Vetting and testing a 1939 1½-litre S.S. Jaguar drop-head coupe

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24

Some notes and an unofficial war-time road test by a keen reader

THIS is a funny sort of road test, in fact it started more like one of Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” stories. The car in question belongs to a lady in the medical profession, and was lent to us for a weekend to see if we could make it go any better than at present. Apparently the car is used almost exclusively over very short distances in town, and its performance under these conditions was not considered satisfactory. The owner’s local garage (who presumably did not have the privilege of supplying the car new) dismissed the matter by saying that it was “one o’ they high-powered racers” and thus could not be expected to perform well in traffic! This did not worry us unduly, but we were also informed that the car had been back to a very famous service depot on several occasions. Nevertheless, it struck us as very improbable that an almost new specimen of a famous marque (mileage 3,600 altogether) could really be a bad thing, even on pool petrol, and we therefore jumped at the opportunity of a little amateur sleuthing.

In case the worst happened, we thought it as well to photograph the car before setting forth.

It is a most dignified and imposing affair, and a highly successful attempt has been made to create flowing lines in spite of the short wheelbase and rather abnormally short bonnet.

On starting up, it immediately became apparent that some maladjustments were at large. Even when thoroughly warmed up, the engine emitted squib-like noises through the carburetter on accelerating, and similar noises came from the exhaust on the over-run. Our first thought was of unduly retarded ignition setting, especially when we remembered that these engines are rumoured to have a tendency to carry on running after being switched off: we felt that a misguided attempt might have been made to correct this tendency by retarding the ignition. This proved to be the case, or at any rate, the hand advance-retard control was not working properly. We have no great love of these lengthy and tortuous Bowden affairs, especially when the flexible inner cable has to do its work by pushing, rather than pulling, against a spring loading. However, it is very pleasant, and unusual nowadays, to have a hand control at all.

Engine accessibility for all normal adjustments is very reasonable, but to get at the end of the ignition control, at the bottom of the rather forward-mounted steering column, we decided to jack her up. To do this we broached (for the first time in its life, we think) the beautifully plush-lined tool kit laid out in the rear locker lid. Unfortunately, not all the tools live up to their surroundings: there are some decent spanners, but some of the other items are rather of the “Woolworth” standard to which one has become resigned in the case of tool-kits supplied with almost any car. The habitual bicycle pump is there, and a tiny copper wheel clouter roughly suitable for knocking in tin-tacks. Why do the makers do these things? The other day we saw a brand-new Karrier Cob outfit, with two 8-ton payload trailers, and this had the same old bicycle pump, and also a screw-up jack which could barely have lifted any one wheel with trailer unladen.

On the S.S., the jack provided is of a more ambitious type, plugging in to a rubber-capped extension of the chassis, and then being wound down with a handle. Having wrestled somewhat to open the jack, which was stuck with new paint, we plugged it in, only to find the handle fouled one of the tin trumpets which grace the front apron. However, we got over this by not fully inserting the handle, and found the movement extremely effortless. The car wobbles about rather when in the air, taking up the “slop” in the plug-in fit, but seems pretty safe.

Having fixed the ignition control to our liking, we tried her again, and found the mixture setting absurdly weak. In our humble opinion better economy is to be obtained by tuning a car for maximum efficiency, and then driving in a restrained manner, than by so weakening the mixture and upsetting the tune that comparatively wide throttle openings have to be used to get any sort of performance at all. With a normal mixture and ignition setting, the engine would idle perfectly and seemed generally to have regained its proper performance. In this state, there was some difficulty in stopping the engine, which had to be firmly stalled in top gear. We feel that one of Mr. Cox ‘s “Atmos” devices might help with this trouble, also a good big dose of “Redex” to clear some of the ragged carbon mountains away.

Our first real outing with the car consisted of a spell of police duty, and provided the opportunity for about 40 miles of dense traffic work. The clutch is light and sweet in action, and the remote control gear lever, positioned just where it should be, gives a quick and easy change. The driving position is pleasant, giving excellent visibility, but the steering wheel seemed too low and pressed down on the thighs. But by varying the relative positions of seat and extensible steering wheel, we entirely overcame this fault, and achieved a really perfect position. As appears to be so often the case, the owner had apparently not taken the trouble to “fiddle about” long enough., and thus had tolerated the mediocre position.

On duty, we found the steering lock excellent, and, speaking of locks, appreciated the excellent arrangement whereby the same Yale-type key serves for ignition, door and rear boot locks. The Girling brakes proved smooth, and powerful, although set rather too sloppy for one’s personal taste: the handbrake, in fact, would not hold the car on any appreciable gradient. This shortcoming we resolved to rectify before attempting any speed work.

Getting in and out of both front and rear seats proved tolerably easy even for six-foot policemen encumbered with nose-bags and battle-bowlers. There is not, of course, a vast amount of legroom at the back, but there were no complaints of cramp. There is room for three passengers abreast. At one of our numerous stops, we discovered a method of stopping the engine without any “back answers”: at the moment of switching off, do not rev up, but do pull the choke out. This may be stale news to seasoned S.S. owners, but if it is not, well, there is the hint. We do not think the practice could be harmful, for the carburetter is an S.U., and the choke (so-called) is therefore only an “en-richener.”

Suspension passed this town-driving part of our test with flying colours, rough cobbles taken at 40 m.p.h., producing only a shuddering action. There is practically no roll on corners. The driving compartment is very well insulated from the engine, and keeps pleasantly cool. The scuttle ventilator lets in a sufficiency of air without the wind blowing up dust from the floor, as sometimes happens. The engine is not dead quiet, in fact with the windscreen open there is a gentle clatter of pushrods which reminds one momentarily of the friendly Meadows unit. Nor are the indirect gears entirely silent, emitting a pleasant hum. Personally we welcomed these “human weaknesses” in such an ultra-sleek automaton—and they are certainly not obtrusive.

Towards the end of our tour of duty, it began to rain and we appreciated the easy winding action of the windows and the independently controlled twin wipers. It also became apparent that for some reason the mixture was getting weaker and weaker, for the squibs in the air intake had returned.

Back at the garage we had a careful search for possible causes of this trouble, and eventually found that the carburetter needle was loose, and gradually dropping out of the piston, thus closing the jet orifice. After remedying this, we had a go at the brakes, and found that each one of the simple and accessible Girling adjusters required just two notches to bring the pedal movement up to scratch. The adjusters are, of course, on the individual back-plates, and their setting governs both foot and hand controls: there are no other points of adjustment.

On the following day we set out for a short open-road test, being now confident that the car’s performance was fully up to standard in every way. The fact that repeated, visits to the service station had not located the carburetter fault all goes to show how difficult it is just to open a bonnet, gaze at the works and make a wise diagnosis: especially if, as in this case, the engine would respond well to a tune-up and then lose its tune again after an hour or two as the needle shook down a little further.

Needless to say, it rained hard for most of our test. However, we achieved just 80 m.p.h. by speedometer, which, so far as we could test, was tolerably accurate. This we considered very creditable indeed, for these drop-head bodies are far from light. Nought to 30 m.p.h. occupied 19⅓ seconds, and this could have been improved upon by more brutal methods. Cruising speed seemed to be 65-70 m.p.h., and road holding excellent. There is a certain amount of sideways dither of the steering. column and dashboard, but otherwise the car is quite rigid. Some amount of flexing is apparently intended, for with any one wheel jacked up, it is not possible to open or shut the doors.

We gathered from the markings on the rev. counter that 4.500 are “normal safe maximum revs,” and as 80 m.p.h. was the equivalent of 4,300 in _top gear, we aid not fear bursting the engine. Third is a useful ratio, giving about 55 m.p.h. at 4,500, but second is rather low, giving rather less than 35 m.p.h. However, it proved itself a splendid hill climbing ratio.

Mud-guarding seemed excellent, there being only a trace of mud curling up in the air-stream on to the rear panel. But we could not get the lid off the spare wheel compartment, as it fouled the rear bumper. Doubtless it could have been persuaded past, with the aid of a tyre lever, but we were in no mind to knock chunks of paint off someone else’s car.

In all, we covered roughly 100 miles, and the petrol consumption worked out at 34 m.p.g. This, too, we thought extremely good, again remembering the weight and that part of our test consisted of dense traffic work, the rest of really hard driving.

We had been handed a car whose good looks we quickly photographed, lest they proved to be the only good point. We handed her over “running like a train,” after satisfying ourselves that she was in every way a pleasing and desirable means of wartime transport. We hope we have wiped the frown off a rather disgruntled owner’s brow. Incidentally, the combined effects of “Redex” and a damned good blind almost entirely cured the diesel action after switching off. It is remarkable how almost every engine is the better for a thorough towsing (which does not mean doing 7.500 r.p,m, in second gear!).— P. T. C.