Sunday, February 18, 2007

Post-war motoring - Alvis TA21

The Alvis TA21 was introduced in late 1950 to replace the the first post-war car Alvis produced, the TA14. It was, in many ways, a great improvement over the TA14 with its rather under-powered 4-cylinder, 1.9 litre engine. Interestingly, though, the TA21 sold in fewer numbers than its slightly smaller predecessor.
Nevertheless, this was a car of considerable quality. Its in-line 6-cylinder engine of just under 3 litres took what was a heavy car beyond 90mph, generating 100bhp or so at 4000 rpm in twin-SU carburettor form. Early models were fitted with a single Solex carb. The TA21's technical excellence included hydraulic brakes, independent front suspension and a 7-bearing crankshaft.
Well-built and beautifully finished, the TA21 was almost silent when cruising (thanks to typical attention to detail, like the springs that held the pushrods in contact with the rockers), and rivalled the Bentley Mk. V for luxurious yet responsive motoring.
The post-war years saw the gradual demise of the bespoke bodymaker, but Alvis continued with Mulliner and Tickford since they could not find an economic alternative with the likes of the Pressed Steel Company. The cost of a new Alvis TA21 was very high and its superb traditional layout and coachwork had to compete with the likes of the Aston-Martin DB2 and other modern, sporting grand tourers in the same price range.
The TA21 was replaced by the TC21 in 1953.
My father bought a TA14 in 1951 and replaced it with a TA21 in 1953. I recall that we went to a dealer in a mews near Paddington Station in London to buy it. He'd bought the TA14 there too, and many years later confessed to me that if it hadn't been that garage's 'flexibility' over payment, he probably wouldn't have been able to buy it. Instead, Dad was launched on a lifetime's affection for the wonderful Alvis and in all my years of driving, I still think it's one of the best cars to sit in and drive.
The TA21 was comfortable and exuded an air of restrained quality. By modern standards, the interior was small considering the overall dimensions of the car, but it was more spacious than many of its contemporaries and there was plenty of legroom at the back. I can testify to the quietness of the car; I think the lack of road noise from the old cross-ply tyres helped in this respect. It was even quieter than Dad's old Rover P3 which was well-known for its noiseless progress (although when idling the Rover gave meaning to the term 'tickover'), while under rapid acceleration it made a superb 'whooshing' sound.
I only got to drive it when it was quite old, but I don't think it was any different from its early days. The 4-speed gearbox was superb - quite firm but smooth - and all the controls, clutch, footbrake and accelerator could be operated with the lightest of touches. It started promptly on the button with that peculiar sound resembling two bottles being knocked together, and settled quickly into its virtually silent idle.
The steering wheel was large with a narrow rim. Steering was really smooth, with gentle castor action, though with quite abrupt return motion. Of course there was no power steering and it was very heavy at low speeds and required some work to park it neatly.
Years later I bought my own Alvis - a TC21 - so I mustn't confuse that with my impressions of this earlier car. When Dad finally sold it, in 1960, it was as solid, smooth and effortlessly superior as the day he bought it. It was the end of an era for our family.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Post-war Motoring : Austin A40 Devon

This remarkable economy car first appeared in 1947 and formed part of Austin's new post-war range. It was an approximate replacement for the dependable pre-war Austin 10. A modern design, with only its upright grille as resonance of past styles, the A40 had an all-steel body on a separate, rigid chassis. With this model, Austin finally dispensed with rear-hinged 'suicide' doors and running-boards. Though hardly a light car, its in-line 4-cylinder ohv engine of 1200cc could exceed 70mph and would cruise reasonably happily at 50-55mph. In fact this reliable and sturdy power unit was the true heart of the car and would survive many years beyond the life of this model, serving as the basis for the B-Series engine used right into the '60s.
Although a small car, it was seen as a perfectly respectable family saloon and would accommodate four adults comfortably. Though Austin was a manufacturer of cars for 'everyman', it was seen as a 'cut above' other mass-market makes and the interior appointments of the Devon underlined its claim to superiority over its immediate rivals.
The leather seating was well-finished and comfortable, while the dashboard was well-equipped for a car of this class. The main dials were placed immediately in front of the driver, while other controls for lighting, wipers and the like were set in the centre of the dash between driver and passenger, though well within arm's reach, and of the pull-out 'dried-milk' type.
With its low gearing, the Devon coped easily with steep gradients and winding roads, but was less happy on long, straight runs, where the engine was required to turn over very rapidly at near top speed. It boasted innovative hydraulically-operated front brakes and had a four-speed gearbox with remote lever.
Over 400,000 examples were built, many destined for overseas markets, where it left a favourable impression of Austin cars, a reputation sadly eroded as the years passed.
This model lasted 5 years and was replaced by the rather portly A40 Somerset in 1952.

Our family Austin A40 was my mother's first car. Dad sold his P3 75 Rover to help finance the purchase of an Alvis TA14 in 1951 and decided that as mum wouldn't feel at home with the Alvis (a poor excuse for hogging the car), she should have a car of her own. She drove it almost exclusively for the next five years, at which point it was bequeathed as a 21st birthday present to my eldest sister. Mum went on to buy an MG YB.
The true measure of the quality of this car was that, ten years later, it became mine to drive, although by that time it was something of a restoration project. Over the years it provided dependable and very comfortable transport, with only two recurrent problems - overheating and front shock absorbers. When the latter were due for renewal (again!), the car would heave and surge like a tramp steamer in the South Atlantic. We never really got to the bottom of the overheating problem and when rust started to hack away at the bottom of the doors - as well as the chassis - it was consigned to the barn for retirement. I don't know what we really expected to do with the Devon and it became something of an objet d'art that doubled as a Wren's nesting site.
I loved the solid feel and comfortable ride of the Devon, the way it pulled in lower gears, the complete reliability of the instruments and the sumptuousness of the seats. Once you managed the knack of changing gear smoothly, the Devon responded well, but hurry any action and you were punished by much grinding and hesitation.
In its prime, it looked a treat after a good polish, with its flying 'A' on the bonnet top and the famous scripted "Austin of England" on the bonnet sides. The Devon was, above all, the archetypal post-war car for the average family.

Apropos of "Austin of England"
Although I regard the motor cars of the immediate post-war period with great admiration, it should be remembered that contemporary attitudes to some of the marques of the day were less than favourable. The Austin Devon was, perhaps, a good case in point. Having immediate experience of the model, I learned its strengths and weaknesses in detail. There's no doubt that it was a solid and well-built car and in many respects the attention to detail was superior to the cars of today, which one must remember are now very well-constructed and infinitely more dependable than cars of the '70s and '80s. However, as my mother would remind you if she were alive today, the Devon's door handles became rather floppy after a year's use and the odd rattle and persistent squeak were common ailments.
By around 1951 the increasingly vociferous debate about the quality of British cars seemed to reach its peak. Motorists used to pre-war values were staggered to find knobs "comin' off in me 'and", rain water pooling in the footwells, loose fittings and engines poorly finished in many cars of previously respectable manufacturers.
Unlike the dreadfully shoddy cars of the late sixties and throughout the seventies, the post-war cars were absolute paragons, but for all that they had their faults.
Much of this can be explained by the peculiar situation that faced the industry just after the war - shortage of materials, poor quality steel, a lack of skilled workers (still waiting to be demobbed) - yet the noticeable decline in overall quality continued even when the materials, skills and quality steel returned.
This is a vast subject and worthy of proper research and academic rigour, but suffice to say that when "Austin of England" finally disappeared, so did much of the heart and spirit of the domestic motor industry.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Post-war Motoring : MG YB saloon

This delightful lightweight saloon, designed on traditional lines, was first produced in 1951 as an improved version of the popular YA. In fact, only 1300 or so of these vehicles were built (in contrast to the 6100 YA examples), the production run ending in the latter part of 1953.
Using the 1245cc engine from the MG TD 2-seater, it produced 46 bhp at just under 5000 rpm, so its performance was modest. But acceleration was brisk and its handling was excellent.
Its interior and features befitted a quality saloon from this famous marque. Leather upholstery and pile carpet were standard, as were a screen demister, heater and radio. A walnut dashboard housed the typical MG octagonal dials, containing a combined oil-pressure gauge, ammeter and fuel gauge in one and a speedometer with trip and total mileometers in the other.
Apparently, the passenger compartment section of the YA & YB was based on an intended replacement for the Morris 8, just before the war. The new Morris 8 was not introduced (presumably because it was overtaken by the development of the Morris Minor), but the YA was put into production just after the war.
The Y Series MG saloons were replaced by the MG ZA Magnette series in 1954 which shared the same body shell with the Wolseley 4/44.

I have many, if rather patchy, recollections of the MG YB. My mother bought a 3-year-old YB in early 1956, which we christened "Roger" as the registration plate started with RJO. As is not atypical of our family, no photographs of this car survive, but it was a grey version similar to the photograph above. As a passenger, I remember the comfortable back seats with the centre AND side armrests and the pleasant crackle of the exhaust from the engine when under acceleration. Of course I preferred front-seat riding in the soft bucket seat whenever the opportunity presented itself. I kept my "I-Spy" books in the capacious glove locker, set in the wonderful, richly-grained walnut dash.
My mother's recollections were invariably fond of this little car. She loved the lightness and accuracy of the steering, the way it 'carved a path' through winding lanes and the efficient brakes. The pedals, she claimed, were absolutely built for a woman's feet and the visible wings from the driver's seat meant parking was easy, especially as reverse gear was so easily engaged.
As for performance, although its top speed couldn't have been much more than 70mph, I recall us bowling along the A14 to Huntingdon doing a shade over 60 mph in complete stability and quiet. It was very much at home whistling through the lanes around our village and mum seemed to enjoy flicking the steering left and right as we negotiated the tight bends.
It was a cosy car, always warm and well-padded. "Roger" seemed to spend a lot of time at the garage, however. There were never any real faults - with the exception of letting in rainwater because the openable windscreen would not wind shut properly
- but it was (it seemed) always needing de-coking or greasing or having its carburettor adjusted. It did seem to run fast at idle sometimes, which alarmed my mother more than it should have, and was one of the factors that finally convinced her to get a new car. Another factor, by the way, was that it had semaphore trafficators and we didn't have the heart to "spoil" the bodywork by fitting flashing indicators. Nevertheless, it was one of our most loved cars and as the years went by so we appreciated the fine leather, the beautifully smooth action of the window-winders and the thoroughbred sound of its engine, amongst many other things, that one simply can't get today.
It was a pleasure to help wash and polish this car. Its paintwork and metalwork was immaculate and one appreciated its fine lines all the more by polishing its perfectly lacquered surfaces. This really was one of the last cars of its type in post-war England with, as Bill Boddy wrote, 'headlamps unashamed to be seen', real wings and a radiator filler cap that could be removed and the radiator replenished without the necessity of opening the bonnet.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Post-war Motoring : Swallow-Doretti


The Swallow-Doretti, launched in 1954, was manufactured by the Swallow Coachbuilding company of Walsall, famous for its involvement in the early days of Jaguar and for its ubiquitous motorcyle sidecars.
Managing Director Eric Sanders was the prime mover behind the scheme to produce a roadster-type sport car. As Director of Halliwells (the owners of Swallow and part of the Tube Investments conglomerate), Sanders visited California to broker a deal for steel tubing, where his opposite number, Arthur Andersen, expressed an interest in importing and even building a sports car specifically for the North American market.
His interest was not merely idle; his daughter, Dorothy Deen, was involved in a company selling add-on parts with which sports car enthusiasts could personalise their cars. Under the name Doretti - based on her name and given a fashionably Italian flavour - their products ranged from luggage racks to sun visors.
The concept of building a roadster appealed to Sanders who quickly realised that he could draw on two readily available resources, the Swallow business and his friendship with Sir John Black, owner of the Standard car company. Negotiations to build the car, using the rugged and powerful 2-litre Standard Vanguard engine in a tubular steel chassis, began in earnest in 1952.
Sanders commissioned Frank Rainbow to design the car. Rainbow had already designed the Swallow Gadabout scooter, an attempt by Swallow to enter a new field since the motorcyle and sidecar combination was no longer the popular choice of entry into motoring for the British public. Although some 2000 of these machines were built, it did not prove to be the success they had hoped it would be. The Swallow-Doretti, reasoned Sanders, could be the launching pad for the Swallow company's new post-war future.
Under stringent time restraints, Rainbow and his small team at Swallow completed the prototype for showing to Andersen and Deen. By late 1953, the first production Swallow-Doretti was taken to the United States for a private promotional viewing. The public premiere of the car took place in early 1954. Buoyed by the positive reaction, the car was put into full production.
Sales went reasonably well, considering the specialist market. However, two remarkable events conspired to ruin the promising potential of the Swallow-Doretti. Firstly, Sir John Black, who had shown a great interest in the car and its manufacturers, was seriously injured in an accident while being given a demonstration of a Swallow-Doretti. He never quite recovered from this setback and resigned from his posts at Standard. Had he regained his remarkable powers, his involvement with Swallow-Doretti might have helped secure its future. Secondly, some British motor manufacturers (notably Jaguar, though they were not alone), threatened to cancel their component orders with Tube Investments if they continued to parent a company that manufactured competitive products. This pressure was enough for the TI business to stop what was, after all, not a particularly profitable venture. By the end of 1955, the Swallow-Doretti was no more.
In all, some 289 examples were built, many of which (some 178) remain today in the hands of enthusiasts. The car pictured above is chassis number 1068 and is now owned by Andries Kuipers in the Netherlands.

The Car
The Doretti was an attractive compromise between genuine sports car and roadster; possessing the firm suspension, light responsive steering and short, quick-action gear change of the former, with the comfort, quality appointments and docile driving manner of the latter. The necessity of providing for the US market meant that comfort and good all-weather capability were essential elements of the package, but the sports version of the 2-litre Vanguard engine (twin carburettors and a compression ratio of 8.5:1) ensured genuine sporting performance and a top speed approaching 100 mph.
Doretti made much of the '50-ton' tubular-steel chassis in its promotional literature and it certainly endowed the car with a solid feel, good (if not superb) handling; furthermore it could rightly claim that the chassis was an important safety feature. The suspension was by coil springs and wishbones at the front and underslung half-elliptical leaf springs at the back, with fore-and-aft axle locating arms which added to its stability and tractability.
Interior appointments could be described as luxurious for the day, with leather bucket seats, leather-covered dash assembly and thick pile carpets.