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30 September 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:32pm

From the NS archive: About motoring

15 October 1932: A percentage of the purchasers of these cars will be self-indulgent, and enjoy sheer speed.

By R E Davies

In 1932 the motor-car was approaching its 50th birthday. Cars were in widespread circulation in Britain and were developing rapidly. Here, at the Olympia Motor Show in October 1932, RE Davies notices the emerging trends in British vehicles: a desire for small, inexpensive cars; the advancement of gear boxes; the automation of which was already being tested in the US; and an increase in speed. Many cars were now able to travel up to 80 or 90 miles per hour; most up to 60 or 70. This, Davidson wrote, meant a necessary review of speed limits and road etiquette to avoid “two batches of vehicles spending their road life in perpetual overtaking”. Overall, the Show was at the time a proud display of British mechanical prowess and human achievement.

***

This year’s Show reveals three very interesting tendencies. The first is forced upon the industry by sheer pressure of circumstances, and would never have been adopted voluntarily. It consists of concentrating the principal attention upon the small and inexpensive cars. Large and costly cars are still being designed, built and sold – Olympia actually stages in the shape of the Golden Bugatti, the largest and costliest car ever produced. But the sales of low-priced, medium-sized family cars are shrinking. Dealer after dealer will tell you that the bulk of his inquiries are for cars of the baby type. The second tendency is the sudden boom in foolproof transmissions, a boom which is extending with every week that passes.

It is pleasant to observe that the British industry triumphs in this sphere. The US has produced the synchro-mesh gear, the free-wheel and the automatic clutch; this latter device is still unfamiliar to most drivers, but is really quite simple, for a suction device automatically withdraws the clutch whenever the throttle is closed. None of these gadgets, either singly or in combination with another, furnishes quite so logical and convenient a transmission as the Wilson pre-selector gear flanked by the Daimler fluid flywheel. The E.N.V. Engineering Company at Willesden possesses works of the highest class in the gear-cutting trade, and for years past has provided component axles and gear boxes to many factories which never acknowledged their indebtedness. It has now laid down plans to produce the Wilson gear box in various sizes and in unlimited quantities. An immediate consequence is the publication of many eleventh-hour announcements that this gear box may be specified as an option on various well-known makes of car previously equipped with the conventional pattern of drive, or at best with a “silent third” type of box. It is possible that the Wilson box may become almost universal on British cars exceeding the minimum price limit. There is no real need for a fluid flywheel, automatic clutch, or free-wheel to be installed in front of such gear boxes; a driver must be a fool indeed if he cannot drive prettily with a standard clutch and this gear box. Time must elapse before the average motorist can decide whether he warmly approves of the modern clutch systems or not. But there is no possible vestige of doubt that the average motorist wants a simplified gear-change, and the old Gera boxes are without exception moribund.

The third 1933 tendency is less healthy, for it consists simply of speed. The Golden Bugatti can do 90 miles an hour on the middle of its three gears. A small M.G. two-seater, priced at less than £200, is capable of 80 miles an hour on the flat. The new M.G. Magnette, with an engine of no more than 1086 cc and priced at £695 in supercharged form, is expected to travel at 130 miles an hour on occasions. If the standard saloon cars of all sizes and prices are content with a beggarly 60 to 70 miles an hour, the market is now flooded with much faster cars designed to put up racing speeds on demand; and many of these projectiles are quite absurdly cheap. It is true that their owners will normally adopt a self-denying ordinance, and employ the vivacity of their new purchases to overtake swiftly and to evince crashing acceleration where acceleration is demanded. But a percentage of the purchasers of these cars will be self-indulgent and enjoy sheer speed. A wise government may yet be driven to take cognisance of these projectiles, and limit their ownership to experienced drivers. Within a year or two the temperate designers, who regard 60-70 mph as a rational road limit for ordinary people, may find that their hands are being forced by the speed enthusiasts.

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Henry Ford ranks as a sedate manufacturer, so far as the sporting side is concerned; but his new V-8 model can touch eighty on the level, and possesses the performance of a super-sports car in the 1930 vintage. It is possible that by 1935 any car which can only achieve a laborious 65 mph may be contemned by motorists in general as the original Trojan two-stroke car with solid tyres was contemned by the speed maniacs.

Any radical increase in average touring speeds is likely to raise the danger factor on such roads as ours. Safety on the roads depends to no small degree on road users adhering to a tolerably standard speed, for our highways are for the most part too winding and too narrow to accommodate mixed traffic, proceeding at a great variety of speeds. Much of the existing danger arises from the presence on the roads of vehicles that only average 18-25 miles an hour, and which, being constantly overtaken by impatient people who desire to average 35-40 mph, create an eternal succession of traffic eddies. These “creepers” are mechanically or constitutionally unable to maintain the higher speed. Of the fast drivers, a large percentage – probably two-thirds – either cannot or will not travel still faster. If we superimpose on these two classes of traffic yet a third class, eager to average 45 mph or more at the wheel of the newer 80 mph projectiles, we shall get two batches of vehicles spending their road life in perpetual overtaking, and the results may well be catastrophic.

This craze for speed contains unpleasant possibilities. For many years we limited maximum speed only. It is now possible to envisage a road epoch in which a minimum speed of 30 mph may be enforced, coupled with a maximum limit, applied at the factory by mechanical means, and standing at 65 or 70 miles an hour. However, this situation has not yet developed, and it may possibly be solved more simply than my personal forebodings suggest. In the meantime it is not a happy idea that at any moment one may be confronted by irresponsible youth, gaily handling a cheap 80 mph projectile, and driving it with the enthusiasm generated by a couple of cocktails in an anatomy hardly seasoned to liquor and by the familiar intoxication produced by fast motion on a mind not yet attuned to caution.

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For the rest, the Show is marvellous. The comfort and beauty of the coachwork, even on the smallest and cheapest cars; the efficiency of tiny suspensions; the completeness of the equipment, and its amazing ingenuities; the power of the engines; the simplicity of control; the certainty of the handling; the durability of the varnishes and plating; and above all the absolutely ridiculous economy of the typical British cars form yet another tribute to the marvels of applied science, and the grasp with which the human brain can tackle its technical and financial problems in such an age as this.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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