A tale of Road-Testing

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Road testing cars today is a science executed with millimetric accuracy. But, as he looks back over 60 years of testing, our founder editor reveals that it was not always such a precise art

Long before I joined MOTOR SPORT, the motor journals were hard at work publishing impressions of new cars. Not so hard at it as is now the case, however. Before the First World War these would be quite brief. Even the leading weekly motor paper, The Autocar, founded in 1895, had often to make do with extremely short driving spells under headings such as “A Short But Satisfactory Test of the 14/18hp Adler”, or “A Short Trial of the 20hp Germain”.

But by 1920 The Light Car and Cyclecar had devised a regular test route, starting from near Box Hill, taking in Ranmore Common’s hairpinned gradient, Pebblecombe’s 1-in-5 climb, then down White Downs to test brakes, along a farm track (suspension check!) and back to Box Hill. Over this the latest light cars were tried out and cyclecars such as AV, Tamplin, Graham White and GN puttered round. In later days MOTOR SPORT used it with more powerful cars, but all too often a run out of London along the Portsmouth Road, perhaps to take in Brooklands Track, would satisfy. The men from The Autocar, and its Coventry staff, headed by Montague Tombs, had their route, taking in a variety of hills. Amazingly, some journalists did not even take the wheel, allowing the delivery chap to drive them. A brand new Type 44 Bugatti was treated thus by the amusing Edgar N Duffield of The Auto Weekly, for instance.

As motoring popularity increased, so mad-test reports became longer and more detailed. The Autocar commenced tabulated performance data in 1928, first for an Austin 7 saloon. But long before that it had begun to include some acceleration figures, braking data and fuel consumption. These pre-war tests were done by H S Linfield, a calm, pipesmoking chap whom I could never quite reconcile with fast dashes in fierce sportscars over Salisbury Plain or leaps from the summit of the Brooklands Test Hill.

The first mad test I did for MOTOR SPORT was of a Talbot Ten tourer in 1936. The plan was to go to Shelsley Walsh in the company of a Brescia Bugatti owner and his girl. It was a chilly morning and the Talbot had a hood and side-screens, so she elected to ride with me. We went faster than the Bugatti but after arriving at the venue I was asked whether I had been aware of a police car following me? Apparently as I swung left at a cross-roads it was unable to stop, and shot straight on. Later I was in MOTOR SPORT’s offices when a policeman appeared and handed me an envelope. My first road test for the paper, and my first speeding summons, all together in just one go!

In fact, I had done such tests before that, for Brooklands Track & Air. The journal’s owner would drive (something to do with insurance?) and I would make notes. “Put the steering-wheel on hill-lock and let go.” “Why?” “So that I can assess castor return.” But we got by, and by the outbreak of war had done full reports on an MG Magna, early 3 1/2 litre Bentley tourer, Railton straight-eight, and 4 1/2-litre Lagonda. Even during the petrol-scarce war years I managed to do restricted tests of a Daimler, MkV Bentley, and a V12 Lagonda with Battle-of-Britain pilots fighting for us overhead.

Road testing is one of the best ‘perks’ there is. You receive a new car taxed, insured, and usually Full of fuel, and even a prang will be excused. I became conscious of mothers who might say to their daughters “He’s not much of a looker, but keep with him, dear — look at his car!” Little did they know these eye-catching models were not mine and that I could not always afford petrol for them. On one occasion having introduced used car tests to increase the scope, a Big Six Bentley was substituted for the intended 3-litre, and as the red fluid sank in the petrol gauge on the run home I realised that the trip I had promised a girl to see top drivers racing at Donington would have to be changed to a short run to Brooklands. She was NOT pleased.

It was Utopia for a young enthusiast. You rang up, asked for a car, and the name MOTOR SPORT usually did the trick. Press fleets were there to be used, and Austin even had a Cambridge Ten saloon brought down from Longbridge to its Hammersmith depot (that disused skating rink) for me to collect on the Saturday of the Easter 1937 Bank Holiday, when I thought that the current girl-friend might not agree to going to Brooklands in my rather scruffy Austin 7. (I had not forgotten how, when was about to take another girl, in a white frock, for a picnic at the seaside at Eastbourne in this crude trials car, her mother had followed her out with sheets of paper to put on its seats.)

Driving the latest cars for test purposes became a way of life. Brooklands was ideally suited for this, with clearly marked distance and braking areas, and I took almost all our cars there, with a passenger timing them over a lap and the half-mile, as did the weeklies. None of ‘my’ cars was very quick but in 1930 The Autocar had set a landmark when it timed an 8-litre Bentley saloon at 101.12mph. Publicity managers being anxious to make good use of new press fleets, cars would be delivered to us, often with maps in the glove box and the clock correctly set… In later days Lotus brought theirs on a trailer, so that the car would arrive at the offices undented, clean and full of fuel.

Most cars were readily available and even small makers would try to comply – HRG lent me both the blue works hack and a production car to sample. Petrol was paid for by one’s paper, but I never recovered the insurance I had to buy for a Brough, and though a reader once wrote to say he had bought a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow solely on the strength of our road-test, I never got the commission. If I was biased in my reports, at least the readers could allow for this; I never could see how test reports could be compiled around a table, after discussion by several staff drivers. Incidentally, MOTOR SPORT had originally started acceleration graphs at 10mph, instead of from the more usual zero, which seemed sensible how often do you bang in the clutch and go away from traffic-lights with wildly spinning wheels? In those days we had a reputation for honest and outspoken test reports, when other magazines were cautious not to offend, so that you had to ‘read between the lines’. Very laudable; but at first we had little advertising, so rather less to lose! Naughtily, we even photographed the Moskvitch 407 alongside the offices of the Daily Worker,..

I had no favourite test routes, unless it was to the West Country I recall seeing how fast I could get from Hampshire to Land’s End and back in a Bristol 401, abetted by Jenks. Nor were we averse to Continental testing, such as ‘the ten capitals in four days’ across Europe with a BMW 3.0CSL, in 1972, and a non-stop return in an E-type Jaguar from Cannes to Calais, after a Monaco GP. When we were to drive through the night from Stuttgart to the Geneva Show, the road-test Mercedes contained maps of our route, and as it looked like snow the spare tyres were equipped with chains. There was a note in the glove box saying we were foreign visitors testing a car for Mercedes-Benz, to help us at Customs Posts (it did) or if we had any minor brushes with the police. And when the photographer asked if the car was insured for Switzerland, he was told “If there are any civilised countries in the world where it is not, we do not know of them.”

After describing a car’s characteristics I would go into great detail about its ergonomics, perhaps criticising a switch which would be better moved an inch or so, or a gear or brake-lever which needed six inches less stretch. But, with hindsight, I wonder if this was really necessary; after a time you do get used to such things. The Renault 750 seemed an awful car when first sampled but after a while I liked this cheeky baby. The same applied to an Issigonis Mini Minor with which I lived for a few years.

The one-time weekend-only test period had extended after WW2 to at least a week or ten days, and some makers would lend cars for such long periods that you almost forgot they were not yours and you might buy them afterwards, as I did a Fiat 500, liking cyclecars, a Reliant Kitten and a Mini Cooper.

There was an MG in which we discovered that speedometer and tachometer were arranged to give comparable readings, so the latter endorsed the very last’ speedometer, which deceived when Brooklands had closed and timed runs were in abeyance. But the classic ‘cheat’ was when Sammy Davis had a J2 MG Midget on test and after the road route was completed he went down to Brooklands to record performance data. He was invited first to lunch in the Aero Club and while he was being given this hospitality a high compression cylinder head was substituted for the standard one. The result was a published top-speed of some 82mph. But it misfired, because owners of the new MG kept ringing the works to say their cars were down on power and would only give 65mph.

I was not influenced in what I wrote, but after Jenks, who expected even a Hillman Minx to handle like a GP car, had got hold of an Austin A90 Atlantic he was not impressed. Nor was George Bishop, the then-Austin Public Relations Officer, with the result that we were refused further BMC cars for appraisal. I was able to have some fun with this, as The Bishop Ban, and after a while test-cars were quietly restored to us. And my heading to a 1953 test report, Afloat in a Velox’, did not appeal to Vauxhall’s PRO!

Amusing episodes? Oh yes. There was a six-cylinder Brough Superior drop-head in which I went off to cover a London-Gloucester trial. Naturally, I took a girl for company. The car’s instruction book told of a reserve petrol tap, so when, just before midnight, we came to a stop, I was not unduly bothered. Until I failed to find that tap. A milkman woke us in the early hours, with the excuse he thought we might be ill. But he provided some petrol from his float — in the lid of a chum, which he then replaced! We had not gone far thereafter before the clutch pedal went to the floor. After it opened, a garage in Chipping Norton (it’s still there) repaired this. By now we had missed the trial but to revive my companion’s flagging spirits I tried one of the hills. The Brough dug in and it was some hour later before I returned with a farmer and his horse… I was then instructed to go home. And the girl? She went to join her parents in India…

Our advertising manager once asked if he could collect a test Vauxhall to take to a trade lunch. Being in the office all day, I agreed. Then there came frantic ‘phone call from the PRO, saying our man had taken a customer’s car by mistake and the owner was due to collect it. So where was the car now?! could not resist saying it was probably undertaking destruction-testing… In fact, I was able to get our man paged and he took the car back in some haste, which distinctly ruined his luncheon. Then, in the early days of my connection with MOTOR SPORT; a Bianchi I had especially wanted to try was taken away by a colleague, who knew little about cars. I refused to help with the write-up and was rather pleased to see that the car, which possessed a pillarless saloon body, like a Lancia Aprilia, came out in print as having a “pillowless” one…

Then there was the day when I was in rather a hurry to collect a Sunbeam-Talbot from Rootes’ impressive premises in Devonshire House, Piccadilly. I was told the car had not arrived, and, as I waited a man rushed in, demanding a bucket “That car the MOTOR SPORT gent is coming for”, he gasped, “it’s lost most of its water on the run from Coventry!”. I remember also going with MOTORSPORT”s Proprietor to see Lord Stokes at his London HQ. He was asked why we had had to wait so long for the new jaguar XJ6. “I will see that Mr Boddy gets one as soon as possible,” replied a ruffled Lord Stokes, adding, “And as a gesture, you shall go back in my own Daimler Sovereign”. He pressed a button and his PA appeared. “Tell my chauffeur to have my Daimler at the front entrance in quarter-of-an-hour” he instructed. In a short time the PA was back. “I’m sorry sir”, he said, “but your chauffeur thought you were busy all morning and we can’t find him”. In the taxi back I wondered just how long it took for Lord Stokes’ secretary to find the man’s cards…

There was a Dodge saloon which dented its roof on an overhanging tree branch when we tried it up the well-known but remote i.ythe Right pre-war trials hill. And what of a large American car with poor brakes which I reported to the PRO. “Nonsense he retorted, rushing off along the yard in the car to show me and straight into a solid wall. Or the Opel whose clutch seized-up, so that the Lucas ‘Startix’ automatically restarted the engine without prior wanting, another PRO had a similar calmity.

I also remember that look, had never seen Scotland, so in 1971 we went up the tourist-infested East coast, then over to the more characteristic West coast, in a V12 E-type Jaguar.

When DS] had seen enough we started the run back South, with the map-reading left to me. A ferry would save much time and I indicated the road to it, and i was gratified to get on the last boat of the day. Disembarked we asked the way to the road South ‘I his is an island.” I had found the wrong ferry. Luckily, the boat was returning to the main-land and they agreed to put the car back on board Jenks gave me a look over his glasses…

Mostly everything went smoothly, but I once went to take away a Sinica, only to find it was the same car I had tested a fortnight earlier and you never dared ask Colin Chapman if a Lotus was taxed and insured. I only wrote off one test car, a yellow Ford Mexico, so completely I hat I was told the driver could not have escaped it alive.

It was all so much fun, before the days when fifth wheels (which sometimes mite adrift), electronic timing and the Bruntingthorpe and test-tracks became available. There were highlights such as the 150mph E-type jaguar 300 SL Mercedes Benz, Daimler Majestic Major and Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud “not so much a motor-car, more a way of life” and the Chrysler turbine car and large and small NSUs with Wankel power.

Road-test reports are now an important part of the motoring press. It came to an end for me when the Guild of Motoring Writers persuaded the Industry that, after the age of ’70, we were too senile to cope safely with their products. Exceptions would have been made for me but it meant asking favours and an accident would have been an embarrassment. So I gave up.

READING BETWEEN THE LINES

in his book ‘The Story of the MG Sports Car’ the late Wilson McComb wrote:

Neither magazine, The Autocar nor The Motor, ever criticised a car especially a British car much in those days (1928-29), so when it was suggested that “the brakes and steering might he improved” it meant they were incredibly awful!

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