Matters of Moment, November 1969

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• Showtime Soliloquy

Another Earls Court Show—described by no less a person than Lord Stokes of BLMC as “Stuffy old Earls Court”—managed, after all the strike alarms, to open its doors on time, although on Press Pre-View day it looked more like an exhibition of do-it-yourself carpentry or electrical gadgetry. There were also the see-through girls, the bikinis and the bunny-birds, used by makers of uninteresting cars to build up an audience for these more alluring models—the most stripped chassis was on the AC 428; it wore skin-tight silver slacks with observation holes in strategic places and nothing much above.

Whether this is the way to sell cars is questionable—one properly-clad young woman was wearing such costly jewels she had to be accompanied by two security guards, for all the world as if she were being arrested—it occurs to us that some Show visitors might prefer to buy jewellery instead of cars of equivalent cost, things being what they are.

Indeed, it is rather a mystery why people still buy cars, in a country the Government of which goes out of its way to discourage them. We dealt with some of the depressing aspects of motor vehicle ownership in Britain, of the grossly excessive taxation, the road congestion and so on, in a recent Editorial about rebellion which is in the minds of some road-users. It is perhaps unnecessary to reiterate these depressing factors but as we parked at Earls Court among the rotting cabbages, the broken glass and the bonfire smoke, paying, unless we are mistaken, more this time than in 1968, we reflected on the ever-increasing cost of motoring, a small car costing some £8 a week to run, road tolls going up (Tyne tunnel from 2s. 6d. to 4s. for example), petrol which sells for 1s. 10d. a gallon being taxed at 4s. 10d. a gallon, even the price of a driving licence going up from 15s. to £1 for no apparent reason, with a savage increase in the learner’s driving licence, etc., etc. The motorist always pays, very dearly indeed for maintaining essential transport in this congested little Island. It is not the way to a healthy home market, or scintillating new models to lure Export sales.

But we live in odd times, with pornography prevalent, stability a “square” word, the Pill promoting promiscuity, hippies seeking Utopia by living free in property others have built and maintained, the Battle of Grosvenor Square shilling, for other reasons, to bloody scenes in Northern Ireland, where once the real TT race was the most dangerous thing encountered there. It was all so different when Motor Sport came into being 45 years ago and, seeing that Volvo was brave enough to put a vintage saloon on its Earls Court stand, we wondered how manufacturers sold cars—and sell them they did—in the nineteen-twenties, with never a miniskirt among them and strip-tease many decades hence. Here it is fitting to remark that with all the growing trouble and strife which is found even in this once peaceful isle, with the bottles, stones and petrol bombs descending on the Police, much as we dislike them when they are forced to adopt cissy tasks like enforcing unrealistic speed-limits with radar machines, at the bidding of their horse-age superiors, in the matter of putting down riots, painlessly dispatching hippies and generally maintaining Law and Order they surely have the sympathy and admiration of most of our readers? (What a pity the image was ever blackened, in the eyes of so many non-criminal drivers, however.)

The customary Show Review is missing from this issue of Motor Sport partly due to restrictions on space, partly because there is so little to report—no startlingly new British cars, no vee-engined Jaguars. A Daimler Sovereign which is just another bit of badge-engineering boloney, new GT cars which have little more connection with gran turismo or racing than Leyland’s old Trojan. A line big “vintage” Aston Martin light-alloy V8 four-cam power unit, it is true, but didn’t Maserati do this all of ten or more years ago? The BLMC Minis have been given a more sophisticated specification and a face lift which makes them resemble Autobianchis.

And all the while the cost of living rises in the Socialist State, and hooliganism and crime are on the increase, of which that little key on the car’s key ring, for locking down the radio aerial is unhappily symbolic. Pleasure of all kinds has become taxable—you need a licence to keep a dog, to link up with a wife—age-old pleasures, these—to watch TV, shoot, sell drinks, it’s licences, licences, licences, for pleasure is not to be denied and therefore is something for which we must all be made to pay. . . .

Reverting to Earls Court, no British Wankel-engined car was to be seen at the London Motor Show, reminder that one reader who claims a BA engineering degree says that Felix Wankel’s clever engine is still a reciprocating one; the rotor still accelerating and decelerating, with the resultant stresses, which leads him to believe that American engineers developing gas and steam turbines for road vehicles are doing more profitable work than NSU, Mazda and Mercedes-Benz. STP had their turbine racer as an impressive exhibit, to show the possible future trend—STP lubricated, of course. Nevertheless, NSU are to be commended for their maintenance breakthrough on the great Ro80, for which oil changes are no longer needed. We quote: “The announcement, made in advance of the showing of the latest Ro80 model at the Frankfurt Motor Show this month, is based on a report from NSU’s development department produced at the end of July.

“The report said: ‘As a result of the extremely low level of oil fouling in the KKM 612 (the factory designation of the Ro80’s RC engine), the 12,000-mile oil change will no longer be necessary’.

“Behind the report are well over three million miles of test-driving since 1965, preceded and accompanied by bench testing to evaluate the road-test results.

“One among many targets was a totally maintenance-free power plant, for which the RC engine seemed to hold the answer. Whereas grease points round the car have long been eliminated, the conventional four-stroke piston engine is still haunted by the prospect of regular engine oil changes.

“How has this been achieved? By direct contrast with the conventional four-stroke reciprocal piston engine, in which the piston ring performs closely related functions as a gas seal and oil stripper and the up-and-down piston motion involves combustion gases being blown on to the cylinder walls, in the RC engine the functions and timing of oil and gas, are sharply distinguished.

“A ‘secondary compression chamber’ is incorporated in which a marginal over-pressure (resulting from migrating combustion gases) can be alleviated by a relief channel preceded by a ball-operated pressure valve. This secondary compression chamber thus retards any further passage of combustion gases. As a neutral zone it impedes any intermingling of blown-through, volatile combustion residue with the oil.”

Perhaps the remarkable thing is that poppets and pistons have survived for so long! Which, for some reason, reminds us that Jem Marsh has turned his back on tree wood and now makes his Marcos cars of common or garden steel! For his 3-litre’s space-frame CO2 gas shielded welding is used entirely in construction of the frame front 16 g. steel tube. There are 36 welded joints. Carbon dioxide is supplied by The Distillers Company (Carbon Dioxide) Limited in cylinders. The adoption of this process has enabled Marcos to achieve a 40% cut in the usual welding time for such constructions. High strength welds are obtained, together with the production advantages of positional flexibility, no de-slagging and simplified joint preparation.

Otherwise, where were the Earls Court technical break-throughs? BMC’s odd new wheels, being an imitation of earlier steel wheels presented as imitation cast-alloy ones, were just a nasty illusion within an illusion. Four-wheel-drive has got no further than Jensen for production cars. There was a futuristic mid-engined thing on the Pressed Steel stand which uses British Leyland components, and which you are supposed to be able to have in various materials, iron, steel, plastics or dried milk, presumably. But why on earth doesn’t the confident Lord Stokes market that splendid mid-engined V8 Rover, before Daimler-Benz get their Wankel mid-engined coupé, which was on show at Earls Court, into production? Especially as VW/Porsche had not brought their mid-engined confection to this particular Motor Show. Incidentally, for the first time in several years Herr Ulenhaut, Chief Engineer of Mercedes-Benz Ltd., failed to keep his luncheon appointment with the British Technical Press, who were unable to put Wankel-queries to this knowledgeable technician.

All in all, tradition seems to weather better than trend, although we are sorry that the traditional Brighton Speed Trials, which commenced along the special motor road, the Madeira Drive, as long ago as 1905, did not happen last month, the kilometre course now being too rough for the RAC to sanction racing over it. Surely Brighton Town Council will do something to save Britain’s oldest speed trial, even if it has to spend money to do so? Otherwise, Weston-super-Mare will steal Brighton’s reputation, with its half-kilometre seaside sprint.

On the subject of tradition, it is good to learn that the Veteran Car Club of GB is to re-enact the historic 1,000-Mile Trial of 1900 on its 70th Anniversary, from 1st to 9th of May next year, and that for this event, keeping as closely as possible to the original route, from London via Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Kendal, Carlisle, Edinburgh, Berwick-on-Tweed, Newcastle-on-Tyne, York, Harrogate, Bradford, Sheffield, Lincoln, Nottingham, and so back to London, over 80 veteran cars have entered provisionally, including some from USA and Europe. Moreover, we have first-class proof that there is nothing wrong with enthusiasm for motoring in this country, among the right people with the right cars. For did not 34 chain-drive Frazer Nashes take part in David Thirlby’s ambitious Bolzano Rally last summer, aided by Castrol, Dunlop and Renolds, not forgetting the assistance rendered by Dean Delamont of the RAC? Which goes to show that the older cars in historic settings encourage support from the most lofty sources!

So, thinking of the older cars, and we do not mean the Morris Minor or Fiat 500 still on Show at Earls Court, we leave the visitors pressing around the Show stands, trying doors, bouncing on the seats, peering at familiar engines and generally enjoying motoring in the only way possible in static machinery—and thrilling, we hope, to the sight of competition cars like the Porsche 917, Marathon Hillman Hunter (how clean!) and Rally Ford Escort. We had few regrets over walking out of the crowded hall where the financial future of this country lay metaphorically in balance, to drive to a land which is neither England, nor Scotland, nor even Ireland, to the least-populated of its counties, where time goes calmly by and the roads are decently empty, inviting enjoyable motoring, whether in stately vintage or fast modern cars.

After all, one had to have some let-up from Wilsonism, from the ever-soaring rise in prices, with London the biggest dustbin ever. The bitterly savage tax on road transport rubs off on the price of household commodities and it is clearly evident on many counts that, we have not yet grown accustomed to living with the motor-car. Ride a horse, drive cattle, and tax and traffic laws evaporate—no wonder some brewers still make luckless horses pull their loads, reducing the mechanised transport on their routes to a crawl!

But own a car and you are right for excessive taxation and lucky to avoid persecution for the million-and-one laws you can inadvertently break. All for the joy of driving over roads the majority of which are so crowded that if we don’t look out we may well be restricted to alternate-days driving, your “Road Fund” licence valid only for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, your neighbour’s only for Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with a mighty big surcharge for driving on a Sunday. What, we wonder, will the rebels do about a move of that kind?

Meanwhile, remember those uncompleted new roads, the great big roundabouts at New Basingstoke, for instance, leading to archaic congestion from that town to Reading, the kind of “progress” repeated all over the country, as your taxes, paid as motorists, go elsewhere, for other purposes.

One last word on Earls Court. On opening day the only uncompleted Stand we saw was that of the Metropolitan Police—Traffic Department—bogged down, maybe, by growing legislation and congestion. . .

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