Small-Car Progress Demonstrated by the £3,100 796 cc Suzuki Alto FX

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Small-Car Progress Demonstrated by the £3,100 796 cc Suzuki Alto FX

— In a comparison in Wales with a 1927 Singer Junior

“There is a certain fascination about the small car which its larger brother does not possess, a most satisfactory sense of achievement when £200-worth of little machine takes one over half the face of Britain so well that £3,000 cannot buy more pleasure.” — Opening sentence of a road-test of the 1927 Singer Junior saloon; in 1984 read £3,000 for £200— Ed. OBVIOUSLY, enormous progress has been made in small-car design and performance over the years, just as roads have improved, But traffic congestion has increased and, alas, the cost of motoring, like almost everything else, has been affected by crippling inflation, I had a good example of all this in the sununer, by taking a little Suzuki Alto FX three-cylinder 796 cc five-door Hatchback over much the same test-route as another motoring-writer drove an 848 cc four cylinder ohc Singer Junior Gordon England four-door fabric saloon in 1927. The latter two-day run, from London into Wales, arose when a member of The Autocar’s staff — he was none other than S. C. H. (Sammy) Davis — finding the Metropolis an oppressive place, longing for the vitality of the mountain country, decided to drive to Wales in the Singer. It was an early model, with back-wheel brakes only (Reg No YF 7456) which I expect has long since gone to rest, Here is one more endorsement of the great enthusiasm and versatility of its driver, S. C. H. Davis, that famous racing-driver / journalist, who only the month before had won the Le Mans race for Bentley, partnered by Dr Benjafield. Now here he was, in a 1:200 baby-car, undertaking a run which I found quite long enough even in a very effective modern small-car — and I did not start at midnight, involving a night out

of bed, as Sammy and his companion had. (In passing, it is beyond comprehension why IPC never put all Davis’ articles into a book, after his death, as a lasting memorial to him, but although I made the suggestion, such has never been published, more’s the pity.) Having come upon this Singer road-test, done in July 1927,1 had intended to re-enact it, as near as possible, in full, using one of the smaller 1984 cars for the job, the Suzuki as it turned out, which proved an admirable choice, in more ways than one. However, that car had to be collected from the smart Heron depot at Crawley, so I decided against a midnight start from London, and in fact David Filsell and I joined the Singer’s route at Welshpool one warm August day, with 251 test-miles already covered. Davis, driving 57 years earlier out of London up the Holyhead Road, had written of how even then the former deserted aspect of main roads had changed, a “ceaseless, magnificent flow of heavily laden lorries passing from an parts of the country, as interesting as the tramp steamers which are

the very core of the romance of the sea. Huge machine after huge machine, they pass, some clean, snug and obviously well cared for, some that even from afar can be recognised as the lorries on which the rations of the BEF at one time depended, affairs so essentially business-like, so absolutely bound to the work in hand, as to have passed, probably unwashed, certainly unpainted, for years.” After Dunstable Davis noted clustered lights that indicated

the presence of wooden-hut cafes (he called them restaurants) flanked by batteries of gaunt petrol-pumps, which ministered to men and machine, the former “muffled in coat after coat, own brothers to the divisional lorry drivers of ’14-18”.

Well, much as I would have enjoyed seeing 1914 trucks in action, these days all the vans and lorries, although no less commendable, would have been going the pace up the Ml. So we “cheated” and, joined-in, as I have said, at Welshpool. Before that, Davis and his companion had stopped beneath the railway-bridge just short of Coventry to get out their sandwiches and vacuum-flask. The Singer’s headlamps had been dimming themselves automatically at intervals, so fortunately the dawn was now breaking — we did not need the Koito XL14 headlamps of the Alto but they would have been unlikely to have given any bother, . .It was also remarked that in the 1927 Singer saloon warmth could be adjusted by sliding the side windows open or shut — clearly there was no heater — but that they did this on their own, unwanted. In contrast, our Alto had secure window-winders, neat little door-locks, and gave a great inflow of hot or cold air, on command. The Singer’s crew made for the “Buckley Arms” in Dinas Mawddwy, arriving too early and being made to wait, admittedly for a splended meal of egg after egg, until 9 a.m. The hotel is still there, still serves fresh trout from its pool. Being too late for breakfast, we stopped only for tea / coffee, before regaining the main road to take the loop by which the Singer’s 1927 route was resumed; Davis would have been able to go straight on. As he published a list of his expenses for the trip I have done a comparison with sure in 1984, which may interest students. of inflation. (Our two cups cost 70p against £1.10 for that formidable breakfast for ow in 1927. Breakfast for two would have acres back £5.00.)

Already they had put a quart of oil into the Singer’s engine, whereas we had not Y. opened the Suzuki’s Imnet.

Admiration increased for the Le Mel.”, winner’s stamina, for even to us, cruising ta N e Alto at an unexpectedly quie 60 rnyh and more, the run seemed a long one. Olt then had it seemed like to the sleepy Si!ig. s crew, doing 35 to 40 mph, and needing ta change gear for every gradient? It had taken Davis perhaps 31/2 hours to the hotel from, Coventry, via WolverhamPt. Shrewsbury. The next ploy was the ascent of the I in] average gradient of BwIch-y-Groes now of course well-surfaced. You .11 approach the hairpin bend through a ga,te.; Here we were preceded by a fully-la,;.” small BMW driven by a Dutch lady wne,

seeing the steep hairpin vanishing round the comer, drove straight on to a dead end, her nerve apparently gone. . . The Singer had made a non-stop climb in bottom gear, boiling merrily, although like a certain Rolls-Royce PI The Autocar had tested two years earlier, it needed no water added to its radiator afterwards. I need hardly add that the Suzuki Alto stormed up strongly in second and third gear after easing up lower down for a descending car; the exhaust system “pinged” a his as it cooled at the summit, but the fascia thermometer indicated no coolant temperature increase. It may well have been the long descent to Bala that had been the undoing in 1927 of those back wheel brakes on the Singer. The road-test report spoke of them needing “considerable adjustment”, and tending to stick on after the play had been taken up, “which was disconcerting”. A Sammy understatement, no doubt! Again, I need hardly add that having found the disc drum brakes of the little Alto entirely adequate, they remained no for the miles I covered in total in the Suzuki. . . .

After the pleasant run beside the lake into Bala, Davis reported that they went on to Barmouth bemuse a signpost pointed that way. We found no such instructions, but with David reading the map it was clear that we needed to turn left in the crowded town, skirting the other side of Lake Bala. So far there had been almost no traffic, but as we swung left again later for the road towards Barmouth we joined a 40 mph procession, with hold-ups on the hill up to the town itself, where roadworks were in progress. It was clear that Davis disliked what they found in Barmouth. So did we! It was congestion personified, with holiday folk using the roads regardless of cars. Intending to continue our inflationary comparison, we tried to guess where the Singer had paused for lunch. These days there is a one-way system to negotiate. But by doubling back onto the road where Davis would have driven straight into Barmouth, we guessed at which hotel he might have slopped. First he had tried to buy something from a shop that was open but apparently untenanted. I had the same experience at the hotel. Empty bar, deserted dining-room. Ringing a bell brought a waiter who did not !glow, without going to enquire, whether theY could serve lunch or not. Had we ordered it, the cost, without wine, would have been some £21 for the two of us, against the equivalent 571/2p( !) that it had cost Sammy Davis and his companion for lunch at Barmouth in 1927, admittedly for “a most unappetising cold meal, a deadly coId one”, which he had obviously not

wanted after his long night-and-morning run. With the Singer, retracing their route, they had difficulty in finding the tollbridge Zen the Alms Mawddach to the berystwyth side, although politely received when they did. We had no such

problem. The narrow bridge across the estuary had clearly been resurfaced, at an odd angle, with sleepers after the railway was closed, and the toll had been increased from 1/(5p) to 15p. However, the National politeness that had so pleased The Autocar’s driver held for MOTOR SPORT’s, when joking with the attractive girl (I assume she is Welsh) who took the money about the fee having been increased, she smiled and said how was that for inflation?

In some ways, apart from items changed by the passage of over half-a-Century, our trip differed from Davis’. For instance, he appreciated the Singer’s saloon body in rainstorms, whereas we had perfect weather; labourers tarring the roads carefully kept the tar off the Singer’s tyres, carters willingly moved their horses and carts to let the little car pass — we experienced none of these things! Sammy’s philosophy was “the little dark men of the country have exceedingly good manners. Look to it, therefore, that they have nothing to complain of from tourists.” Having negotiated the tollbridge, we followed in the now-ghostly tracks of the Singer to Fairbourne where having forgone lunch in Barmouth, we pulled in at the “Tuck-In” cafe. Inflation wise, a snack sam sweet (pad if you prefer, cost nmrly 12 times as much as Davis’ cold lunch in 1927. After this we looked at the Fairbourne railway, a proper “model” passenger hauling steam line, unique among the 4 ft 8 in and narrow gauge railways in other parts of Wales. It was being well patronised on this sunny day but I was disappointed to see what looked like the beginning of fencing it in, by the engine sheds, where once it ran (as for the present much of it still does) unfenced along the sand dunes. . . Remembering a glorious evening years before, spent exploring the Devil’s Bridge and its adjacent waterfalls, Sammy hurried on along the coast road to Aberystwyth hoping to enjoy all this again, only to be disgusted by the notices, advertisement boards, rows of motor coaches, the noisy crowd and barred paths. The crowds were out, calling for care, when the Alto arrived

at the same place but I wonder if there has not been some improvement here?

Our Also with 40 hp got away unscathed. The long pull up the hill beyond Aberystwyth, to Plynlimon, miles and miles of it put the Singer junior on second gear, revving strongly, on full throttle. This caused Davis to say that it might have had an engine twice its actual size, no great was the reserve of power, and normally it kept up 40 mph with plenty of throttle in hand. The Alto, in contrast, romped along at anything from an easy 60 mph to its top speed of about 80 mph, and even felt a thought under-geared in top. It had excellent response, and was quiet enough for us to remark on a little wind fuffle round the screen-pillars. Having stopped to take a photograph at the very spot, we think, where she Singer was pictured in 1927, by a river mouth on the twisty road near Aberdovey — but now fenced-in, and with no waterfall due to the drought — we got back to Rhayader, where Davis had spent the night, at about 5 pm, an overall time of 8 hr 20 min, a day’s run of 214 miles. Living but a few miles away there was no need for an hotel but b&b for two at the “Lion Royal” in 1984 would have cost E32.00 — Davis, wherever it was he stayed, was charged £1.321/2 for two. A check showed that in spite of all the hilly going the Suzuki Alto had averaged 50.9 mpg of two-star — excellent indeed for, a Citrotn 2cv apart, I cannot recall any little car I have previously tested that has done more than about 46 mpg, at best. The Alto’s fuel gauge is very steady but shows nearly empty when some 11/4 gallons remain in the 5.9-gallon tank, this presumably in lieu of a warning light. The lockable lid of the fuel-filler is on the n/s. Davis’s longer run from London came. out at 361 miles, the Singer giving 40 mu as far as Dinas Mawddwy (whereas motorway and hills had not pulled ours below 50 mpg). It was credited with running “with perfect ease” for the 15 hr 26 min journey (overall time), and thanks to the Scaco pneumatic upholstery, “with no sense of fatigue”. To which I would add that the Suzuki’s seats

were likewise notably comfortable . . . As is usual these days, I do not recall meeting any interesting old cars on our run, apart from a Triumph Roadster crossing the bridge over the River Davey at Machynlleth.

Davis complained that in Rhayader dinner, though good, was half-an-hour late and that the undistinguished breakfast was served with indifference, while he was also called late. The Singer was driven back to London via Builth, following the Wye Valley, the 1927 road good as far as Llyswen, where they branched off for Talgarth, going on second-class roads skirting the Black Mountains to Crickhowell, after which it was over extraordinarily good roads, except foes few had patches, along the Usk Valley to Abergavenny. Davis stopped to look at ruined Raglan (or Beaufort) Castle, having an altercation when he was asked not to take photographs having paid the extra fee (121/2p) to do so! Today the charge is 70p, with no restriction on cameras. However, we were not given permission to drive close to the ruins to get the picture we hoped for. We took the same route when returning the Alto to Peter Agg’s impressive premises near Gatwick Airport, thereafter turning south for the M4 whereas Davis went rid Monmouth, past the Rolls’ statue, “still on magnificent roads”, to Northleach, after an uninspiring lunch at a clean inn (371/2p for two), Oxford, encountering many types of Morris cars “at their scheduled maximum speed”, to “the picturesque village” of Beaconsfield, where tea was taken at the “Royal Saracen’s Head”, London being reached by 5 pm, after 214 miles. Overall the Singer Junior had averaged 36 mpg, to the Alto’s 51.4 mpg of two-star, the 1927 car using oil at the rate of 575 mpg, partly because of a leak between the valve-cover plate and the head of its ohc engine. The Alto required no oil after 892 miles and its transverse light-alloy-head ohc engine remained clean. The Singer took 3 min 20 sec to start from cold on the starter on the morning of the second day. Trying this, using the manual choke, the Suzuki’s bendix-pinion engaged the flywheel-teeth and started the engine almost as quickly as the stopwatch could be clicked, as it did every time. At the end of The Autocar’s two-day test the Singer had tube started on the handle, its six-volt battery being too “flat” to turn the engine, which took 35 sec, whereas the 12-volt Panasonic battery in the Alto remained fully-charged, although its clamp obstructs two of its filler orifices. The Singer had an awkwardly-placed oil filler, whereas the Alto’s would have been easy to use. S. C. H. Davis referred to the lack of castor-feel from the Singer Junior’s steering, which does not apply to the Suzuki Alto. From this comparison it can be seen what incredible progress there has been in small-car design. From the foregoing it will be apparent that I was very favourably impressed by this little 000 cc Suzuki. I had

expected a noisy, cramped, perhaps uncomfortable economy job. The Alto FX is the antithesis of this. More, it was surprisingly roomy, with a large window area, and its four side-doors were unexpected, but much appreciated. These possess neat little locking levers, with simple action. The ride was very good, apart from a good deal of rear-end liveliness on the rougher roads, when there was no-one on the back seat, and performance is such that this little Suzuki never holds up average traffic, whether on motorway or country roads. (As a matter of academic interest, its 0-60 mph time is 15.9 sec.) The hatchback element comprises the lift-up rear window (after using a key or the release-control by the driver’s right foot), luggage having to be humped over the sill, but the folding, divided seat provides a luggage platform. Having a proper gearbox, gear whine is low from the Alto, nor does it try to “kangaroo” when accelerated from low speeds. The gear-change is easy, the brakes powerful, the cornering flat and adequately clinging, with just a trace of back-end softness on tight bends. If the Alto’s interior is “plasticky”, and the test-car garishly finished in mid-blue with upholstery of a sick colour, the fascia-sill has a large well, there is a passenger’s under-fascia shelf, a

large, non-lockable cubby, and various small stovvages, while the instrument panel, with seven warning lights neatly between the speedometer and heat / fuel dial, and the two stalk-controls (turn-indicators and lamps surprisingly from the lb one) well contrived. There is a six-year Tuff-Kote Dinal corrosion guarantee.

Two irritating points were the placing of the horn buttons on the steering-wheel spoke, where they were all too easily operated inadvertently (perhaps this is why the horn is inoperative when the ignition is switched off), and the difficulty of finding the release for the rear-hinged prop-up bonnet. The test-car had Japanese-Dunlop 12 in tyres, a Clarion Solid-State radio, and mud-flaps behind each wheel. I feel that if they tried the Suzuki Alto FX many people would end their love-affair with the BL Mini. The Japanese car is £98 less-expensive than the lowest-priced Mini and £559 lower in price than the least-costly Austin Metro. Incidentally, if any ambitious Singer Junior-owning VSCC member feels like repeating this 1927 run I would like to hear from him. Or maybe a 750 MC member might care to re-enact Sammy Davis’s 1,325-mile journey made in the winter of 1926 from London to Cannes and back in a Chummy (Reg No ON 3023)?W.B. 1927 Singer Junior (RWD) Four cylinders, overhead camshaft, 56 x 86

mm (848 cc).

Annual tax: £8. 161/2 bhp at 3,250 rpm.

Weight: 12 cwt 1 qr.

Gear ratios: 17.1,9.28, 5.0 to 1.

Quarter elliptic springs, beam axles.

27″ x 4″ tyres on disc wheels. Brakes on rear vvheels. Wheelbase: 7′ 6″. Track: 3′ 6″.

Overall length: 11′ 3″. Width: 47″. Height: 58″. Tank capacity: Four gallons. Consumption: 40-45 mpg (see text).

Price: Gordon England saloon, approximately £200. 1984 Suzuki Alto (FWD) Three cylinders, overhead camshaft, 681/2 x 72 mm (796 cc)

Annual tax: £90.40 bhp at 5,500 rpm.

Weight: 12 V2 cwt.

Gear ratios: 15.6, 9.4, 5.8 , 3.9 to 1. IFS strut, single-leaf 1/2-elliptic springs,

beam rear axle.

145/70 SR12 on disc wheels. Disc / drum four-wheel brakes

Wheelbase: 76″. Track: 39″.

Overall length: 109.7″.

Width: 47.7″. Height: 44.6″.

Tank capacity: 5.9 gallons.

Consumption: 47-52 mpg (2-star). Price: £3,100 CAR COMPARISONS COST COMPARISONS

S.C.H.D. (First Day) 1927. W.B. (First Day) 1984.

Distance: 361 miles. Distance: 214 miles.

Fuel: 45p. Fuel: £5.00.

Oil: 181/2p. Oil: Nil.

Toll: 5p. Toll: 15p.

Meals: £1.10. Meals: £6.50 (see text).

Hotel: £1.321/2. Hotel: £32.00 (see text).

Garage: 10p. Garage: 30p (see text).

S.C.H.D. (Second Day) 1927.

Distance: 214 miles.

Fuel: 62p.

Oil: 18p.

Toll: 2p.

Meals: 55p.

Raglan Castle charges: l2 ½p.

Total Mileage: 575.

Total cost (1984 equivalent): £4.701/2.

W.B. (Second Dap)1984. Distance: 221 miles. Fuel: £10.08

Oil: Nil.

ToU (M4): 20p. Meals: £8.04.

Raglan Castle charges: 70p. Total mileage: 435. ‘

Total cost: £62.97.

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