corners and because they provide all this for £2 1/2-thousand.

N.S.U., because the honesty of the air-cooled twin-cylinder Prinz suggests that the new transverse-four should be very effective, and because, in spite of all the gas-turbine hoo-ha, this firm is first with a production rotary-engined car.

Peugeot, for offering the Family Saloon with eight seats—combined with some technical niceities.

Fiat, for building a range of beautiful cars, of which the 1500 carries the family at sports-car performance level.

Triumph, for adopting i.r.s., which they assure me costs the customer only an extra £25, on all but one of their existing models—it, or the de Dion back axle, is bound to prevail in the end. . .

Renault, on account of their reputation for dependability, for offering good-looking cars at low price, and recognising that disc brakes-all round and comfortable seats need not be denied to the small-car user.

DAF, by reason of their very nicely contrived cyclecar with belt-drive automatic transmission that functions well enough to get home in Europe’s toughest rally.

To choose the best of all, however, is as difficult as deciding whether you would prefer to take Miss Rover, Miss Corsair or Miss S, from those Smiths ads., to a Motor Show Ball.

Certainly there are some splendid cars in which to motor through 1964, and although eventually rotary or gas-turbines may be found in every car, for a long time to come pistons and poppets will prevail. All you have to do is to decide which make and model suits you best and find the money with which to buy it. In spite of the trials and tribulations of civilisation (brought about largely, I would remind you, through the invention of the wheel, the i.c. engine and the gas-turbine) there is nothing quite like motoring for sustained pleasure and enjoyment, even in this over-populated and savagely over-taxed little island, in which, as square-styled new houses, shops and flats go up, replacing the old individual architecture, every village, town and city is threatened with the urban standardisation of the uniform ‘sixties. So I wish you good motoring, God-speed, and many thousands of miles free from the menace of Marplism, in the days to come.—W. B.