Rumblings, September 1972

• A different world.—The other day we found ourselves lunching with the Directors of USE Aviation at Oxford Airport, Kidlington, a world different from that of cars, if only because, whereas you can buy considerable speed and luxury on the ground, in the form, for example, of an XJ12 Jaguar for £3,726 or a six-cylinder BMW for less than £3,000, CSE think in terms of selling you a Piper Twin Comanche for in excess of £60,000 with its requisite radio aids and were discussing the possibility of dealing in Lear-Jets, one of which had just arrived from America via Luton for their appraisal, which would set you back a matter of £400,000….

That money for aeroplanes isn’t exactly scarce is indicated by the fact that USE Aviation, a private company with an annual turnover in excess of £5-million, has sold more than 800 machines since the summer of 1959. They distribute Piper aeroplanes, service and repair them and their engines and equipment, and also train people to fly, to commercial pilot standards, at Kidlington, which is second only to Heathrow in terms of airfield movements (over 200,000 a year), and at Carlisle. Amusingly, Kidlington is described as having “the best meteorological climate in the World” in training terms!

So our anticipation of Kidlington as a small, intimate grass aerodrome received a rude awakening, as did our conception of the CSE buildings as a few (if more than one!) small hangars. They have a great amount of hangarage, for servicing chores, the preparation of new aeroplanes before the customers take over, painting aeroplanes and just storing aeroplanes. They have an £800,000 spare-parts store which would more than do justice to a full-scale car manufacturer and they test overhauled engines, of which a Twin Piper Comanche has a couple of flat-six air-cooled Lycomings, in a test-house which has two Heenan & Froude dynamometers, in sound-proof bays with isolated glass windowed instrument and control panels, in the best racing-car tradition. These will accommodate vertical and horizontal power packs of up to 350 and 700 b.h.p. Incidentally, Lycomings engines normally run for 2,000 hours before requiring stripping for AID inspection; the cylinder bores are then honed, the required new parts fitted, and they are then run-in and tested for power output in the aforesaid test shop. An exchange scheme for such engines ensures minimum of delay in getting an aeroplane back into service.

The shops for repair of the elaborate electronic equipment found in modern small aeroplanes is enormously impressive (though it will depress those who can only fly by Bradshaw!) and the CSE Training School has full flight-simulation equipment. The Company deals in Bell and Augusta-Bell helicopters, being able to supply from stock JetRanger and 47-Series models, and they service Hartzell propellers, Bendix fuel injectors, Marvel-Schebler carburetters, Garrett turbochargers and all associated equipment. They hold more than £100,000 of Bell spares and the stores issue more than 500,000 items a month. The sales office has the usual “blackboard” on which recent sales are displayed. The Piper picture is certainly “set-fair”, with the names of well-known industrial and sporting personalities listed against new aeroplanes, including a new Piper Arrow for ex-racing driver Peter Arundell. It is significant that nearly 900 of these aeroplanes have been registered in the UK since dollar restrictions were lifted in 1959, representing 58.6% of all general aviation machines imported from America. The range includes the new PA-34 Seneca. Navajo B. and the revised Cherokees.

As we drove away in an Alfa Romeo we felt suitably humbled. That aviation has arrived rather than being “the coming thing”, as Shackleton’s pre-war slogan expressed it, was further emphasised when we went to a flying display of the Herefordshire Aero Club at Shrobden and found car-parks of Derby-day proportions (but very well managed), a fair in attendance, and the whole box of tricks unleashed, from the Red-Arrows and Rotthman’s aerobatic team of open-cockpit biplanes to helicopter and model aeroplane demonstrations.


• MIRA OPEN DAY.—When driving up the AS in the Warwickshire area many readers have probably passed the grounds of MIRA without a second thought. Yet tucked away on the outskirts of Nuneaton is the most comprehensive automotive proving ground and laboratories in the country. Recently the Motor Industry Research Association held a most informative open day, mainly for members of the Motor Industry, but also for selected Press guests.

MIRA was formed in 1946 to undertake co-operative research for the Industry. It is supported by about 220 member companies by direct subscription whose contributions amount to about one-sixth of its total and a recent policy change has seen the SMMT withdrawing from financial support, which will be reduced to zero by 1977. From then on MIRA will have to be self-supporting, with individual companies contracting them for sponsored research programmes. Vauxhall, Ford and so on have their own test tracks, of course, but MIRA still has many unique facilities and component manufacturers are being encouraged to use MIRA more.

The comprehensive proving ground covers an area of 600 acres and is in operation seven days a week night and day. Apart from the banked high-speed track, there is pave, corrugated track, ride and handling courses, and so on.

The laboratories are extremely comprehensive and offer a huge range of experimental facilities ranging from crash testing, engine dynamometers, low temperature rooms, pollution testing apparatus and fatigue testing facilities. There is also a wind tunnel, cross-country tracks and so on, and a dedicated and talented staff of over 200 to operate the whole thing.

Our visit was tremendously instructive. We witnessed a roll-over test, were driven round the banked circuit at high speed in a Rolls-Royce Corniche, a Jensen and an NSU Ro80, and were only sorry we did not have more time to investigate the fascinating projects in the laboratories.


• Rolls re-design suspension.—Driving a Rolls-Royce is always an undoubted pleasure but we were, to say the least, rather curious when an invitation arrived offering us test drives in the latest Silver Shadows at Silverstone. After all Group 1 racing may be catching on fast but one could run a decent Formula Two team for the price of a Corniche. In fact, what Rolls-Royce Motors Ltd. had in store was to sample Silver Shadows with completely revised front suspension to cater especially for radial ply tyres. For this purpose they had hired the Silverstone club circuit and inserted a couple of chicanes on the main straight. With typical attention to detail they provided not only the latest Shadow but older ones for us to form a comparison.

In fact we joined the trip at the R-R Showrooms in Conduit Street, London, W1I, which is at present undergoing a face lift as well as having a large brick wall built between its own showroom and the offices of Rolls-Royce (1971) Ltd., which are, of course, now a completely separate entity. Thus we drove up in style to Silverstone in one of the older cars.

The front suspension changes have been made to improve handling and, at the same time, to reduce the amount of road noise. Basically the changes incorporate a new design of front suspension in which the upper wishbone of the front suspension is replaced by a transverse link located by a rubber-mounted tie-rod and the geometry has been altered. The whole front suspension sub-frame is now located by rubber mounts instead of coil-spring mounts, the steering ratio has been reduced from 3 3/4 to 3 1/4 turns lock-to-lock, and radial ply tyres are now standard.

The difference in driving the new car was immediately noticeable, the higher-geared steering is much appreciated, the car points very much better than before, thanks to the stiffer frame mounting, and body roll is less, too. In fact it is quite surprising how quickly a Rolls will lap Silverstone. After the test day we can offer some simple advice to Rolls-Royce owners whose cars are chauffeur-driven. Don’t let Charles read this—he will want a new one! The rest of us can dream of winning the pools.