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The M.G. Midget Mk.III and the Vauxhall Firenza Sport SL

I let a colleague collect the new Jensen-Healey sports-car and write the test report on it last month because it had to be gathered in from West Bromwich, which meant travelling there by train, and as a motoring writer I have an objection to this form of transport. But curiosity decreed that I drive the car, and having agreed to return it to its makers, how was I to get home to remote Wales ? It was Ivor Greening, obliging Press Officer at British Leyland’s Austin/Morris Division, who came to the rescue. I had asked if I could sample the newest MG Midget and when he promptly agreed and as promptly said it would be delivered to our offices in London, I countered by saying I would collect it from Longbridge.

So it came about that Jensen’s well-known delivery driver wafted me across to the great Austin plant on the outskirts of Birmingham, a place which seems to me the true home of the enormous BL empire and where I once used to go for the release of so many then new BMC models, the revolutionary Mini included—there was even one visit, just after the war, when I went to collect a road test A40 in my own car, a 1934 Austin 7, and the chap on the gate directed me to the museum, believing that anyone in such an old Austin must be delivering it thereto!

Anyway, that is how I came to be driving away from Birmingham in an MG Midget Ill, with its safer minor controls on the facia but otherwise the same little Midget we have known for many years. Hood high to an Alvis 12/50 (really, as you would know if you saw it parked behind Torn Roles duck’s-back -at Prescott), this is a small sports-car, but it rides very well, remembering the ever-present problem of making a light, fast car hold the road, although I concede that somewhat stiff half elliptic back springs make it weave a bit on rough surfaces. But it hangs on well round fast bends, helped in the case of the test car by Michelin “X” tyres, and if the 1,275-c.c. engine is rather noisy and there is some whine from the gearbox, how can you complain, for this is a no-nonsense sports-car and these intrusions merely enhance the pre-war tradition of such cars ? The gear change itself is good, if you overlook a baulky first-gear, the driver’s seat was unexpectedly comfortable, and as the miles went by at mostly an indicated 65-70 m.p.h., I grew to enjoy-the MG more and more. The hood clips securely to the screen rail and does not drum but its poppers make it difficult to erect or stow in a hurry—you tend, therefore, to drive the Midget in open guise only if the weather is “set fair”. In absolutely torrential rain of cloud-burst proportions the hood kept all the dirty weather out, which was more than could be said in the case of the more expensive Jensen-Healey, and it scarcely restricts rearward vision, as the rear-quarters have transparent panels.

I suppose many readers will think it folly to invest in such a car when you can enjoy more scientific handling from a Mini. But if you are young enough not to be encumbered with the clobber older people accumulate and seem to want to carry in their cars, if there are just two-of you and you want fun, the MG Midget provides it. There is not room for much luggage in the lockable boot and the angled shelf behind the seats is for baggage, not a third human. Accept that, and the Midget somehow seems a more eager car to drive, to handle more tautly than a saloon and its disc front brakes made it safe to drive quickly, nor did it seem as vulnerable in heavy traffic on account of its diminutive size as I had expected.

In sober fact this MG is flat out at a bit more than 90 m.p.h. and the 0-60 acceleration time isn’t scintillating, being in the order of 14 1/2 seconds. But that there was something essentially likeable about this unpretentious miniature two-seater, BL’s toy fun-car, was emphasised by the difficulty I had in keeping the Production Manager’s and my assistant’s hands off it, although normally they are, respectively, Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV and Reliant Scimitar mounted . . . Certainly this friendly little MG served us well, and gave me an economical 36.7 m.p.g. of 4-star petrol in fast main-road driving. The only fly in the proverbial ointment is that it now requires as much as £1,103 to acquire one. A.R.M. says of the. car:—

For some years I have turned my nose up at the MG Midget—mainly because it can boast of no technical ingenuity whatsoever, the engine is frankly outdated by a decade and the performance leaves it struggling to keep up with a number of saloons. When I have seen young men driving about in shiny new M.G. Midgets I have thought “what stick in the muds they must be”. For the same money they could have built themselves something like a Ginetta G15, rearengined, overhead camshaft, performance with economy and superb handling. So, once in a while, the choke comes away in your hand but to my mind the 1970s idea of a sports car is something in which you lie back in the cockpit, with finger tip steering, lightning brakes and some stylistic flair. Definitely not a solid old Midget which has hardly changed in ten years.

Having said all that I must say that I enjoyed driving the Midget far more than I ever expected. British Leyland have had a fair bit of experience at building the machines and they have certainly got them as right as they will ever be. For a start the car is now very much more comfortable than in the early days. However, the door catches on the inside are still extremely nasty and are ideal for breaking your finger nails on but otherwise the fixtures and fittings give no cause for complaint. I had the hood up and down a couple of times and found that on erecting the weather protection a quick application of the right foot in the appropriate place speeded up the proceedings!

The performance was very much better than I had remembered. That A series engine in 1,275 c.c. form may be old fashioned but it still does the job extremely well, if a little harshly. The gearbox proved an absolute delight to use being extremely quick apart from the lack of synchromesh on first, while the brakes stop the car well. Considering its lack of sophistication the suspension works effectively, the low centre of gravity obviously helping.

My re-acquaintance with the Midget allowed me to see this little car in a new light. I still would advise any young man who wants a small sports car and has some spirit and adventure left in him to look at the machines produced by the smaller manufacturers but there is no doubt that the Midget will provide reliable, sporty, open air motoring. — A. R. M.

If the interior decor of the Ford Granada struck me as vulgar, the entire car which the enthusiastic Derek Goatman of Vauxhall Motors suggested I should try left me almost speechless. It was a Firenza SSL and, overlooking the fact that when Mercedes-Benz dubbed one of their cars an SS(K)L the letters stood for “Super Sports Kurt Leicht”, whereas those on this Vauxhall stand for “Sports Super Luxury” ; this is a coupé with oddly changing curves at the rear, a bonnet with a raised vee-stiffener reminiscent of all ancient Wyvern-bearing Cresta, dividing pronounced air-inlets, an uninspired boot like that of an old Viva, a triple light green/orange stripe along the olive-green body flanks, plastic pudding basins over its Carello spotlamps, and some very unfortunate, to my way of thinking, ideas within. For instance, the ginger upholstery is matched by a ginger plastic facia, the warning lights take the form of half-a-dozen mediocre labels, one above the other, in the centre of the dash, for High Beam, Left/Right, Ignition, Oil Pressure, Brake and Rear Demist, and the needles of the seven instruments are bright orange in hue!

However, they say that appearances are but skin deep, and this frenzied-looking Firenza Sport SL with a twin-carburetter 2.3-litre overhead camshaft engine in a car weighing less than a ton unladen, has an impressive performance without much need, once out of built-up areas, to come off the 3.45 to 1 top gear. This does not altogether excuse a rather unpleasantly shaped gear lever knob controlling a somewhat slicy, long-movement gear change, which, however, cannot otherwise be unduly criticised. Reverse is guarded by a Rover-like lift-up catch. The cast-iron slant-four power unit could no doubt be made to give better than the 110 (net) b.h.p. it now develops at a sober 5,200 r.p.m. on a car of 8.5 to 1. It will run unharmed up to 6,200 r.p.m. but does not need to be taken beyond 5,000 r.p.m. for effective acceleration, 0-60 m.p.h., for instance, in 10.8 seconds, so this 8 ft. 1 in.-wheelbase coupé Firenza conforms well to the big-engine-inmodest-weight-car formula.

The ride is certainly not outstanding, road-clinging hardly the equal of that of a Ford Mexico, which is a more taut, smoother fun-car, although Vauxhall have had the good sense to endow their SSL with those admirable Goodyear G800 Grand Prix 70 tyres for effective wet-road control. The Firenza has reclining front seats in the two-door body, which I found of only average comfort, and the plastic upholstery sweaty. This Vauxhall is noisy in several respects too, including zizz from the gear lever. But for all that its notable top-gear acceleration is pleasant and if pushed to the limit of engine speed it will go to 87 m.p.h. in third cog, with a maximum speed of around the ton.

The vivid needles of the instruments at all events made them singularly easy to read, especially as all the dials are before the driver-speedometer, tachometer, clock, oil, fuel, heat and ammeter gauges. However, this commendable aspect is off-set by little switches for wipers, main and auxiliary lamps set down on the central console. They function nicely as the left hand drops to them but at night their illuminated presence reflects in the windscreen and the positioning is fumbly, while the press-knob for screen-washing is remote on the facia. The three-spoke steering wheel is pleasantly small and leather-gaitered but the pedals are badly positioned above the floor for fast driving, and the take-off can be sudden. There is plenty of cubby-shelf stowage and a lockable cubby hole (the barrel of which was apt to plug up), a hand-throttle-cum-choke knob, cigarette lighter, knobs on the steering column casing for hazard warning and to permit the ignition-key to be withdrawn from the steering lock, and a simple rh stalk controls turn-flashers, lamps dipping and flashing and the horn. Items such as a vanity mirror and anti-dazzle central rear-view mirror are omitted but external mirrors on each side of the car made for excellent daylight driving vision rearwards. The boot is large and the rear compartment not too congested. The steering is free from lost motion, being of rack-and-pinion pattern, and at 3 1/4-turns lock-to-lock it controls the car promptly, but is heavy for parking and not otherwise outstanding. Cornered with enthusiasm there is considerable understeer which will eventually change to rear-end breakaway but roll is well restrained. The coil sprung well-located back axle behaves well, however, and in normal driving there is satisfactory and fairly neutral cornering.

Pricewise, this Firenza Sport will be compared to Ford Mexico, Hillman Hunter GLS, Fiat 124St and similar cars and will show up best on acceleration, particularly in top gear, in which it pulls away from 1,700 r.p.m. But its engine capacity is such that it can also be grouped with cars like the Ford Capri 2000GTXL and the more sporting Opels.

In lining the Vauxhall up with the confusing range of German GM coupés, the Opels have a decided advantage, for although the Firenza out-performs the Rekord II, which I also regard as an undistinguished car, it cannot compete with the GT version, which the SSL should do. This is a pity, because in saloon-car racing the Vauxhall has been doing well and it is time the catalogue versions were provided with a higher boiler pressure. The Firenza coupé has smart Rostyle 5J wheels but these look too small for the wheel arches on the 13 in. tyres; the wheel nuts are uncovered, in the manner which has suddenly become fashionable without much comment, although this move, presumably a money saver for the manufacturers, is an interesting throw-back to vintage days. The heating and ventilatory arrangements of the Firenza coupé are good, with powerful fresh-air vents on the facia extremities (how do they contrive to get around the Ford “Aeroflow” patents ?) and the test-car had a Vauxhall radio and a Triplex Hot-Line back window. It gave 28.0 m.p.g. of 4-star and the sump dip-stick, which is detrimental to clean cuffs, showed no oil to be needed in 1,000 miles. The 12-gallon tank is closed with Vauxhall’s jaunty but flush fitting filler cap. I decided to take a second opinion in my diagnosis of the sporting 2.3-litre, £1,313.45 Vauxhall. so A. R. M.’s comments follow:—

I was particularly keen to try the 2.3-litre Firenza SSL on two counts. The first one was that I went to the original launch of the Firenza and agreed with everyone over the line lunch, that was provided up in Oxfordshire, that Vauxhall’s new sporting model was a true competitor to some of Ford’s high-performance saloons. The problem was that I meant what I said but some of the others didn’t and when their road tests came out they decried the car. This in itself is unusual for so often one hears a journalist spouting off about a car, “it broke down twice when I had it and let in water”, and when the road test is published everything is sweetness and light. That aside, the other reason I was keen to try the SSL was as a result of Group 1 racing, for it seems that the 2.3-litre version is the first real product of that. Perhaps Vauxhall would have introduced it anyway—I don’t know—but certainly it was speeded up to help the competition cause.

The £800-£1,100 category in Group 1 racing has been the closest fought of the four classes. It started off with the Firenza in 2-litre form being very closely matched with the Avenger GT. In fact Gerry Marshall, supporting the Luton cause, had many exciting and close battles with Bernard Unett driving the Mopar-entered car from Ryton. Both enjoyed a degree of works backing. Then the Ford Escort Mexico was homologated for Group 1 and that put the cat amongst the pigeons and Ford started to clean up this class as well. But General Motors did not take this lying down and were able to homologate the 2.3-litre version. Now Gerry Marshall is back on terms and beating the Escort Mexicos again and several other Firenza SSLs in the hands of Marshall’s Dealer Team Vauxhall teammate, and former mechanic, Gerry Johnstone, Tim Stock and lady racing driver Jenny Dell have all featured in the results.

I agree entirely with W.B. about the interior—it is most unpleasant— but not about the handling. Taken to the ultimate limit I would suggest that this Vauxhall would corner as well, if not better, than the Escort Mexico. Furthermore it has many more creature comforts than the Ford.

When I had an opportunity to open the car up I found that it had a misfire at high revs which restricted the top speed quite considerably. On song the SSL would obviously top 100 m.p.h. quite easily. In the lower range the car revs freely and is particularly fast off the mark, much to the chagrin of those alongside who thought the car was just a Viva!

This latest sporty Vauxhall works out some £90 more expensive than the Mexico but it is still a worthwhile alternative for someone looking for that kind of motor car. But be careful about ordering the trim!