Magazine Memories: Hail Britannia

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
magazine memories hail britannia

I’m not sure when I first read an issue of CAR from the UK. I was still reading the American buff books in 1977 but American cars were ugly (5mph bumpers) slow (early emissions controls) and ran poorly (ibid). I was a Brit car fan but I sold my ’66 Lotus Elan to my dad. He wanted a car project to work on and I needed money so I could market an invention of mine (U.S. Patent # 4,253,475, The Hydraulic Bong). When I discovered CAR, not only was it a fix for my Brit car jones, but it was a revelation. They covered all kinds of cool cars, many not available in the US, and they had a superlative writing staff, including the incomparable LJK Setright.

One look at the cover of this week’s Magazine Memory, the July 1977 edition of CAR, shows how attractive the magazine would have been to a sports car enthusiast in mid-America circa 1977. The cover is completely red, save for a Ferrari badge. At the bottom are some of the feature stories: LJK Setright on The Five Best Ferraris, Mid-engined showdown: Lotus Esprit-v-Lancia Mone Carlo, and coverage of the more mundane “middle-class hero at last?” Ford Granada.

What’s not to like about five fabulous Ferraris and a shootout between two mid-engine sports cars?

CAR followed the standard car magazine layout pretty closely. Following the table of contents and letters to the editor (Sir!), are monthly columns by the editors. In their monthly columns, Ian Fraser, Leonard Setright and George Bishop discuss the relative merits of manual vs. automatic transmissions, the future of Rolls-Royce and Bentley, and the commemorative run of the Paris-Vienna race in a 1904 Renault. Of the three, the prognostications and advice (Setright was nothing if not a man eager to give his own advice) about R-R and Bentley are probably the most interesting to read today, in light of Volkswagen’s and later BMW’s acquisition and management of the marques.

Setright’s column was occasioned by his visit to the Mulliner Park Ward coachbuilding shop, where old-world metalforming techniques and tools were still then in use: Men using spoons and sandbags to beat aluminum panels into shape, or working a planisher.

Camargue production had been moved to Crewe. Setright saw the freed capacity in the coachbuilding shop as an opportunity to use it to revive the Bentley marque, then pretty much a badge engineered R-R. Setright envisioned a new Bentley, smaller than the Shadow, and faster, using the same drivetrain, as well as being significantly more expensive to make it clear that it was special car. There’s a passage where Setright lays out just what the Rolls-Royce and Bentley brands meant, and it’s quite stunning to see how times have changed – at least as far as Bentley is concerned.

“[The new Bentley] should be in particular a more difficult car to live up to than the RR, which surreptitious; RR Shadows are for businessman, matinee idols and accountants. The Bentley, in contrast, has always been very much an ‘officer and gentleman’ car: it must accommodate four tall men sitting ramrod-straight, but it need not accommodate five, and the four will not be lolling around like a lot of beat-weary pop singers, so the cabin does not have to be particularly wide.”

It appears that Bentley’s new owners, Volkswagen, haven’t taken Setright’s advice. I don’t have to wonder how LJKS would have felt about Lloyd Banks’ Beamer, Benz, or Bentley. The association of Bentley with the less exclusive German marques would no doubt have made him cringe, not to mention Banks’ lyrical poetry, though I’m sure that Mr. Banks thinks he’s too hardcore to be called a “pop” singer.

Following the editorial columns are news reports from around the automotive world. From New York, Bill Taylor not only predicted the demise of the V8 engine, he said that it was “official” that by 1983, the only V8 powered GM car would be the Corvette. The then newly downsized GM fullsize sedans were only to be the beginning, that “come the revolution” the largest GM cars would weigh about 3,200 lbs, and all of the General’s products in the US would be driven by the front wheels. Though Taylor’s eulogy for the V8 was a bit premature, the rest of the predictions accurately described what would become GM’s X cars, the Chevy Citation and siblings. In that regard, a GM spokesman’s remark that “there is no guarantee that the consumer will buy the new product” proved to be partially true. The X cars sold well at first, then their abysmal build quality and design flaws helped turn lifelong GM owners into Toyota and Honda fans.

From France, Pierre Beauregard noted the then current GM engine scandal. Oldmobile customers felt cheated because GM, dealing with supply issues, built their cars with Chevy V8s that had identical performance to the Olds engines, but failed to tell the customers that the “Rocket V8” was actually a small block Chevy with an Olds decal. Beauregard considered the reaction ironic in light of the fact that Peugeot, Renault, Saab, Simca, and Volvo were all then collaborating on engine design. Other tooling and supplier deals effectively meant even more engines were shared across brand lines.

Today, both Swedish car companies are foreign owned. There was a time, a brief time, when not only were Saab and Volvo Swedish owned but they were seriously considering merging to form a single Swedish automobile and truck maker. Gunnar Elmgren’s report from Stockholm reacquaints us with the 1977 plan for Saab and Volvo to merge, creating a new company called Volvo-Saab-Scania AB. Economies of scale, common sourcing of parts, you know the story, they say the same thing whenever car companies merge. In this case, the Saab board of directors got cold feet and left Volvo at the altar, fearing that Göteborg would dominate Trollhättan in their planned marriage.

The feature articles start off with Setright’s choice of what he considered to be Ferrari’s five best models. The owners of Modena Engineering, a Ferrari restoration and repair shop, offered him his choice of Ferraris at a Goodwood track day. Modena was established by a group of Ferrari owners, unhappy with how the Ferrari franchise in London, Maranello Concessionaires, favored new customers over owners of classic Ferraris (this criticism of the local Ferrari dealer didn’t stop Maranello Concessionaires from buying a half page ad in the issue). Apparently Modena Engineering did pretty well, as the company was eventually purchased by Harrod’s in 1989, with Mohammed Alfayed (Princess Di’s almost father in law), Harrod’s owner, taking personal possession of Modena’s rolling stock at the time, eighteen collectible Ferraris.

Setright’s choice of Italian stallions (and thumbnail assessments):

250GT SWB – backbone of the Ferrari reputation, the quintessential two-seater GT of the late ’50s and early 60s.

275GTB4 – perhaps the most respected and desired Ferrari of them all, the quad-cam 275 is sheer joy to drive.

365GTB4 Daytona – still most people’s idea of a Ferrari, the Daytona has steadily become a legend, and not just because it was the last of the great front-engined two-seater Ferraris.

Dino 246GTS – the marvellous little jewel of a car that brought Ferrari motoring to so many people.

365GT42plus2 – this is one of the finest touring cars built.

Setright alluded to the Dino’s relatively low price, but by the time of publication, the first successful mid-engined Ferrari road car was already appreciating in value rather steeply. “You could find a good one three years ago for less than £3,000; now you’ll be lucky to find one for much less than £6,000 for the car became a recognised classic in its own time.” At the time that was written, £6,000 was worth about $10,300 USD. Adjusted for inflation that’s about $36,000 2009 dollars. Setright complained that the Dino was no longer a bargain, but it still wouldn’t have been a bad investment in 1977. There are two Dino 246s on eBaymotors right now, the cheaper of the two has a buy-it-now price of $135,000.

The next article was “Leyland: Has the decay gone too far?”. British Leyland was still in business in 1977? Really? Apparently so because David Hackett looked at how the company’s restructuring was coming two years after the British government bailed out the automaker in 1975. Already the success of the restructuring was in doubt and it looked like a money pit. Lord Ryder had succeeded in rationalizing Leyland’s factories, but its product lineup still desperately needed updating and that was hampered by the high rates of inflation in the mid to late 1970s. Also, the fact that the article stated “on the hopeful side, the workers have stayed on the job for the past two months” did not bode well for resolving the inefficiencies endemic in the UK’s labor/management struggle.

A quick look at the then current Toyota Corolla shows that the Japanese were still (except for Honda) in their 5/8th scale American car mode. The Corolla had pushrods, rear wheel drive with a live axle in back mounted with leaf springs. Though the Cressida had a SOHC engine, it was described as unsophisticated. CAR generally did not think highly of Japanese cars, finding them boring and conventional.

Setright took a look at Renault’s entry into F1, the first major manufacturer to mount their own F1 campaign since Honda tried in the late 1960s, and saw it as a good thing. He thought it was more forthright than the way Fiat used proxies like Ferrari, Shell and TAG-Heuer, though he was not a big fan of forced induction engines because of thermal efficiency reasons and the new Renault introduced turbos to F1. He concluded, though, that the development was “all very good for racing, and excellent food for thought.” Of course just about any topic was a suitable repast for Setright’s thinking.

That issue’s road test, what CAR referred to as a Giant Test, was a comparison of two mid-engine sports cars, the Lotus Esprit and the Lancia Monte Carlo. The article starts out with the question, “What is a sports car?” and concludes that whatever the definition both cars are correct answers to that question. Though the Lancia was less powerful, not as fast, and less luxuriously appointed than the Lotus, the editors concluded that the Italian car was the better buy with performance close to that of the Esprit while costing about 30 percent less. However, if cost were no object, they’d pick the Lotus, with its superior roadhandling, ride and speed. “Here are two superb coupes that achieve their design aims in all important respects; each can confidently be guaranteed to provide their drivers with unlimited enjoyment.”

Mel Nichols took a second look at the then all-new and critically acclaimed Ford Fiesta. He liked the concept and styling, as well as the steering, seats and NVH control, but was disappointed by the suspension, ride and performance. He also had some difficulty with the clutch in the test car. Though he had his quibbles, his admiration for the overall design led him to conclude that the Fiesta “could be a very pleasant and satisfactory car” if Ford gave it the proper development. Nichols also contributed a look at the VW Beetle Cabriolet, which he called an anachronism. That particular anachronism would remain in production for another 3 years, with regular Type Is being produced for another quarter century after Nichol’s article.

We forget how galvanized steel, electrocoat dipping, and durable topcoats have greatly reduced perforation rust that used to be endemic – particularly with British cars. The issue has many ads from Ziebart and other rustproofing services along with a feature article titled Saving Your Skin on just those services.

The advertising sales team wasn’t just busy calling on Ziebart. There are also many ads from Lotus, Ferrari and Lancia dealers plus regular advertisers. A look at the used car prices in The Chequered Flag’s advertisement will make you shake your head ruefully: a 1965 Jaguar E Type Coupe for £2,675 ($4,601 in 1977 dollars – about $16K today) and an “outstanding” Lotus Elan Sprint Coupe for £1,995 ($3,431 in 1977 bucks – about $12K today). The Lotus wouldn’t have been a bad buy, since nice examples can run up to $18,000 or more today, but the E Type would have been a steal considering its appreciation since then.

At the end of the magazine are CAR’s humorous capsule reviews of just about all new cars on sale in the UK: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Categories were “Interesting Saloons”, “Boring Saloons”, “Interesting Coupes & Sports Cars”, and “Boring Coupes & Sports Cars”.

For example, the Moskvich 1500, gets: “For: The price. Against: What you get for it. Sum-up: Aaagh!” The Alfa Romeo Alfetta GT1.6 received: “For: Brilliant Chassis. Against: Silly instruments. Sum-up: Sheer motoring pleasure.” The same characterization applies to CAR of that era, sheer reading pleasure.

When reading a British car magazine, Americans and Canadians sometimes have to reset their internal translators, what with saloons, boots, bonnets, wings and drophead coupes. It’s worthwhile, though, just to be able to look across the decades and across the pond at a different perspective on what is now automotive history.

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2 of 5 comments
  • PeriSoft PeriSoft on Jul 09, 2010

    I've never understood the obsession with Bond cars, given that they're invariably either shot up, rolled 20 times, or sawn in half within their first three minutes of screen time.

  • Russycle Russycle on Jul 09, 2010

    Love the Esprit. I never really got the whole Chevy-Olds V8 brouhaha. While GM badge-engineering hadn't quite peaked (hello Cimarron!), by 1977 it was certainly going strong. And if it wasn't in a Corvette or Trans Am, none of GM's V8s was anything to get excited about.

  • TheEndlessEnigma $150k for GM build quality. $150k for GM parts and material quality. Yeah, that's the ticket.
  • Rusty The panther platform is one of the greatest vehicles platforms ever produced. This author is a moron.
  • Bullnuke It may be awhile before these show up on US shores. The MV Fremantle Highway has just started demo/reconstruction in Rotterdam after the large fire when transporting its last shipment of electric Porsche products.
  • Fie on Fiasler Big, fast and thirsty does not equal good. True luxury is not cobbled together by the UAW.
  • Inside Looking Out I see it as gladiator races - only one survives in virtual world.