ISSUE NO 5 – AUTUMN 2018
Published in early October, it includes a blistering attack on political meddling in motoring affairs written by the legendary L.J.K. Setright in 1985 – but still true today?, Colin Goodwin’s wryly instructive experience in a fearsome jet-car, Ring of Bright Water author Gavin Maxwell’s racing obsessions , Lamborghini’s Diablo crash-tested by a young journalist – but not in a good way, the surprising history of steam cars, a pre-production Range Rover driven deep into the Moroccan desert, running a mid-engined Maserati as a daily driver, Mel Nichol’s re-acquaintance with a very special MGA and fond but not uncritical memories of Triumph Stags, DAF 44s, Alfasuds, Citroen GS’s and as ever, so much more. PLUS A SPECIAL CHRISTMAS GIFT OFFER
THE CAR KILLERS: SPEED LIMITS, TAXES, POLITICS AND STUPIDITY
Cars didn’t invent themselves. They have a social context, and they have their limitations – limitations they can blame on us, our taxes and our politicians. So laments L.J.K. Setright, writing in 1985. As for today…?
CRITICS OF OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM AND PROTAGONISTS of conspiracy theories have observed that speed limits help to coerce the populace into remaining where they are, instead of roaming around being inquisitive or simply escaping to where the grass appears to grow greener. This may be cynical but it may also be perceptive: symptoms of paranoia, to paraphrase Mr Henry Kissinger, do not disprove evidence of persecution. There may always be a part of society that is anxious to take away the freedom conferred by the motor car on another part of society.
And so speed limits have not come late upon the scene, the idea of them going back at least to 1865 when Britain’s notorious Locomotives on the Highway Act (better known as the Red Flag Act) earned the approval of Queen, Lords, Commons and all righteous horse-lovers. In the Grand Duchy of Baden, limits declared in anticipation of Karl Benz putting his first car on the road have proliferated ever since, all over the world; and while the consequences of disobedience ranged at various times from applause in Sicily to the death penalty in China, we saw that the effect of such legislation upon the design of the car, as well as upon its utility, has always been detrimental.
A more serious effect on car design, and therefore indirectly on the vehicle’s utility, has been exerted by taxation. This has especially been so in greater Europe, where taxation has traditionally been a ready expression of a world-wide tendency of men to resent what they do not understand. Other forms of restrictive legislation have likewise been almost Draconian – if they have not actually killed the car they often stifled it – and no account of our hundred years of motoring life can be complete without a look at the ways in which lawmakers have made the car a scapegoat. A study breeding such resentment brooks no misunderstanding.
Speed limits have had a detrimental effect on the design and development of the motor car for as long as we have known it. Such limits are indeed that old, but incomparably older is the invention of taxation, and almost as old as that invention is its abuse. It was accordingly the most natural thing in the world that, as soon as the motor car was prolific enough to look as though it would survive as a source of revenue, it was taxed. Applied much sooner, the imposition would have killed the golden gosling. Applied much later, it would have fallen upon something that could no longer be considered merely a plaything of the rich, and the imposition would have been challenged by an outraged electorate. Applied when it was, as a price to be paid for the enjoyment of power and the privileges supposed to attend it, it had a serious effect upon car design, and still has.
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A DRIVE ON THE WILD SIDE
Best known for his Ring Of Bright Water, Gavin Maxwell was author, adventurer and, according to a fascinated Ben Mallalieu, a merciless force of nature behind the wheels of some particularly unsuitable, indeed unstable, motorcars
THE NATURALIST GAVIN MAXWELL WAS ON HIS WAY BACK to London – some otter crisis or another – when his engine blew. ‘My car was a ferocious vehicle,’ he wrote in his 1969 book, Raven Seek Thy Brother, ‘converted from a single-seater Grand Prix racing car, and in her distant prime speeds in excess of 160mph had been claimed for her, but at this moment I was running-in a set of new pistons that she seemed to require about as often as more modest conveyances need refilling with petrol.’
And that was all.
He was more concerned about his otter and wrote no more about the car, rather as if it were a normal, if immodest, choice of conveyance, hardly worthy of comment. But there is something horribly appropriate about it: exotic, impractical, exciting and ultimately treacherous, much like the animals he collected, much like himself. He was never likely to make sensible choices about anything. At the same time, it was an oddly impressive choice of car. Most of us are aware, at least occasionally, of how much of a disappointment we would be to our 16-year-old selves, and the shame is not entirely ameliorated by the certain knowledge that most of our earlier selves’ ambitions were impractical if not impossible, based on too little understanding of the subtler complexities of life. Nonetheless, there is still a real sense of satisfaction when just occasionally you do something unusual or find yourself somewhere remote and exotic and suddenly remember that you had once sat in your study at school and thought: ‘When I’m free of all this I’m going to…’
I first became interested in Maxwell a few years back; reaching a natural break in a book I was writing – loosely a travel book of mental rather than topographical landscapes, looking for the myths beneath the mundane reality. Someone suggested Maxwell as a myth- seeker whose work I might like. Until then I had wrongly ignored him, assuming Ring of Bright Water to be one of those escapist animal bestsellers from the 1950s, the kind that get made into Sunday evening television series. Rubbish, basically.
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REDISCOVERING MEMORY LANE IN AN MGA
As a teenager, Mel Nichols coveted far lustier but pricier performance machinery than the MGA he settled for. But now, decades on, after slipping back behind the wheel of a cherished example of Abingdon’s first post-war sports car, he discovered he’d got it right the first time
GEOFF BARRON LIFTED HIS GARAGE DOOR TO REVEAL THE pristine outline of his ivory white MGA 1600. Smooth, sleek and rakish – a pretty car. He swung the roadster’s door open, climbed in, turned the ignition key and tugged the starter. There, at once, was that familiar steady idle with its tappety patter, and then the low growl of reverse gear as he backed the A out into the summer sunlight.
Geoff’s MGA is a cracker. All original (apart from new sills, seat covers and hood), stripped to the last bolt and rebuilt with love and skill in his garage over 15 months. Not concours, as he says, but quite perfect in a thoroughly honest way. A pleasure to behold.
In the cockpit, there isn’t much to learn. Ignition key to the left of the big, black horn button sitting at the centre of the metal dashboard. Pull-out starter knob behind the wheel’s left rim. Indicator toggle, pivoting left or right, on the dash behind the wheel’s right rim. Lovely, short, vertical gearlever just where you want it, and a conventional, easy 1-2 and 3-4 shift pattern, with reverse left and back. Nice reach to the pedals for someone a bit under six foot, like me. Wheel too close for modern-day straight-arm stuff, but well-suited to the vastness of the rim – a period driving position, but not exaggeratedly so. Two big, clear Smiths dials for speedo and tach, and a smaller gauge to the left reading out the oil pressure and water temperature. All lovely, straightforward stuff giving an accurate insight into the character of the MGA.
As I sat taking all this in, how the memories flooded back. I spent the final year of my teens and early 20s in a 1960 MGA 1600 just like this, though mine was British racing green. I’d wanted a Big Healey for its similarly swoopy but much gutsier looks and lumbering power, but couldn’t afford one. I couldn’t afford a smooth new MGB either, so it was the A, then seven years old (and for five years superseded by the B). It mightn’t have been a Healey or a TR4 or a B, but it was a sports car with a respectable badge and I was 19 and it was mine.
And she went on to serve me well. The performance, I knew, was hardly blistering (0-60 in 14.2sec and 101mph top speed, according to a 1959 Autocar road test) but with porting and polishing of the cylinder head, a free-flow Abarth exhaust system and regular tuning, she could show an MGB a clean pair of heels at the top end, and on one memorable occasion edged past a mate’s TR3A at 80mph on a long, flat-out climb.
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