Economy cars as the idealist would like them and as impecunious enthusiasts have to have them
AT the present time the weekly motoring Press is trying to decide just what sort of car should be offered to Mr. Everyman after the war is won. The problem is not without interest, even to the enthusiast. The curious thing to the writer is that there is always an immense demand for new baby cars at around the £100-£500 figure when the secondhand market is flooded with late-model used babies at very low prices. If you buy a secondhand car for £50. and spend £20 on an overhaul, you save £30 over a new £100 car— and there were no £100 cars on the market when war came, the cult having lapsed since Morris led the way with the s.v. Minor after Gillette, with a 1,020 c.c. four-cylinder, and Waverley, with a 901 cc. friction-driven flat-twin, had paved the way. Even if you drive 10,000 miles every year and your new car gives 10 m.p.g. better fuel consumption than your second-hander, it will be six years before this difference in purchase price is made up, even with fuel at 2/- a gallon. That, of course, is only part of the story, but it does seem a little surprising that so few prospective car-buyers will contemplate secondhand cars as to make a new £100 car a very sound commercial consideration. We suppose it must be put down to a general lack of engineering knowledge on the part of the buying public, which makes them distrust a used car, no matter of how reputable a make and recent date, allied to a universal vanity which craves the “newness” of a new car together with the latest in styles. All we can say is that for peace-of-mind motoring we would infinitely prefer to gamble £70 or so on an overhauled used car in the three or four year-old Morris Eight or Ford Eight class, than £100, perhaps more, on some of the cars these amateur designers are perpetrating. Without in any way wishing to disparage that great car, the Jowett, it is rather hard to understand why so much enthusiasm is shown for a horizontally-opposed two-cylinder engine when every baby car maker has avoided the type for the last ten years or so. It is permissible to assume that our big manufacturers have adequate research facilities and are fully alive to the keen competition they have to face, yet they all say four-cylinders. When this two-cylinder enthusiasm in connection with a motor suitable for the million is coupled with a plea for Burt McCollum sleeve-valves, publishable words fail us. As we see it, the public will just have to get second-hand-minded in order to motor on a small purse in a small car after the forthcoming Armistice. They will never again tolerate the simple cyclecar. The original Austin Seven crossed with the present Type 500 Fiat is more of a possibility. But when you consider that the open touring Austin Eight—a most admirable little car, the excellence of which was overshadowed by the war, but which is giving yeoman service to the Army—turned out in quantity, costs £135, it is difficult to visualise anything much cheaper being possible for many years after hostilities cease. Much equipment could be dispensed with, but the weight, even with the simplest of body shells and a smaller engine, would never get down to 1923 levels. Too tiny an engine would kill performance, and reasonable performance hardly suggests a reversion to very simple brakes and small-section tyres. Add to this that over-riding fact which all the idealists seem to overlook, namely, that big quantity production is essential to low price and that such a production scale will be seriously curtailed for some years by the post-war economic situation and the time-lag in changing factories back from war to peace production, and £100 seems the lowest figure at which we can reasonably aim. It is argued that extreme economy will then be the desirable feature, which suggests a very tiny power-unit. It is happily stated that the ordinary owner will not require an average speed of greater than 20 m.p.h. Frankly, we gravely doubt this. On a long journey, to cruise on a comparatively straight road at not more than 35 m.p.h. is horribly boring, and if the excellent little Fiat, which can comfortably average 35 m.p.h. over long main road journeys, becomes noticeably a slow car up long gradients or when continual pick-up is necessary, what would a car limited to a maximum of around 35 m.p.h. do to driver and crew under similar conditions? And if such a car is only to be used for brief runs and town work, how extravagant it becomes against a good used car! We admit that, although it is surprising that it is so, the new car does command a ready market over the used car in even the lowest price-class, but we do feel that the distrust and vanity aforementioned, which militate against the used car, would hardly offset the monotony of a 20 m.p.h. average. There is also the aspect that after a year of war petrol has only risen by 6½d a gallon, and if we permit the hope that its price will stay stabilised from now onwards, fantastic fuel consumptions will have less to commend them when rationing is withdrawn. Wide-gap plugs have worked near-miracles for Vauxhall, but it must be borne in mind that special head layout is probably essential to its satisfactory functioning. So, putting the minimum engine capacity capable of ensuring adequate performance at around 600 c.c., we may hope for an average fuel consumption of nearer 50 m.p.g. than the present 40 m.p.g., from future economy cars—but more we cannot hope for.
All of which turns the thoughts of the truly impecunious to used cars. Although the price of recent models is rising, and is likely to continue to do so, older cars have fallen in price since the war commenced. For instance, lots of seven or eight-year-old 8 h.p. cars which used to cost £20-£25 now sell for the more easily produced “tenner,” and recent bargains we have seen— admittedly we have not investigated their condition—include a Lancia “Agusta” saloon for £25 and a KN-M.G. Magnette saloon with E.N.V. pre-selector gearbox for £35. This tendency may not continue much longer, so it behoves the enthusiast who is seeking a cheap car to buy now and overhaul his car in readiness for after-the-war motoring. We are tempted to discuss a few aspects of this business of acquiring a really inexpensive economy car, and there will be those who will express horror that MOTOR SPORT should do so. Our answer must be that, while we are fully aware that our readers are rabid enthusiasts for fast motoring, there is reason to believe that a very reasonable proportion of them cannot run modern fast cars—which are hardly amongst the least expensive of this life’s enjoyable possessions. The alternative is to acquire a vintage sports-car, which is what a lot of enthusiasts do, and is why we continue to devote as much space as we do to such cars. But our correspondence convinces us that many impecunious folk have to motor in ordinary or near-ordinary cars. They remain extremely keen on sporting motoring, but they just cannot fit sports motor-cars into their scheme of things. The writer of “General Notes” has long endeavoured to show that, while he has been fortunate enough to handle many excellent and rapid cars, he still finds plenty of fun in driving quite humble vehicles. That this has got home is proved by the number of letters we receive describing experiences, written in all keenness, of cars that are far removed from genuine sports types. So we feel disposed to put down a few thoughts that occur to us, relating to the choice of secondhand economy cars at the present time, for the benefit of just such enthusiasts as these, and we hope not to incur too enduringly the wrath and disgust of their more fortunate brethren.
We will confine our remarks to cars of up to 8 h.p. R.A.C. rating for which there is the excellent reason that (quite apart from any extra expense that a “Nine” involves in respect of lower m.p.g., more costly tyres, the extra 25/- a year for Sir Kingsley Wood and increased insurance rates) at the present time fuel rationing docks the owner of a “Nine” of 600 miles per annum over that possible with an”Eight,” counting on a respective fuel consumption of 30 as against 40
The very cheapest sort of vehicle will be the vintage small car, and under present conditions, with annual mileage cut to a quarter of the peace-time total and with more time to spare for working on the car in the garage and less hurry on the road, and not the same need for complete infallibility as formerly, your enthusiast should be able to get a lot of amusement running such a car on the basic ration. However, this is a very limited field. In the first place, the only really reasonable old cars of 8 h.p. rating are the 7.5 Citroen, 8/18 Talbot and the Gwynne. The latter has an engine capacity of over a litre, by reason of a long stroke, and, while a good performer, only. does about 35 m.p.g. All are difficult to discover in decent order and, even then, a keen vintagent may be running a reasonable mileage on supplementary coupons and consequently decide that such cars are not quite suited to his purpose. This brings the immortal Austin Seven into the picture. What a remarkable baby it is! Unchanged in fundamental design right up to the introduction of the Big Seven, it affords a lot of scope for the engineering class of owner and yet will give quite a good account of itself in the early three-speed form. There is, in fact, something very likable about the cheeky little ”Chummy” job and lots are still in daily service. This type of body seems to outlive the innumerable two-seaters that were put on this chassis, and if occasionally an ex-Army two-seater comes on the market, the appearance is rather terrible and the weight considerable. The performance of the old tourer is rather dull, but if a four-speed engine unit can be found, with the horizontal carburetter, it will install with very few alterations, considerably increasing the urge and giving much smoother running and increased dependability. These units can usually be obtained cheaply by buying a derelict van, but usually the bearings and piston rings definitely require renewing in this case. The question might now arise as to why one should not buy a saloon, which can be had for about the same price. Actually, even a small increase of weight will kill performance, and on a very small chassis, road-holding, is quite noticeably changed by any top-damper. The writer in all seriousness believes that an old “Chummy” weighing 8½ cwt., with four-speed engine unit and a few other improvements, perhaps including a 5.25 to 1 rear axle, is a quite reasonable wartime hack. The sportsman will do well to avoid early saloons, but the “Ruby” saloon is getting a lot cheaper now, and is an admirable little car. Two-seaters are not so easy to find, and “Ulsters” are exceedingly rare, while the “Nippy,” which offers very good weather protection and a good seating position, still commands around £40-£50. The later Austin Seven engines gave 17 b.h.p. at 3,800 r.p.m. and quite 40 m.p.g., and the jet system of big-end lubrication is entirely dependable, while the masked bores reduce oil consumption materially.
The Morris Minor comes to mind next, and the worst drawback of the early o.h.c. job is its three-speed gearbox and poor brakes. The engine itself is a very nice unit, and one not averse to tuning. The standard metal two-seater has good serviceable lines and fabric pointed-tail two-seaters are fairly common. The later side-valve Minor is also a thoroughly sound car, although the pre-hydraulic brake models, like the o.h.c. cars, had negative anchorage. With the four-speed engine unit, lightened flywheel, later cylinder head, and hydraulic brakes an excellent little car results, capable of good showing in trials. Lots of two-seater Morris Minors of both types are now available for less than £10, but the more desirable later job would doubtless cost rather more. The M.G. Midget in its earliest forms is another extremely fascinating little two-seater, with quite decent weather protection. Before the war they were fetching £15-£25 and more, but to-day you should not pay more than £10-£12. The very early cars had rod-operated brakes: cable brakes and metal bodies came later. The 847 c.c. engine gives over 23 b.h.p. at 4,000 r.p.m. in the M-type and 27 b.h.p. at 4,500 r.p.m. in the D-type, which has a different camshaft. In this model the axle was underslung and the three-speed gearbox had remote control. The M-type was current from 1929 to August 1932 and the D-type from October 1931 to July 1032. One sometimes hears people suggest that as these cars have only a three-speed gearbox, the four-speed s.v. Morris Minor unit might be put in for trials work. We believe that the job is a considerable one, and as the o.h.c. engines give plenty of power low down, weight is low, and bottom gear is about 17 to 1, there seems little point in making this conversion. The four-speed unit came in with the J-type, which had an entirely new cylinder head and gave 35½ b.h.p at 5,500 r.p.m. However, the J2 two-seater still fetches around £35 and a J-type engine will not, we believe, go into the earlier frame at any rate easily. It is, we believe, quite possible to mate a four-speed gearbox to the M and D-type engines. The Montlhery C-type Midget of 746 c.c. is even rarer than an “Ulster” Austin Seven, in both blown and unblown guise, but we believe that with a “Double-Twelve” camshaft, twin carburetters and other modifications, a speed of at least 70 m.p.h. is possible from the M-type; indeed, we have heard of this maximum, and averages of 35-38 m.p.h. being achieved with a standard engine that was in generally good order. Nor should it be forgotten that if speed trials or M.C.C. and J.C.C. Brooklands events are contemplated in the post-war era, the class limit is nowadays 850 so that an Austin Seven or a Montlhery M.G. is giving away 100c.c.
All the foregoing cars have the decided advantage of being makes for which spares, either new or secondhand, are very easily procurable, even when they are ten years old. The Morris Eight is another excellent small car, albeit it has only a three-speed box, and throws its shock-absorbers away, but it is still in the “expensive” category, the cheapest editions, which are usually saloons, being around £20-£40. The Ford Eight has plenty of urge, and the engine will stand some hotting-up, while replacement engines are available should that ship get in, but open-bodied cars are very few and far between. The Jowett is hardly a sportsman’s car, although they have been made to go quite quickly, notably by Miss Worsley, the Hepworth brothers and R. R. Hall. If you succumb to the fascination of the flat-twin and don’t care what your car looks like, it should be possible to get hold of an early two-seater for a really ridiculous sum and still get at least dependable transport, of a kind which the late R. 0. Shuttleworth, for all his fast cars, did not despise. The Fiat 500 is, perhaps, the nearest practical approach to the ideal utility car, but it commands prices from £40 upwards and the second year models have several definite improvements over the earlier cars.
In bringing to mind these very inexpensive economy cars, we would emphasise that for serious motoring we strongly recommend that a reasonable overhaul be given, which suggests new piston rings if not a rebore, attention to bearings, relining clutch and brakes, and fitting new tyres. If the final outlay then seems to be getting excessive in relation to the “ordinariness” of the vehicle, it becomes a matter for personal decision whether or not to abandon the scheme in favour of a real vintage sports-car or a home-built job. So far as the former is concerned, we have absolutely nothing against it, except that we feel that the outlay may in the end be doubled before equally dependable motoring results, while, as to home-brewed cars, surely it is all wrong to create something that looks fast and costs more money, but is actually no faster than the cars just reviewed. The enthusiast quite rightly seeks to express himself in an individual manner, but let us remind prospective owners that an ordinary utility car, maintained in mechanically sound order, outwardly clean, and perhaps bearing club badges or lightened wings or such like, is every bit as good an indication of enthusiasm as the ownership of a decrepit and unreliable car of little-known virtues. As to that other topic referred to in this article, the post-war economy car, fortunately it is not likely to bother your enthusiast, for when he has that much to spend he will spend it on increased performance or vintage restoration and pot to extremes of economy design.