It was in 1914 that very small cars of abnormal performance first made their appearance. "Performance" at that date was a far milder phenomenon than it is to-day. Monsieur Mathis, a famous Alsatian engineer, had designed a tiny car weighing 8cwt, and rated at 8hp. He could not persuade the public, even the Alsatian public, that so tiny a vehicle could possibly be worth buying. So he snatched at an audacious form of publicity, and entered his midget for one of the great French road races, pitting it against monsters of 100hp or so. To the general amazement it lapped a long course with splendid regularity, and though it was easily outstripped for sheer pace by the leviathans, it captivated the hearts of the crowd, and grad uated as a best seller for a few short months. If the war had not intervened, M Mathis might possibly have annexed some such domination of the Continental market as MM Citroën and Renault later secured.
I bought one of his little 1914 cars, and found it very fast and reliable, though more than a trifle noisy; in fact I sold it because a great friend in the next house objected to the uproar which it created whenever I started it up; and of course, the dealer who bought it immediately sold it to a mutual enemy who resided on the other side of my friend's house. This little Mathis was capable of sixty miles an hour, covered fifty miles on a gallon of fuel, climbed very fast, and shook up its occupants considerably.
To-day the market offers a wide selection of cars which are very light, cheap, fast and economical. I am not sure that their existence is really in the public interest. Inexpensive when new, they can be picked up for a trivial figure second-hand. It follows that any irrespon sible lad or lass who has attained the age of 17 can acquire for £50 or so a miniature projectile which may be in rather dubious mechanical condition. Still, there is no actual proof that gay youth, so mounted, is responsible for any serious steepening of the road casualty curve; and there is no doubt that these cars are excessively pleasant to drive.
The most famous of them is the so-called Cup model of the Austin Seven, originally brought out by Gordon England, the Putney coachbuilder; and it is still quite one of the best. It has very graceful lines, holds the road excellently, is not easily passed on British roads by cars of five times its power, wears indefinitely, and handles with docility. Its success has inspired rival firms to produce rather similar sports models of the same chassis, but I always consider that the England model is the prettiest of the bunch.
At least as good, and possibly a shade better, is the MG Midget. The firm's catalogue states categorically that the MG models bear no resemblance or relationship to Sir William Morris's other cars, and the makers ought to know. But the catalogue does not convince buyers that there may not be a component or two of the Morris Minor in this charming chassis. Its external lines are calculated to make any honest policeman bristle; but it is not noisy, and its speeds on its three gears approach some such figures as 25, 40 and 64 miles an hour, which is not bad going for an engine taxed at no more than 8hp. The car is hung so low that it is practically impossible to capsize it, except by running two wheels up a bank, and it confers a sensation of real safety when driven in a defiant fashion. Like its rivals, it will climb any hill on which its tyres can find adhesion. The steering, brakes, and general control are quite in the first class. It is an altogether excellent vehicle for the man who wishes to enjoy speed without paying the usual price for that often expensive luxury.
In a slightly higher class than any of these midgets, and at a slightly higher price, stands the 9-hp Riley. A special racing edition of this deservedly famous car is capable of 80mph and is priced corresponding high. The belly of this model clears the road by a few inches only, and in general appearance it is suited for ownership by a well-to-do undergraduate. For much less money one can buy an open two-seated tourist edition of the standard Riley Nine chassis, capable of 60mph or - with two carburettors - of 65mph. These two cars are faster than the Midgets for touring purposes, as they have four-speed gearboxes, and by a special patented construction the third gear is literally as silent as the top ratio; it permits very useful climbing at high speed. Both these cars are perfectly normal in appearance, and can be driven without shame by any pompous person.
All these low-hung cars suffer from one intrinsic defect only, namely, that when one is seated in them, the view is poor along roads fringed by hedges. It is impossible to sit too low for the purposes of safety; but it is easy to sit too low for the scenery. In addition, when a car is very light and fast, its driver needs special discretion on wet roads. I have never analysed the mechanics of the question, but my experience with a great number of them is that they are more easily skidded than larger vehicles; and if I find myself at the wheel of such a car on really greasy surfaces, I observe unusual precautions. They are not more inclined to skid, of course, than their touring twins; but as they are normally driven rather faster, the provocation is greater.