Take a Clean Sheet of Paper ....

Author

W.B.

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68

The basic idea behind this article is that of trying to decide if there are any cars which Britain might profitably build which at the present time she is not building. To simplify the issue, imagine, dear sir or madam, that a factory suitable for automobile production has been bequeathed to you. As you sit in the director’s office you have to decide what sort of cars, or range of models shall be produced in your new works.

It all depends, of course, on what kind of factory it is that you have come upon. It could be a small works in a suburban or country town, able to cope with a production of hand-assembled motor cars (in which case you are sitting light-heartedly in a compact office, the walls of which bear photographs of your cars at successful competition venues), or it could be a vast town-beside-a-town, in which every process required in the mass-production of automobiles can be undertaken and where robot-controlled grabs seize an engine, a door, or a complete back axle, and bustle these components noiselessly through underground passages from the assembly-shops to a finishing-bay so large that you could lose several ballroom dance floors therein (in which case you are no doubt a harassed individual ensconced behind an imposing mahogany desk in a huge boardroom, beneath framed Board of Trade regulations).

Take your choice, of course, but, personally, I am going to ask the Genie (who in this age of bulldozers, prefabrication and a diminishing “green-belt,” hasn’t found it all that hard to grant our request) for something not too large and pretentious, although equipped with the most modern machine-tools and store-rooms, and, if the workers insist, wired for radio.

A small-production motor-car factory could be quite a decent hobby. The managing director can drive one of his own products in competition, discuss his cars frankly with his customers, test every innovation and modification himself, and feel that business is reasonably brisk if as many as half-a-dozen vehicles pile up in the dispatch department. I think H. R. Godfrey, Gordon England, H. F. S. Morgan, the Hurlock brothers and Geoffrey Taylor will know what I mean.

Alas, not many of these small factories have survived the impact of purchase tax on low-production prices and the competition from the big boys of the industry. A.C. at Thames Ditton, H.R.G. at Tolworth, and Alvis at Coventry still remain, yet have to augment car production with other work; Allard seems to have virtually forsaken high-performance in favour of a people’s tricycle. Frazer-Nash out at Isleworth import other marques; Alta, adjacent to the humming Kingston By-pass, concentrates not on sports cars but on Grand Prix engines; Morgan and Jensen, and Aston Martin and Lagonda under David Brown’s backing, alone seem to continue on the old footing, where once hordes of little concerns up and down the country had small works, like the private house occupied by A.B.C. at Thames Ditton and Unit’s series of ex-Army huts at Maidenhead which, if they didn’t exactly flourish, certainly existed in a healthy enough fashion.

Is it that all requirements are fulfilled by the existing 29 British manufacturers? Or are there cars which it would be worth while designing and building in our imaginary modern factory?

If the Swallow people find it worthwhile to introduce a high-performance Sports model when quite a number of sports models in a similar price-class exist already, we can surely take possession of our factory in a reasonably optimistic frame of mind.

The first car we can attempt to design and publicise is a pure economy car, to delight those who wobble and get wet on two wheels, yet find the fuel costs of even the conventional baby car exorbitant.

Top Gear recently carried out an interesting comparison between four typical British so-called economy cars, the Austin A30, Morris Minor, Standard Eight anal Ford Popular. The accompanying analysis revealed, as they say, that the Standard Eight was the most economical of these cars, doing 46 m.p.g., but it costs more than £481 and I would, therefore, like to have a shot at offering to heavily-taxed motorists a 60-m.p.g., £350 small car.

If, this time last year, anyone had told us that I should enjoy driving a car with full accommodation for four adults and using an air-cooled engine with two cylinders and a capacity of less than 400 c.c., I should have been extremely surprised. Indeed, I took a long time to nerve myself to try this unusual little car. (I feel the same way now in respect of the A.C. Petite and Reliant Regal, both of which, their makers inform us, are now available for test; when I do get round to trying them I shall probably get another big surprise!). Yet the 2 c.v. Citroen is very good indeed. So I visualise a British equivalent, and would almost certainly expect my designer to dispense with cooling water, which, even if our winters seem as mild as our summers are wet, nevertheless freezes with depressing suddenness, usually wrecking the engine next morning. I would not want as many as four cylinders and I should have either a front-mounted engine with f.w.d. or a rear engine with r.w.d., to keep the transmission brief. Citroen and Volkswagen have proved that air-cooling is practical with either layout. I feel that if I could sell a people’s car of this kind for £350 inclusive of p.t. I should soon have a Lancia Aurelia in the director’s private car-park. For I am sure a market exists for a car which to people with large families and slender incomes would be today what the 7/17 Jowett was thirty years ago. But perhaps by the time this is in print Mr. Ferguson will have closed the door on me.

What then? I should, having occupied the editorial chair of Motor Sport for a decade before transferring myself to the directorial chair of my model factory, contemplate production of a real, honest-to-goodness fast, sporting motor car. But, in fact, Aston Martin, Bristol, Frazer-Nash, Lancia, Mercédès-Benz, Ferrari and others do this so well already that it seems best to buy one for personal use while building something more “bread and butter.” For the same reason, while I sometimes complain that no modern luxury cars radiate the dignity of, say, a Daimler Double Six or 8-litre Bentley of the vintage era, perhaps because they thrust their bold radiators so terribly, prominently far forward, and therefore I might contrive to build in this exclusive class — director’s office now the meeting place of royalty, film stars and greyhound breeders. However, on reflection, there is no need — the present-day Daimler straight-eight Hooper limousine is still a dignified British luxury car par excellence and worth every penny of its five thousand pounds plus to those who can genuinely enjoy and justify ownership of it.

Where now? To those who read my recent article on the decline of the small British sports car the answer is obvious. We have no sports cars of under 1,100 c.c., whereas on the Continent small high-performance cars are flourishing.

So here would seem an opening for one who has just screwed the top firmly on the magic bottle and cycled to his brand-new factory.

I visualise a basic chassis design, compact, rigid, well sprung and adequately braked, which would accommodate 750-c.c. and 1,100-c.c. engines to choice and which in its larger form would be offered, eventually, in three versions: (1) a good, sound economical sports model, both two and four-seater, of roughly pre-war M.G. and Singer performance; (2) a sports/racing version in two-seater form hotted up for club competition work; and (3) a very potent model, possibly a two-seater coupé, which would be developed for works entry in races like Le Mans and the Mille Miglia, eventually, but only if successful, to he sold in limited numbers to those qualified to handle it, like Jaguar did with their C-type.

I am no technician, so details of suspension and other matters can be left to readers’ choice. I would impress upon my design staff that it is essential to “simplicate and add lightness,” not only in order to obtain the required performance, allied to low fuel consumption with the Mk. I model, but so that one chassis layout, one size of proprietary brakes and so on would suffice for all three versions.

The power unit would be a headache but I should examine critically the new small power units made by Coventry-Climax, Turner, Kieft, J.A.P. and others. If these proved unsuitable, or in too small supply, I have no doubt that a suitable proprietary engine from one of the big-output factories would prove capable of being developed.

From the service I have had from a perfectly ordinary Standard Vanguard in a Morgan chassis and the way a Standard Eight stands up to Stirling Moss’ Continental peregrinations, it seems highly probable that the 803-c.c. o.h.v. Standard engine is what I should use, reduced to 750 c.c., for at least that capacity model — and maybe the new 948-cc. Standard Ten engine, puffed-up, for the bigger-engined models. But all this is purely journalistic speculation and I am quite willing for technically-qualified readers to shoot use down or applaud, as they see fit. For our first essay in the Mille Miglia we might have to build our own engine if the small-production specialist engine firms had nothing that would do — but I am sure they would have. The chassis would almost certainly be a space frame of steel tubes, and here I should expect to save not only weight but money. I believe that the comparatively high cost of certain proprietary tubular chassis in which enthusiasts hope to trap an enterprising number of Dagenham-reared horses, is on account, not so much of the price of steel tube and welders’ time, as the “know-how” possessed by the vendor. In this connection I heard an amusing story of how one supplier of such chassis frames found himself in a pretty quandary. Customers would write to ask for drawings of what he had to offer. Now if he supplied these, in sufficient detail to be convincing, said customer would whoop with joy, purchase some job-lot tubing, call in “Bill Blog” the local welder, and make his own sports car from the supplier’s drawings. If, on the other hand, the supplier, wise to this understandable procedure, replied that he couldn’t supply drawings, the customer, like the Indian with a rope, disappeared, murmuring as he went that he blooming-well wasn’t paying that much cash for something he couldn’t altogether visualise.

Obviously this impasse has sorted itself out, for all manner of young sportsmen are now motoring with one or other of these excellent tubular space-frames as a basis for their 1,172 formula “specials” and sports cars. But I’m sure that, in the absence of drawings, in the early days of 1,172-c.c. racing, some of them must have welded-up on their own to no set pattern, to finish up with a chassis hardly as rigid as that of a Bugatti after the engine has been removed. In my case I should be paying for the “know-how” in designer’s wages and if a very rigid, very light frame didn’t result someone would be looking for a job. I think a de Dion back end would be worth introducing from the start, because, after driving the J2 Allard so endowed on wet roads, I am certain it is essential for really fast cars and, while it might be unnecessary on a 750-cc, or 1,100-c.c. sports car, I think it would probably pay dividends on our 1,100-c.c. sports/racing Mk. III coupé. (Certainly if you go up to 2 litres or over of highly-tuned competition car the de Dion back end is essential and I am glad to see the Lister-Bristol has this form of axle — anyone who has seen Scott-Brown engaging a certain expensive Italian sports model in English club races must have a profound respect for this very fast new “compositer” from Cambridge.)

If this “gamble” came off Britain would no longer be bereft of fast 750-c.c. and 1,100-c.c. sports cars and it might eventually be possible to develop the 1,100-c.c. model as a compact high-performance saloon to compete with the Fiat 1,100 TV, Lancia Appia, and the new small Alfa. The bodies would be panelled in aluminium or perhaps be of glass-fibre; but not of plywood or canvas, which I shall reserve for my Early Morning Special.

Certainly, it would be necessary to advertise such a range of specialised cars by entering them for competition events and encouraging private owners to do likewise. That should be enjoyable — and surely a better car results if there is a crash-hat in the designer’s office? Inevitably special parts would have to be evolved for converting a Mk. I to a Mk. II and a Mk. II to a Mk. III, a la Meccano, and I think it might be worth while to display these at the factory on a “help-yourself” counter, so that visiting enthusiasts could see what was available, help themselves, at all events to the less-weighty parts (in itself a challenge to the design department to “add lightness”), and pay as they go out, at a desk presided over by a charming young lady — just as the blonde at the shop adjacent to the Brooklands Flying School used to aid the sale of helmets and leather coats! I think, too, that a regular publication to keep owners in touch with modifications and servicing data is absolutely vital and I would copy unashamedly the Triumph Company, who have formed a TR2 Owners’ Association.

If my shareholders (presuming the magic bottle to be capable of conjuring up some of these very necessary participants) objected that the sports-car market is limited I admit I should be well and truly at a loss. There is, perhaps, nothing British to compare with the Lancia Aurelia, Alfa-Romeo 1900C, Ferrari 212 and suchlike covetable motor cars, unless it be the Bristol 404. Jensen has exactly the right appearance in the 541, but contrives to use a 4-litre engine. Without denying the pleasure of driving behind a large, high-geared engine of vintage type or the exhilaration of smooth acceleration up to 100 m.p.h. and more made available, for instance, in the Jaguar XK120, I do not think that there is much future, outside America, for cars with engines of over 3 litres. Even bulk of bodywork is undesirable due to traffic congestion in European towns, and the high price of fuel both at home and on the Continent will, I think, soon preclude widespread use of cars over 3,000 c.c. I know someone who has had every satisfaction from a Type 300 Mercédès-Benz but who now seeks a smaller car, solely because the English trunk routes he uses habitually are too crowded to give a big car its head.

I have said before how sane I consider the Bristol engineers not to inflate the engine of their beautiful 403 and 404 cars above 2 litres. I might contemplate putting my gift-factory on to making a sort of 2-litre version of the Jensen 541, but only momentarily after a good dinner, because I consider this is a very restricted market of which Bristol, Ferrari, Lancia and Alfa-Romeo have command. There is, however, one gap I might seek to fill. My Morgan Plus Four, having put up with me for three years, and I are due to part – I cannot tolerate much longer a car which relies on bits of strip steel to prevent impossible front-wheel shimmy. [Perhaps I expect too much! I have been told that in the days of long ago, when Morgan made three-wheelers, another cyclecar manufacturer felt rather worried because his track-rod ends terminated in simple yoke ends and cotter pins; after a visit to the Morgan firm (this would be prior to the Kaiser War) he felt decidedly better, because he perceived that his rivals merely bent over the-ends of their track-rods, retaining them in place on the steering arms with split-pins. Certainly they have always “simplicated” in a big way at Morgans in search of lightness but the latest Plus Four, as a genuine 100-m.p.h. car costing only just over £800, is some achievement.] Anyway, the Plus Four is due to depart and I shall miss very much its excellent acceleration. Prudence and a family suggest a saloon, yet, unless one contemplates a capacity of around 3 1/2 litres, acceleration of the Morgan variety just isn’t generally available, as the following table attempts to explain: –

This is a rough comparison of sports versus saloon cars in something like the same price classes, although engine size does not favour the closed models. Until one is wafted-across the Channel by Silver City or Townshend the maximum speed of the modern sports car is less enjoyable than its very ready response to the accelerator in top and indirect gears.

Whether the technical difficulties are too great I do not know, but I feel that many enthusiasts would welcome a saloon able to accelerate nearly as well as a sports car. A 2-litre engine would be required, weight might have to be drastically reduced at the expense of rear-compartment interior-trim, etc., and the brakes would need to be able to cope with the available performance. It would, however, be permissible, I think, to use comparatively low indirect gear ratios, because a maximum speed of much over 70 m.p.h. would not be required.

It may be argued that Bristol already provide almost this sort of car, but a Type 403 costs nearly £3,000, whereas I had a figure of less than a third of this sum in mind. Souped Zephyrs, you say? But even these do not, seem to give quite the required acceleration (the three-speed gearbox perhaps hampering them) or, if they do, they are apt to run out of brakes. In any case, I am not a subscriber to the “hotted-up mass-production model” school of thought, preferring to buy all my performance from one concern.

The foregoing ideas are the result of a day-dream, so if those more knowledgeable and erudite than I am dismiss them us wishful thinking, no harm will result.

I do hope, however, when in less than three weeks’ time we go to the 1954 Earls Court Motor Exhibition, that we shall find manufacturers offering new models some of which fill the gaps I have-outlined, and not merely attempting to compete one with the other in the matter of new radiator grilles, revised colour schemes extra ash-trays and the like. – W.B.

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