The Editor Looks at the Gap Between the Cars Manufacturers Race and the Cars they Sell
I refuse to write another word about the Le Mans accident, which some people attribute partially to the immensely high speed of modern sports/racing cars, but which was really a freak happening which, if any known factor was involved, was the result of cars of widely-differing speeds occupying the same circuit.
I do not subscribe to the view that today’s sports/racing cars have become too fast, although some folk advocate a capacity limit of 3 litres, which might be beneficial to technical development but wouldn’t, it seems to me looking back at G.P. history, limit maximum and lap speeds for very long.
I cannot even agree with those who tend to scoff at the air-brake which Mercedes-Benz introduced at Le Mans this year on the grounds that a prototype should incorporate only features likely to be adapted for production cars and that on the road air-flap brakes will never be used. It is dangerous to generalise like that. Before the war various factors now used on sports cars, and commonplace in some instances, seemed unlikely to be acceptable for normal cars — take for instance disc brakes, already available on the production D-type Jaguar and Austin-Healey 100, fuel injection, used now on the catalogue Mercedes-Benz 300SL, compact closed bodies for sports cars, accepted for the present Jaguar XK140, Frazer-Nash, Porsche and A.C. Aceca coupés, and the all-enveloping bodies which in 1939 were in a futuristic minority but have now become an accepted part of the sports-car scene, tail-finned into the bargain.
What I am arguing in this article then, is not that prototypes should be banned from sports-car racing, such contests being confined, as they once were (at all events in theory), to cars of catalogue or near-catalogue specification, nor that the speed of sports/racing cars should be restricted by regulations devised for that purpose.
What I am doing is to raise an eyebrow at the policy of companies which spend a lot of finance on competing in motor races, deriving considerable publicity from so doing, yet which neglect the obvious market for their products — that which centres around the prospective customers who take the most notice of race results and so many of whom follow the outcome with intent from Union Jack (or its equivalent abroad) to chequered flag. Cars which are eligible for sports-car races under today’s rules can be sub-divided into four main categories, thus: —
(a) Absolutely standard cars. These exist only in the organisers’ dreams, because it is virtually impossible to scrutineer vehicles by catalogue specification and even if you could a slow probably dull, race would result. The solution to the serutineering difficulty would be to take a car at random from the assembly-line, but such a method is unpopular with manufacturers in this country (though they do it in America) and who has heard of a sports-car assembly-line anyway?
(b) Near-standard cars, departures from standard to be clearly defined in the race regulations. Such cars were seen in sports-car races before the war and in some events today open only to Series Production Sports Cars as recognised by the C.S.I.
(c) Advanced sports cars, in which a considerable increase over standard performance is achieved by drastic alterations from catalogue specification.
(d) Prototype sports cars, which do not exist in the catalogue, such as those prominent at Le Mans — the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, etc.
Types (a) and (b) are of great interest to prospective purchasers but types (c) and (d) teach more useful lessons to the manufacturers.
It might be expected that (b) is more likely to be practical for normal road motoring than types (c) and (d), although this is not a hard and fast rule. Those who consider that sufficient technical leniency is extended to type (c) and that prototypes shouldn’t be allowed do not have my sympathy, for it is necessary to remember that when the Jaguar XK120 was the only production sports Jaguar the C-type and D-type were regarded as prototypes, yet in the course of a few years we saw both sold as limited-production models and today C-types are quite common in club races, where the D-type isn’t unknown, while neither is difficult nor temperamental to drive on the road. Who knows that next year or in 1957 Mercedes-Benz will not list the 300SLR alongside the 300S and 300SL sports cars
Consequently, I am not making a plea for the abolition of prototype sports/racing cars nor am I suggesting that manufacturers should race sports cars more akin to the cars they catalogue. What I do wish to remark is the frequent discrepancy between the production models of race-conscious manufacturers and the cars likely to interest prospective purchasers amongst the race-going and sporting fraternity.
There may be sound commercial reasons for this. I am not a business tycoon or Captain of Industry, and therefore cannot know the policy which guides Coventry and Stuttgart. I can only remark on a state of affairs existing today which didn’t exist before the war, and so we find ourselves embarking on some motoring history.
I will not go back as far as the period prior to World War I, for in those times sports cars, although they had happened, hardly existed as commercial propositions. The only reason their sales were a reasonable proportion of a manufacturer’s total, if indeed this was the case, being because sales were so very modest. But the thing begins to appear after that Armistice of 1918, when W. O. Bentley introduced his now immortal 3-litre sixteen-valve sports car and Vauxhall put the famous 30/98 into serious production, eventually selling, I believe, more than 1100 of these fine sporting cars in E and OE form.
Bentley cars appeared at Brooklands and then at Le Mans, where they gained a convincing series of successes which set a seal to British prestige in the sports-car field. I am sure raised compression-ratio, close-ratio gearboxes and higher axle ratios, special camshafts and lighter pistons and valve gear, indeed, all the usual dodges, were used by Bentley to achieve Track and Le Mans victories. But all the while these victories were being achieved the 3-litre Speed Model, the 4 1/2-litre and the blower 4 ½, and later the Speed Six, were available from the dealer to sporting types anxious to buy and drive race-bred care — and each and every one of these catalogued Bentleys was essentially a sports car.
Le Mans and T.T. Replica Bentleys were also listed, closely related to the green cars which won high honours in the races of those names, but this is entirely beside the point. The factor I want to emphasise is that, W. O. Bentley and his Board raced Bentleys to sell Bentley sports models, presumably to sporting ladies and gentlemen who hung over the rails at Weybridge and the Sarthe and knew what racing was about. Vauxhall built those fabulous T.T. 3-litres with Ricardo-designed engines at a period when they desired to maintain the sales of the sporting 30/98. The Alvis which won the 1923 J.C.C. 200-mile race at Brooklands after the dramatic and unexpected retirement of the fabulous Fiats has often been described as a standard 12/50. In fact, it was highly special in a number of ways but the fact is that Alvis listed the superbly-attractive polished aluminium duck’s-back sports model, and sports tourers as well, at the time when they were racing seriously to aid their sales campaign.
If A.C. or Aston Martin racing and record-breaking activities of this period tickled your fancy you could go and buy a sports model A.C. or one of the meticulously constructed side-valve Aston-Martins of Bamford and Martin, which never were anything but sports models. Apply this to later Bertelli Aston Martin, Lagonda, Salmson, Amilcar, Frazer-Nash, Invicta and other makes — always it is the same, a firm spending money on racing to promote the sale of catalogue sports cars. The great Austin Motor Company, which hadn’t raced seriously since the 1908 Grand Prix, when it returned to racing at what we now term the end of the vintage years, listed the production Ulster sports model, an inexpensive car available in supercharged form, which differed only in detail from the Sevens as raced.
Even Sunbeam, which, addicted to copying other makers’ cars in order to win Grand Prix races and seemingly indifferent to the sports-car market, in 1924 came out with the now-legendary twin-cam 3-litre and then entered this model in the Brooklands Six-Hour and Le Mans races to promote its sales.
Riley took a serious part in the races of the nineteen-thirties and during this time had several sports models in their catalogue, having seen the need to supply this market in 1928, when the Parry Thomas/ Reid Railton-evolved Brooklands-model Riley Nine was taken over for manufacture by the Coventry factory.
Amongst the classic Continental makes sports cars were continually in production by firms to which racing was a full-scale undertaking — Bugatti, Alfa-Romeo, Maserati, O.M., Amilcar and Salmson, already mentioned, and so on. Before Mercedes-Benz re-entered the Grand Prix field in 1935 the Stuttgart factory consistently entered the exciting 36/220 and 38/250 sports cars for racing events and built the SSK and SSKL versions which appeared against fully-fledged racing cars, at a time when these great supercharged machines were a very saleable proposition to monied sportsmen.
My point is made best of all by M.G. When the late Cecil Kimber produced the first M.G. Midget based on the o.h.c. Morris Minor chassis he built a team of slightly-modified cars for the “Double Twelve” race and thereafter never ceased to have M.G. cars in important races. When he moved to Abingdon to operate the largest factory devoted solely to the production of sports cars it was possible to buy M.G.s of both four and six-cylinder persuasion, closely related to the cars Kimber raced with such conspicuous success, but one suspects that only limited numbers of the potent Midgets and Magnettes found buyers, the real stimulus behind the M.G. racing programme being to promote sales of the less-rapid but essentially sporting M.G. models. How the position has altered since the war! Certainly Maserati and Ferrari continue to sell entirely genuine sports cars and keep their name to the forefront of the world’s markets by industrious racing participation. Porsche has sought to sell in a market visualised in earlier times by Ettore Bugatti, building beautiful cars of real performance, with perfection of detail and a companionship amongst owners that recalls the great days of Molsheim. Clearly, racing successes by the Porsche Spyder are the obvious way of keeping these little air-cooled German cars in the public, and preferably the American, eye.
But elsewhere? Daimler-Benz have staged the most impressive racing come-back, in both the Grand Prix and sports/racing fields. Yet their catalogue cars are hardly such as to appeal to enthusiastic drivers and sportsmen in the way that a 3-litre Maserati or Porsche Spyder does, for the 300SL is “out of this world” to most people, and until the recent introduction of the 190S all these post-war Mercedes-Benz sporting rather than sports cars have been in the 3-litre category.
The reverse is true of M.G., for the Midget sports model has continued to be made and for a time sold like hot buns in the United States, yet only this year has the Abingdon firm returned to racing as a means of publicising and improving its products. The new EX182 M.G. sports model looks a promising car and I only regret that the Bishop did not raise his Ban and send us details of it so that we could publicise it amongst our 200,000 readership, quite a considerable proportion of whom have dollars to spend on fast motor cars of the right sort! To race it is going to be the obvious way to sell it if and when it becomes a production model.
Aston Martin continue in their post-hyphen days the policy instituted by the late Lionel Martin in 1921 and race seriously cars which are true sports models in catalogue trim, and Bristol enhance their reputation as builders of high-quality, high-performance 2-litre cars by racing each year at Le Mans.
Yet even here my point isn’t lost, for both Aston Martin and Bristol are expensive cars, appealing only to an infinitely small proportion of buyers gleaned from the enthusiastic circle which appreciates the racing achievements of the machines from Feltham and Filton.
Bentley has ceased to race altogether, likewise Alvis, Austin, Riley, Sunbeam, Singer and Vauxhall, and Fiat. Alfa-Romeo and Lancia have also given up.
A.C. make delectable sports cars in the Ace and Aceca — too delectable for Motor Sport to road-test, it seems, judging by the inability of the Thames Ditton directorate to give us the courtesy of a reply to frequent verbal and written requests as to when a car can be placed at our disposal! — but they appear only in comparatively minor racing events. Allard likewise has departed the competition scene, but Frazer-Nash carries on the pre-war tradition of racing cars like those they have for sale.
Austin-Healey and Triumph have exactly the right idea and the right cars for the market racing fosters, but who can say that Doretti failed for lack of a racing programme?
Renault race at Le Mans and sell the hot-stuff R1063 to their sporting customers.
Jaguar is rather in the position of Daimler-Benz, in that they spend much money on racing and reap magnificent results, yet have nothing of direct appeal in the large potential market for reasonably-priced, economical small-engined sports cars. The racing achievements no doubt sell XK140s in big numbers, especially as the Le Mans-winning D-type used basically the same fine six-cylinder 3 ½-litre twin-overhead-camshaft power unit, and presumably the board is satisfied that it aids the sales of the Mk. VII saloon as well. But with such prominence in racing one cannot but feel that the successful Coventry firm could reap big sales with a sports model smaller and less costly than the 3 ½-litre £1,500 XK140.
The small producers of small sports cars, such as Connaught, Kieft, Lister and Lotus, have 100 per cent. the right idea, racing to advertise and to learn, and selling cars, or parts to make cars, which appeal to the largest element of the sports-car buying public.
It would seem that, as was once the case, racing could be of greater benefit in the business sense if more of the bigger manufacturers supported it and if some of those who do so successfully were to re-organise their range of models to include motor cars of more direct appeal to race-goers.
But I am not a tycoon! I could easily be wrong! — W. B.
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