Subjects for debate

Of recent months in these pages we have had Peter Hampton explaining to Mr. A. F. Brookes why he prefers Continental cars to British, and Mr. Brookes explaining that Hampton is barking up the wrong tree. This popular subject for debate invariably starts up that other happy business of vintage cars versus the moderns. So it has been in this instance, and we have duly received a screed which both debunks the vintagent and touches on the Continental versus British controversy. It is written by someone who asks to be known as “Two-Point-Six,” and we publish it because several of the points raised should be brought into the light, and because some of the arguments presented ring true.

Contrary to opinion in some quarters, Motor Sport has no wish to foster vintage sports cars at the expense of post-1931 high-performance cars, or vice versa for that matter. But we do feel that “Two-Point-Six” and others like him rather lose sight of one important fact. That is, that unless a person is definitely hostile to the vintage car, merely as a buying proposition, it has an initial advantage over the modern type of sports car. Because the Trade assesses the value of a car on age instead of condition, and because modern-type cars intended to run at high engine speeds, to carry light bodywork and to sell comparatively inexpensively, wear more rapidly than vintage machinery, the latter invariably presents a better proposition than the former for a given expenditure of money and hard labour. Consequently, lots of enthusiasts run the older cars for financial reasons, some, indeed, because they can afford nothing else. Fortunately the inherent quality of the vintage car often renders even very early examples quite practical after nothing more by way of overhaul than reining of brakes and renewal of transmission couplings and tyres. Without actually embarking on the vintage-modern argument as such, a sound case for purchase of the former type can he proved. So there is no real reason for “Two-Point-Six” to set out to convert the majority of (acting) vintagents to the appeal and superiority of the modern sports cars. In a considerable number of cases they are no doubt quite openminded already and merely buy old cars cheaply and restore them to good order because they dislike using any sort of car that they are unable to overhaul, and can only afford that overhaul if first cost is low. Given better financial resources they would probably buy moderns, albeit it is to the credit of the old car that, due to excellent workmanship and sane design, its “secondhand” condition for its age is usually no worse than the condition of younger (and consequently more expensive-to-buy) secondhand moderns – which is just what enables those with little cash but plenty of energy to do their sums and get the correct answers. There are still the dyed-in-the-wool incurables to contend with – from the man who is quite happy with a £20 vintage sports car because he really thinks it superior to a £40 post-vintage device, to fortunate folk like Forrest Lycett, Anthony Heal, McKenzie, A. C. Clark and others, who rebuild and use vintage cars when they could well afford moderns. To such we present “Two-Point-Six’s” article and offer them the freedom (within reason!) of our correspondence columns. Here is what “Two-Point-Six” says:

I have a feeling that many people, including some of my personal friends, are not going to be exactly pleased with this article of mine, but as I have always wanted to write on modern sports cars, and as Motor Sport encourages enthusiasts to express their views. I have decided to put pen to paper and fulfil my ambition. For private reasons, however, I fear I must write anonymously.

Like Mr. B. FitzPatrick (July 1943 issue) I am rather surprised to find that many readers of this journal, including my aforementioned friend, boost up vintage cars to the detriment of the moderns, but, unlike Mr. FitzPatrick, I do not believe that the best modern sports cars come from places across the Channel. But more of that anon. The really difficult point when arguing against the Vintage Cult is not how to defend modern machines, but how to “get at” the vintagents, who do not really seem to be very clear what it is about their “bolides” that they like so much. In fact, my personal opinion is that half this vintage stuff is affectation! For instance, they claim, or at least most of them claim, to “enjoy” a 300-mile drive in the depths of winter, with snow-clad roads and blizzard, in an open car of pre-1932 manufacture, a “Red Label” Bentley for choice. Now, exactly what is there to appeal to anyone in that? Is it the drive itself, the scenery, that they like? If so, a 1 1/2-litre M.G. saloon would fit the bill admirably. Is it performance? On bad roads it can’t be that; on good roads, what’s wrong with a 2.6 M.G., S.S. Jaguar, Riley “Kestrel,” B.M.W. and the like? Finally, is it the “he-manishness” that appeals? It is? I thought so! It really boils down to the fact, then, that what these vintage blokes really enjoy, or at any rate profess to enjoy, is discomfort. Well, if anyone enjoys discomfort, try wearing a hair shirt and a busby in heat waves; you’ll get discomfort all right.

Then, again, the vintagents earnestly claim that it isn’t speed that really counts at all. It doesn’t matter whether their cars do 70, 80 or 100 m.p.h. Or so they tell you. Then they obligingly contradict that statement a few minutes later by saying that a “Red Label” Bentley can out-perform any modern sports car of the same horse-power. It’s funny, but none the less true, as I have discovered in many arguments with my vintage-minded friends.

Another thing that is sure to send your vintage enthusiast absolutely crackers with joy is the sight of some 1928 junk-heap crawling slowly and painfully along the highway at 25-30 m.p.h. He waves to the driver, who stops his mechanised bedstead, and then immediately they fall to discussing the good old days when sports cars were really sports cars, and not just streamline shells which do not look anything like what a sports car should be. The discussion over, the two enthusiasts, now firm friends, spring joyfully into the coffin which once more trundles happily, if noisily, along His Majesty’s highway, viewing the tail ends of M.G. Midgets, B.M.W.s, and other so-called sports cars with majestic disgust.

However, enough of vintage exponents and their contrivances. Let us examine some modern jobs. Of all modern sports cars the “15/98” Aston-Martin “Speed Model” is one which springs to mind as being a typical representative of Britain. If you read the Speed road test of this superb car in March, 1939, you will recollect that in shape the car was like a peardrop, with a V windscreen and a tail rather like the jaws of an alligator. I believe the headlamps were, in a sense, sunk in the body, but I am not sure, and possibly this is incorrect. The entire car was beautifully streamlined from stem to stern and presented a picture of beauty and liveliness very seldom noticed in other cars. The price was £775. At this stage, perhaps, a summary of its specification would be helpful. The engine was a 4-cylinder o.h.v. unit, 78 mm. x 102 mm., 1,949 c.c., 15.09 h.p. by R.A.C. rating.

The gear ratios were: 1st, 11.39 to 1; 2nd, 8.33 to 1; 3rd, 6.11 to 1; top, 4.4 to 1. The brakes, which were Lockheed hydraulic, are reputed to be “superlative,” stopping the car in 27 feet from 30 m.p.h. The engine is very easily “got at,” and presents a very clean and neat picture. As to the performance, the maximum speed is 100 m.p.h. or thereabouts, while the acceleration figures of 0-50 in 9 secs., and 0-60 in 14 secs. speak for themselves.

To come down a bit in size and price, the well-known M.G. Midget still presents a challenge to those who claim that no decent sports cars were made after 1931. The latest Midgets, the TB type, and, slightly older, the T type, are both capable of a genuine 80 plus. One much-discussed unsupercharged T type is claimed to have done 90 plus. [Please! – Ed.] Petrol consumption works out at about 32-36 m.p.g. according to the run, and acceleration is definitely lively for the size of the car. You got all this, plus dependability of the highest order, for £222 before the war.

It would be a waste of time to go on mentioning in detail names such as Riley, Singer, Alta, B.M.W., Lancia, Delahaye, Talbot, Darracq, and other modern “bolides,” all of which are, in my humble opinion, considerably better than their ancestors of ten years before, not only in looks but in performance, economy and reliability.

Then, again, all sports cars are not necessarily open cars, since many saloons, owing to their aerodynamic efficiency, can leave open jobs standing, and surely speed has some connection with our Sport? At Le Mans, for instance, in 1939, there was a goodly number of Alfa-Romeo, Talbot-Darracq and B.M.W. saloons showing their paces. Admittedly, they got hot inside, but doubtless given time this snag will be overcome. Again, admittedly, at Le Mans the saloons did not do particularly well, but against that you can put the B.M.W. Mille Miglia win in 1940, which definitely was a great step in a new direction.

No enthusiast for modern sports cars denies that the “Red Label” Bentley, Lancia “Lambda,” “Ulster,” Aston-Martin and other vintage machinery had their points. Neither do they deny that in their day they were really marvellous cars, but remember that once they, too, were modern, and that they, too, were decried by the vintage enthusiasts of that period, just as one day B.M.W.s, “15/98” Astons and others will be supported by a new generation of vintagents. Then, as now, “modern cars” will be condemned by a few, then they, too, will in their turn become vintage jobs. That is really what Progress is, and however much you dislike it, you can’t stop it. Witness the futile efforts of that professor who doesn’t like cars, but who will have to “endure” (?) them just the same.

Finally, then, my private opinion is that whilst greatly admiring the sterling qualities of the vintage car, I feel that to support them rather than their modern counterparts is to slow down Progress in this country. As Mr. FitzPatrick says, if we are going to continue to regard the 4 1/2 Bentley as the best car in the world, once again we shall suffer in the foreign markets. 

Before the vintagents themselves offer comment, we would like to make a few remarks ourselves on the particular points “Two-Point-Six” raises. The answer to the question, “What is wrong with a 2.6 M.G., 2 1/2 S.S. Riley “Kestrel,” B.M.W. or the like?” is either the cost of such cars, vide our previous remarks, or their inferior “feel” when driven fast over snow, the latter being a matter of opinion, of course. We disagree that vintage cultists enjoy the sight of 1928 junk-heaps crawling slowly and painfully about. The genuine vintage sports car enthusiasts have it as a sort of unwritten law that before their cars take the road they shall be thoroughly overhauled. decently turned out, and well-groomed. When the Vintage S.C.C. was in its hey-day not every member could live up to this exacting standard, but, even so, only those vintage cars which were still capable of giving good performance and sound service in spite of low purchase price, commanded respect. Vintage sports cars of inferior design, mediocre performance, or bad disrepair were regarded no more favourably than the new cars then current. Naturally, the vintage car, by its rarity, has far-reaching appeal; our contributor’s picture of total strangers stopping such cars to compare notes both rings true and represents food for thought for those who buy their cars from manufacturers and motor under a guarantee. In suggesting that when the 3-litre Bentley and Lancia “Lambda” first came on the market they were shunned by “vintage enthusiasts of that period,” and that one day cars like the B.M.W., “15/98” Aston-Martin and others will be supported by “a new generation of vintagents,” “Two-PointSix” surely makes an error common to most people who set out to debunk “this vintage affectation.” The Vintage Cult came about because its advocates found that in the early nineteen-thirties the design of the majority of cars was taking a retrograde path and that old cars, suitably overhauled, were more than a match for new productions.

Later, as this “bad period” passed, not nearly as many enthusiasts remained true to the Cult, and, as we have explained, vintage-car popularity was then largely bound up with purchasing economy. Cecil Clutton himself did what be could to debunk the “vintage only, always” creed in these pages in August, 1940. Consequently, we can assume that after the 1914-18 war Bentley and Lancia were hailed as an advance over things like T-head Hispanos and outsized Benz, and were bought by those who could afford them; just as, unless another period of dry-rot amongst manufacturers sets in, we may imagine that in 1950 those who can do so will have current sports cars and that B.M.W.s and “15/98” Astons, etc., will be bought, not on account of their “vintage-appeal” but, as vintage cars are now in the majority of cases, on account of low purchase price – that is, assuming that they are not, as “moderns,” completely worn out by the time they have been on the road long enough to rank as scrap in the eyes of the Trade (!)

We have no desire to take sides in this evergreen vintage-modern argument, but having published “Two-Point-Six’s” anti-vintage screed, we cannot refrain from concluding with L/Cpl. L. Motler’s account of the cars he has owned. Quite by coincidence this was the very next contribution we received after “TwoPoint-Six’s” and, giving, as it does, the experiences of one who went from a vintage sports car to modern types and back to vintage stuff, it presents a case for the older cars equal to a direct entry into the controversy on their behalf. L/Cpl. Motler writes:

Like many enthusiasts, I started my motoring career on 2-wheelers. My first love was a 1919 belt-drive Levis purchased for the sum of £7 in 1927, complete with “sit up and beg” handlebars, footboards, etc., but by dint of hard work with crowbars and other implements, I altered the appearance to something more sporting. This was a wonderful little bike for its age, and very reliable apart from the belt, which was always prone to slip. After six months of the Levis I decided that I must have something more potent, and located a Model 80 Sunbeam in a local showroom. Investigations showed that this machine had been well cared for, and after a talk to my father, who more or less ruled my finances at the time, I did a deal and became the proud owner of a ‘Beam. This was a lovely Machine – wonderful finish and quality, beautiful gear-change and crisp performance. I ran this for two years without trouble of any kind, but during this period I was involved in three crashes, and under pressure from my parents, decided to sell on the understanding that I had a 4-wheeler in the near future.

After inspecting various cars from a “Gordon England” Austin Seven Cup Model to a straight-8 Bugatti, I eventually persuaded my father to do the necessary and purchase a “12/50” Alvis. This car was a 1924 model with the classic polished-aluminium pointed-tail body. No front-wheel brakes were fitted, but after I had owned the car for some time a set of Whitehead brakes were added and made a big improvement. This was a grand motor-car, with fine road-holding and steering. The maximum was around the 70 mark with a good 60 in third gear; this gear was badly worn and had to be held in place with the right hand. Some trouble was experienced with the body, which seemed very soft, and this was constantly cracking around the joints.

Another worry was the rattle from the timing wheels. I went to the expense of fitting a new set, but after a short mileage the row was as bad as ever; have since learnt that this is quite common to the “12/50.” The oil consumption was on the heavy side, and whilst the timing wheels were fitted I also had a new set of Brico rings, which improved matters very considerably, the oil consumption then being about 1,000 miles to the gallon. As regards the body. I soon gave up trying to keep the aluminium polished and had this painted in the traditional black with red line; this, I think, improved the appearance of the car.

Around about this time the M.G. “Midget” made its bow. A friend purchased one of these cars and I was very impressed with it; on normal runs I couldn’t get away from him, and on congested roads the M.G. more than held its own. What impressed me most was the smoothness of the M.G., although the actual maximum was well below that of the Alvis. After a few more months had passed I decided to try to do a deal for an M.G. “Midget.” and this I did, although with many regrets.

I now became the possessor of my first new car, a 1931 M.G. “Midget,” with large sump and several improvements over the 1930 model. I personally collected this car from Abingdon and carefully ran it home to Manchester. I gave it a most thorough running-in for 1,000 miles, but at about 8,000 miles the oil constunption was very heavy although the actual bore wear was small, so I fitted Brico rings once again and effected a great improvement. I have read some bad reports of these little cars, but have nothing but praise for mine; the performance was brisk and satisfying, although not in the fast-car class. Top speed about 60, with a good 40 m.p.h. in 2nd, and after having the new rings fitted I decided to do a spot of tuning and had the ports and cylinder head polished and also fitted a thin copper gasket.

The R.A.G. carburetter was in the news at this time, so I fitted twin R.A.G.s and also double valve springs. The performance after these modifications was much improved, with brisker acceleration, a higher maximum, and better second gear performance, which was now around the 50 mark. I don’t think that this did the crank any good although I never had any trouble in this respect.

Some very good averages could be put up without exceeding 60 m.p.h., mostly due to the excellent acceleration and roadholding. The body, of the fabric type, gave no trouble apart from the upholstery, which was rather papery. After the car had covered about 20-odd thousand miles the oil consumption became excessive once more and I decided to change, but the choice was rather limited for my pocket; also, after the Alvis, I hankered after something that was rather of lower engine speed than the M.G.

Whilst drawing petrol one day at the local garage I spotted a “Brooklands ” Riley Nine over the pit, and on enquiry found out that this belonged to Reggie Tongue. The car had a broken crank, was being repaired, and would then be for sale; needless to say I fell for it, and after some wangling, etc., the deal was done. Whilst the crank was fitted everything was given the once over. The bores were in very good condition, being sleeved; also, the main bearings and big ends were in good fettle. The crank fitted was standard and I have always regretted not having the special one at the time. I found this car a great change after the “Midget.” The top speed was in the region of 80 m.p.h., and it was very quick up to 70, but a long wait was necessary after that for the other 10 m.p.h. I put this down to the high top gear, about 4 to 1 I believe; the body was also rather heavy for a “Nine.” Road-holding and steering were quite different from anything that I had tried before, but the seating position was very uncomfortable, possibly because I am rather long in the leg.

After owning the car for about six months I decided to go the whole hog and spend a bit of money on the engine. I communicated with Thompson and Taylor and arranged to run it down there and have a chat with them. The old snag came up again – the crankshaft. This I think was the weak spot of the Riley Nine. I was advised not to put the compression up to above 7 to 1, but if I watched the r.p.m. the crank would be O.K. T.T.’s lapped down the cylinder head and polished the ports, etc., and also fitted two Zenith Triple Diffusers. They also carried out several other modifications to the chassis. The great day came for me to collect the car, and the acceleration and crispness and general behaviour were most noticeable. I could never keep the carburetters in tune and the tick-over was non-existent. As I used the car for business trips the constant tinkering with the carburetters and the changing of plugs did not go down too well, but with everything well warmed up and a long run in front of one, the car was ideal.

Around this time my father had a 1927 “14/40” Vauxhall, and I was very impressed with this car. It had a very advanced engine for 1927, with aluminium head, balanced crank and extensive use of light alloy; the body and wings were all aluminium, and this car was the smoothest 4-cylinder that I know. Being an open tourer he decided to go in for a saloon and handed the Vauxhall over to me. After driving this car for some considerable mileage I learnt to appreciate it more and more. The gears were wonderfully quiet, the springing was rather woolly on corners until a set of Hartfords made a big improvement, the steering and general handling were full of character, m.p.g. was 25 all the year round (which I considered good for the size of the body, which would take three across the front and back), and the only trouble experienced in 60,000 miles was a stripped fibre timing wheel, which was replaced at a very low cost. Tyre wear was very light and averaged about 25,000 miles, front and back. The behaviour of this car made me wonder what a “30/98” Vauxhall would be like. I had never ridden in one of these cars but had always admired them, so I got in touch with Motor Sport, and they put me on to Guy Warburton. Much to my surprise I found that he lived only a few miles away from my home, so I called round and had a chat with him and he showed me his stable. After this look round, and the sight of his Vauxhalls, the Riley fell out of favour, and a trial run convinced me that this was the car for me.

Once more a change of cars and this time I was the proud possessor of a “30/98.” This was a 1924 model, with the unbalanced crankshaft and the cable brakes. After the Riley and other “revving” cars that I had been used to, the performance was a revelation – wonderful flexibility in top gear and power at low speeds; I think that my motoring really began with that Vauxhall. Of course, the brakes were almost nonexistent, but somehow fine averages were put up without trying very hard. The old car seemed to eat up the miles without effort, and I do not think there is another touring car with quite the same appeal. By using the gears and the clutch stop a wonderful get-away could be made, which put many a small M.G., etc., in the shade. This car had a Solex carburetter, which seemed to me to be on the small side for the Vauxhall engine, so I popped round to Warburton to ask him about it. Whilst there he showed me a very fine 2-seater “30/98,” one of the last to be built. This was a really magnificent car with a special body by Jarvis, finished in cream and red, of the boat type, with dickey seat, and the decking finished in mahogany, with copper rivets. It had run at Shelsley and Southport, and the engine was rather loose and woolly and was out of the chassis undergoing repair. Eventually I decided to purchase the car without engine and have my 1924 engine installed. This was done and the engine was fitted with a Zenith aeroplane-type carburetter and given a top overhaul. The performance was vastly improved by these alterations. This car had hydraulic brakes, and when they were used in conjunction with the handbrake, very good braking could be had. I never had any trouble with the brakes apart from the rubber washers in the pistons rotting and letting the fluid pass into the drums. A special rev. counter and several other refinements were fitted and the body was really comfortable for long-distance travel. Two petrol tanks were fitted, one at the rear holding 12 gallons, and one in the tail holding 14 gallons; petrol consumption averaged about 1.8 miles to the gallon, while oil consumption was very light. Mechanically the engine was very quiet, the only sound being the hiss of the big Zenith and the unmistakable “30/98” exhaust note, to my mind the most fascinating exhaust ever; alas, it is heard all too rarely these days. I think that these engines will wear for ever with reasonable maintenance; mine must have done many thousands of miles without rebore or bearing attention, and the performanee seemed to be as good as new. I had well over 90 m.p.h. on the East (Lancashire road and could reach the 80 mark at any time. Third gear performance was limited by the crankshaft, which was unbalanced, and at about 60 in third vibration set in. It was my ambition to have the balanced-type engine installed, but I could never find one for sale. The only trouble I had was in the gearbox, the spigot bearing collapsing, but after this had been replaced there was no further trouble. I was told that the rear axle was always liable to crack-up on these cars, but never had any trouble in this respect; also the duralumin rods never gave any cause for worry.

All this time I was running the “14/40” Vauxhall and had become really a Vauxhall enthusiast by now. In 1936 I sold the “14/40” for a fiver, a thing that I have always regretted, as these cars are very rare and it would be difficult to pick up a good one. I continued running the “30/98” until the war, when I had to part with it, which was the hardest knock of all. After the war I don’t think the funds will run to a “30/98,” but if not, then it will have to be a “14/40 ” if there is one left. Failing this, something that is definitely vintage; no doubt Motor Sport will come to the rescue, as always.

The numbers of my cars were as follows: Alvis (WU7633), M.G. (TF3518), Riley (VM4723), “14/40” Vauxhall (KA5943), “30/98” Vauxhalls (UC770 and FJ3349).

Finally, while we are on these subjects, let us look a little more deeply into aspects which affect both the vintage-modern and British-versus-the-Continentals discussions, namely, that of the less easily definable qualities of handling and controllability. Apart from measurable performance, reliability, economy, relative first-cost, finish, interior appointments, ease of running and divers lesser factors, a car is judged on its handling and controllability – which is largely a matter of a combination of elusive characteristics to the sum total of which we give the term “feel.” When Motor Sport was able to conduct road-tests, it attempted, in its reports, to analyse this matter of “feel” very painstakingly under different headings, and those who set out to pass judgment on the merits and demerits of any given car, or types of cars, would be well advised to do likewise. This matter is usually loosely disposed of as embracing steering, road-holding and cornering. If a car is reported to possess good steering it is often taken to imply that it corners well. Actually, steering can be smooth, nicely-castored, free from vibrations and reactions, and the wheel well located, yet the car so endowed may roll when changing direction or skid without warning. On the other hand, a car which goes from A to B (B being round a 90º curve from A) very rapidly indeed, can still feel positively horrid to steer. Still going from A to B, one car may feel very unstable at X m.p.h. and another very safe at the same speed, yet go up to X+5 m.p.h. and it can be the latter car that flies into the ditch while the unstable affair, even though it seems to be about to fly over the hedge, will actually still be on the road as point B is reached – and beyond that, we hope. Do not say that a car has admirable road-holding when you hate cornering it fast or tramping on its anchors in the wet, and what you really want to imply is that a duchess could ride on the back seat over pave without complaining to the duke. In short, by all means take the factors which add up to “feel” into consideration when forming an opinion of cars of different nationalities (or ages), but first be careful to sift all the evidence, which is best done by defining it under the very separate headings of road-holding, steering, cornering and riding. Those who criticise from armchairs are apt to dismiss lightly this very important matter of “feel” and to pass on to measurable factors in making a comparison, especially if they can prove that the cars under consideration will actually go equally rapidly between our afore-mentioned points A and B. But a sane person who is about to put his signature to a cheque will carefully consider how well he liked that little dice between A and B, and, if he is really wise, will then let someone else go and try to repeat it at +5 m.p.h., before making his choice (between, for example, a well-equipped family car held down by sheer avoirdupois and a race-bred car with all that such a pedigree implies).