Variety

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95

In which the Editor recounts his experience of the Renault Caravelle Coupe, Series IV Sunbeam Alpine and Rambler Classic 770 Pillarless Sedan

If variety is the spice of life, my motoring life has been flavoured with a good deal of spice recently. In the first place, having agreed to act in the capacity of one of the judges at the Bath Concours d’Elégance, I was able to motor to that fair but fearfully congested city in a car of appropriately elegant appearance, in the guise of the 1,100-c.c. Renault Caravelle coupé. I knew and liked this car previously as the Floride, since when its lines have been still further improved, by omission of the airvents behind the doors (although I do not think the “Caravelle” lettering particularly enhances the blunt, grilleless nose of this handsome car), and its specification modernised to embrance all-round disc brakes, all-synchromesh gearbox and sealed coolant system.

Caravelle Characteristics

I think the really outstanding aspect of the Caravelle, apart from its endearing appearance, is its comfortable, pitchfree ride, no mean achievement in a comparatively small car with generous sized wheels. There is very reasonable room inside for four people of normal measurements, although the front wheel-arches intrude, and the interior décor is quiet and elegant, helped by simple instrumentation.

The seats are small but support one well, and if I found their cushions somewhat hard, no doubt female motorists at whom the chic Caravelle is aimed are better upholstered and wouldn’t notice. The squabs are adjustable, but only by lifting the seat and setting a cam to the desired position. The 1,100-c.c. engine, aided by well-chosen gear ratios, although rather too audible, propels the Renault Caravelle very reasonably, both in respect of pick-up and cruising speed, and it is essentially a quick car through traffic and on difficult journeys. The steering is firm and precise, if low-geared, the clutch and slender gear-lever call for long movements but the gear-change is rather pleasant, the gears amenable to being thrown-in, as it were, which counters the lever’s length of travel. The brakes bit well at low speeds, were less effective for crash stops. The doors, of which there are two wide ones, possess discreet pockets, the front boot is quite spacious, its lid being pulled shut by the under-facia release lever, but the two heater-control levers adjacent to it are apt to be moved inadvertently, as they are invisible and lightly-loaded. Lamps flashing is only possible by rotating the Renault-type l.h. stalk control, the r.h. direction-indicator control is rather floppy, but the wipers self-cancel neatly if their switch is depressed, and the washers were very powerful.

I did not keep this very charming little car long enough to make very elaborate tests but in fairly easy running it did better than 35 m.p.g., the engine was very accessible after the “piano-lid” at the back was raised, and had consumed perhaps ½-a-pint of oil at the end of 650 mainly strenuous miles. The fuel range is the practical one of rather more than 300 miles.

In Britain the Renault Caravelle coupé is expensive, at £1,026, but individuality and charm have to be paid for and those who can afford it should be very well satisfied with Billancourt’s luxury model.

The Latest Sunbeam Alpine

At the same time as I was enjoying the Caravelle I was able to try the Series IV version of the Sunbeam Alpine. From being a rather formidable sort of sports car the Alpine has been refined and made more compact. It has softer suspension than formerly but only rolls if cornered with considerable provocation. The driving position is excellent, especially as seat squabs, steering column and pedals are all adjustable, but the bucket seats, although holding one firmly, are not particularly comfortable. The r.h. hand-brake lever is nicely out of the way, yet accessible, and the central remote gear-lever is well placed but controls a notchy, harsh change.

The engine sounds harsh when accelerating and it has a fairly fruity exhaust burble. It reaches its safe peak of 5,500 r.p.m. all too soon in the lower gears which are too low, but accepts overdrive 3rd and top gear at comparatively modest speeds. Overdrive is controlled by a r.h. flick-stalk moving up to engage o/d, down for normal 3rd or top, a change into 2nd gear automatically disengaging overdrive. I would have preferred the control to go down to select o/d.

The direction-indicators are controlled by a l.h. stalk, its knob very well placed for lamps-flashing, and the facia is generously provided with proper dials, apart from speedometer and tachometer, calibrated in metric as well as the normal figures.

Between the seats there is a Ford GT type lidded well, that on the Alpine being lockable. The horn-ring came well to hand, there is reasonable facia stowage but no door pockets, the completely rain-proof hood is easy to stow and erect but possesses blind-spots as the side panels are not endowed with windows, although the rear Perspex window is large, and there is the usual seat-cum-shelf behind the front seats.

Enjoyable to drive, the Series IV Sunbeam Alpine settles down to a 70-m.p.h. cruising speed and is fast and handy, but still exhibits the harsh-feel of the engine and harsh gear-change that have long characterised this make of Rootes Group products. But at £956 as tested, with earless centre-lock wire wheels shod with Dunlop RS tyres, it is excellent sports-car value, and handsome too. The twin-carburetter engine returned the good overall petrol consumption of 25.7 m.p.g. of premium fuel and used no oil in 750 miles. The Alpine provided a colleague with useful transport to and from the European Grand Prix, abetted at Brands Hatch itself by an equally useful folding Moulton bicycle, which stowed in the Alpine’s boot. Oh, and the brakes we both found so effective that they were almost taken for granted. For those contemplating a sports car of around 1½-litres, the latest 95-m.p.h. Sunbeam Alpine merits consideration.

U.S.A.-style Commuting

Once a year, at least, I like to enjoy the sanctity of an American-type automobile, with its ample living-space and more than ample performance from a woolly, lightly-stressed multi-cylinder engine. This year I have been able to enjoy these characteristics in a Canadian Rambler Classic 770 2-door pillarless saloon. (It is called pillarless in this country, a hard-top in the States, but this is somewhat ambiguous.)

The Rambler removes some of the British prejudice against cars from the U.S.A. by being notably unobtrusive in outward styling and interior décor. Which does not deprive it of a very definite flavour of its own, evident as soon as you glance at the speedometer and find that it is calibrated 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, instead of from 10 to 120 m.p.h., and lettered ” Weather Eye ” to indicate the effective and comprehensive heating and ventilation controls.

I like plenty of space in a house, so why not in a car? This the Rambler Classic provides in good measure, accommodating seven reasonably-slim people in decent comfort if called upon to do so. The separate front seats have tip-forward and adjustable squabs; slide easily under spring action over a wide range, and are comfortable. Their upholstery is a sensible combination of leather-like vinyl and cloth, and the head-lining is endowed with glass-fibre as safety padding, and there are good arm-rests-cum-pulls on the doors, but no seat arm-rests. American Motors supply the Rambler with cast-iron and alloy-block 6-cylinder engines but the model tested had the 3¾ in. x 3¼ in. 4,704-c.c. vee-eight Classic 287 engine developing 198 b.h.p. at 4,700 r.p.m. and driving through a 3-speed Borg-Warner “Flash-o-Matic”  fully-automatic gearbox with the usual P, R, N, D1, D2 and L quadrant control. There was manual steering from a big wheel asking no fewer than six-turns, lock-to-lock, with another ¼-turn of sponge, fairly light except when parking, the low-gearing offset by very high-speed castor-return action.

I know American sedans do not handle like British or Continental high-performance cars, but this Rambler did not roll excessively, rode well, and cornered adequately, with distinct understeer. Indeed, the suspension is quite hard, transmitting some tremor from rough roads, and fast cornering occasions no alarm, the Rambler being one of the better American-type cars in this respect, and the tyres were virtually silent. I know American cars nearly always have suspect brakes and although there was certainly some drama about retarding the Rambler in a hurry, for all practical purposes the brakes were adequate; indeed, too sudden at normal speeds. In fact, the fierceness and insensitivity of the brakes at low speed was the car’s worst aspect.

Kick-down produced useful additional acceleration but worked over a small range of accelerator movement and took some effort. Cruising speeds of 85 m.p.h. became quite normal, with only a faint vee-eight waffle from the exhaust heard if the windows were open. Only in minor roads did the bulk and handling characteristics of this spacious Classic 770 call for more moderate speeds. With dual headlamps, fairly low build, and curved side windows, the lines of this 2-door saloon are the equal of modern cars from Europe, especially as this is one of the least flamboyant vehicles from across the Atlantic. The Goodyear whitewall 7.50 x 14 Custom Super-cushion tyres blend well with the Classic’s smart appearance, and the recessed number-plates in the substantial bumpers add neatness. Ground clearance is generous.

The controls could hardly be easier to understand. Those for the “Weather-Eye” heating and ventilation are supplemented by scuttle ventilators controlled by pull-out handles on the scuttle walls, and the fan has “Hi” and “Lo” speeds. The only knobs are those for cigarette-lighter, de-frosting booster, lamps, variable-speed suction screen-wipers, and the Motorola radio. A pull-out brake-lever on the right-hand side of the neat facia has its own warning lamp if left on, and the speedometer incorporates casually-calibrated thermometer and petrol gauge, total-mileage odometer with decimals, and warning lights for alternator-charge, full beam, oil pressure, and turn-indicators.

There is a really roomy, lockable cubby-hole, its lid dropping to form a shelf for four glasses of what-you-fancy, and lamps-dipping is by a floor button. The wide doors locked easily, and possess man-sized handles and window-winders. The windows, even the curved rear compartment windows, wind right down, but this calls for mild exertion and I can appreciate why power-lift is an optional extra.

There are luxury touches about the Rambler, such as pedal-actuated screen-washers, dual drawer-type facia ash-trays, illumination of the clock along with the speedometer, external mirror supplementing a wide if narrow interior mirror, courtesy interior lighting that shines on the door sills to facilitate entry, reclining seat squabs, automatic illumination of boot and cubbyhole, a fuel tank holding nearly 16 gallons, filled through a sort of outsize hot-water-bottle plug on the n/s., the provision of coathooks, etc. I have only three mild criticisms of detail arrangements. The front seat-squab hinges impede entry to the rear seats and can rap one’s ankles, the 1/3rd-horn-ring is fumbly to find on corners, and the l.h. stalk working the turn-indicators has short, light movements, so is apt to be operated inadvertently.

Otherwise, the Rambler Classic 770 has all the comfort, convenience and practicability expected from a trans-Atlantic automobile. Fuel consumption came out at 19.7 m.p.g. of premium or mixture-grade fuels, driving in D1, which is more economical than D2; the oil level had not dropped after 670 miles. One day America is going to adopt disc brakes and then the last logical objection to their fast powerful cars on British roads will be removed. As it is, these cars represent a challenge to European cars under the headings of comfort, spaciousness, effortless performance, and what remains of status-symbolism in the motor car, to all save hard-driving enthusiasts who call for better braking and superior road-holding and cornering. Apart from this, there is the inherent reliability and longevity plus the dependable starting and extremely efficient heating and ventilation bred from operation in extremely cold climates, typical of American and Canadian cars, which should appeal to home users. On the score of minimal maintenance, too, such automobiles show up well, the Rambler, for example, having 33,000-mile or “3-year” chassis-lubrication intervals, a 4,000-mile engine oil-change period, with many chassis parts “lubed” for life, while an alternator replaces a dynamo, as the warning light labelled “Alt.” reminds one. The counter-balanced bonnet opens very easily from a single lever at the front, and the Rambler Power-Guard 24, battery, Autolite alternator, Prestolite junction box and electrics, the long dip-stick in its guide tube and the American Motors’ detachable rubber washers bottle are all very accessible.

There is luggage space to match the passenger accommodation, the boot area being enormous, notwithstanding the fact that the spare wheel, protected by a cover, is installed horizontally. The boot-lid is self-supporting when open and locks automatically when shut, as is the practice on American cars and Dagenham Fords. I was told that in Britain there is a growing sale of Ramblers, especially station-wagons, to clients with cars of the Bentley class, who, having experienced spacious motoring, are reluctant to forego this in their second-line transport. From the standpoint of economics these cars have much in their favour. Look at it this way. The least-expensive Rolls-Royce costs £5,500. A Mercedes-Benz 300SE sells here for £4,000. The V8 Rambler Classic 770 two-door pillarless saloon can be bought for £1,892, purchase tax and import duty included, which in some people’s view makes up for any small omissions of refinement, control niceties and disc brakes.

Moreover, the spares situation is excellent, because Rambler stock spares at their ex-Hudson/Essex factory by the Chiswick Fly-Over on the Great West Road for their entire European network, so obviously British users are well placed should parts be urgently required. Finally, the range of optional extras available is quite fascinating and, again, of great practical value.

W. B.