Matters of Moment

Showtime Soliloquy

With autumn merging into winter this is the period of the Motor Shows, in Frankfurt, Paris, London, Turin and Glasgow, sparked off as it were by that Birmingham Motoring Festival at which real racing cars were actually allowed to circulate within the Armco-guarded precincts of this Midlands City. But there is so much uncertainty around that this Editorial might just as well have been called "In the November Fog", to parody the titles under which D.S.J. has been reviewing some of the past season's F1 races.

It cannot be denied that some astonishing situations engulf us. While Mr. Harold Rising-Price calls calls for a maximum wage-increase of £6 a week, the cost of many essentials continue to go up, whether they be milk and eggs, petrol, car tax and motoring fines, or the Nation's lifeline of postage and telephone services. And electricity is being priced out of the domestic market - ask the Aga/Rayburn salesmen! Meanwhile, the Rt. Hon. Denis Healey, the Labour Minister who seemed best able to control wage-increases, was overthrown at Blackpool for a left-wing politician. And the postal charges have risen so alarmingly, with all the adverse effect this has on commodity prices, that one hopes "First-Class Mail" will be boycotted, even at the expense of Great Britain seriously slowing down. (MOTOR SPORT will not be sending out Christmas cards this year, much as we would like to offer seasonal greetings to our many friends and supporters.) We have the situation where police can be murdered but those who do the murdering mustn't be shot without a world-wide outcry. We have the Chicago-type hold-ups and bombings of history brought into the very heart of London. With all the rest of the muddle and tragedy...

Fortunately, as a motoring paper, we can leave this to others, turning to the alarms and disasters of our own world. The Editor went as a shareholder (one of 43-million or so!) to Leyland Cars' pre-Motor Show Press Conference at Longbridge, although he is of the opinion that it is unethical for a motoring-writer to hold shares in Companies within the Motor Industry. In this case it was forced on him, with no option. The impression is that the new Executives of this immense Corporation operating under the "spinning-L" Leyland badge (we have heard other descriptions of it!) mean business. We were addressed by our MD, Mr. Derek Whittaker, and by Messrs. Keith Hopkins, Neil Johnson, Peter Morgan (not that one!) and Trevor Taylor (not that one either!). The sensational Supercover package, about which the Evening News had jumped the embargo, follows closely on Leyland's successful Superdeal campaign. This was explained to us and the improvements in the latest Allegros and Marinas were outlined.

Leyland cars hold such an important stake in the National economy that one must fervently hope that their ambitious new plans will sweep their competitors before them. It is too early for reasoned comment, except to remark that we can see the AA computers sizzling and that in a short test-drive in an Allegro 2 the 5-speed gear-change was still found to be sticky and the torque-reaction from the transverse engine is still very pronounced as drive is changed to overrun and vice versa, in spite of proclaimed mechanical alterations in both departments.

It seems a crying shame that the old BMC could not have patented the Issigonis commercialising of the transverse engine/pull-along concept. But they couldn't and we all know how widely competitors have copied it. Why, then, is this annoying engine reaction under power reversals encountered only on Leyland concepts (we shall be corrected if we are wrong, no doubt)?

The day is no longer when it was regarded as caddish and ungentlemanly to compare one car with another or to "knock" a rival's products. Such is now common practice in journalism and in advertising. So no criticism can be levelled at Leyland's Mr. Trevor Taylor for telling us that the new Hydragas Allegros and the 1976 Marinas undercut the prices of Escorts and Cortinas and that the Princesses (once the proud Wolseleys) do the same to Victor, Consul and Granada.

We must applaud Leyland's plan to ensure a one-year, very detailed warranty of its new cars, with a two-year option in return for small premiums, but the thought occurs that good cars should not go wrong in a twelvemonth and that warranties can be expensive to operate - the original Bentley Company gave a 5-year guarantee with each of its cars and was out of business in ten years...

The reconstituted Leyland Cars complex, it is apparent, fears Ford more than any of its competitors. Mr. Taylor, at the Press conference, made snide remarks about "stripped-out, spartan versions" of a maker's better-equipped models, and emphasised that Leyland ignore this road to the lower-priced economy car, because it believes the "market as a whole does not want that sort of car". This must be taken as a tirade against the £1,299 Ford Escort Popular. Leyland Cars may be so right, yet we cannot overlook the vast knowledge about selling transport to the masses that Ford-of-Britain (soon, with a fine understanding of the Common Market, to make its bigger cars in Germany) has amassed since Model-T days - 15 million sold of those alone! Moreover, during and preceding the period of the London Motor Show MOTOR SPORT was using a Ford Popular for town and country commuting and this roomy 1100, which undercuts the price of the least-expensive Allegro 2 by £231, did not seem unduly spartan, apart from a lack of interior-stowage conveniences. We have not yet completed fuel consumption tests but under the worst possible conditions of repeated short hauls and cold starts the Popular's m.p.g. figure was better than 36. Mr. Taylor seems to have overlooked the significance of the fact that, even in America, General Motors thinks it prudent to list a downscale utilitarian version of its new Chevrolet Chevette.

It would be nice to think that under Wilson (or Mrs. Thatcher) this poor, impoverished country, where inflation (which was once a term associated with Dunlop, Schrader and Mosley "Float-on-Air", not with the economy) is on everyone's lips, recovery will be rapid and that there will be no place for low-priced, low-fuel-consumption cars. Facing reality, however, it seems that this happy recovery may be far distant, and that with Britain in the grip of the Trade Unions there will continue to he a need for simple cars, just as the peasants of Europe have found good use for 2CVs, Seats, Polskis and suchlike. In that case the present Ford Popular should fill just as great a need, among those to whom thrift is important but who do not intend to emulate the sardine, as other Dagenham-inspired Populars did down the years, long ago.

Leyland's attitude to the economy car is reflected in its disinterest in an improved Mini, for it looks as if Ford will get their "Bobcat" onto the market before a revised Mini-Minor appears. Mark you, this "Bobcat", Ford's first front-drive car since the Taunus 12M, will have to be good, extraordinarily good, if it is to ride the opposition from an extensive small-car field. Ford have announced that it will hire an additional 1,000 men at Dagenham to help build the "Bobcat" and Lucas talk of taking on 1,200 or more operatives to work on diesel-injection pumps - a great help, with unemployment running at the one-million mark! Which only serves to emphasise the plight of this little Island community of Europe, which further serious strike-action could plunge to an all-over peasants'-car level.

Luckily MOTOR SPORT can afford to leave these distressing problems and turn to the sporting and fun aspects of motoring. Last month we remarked on the enjoyment we had had with a Triumph Spitfire. Leyland make a fine range of sports cars, so we were disappointed that in the most important Press conference he had ever been associated with (his own words) Keith Hopkins made not a single reference to these famous British sports cars, or to Leyland Cars' 1976 competition plans. Neither did Derek Whittaker or any of his colleagues, although Mr. Alex Park, Chief Executive of British Leyland Ltd., did make a passing reference to sports cars for the American market in his speech at the Motor Show BL lunch.

Leyland have the excellent Spitfire and have developed this Triumph sporting range as far as the new TR7. The MG-B is due for up-dating but the MG Midget surely represents the 1970s equivalent of the original Midget and all subsequent small sports MGs out of history. The forerunner of which appeared, let it be emphasised, more than fifty years ago. This means that anyone craving fun and fresh-air but devoid of the skill or time (or a home-workshop) for coping with a pre-war car (so many of which are now being offered for pricey sale in unfinished condition) can get cracking under the MG banner for an outlay of only £1,649, in today's counterpart of the M-type MG Midget of the '30s. The competition world has grown more intense since the first Midget was weaned and it may not be possible to use a standard Midget 1500 for gaining top-awards in MCC trials and in a track high-speed trial, for climbing trials' hills, and for long-distance road-work, which is how a £185 MG Midget was employed by a certain motoring journalist when it was a new car. Perhaps the MGCC will be able to tell us whether or not times have changed too radically for a modern production MG Midget to be so used? But certain it is that British Leyland have a monopoly, in the inexpensive car field.

That competition motoring is beneficial even to the mightiest of motor manufacturers must be evident from the manner in which Ford altered its reputation from a supplier of prosaic utilitarian transport to the maker of some of the best, sporting small and medium-size cars. That participation in competition events benefits the individual car is confirmed by comparing the Escort Popular with the late Escort Mexico and present Escort Sport. So we hope that Leyland Cars will soon be telling us how they propose to use Special Tuning of Abingdon and what future competition plans they have for their effective Broadspeed Dolomite Sprints. Alas, Derek Whittaker was as silent as a Jaguar on these topics, at his eve-of-Show Press conference.

The time has long departed when cars of catalogue-make ran in Grands Prix, if we except the conquering Ferrari and stretch a point to include the nicotine-Lotus. And although makes like Triumph, Alfa Romeo, Toyota, Ford, BMW, Vauxhall and Opel contested last month's Access TT at Silverstone, these cars were hardly identical to those you buy, any more than were the bulk of the entry in the TT races of long ago, that were contested in Ireland when Ulster was a happy place. The closest approach to catalogue-car racing, where spectators can drive to the venue in the same kind of cars as they will see competing, is perhaps the Renault Five thrash, where these quick little saloons battle door-handle to door-handle. Citroen 2CV dicery scarcely counts, as it is more akin to mini-stock-car racing, in a Lea Bridge idiom. But whatever kind of competition it is, publicity and technical lessons accrue there-from, so we hope that Leyland will continue to battle with Ford and others on the circuits and in the forests. At present the call is for British cars to combat the "foreign menace", whether this comes from the rest of Europe or Japan, or from the new American-sponsored small cars. It could be met by import embargoes but would be far more satisfactorily contested by better quality, more advanced British cars, backed up by proper service facilities. We seem to be trying, in these spheres, and no less person than Mr. Anton HiIle, Managing Director of BMW Concessionaires GB, has expressed it as his opinion that Britain could produce sufficient cars, as good as any in the world, if the Government and the Unions allowed engineers and workers their freedom. Mr. HiIle, who had the BMW "rust-proofed-for-life" policy to offer his customers, even went so far as saying that "an imported car has no special magic. People buy them from choice." It's like the maker of the world's best mouse-trap finding customers beating a path to his door - as we have seen those who believe in BMWs making their unstoppable way to Brentford and Park Lane!

So rather than fight an internal sales-war, wondering whether "Bobcat" will out "Bobkitten" or Allegro kill Escort, maybe we should go for "British is Best", which anyone who has had even brief experience of the new Jaguar XJ-S can endorse, after assessing this car's great road-clinging, safe-cornering and hushed running qualities, and the latent urge waiting to be unleashed even in the higher echelons of the performance-belt. Leyland also have the new "wedge" models, in their bigger-engined range, and MOTOR SPORT has already proclaimed its liking for the Wolseley (beg pardon, Princess 2200HLS), and they must be acclaimed for selling 89,001 cars in their August/September Superdeal package. Leyland have been seeking a better gearchange on their lower-priced cars, which recalls the time, many years back, when Ford spent a million pounds on giving the Cortina synchromesh on bottom cog. Now General Motors have gone one better, with synchromesh on reverse, on the Chevrolet Chevette.

Let this be a portent, then, that in spite of the state of the pound-sterling, plausible Politicians, powerful Unions, and increasing violence in the world, the Motor Industry intends to go forwards as well as backwards and is far from dead; it does not even seem to be in danger of dying, to judge by the glittering Motor Shows of recent weeks. All eyes will be on that re-organised public company, Leyland Cars, and its daring Supercover deal; we know that comparatively small firms such as the Car Recovery Service Club can cope efficiently with scooping up broken-down cars and their occupants and returning them to garage and home. It now remains to see how the AA manages the new Leyland pledge. Ford, of course, is following with its VFM, Value-For-Money deal.

In the meantime, encouragement is extended by MOTOR SPORT, to all British motor manufacturers, not only those in Coventry, Birmingham, Oxford and Dagenham, etc., but those at Thames Ditton, Newport Pagnell, Bristol, Witham, West Bromwich, Malvern Link, Tamworth and Blackpool, many of whom make sporting cars, either openable or closed, and who are conscious that taking part in competitive events enhances the product and the prestige. For our part we shall continue to report impartially on anything from the Fiat cyclecar to the Rolls-Royce Camargue when such are made available to us and on competition motoring at various levels, we hope with the same enthusiasm and integrity that has kept this journal going for half-a-century.