“Uncommon the twain!” In what is probably a purported period review, the motoring writer Mr. A. Vicar considers the choices of car afforded to varietists enjoying a moderately higher-than-average income.
[From “The Motoring and Driving Register”, July 1967. Photography by Cyril Leadbeater. Owing to the poor quality of the original images, stock photos have been used.]
This month’s motor vehicle comparison pits two well-established players against one another. For the gentleman of comfortable means life affords choice and what is choice if it is not among things that differ? What point is there in being offered a large range of very similar cars for a similar price as many makers seem to want to do these days? That is no choice at all. We can see at the more pedestrian end of the market – and indeed have done for some time now- that many car builders are merely shadowing one another so that were one to sit inside a Ford, a Vauxhall, an Austin, or a Hillman selling for, say, £800, one could not tell one from the other without careful inspection.
If we move a little upmarket to, say, around the price of £1500 (as it happens the average income last year!) we find ourselves at the door to Jaguar ownership but sadly £100 short, as it happens. Oddly once again a certain uniformity sets in at the point where Jaguar have pitched their marquee: Triumph, Lancia and even certain German makers such as BMW of Bavaria have oddly similar-looking motor vehicles to offer the man on the move. Yet, just a little below that point we find a curiously contrasting pair of vehicles for the man with £1500 and no more to spend. Those cars are the Fiat 2300 saloon and the Humber Super Snipe. Neither of these cars can one accuse of being in the first flush of youth as both have been on sale for almost a decade.
That the motoring market has seen fit to throw such disparate competitors into a struggle for sales supremacy at this level can only be a source of pleasure to a man about to buy his £1500 car. He can have the comfortable and refined grandeur of the Humber Super Snipe with its Churchillian associations, or the continental exoticism of Fiat’s very respected 2300 saloon. Both cars can convey four adults in comfort and at high speed but do so in markedly different ways.
For this motor comparison we toured the east of Scotland, took the steam ferry from Rosyth to Zeebrugge in the Netherlands, and motored on to Calais and concluded in Ashford, Kent.
Day 1. Rosyth. Starting with the Humber Super Snipe, we find a vehicle that has enjoyed continued production for the best part of a decade and which looks by all accounts to have considerable scope for further improvement in future (Citroen’s lamentable DS has, after all managed almost 13 years in production by now). Some call the Super Snipe a poor man’s Rolls-Royce but this does the car an injustice as for one thing, those who buy it are not poor and indeed they probably manage the Rolls-Royce owner’s money.
The Super Snipe superficially resembles Humber’s own Hawk with which some bodywork is indeed shared. But the similarity ends there because the Super Snipe has two extra cylinders to its credit ( it has a 2965 cc ohv motor). Further distinction has been added by dint of a new, more steamlined and modern roofline, six side glasses and four headlamps. The vehicle also has the option of the renowned Laycock de Normanville overdrive mechanism which affords the possibility of quiet high speed motoring at very low engine revolutions. This obviates the problem of having the gear ratios governed by the needs of low-speed driving on uneven roads and moving off which in turn can mean a high gear ill-suited to the speeds possible on the new motorways that are spreading across this green and pleasant land. The Laycock system effectively adds a speed above fourth, which still permits flexible and quiet A-road driving and also makes high steady speeds attainable at lowish engine revolutions; cars without such a “fifth” gear must spin quite quickly at, say, 90 mph to the detriment of economy and calm progress.
The Fiat 2300 entered service in 1961 as straight six-cylinder car which to some eyes looks rather too similar to its cheaper and, indeed smaller, 4 cylinder stablemate the 1500. The 2300 has an almost North American appearance despite being designed by Ing. Dante Giacosa (see Motoring and Driving Register, April 1962 for an interview). One could easily imagine the same sort of grille adorning a Chevrolet, Dodge or Ford. That said, Fiat have endeavoured to keep the car up-to-date with the addition of a fully automatic Borg-Warner gearbox which replaces the much-renowned and technically fascinating Saxomat unit of earlier versions. The Fiat has 105 horses to help move it along.
Turning back to the matter of the Laycock de Normanville overdrive on the Humber, I had a chance to consider its workings as we sailed the 18 hours from Rosyth to Zeebrugge. This was no easy task as the crossing entertained us with some rolling seas and high winds. One of the commercial vehicles was not tethered tightly to the deck and rolled free, crushing the Humber’s rear right wing such that it had to be removed to allow the wheel to rotate. That was done using a blow-torch located among the ship’s inventory.
In fact, poor weather meant we had to wait two days in the pleasant if confined locale of the Arthur Hotel in nearby Queensferry before our sailing (snapper Cyril joked there was more room in the Humber). There isn’t so much to do at Queensferry but the landlord had an ample supply of Scotch and half coronas to keep us occupied. The photographer took some nice snaps of the fine iron bridge that looms over the hotel and I had a good sleep-in both days. The haggis was off but we enjoyed the Scotch broth – the best I have had this side of Lothian and better even the version served by Peugeot Automobiles on the occasion of the English launch of the 404.
The Laycock de Normanville’s engagement is driven by hydraulics. Let us look now in detail at how it operates, a simple matter really. A reciprocating pump provides pressure, it being activated by following a cam on the gear box’s main shaft. In so doing the pump increases the system’s pressure. Using a switch inside the car, the driver engages overdrive. This might be when one settles down to a fast cruising speed as we did during testing on the Ferry Toll Road (where there is good warm food trailer selling wares to hungry commercial drivers!).
Having actuated overdrive, the reservoir accumulates oil and the piston sealing the reservoir is pushed against a stiff spring. As this happens a small aperture is opened and this relieves pressure and oil rushes back into the system under that pressure (which is thus lowered). Thus we can see a cycle of pressure building, being released and building again so creating a steady oscillation. The oil released flows against a pair of dainty pistons which must also overcome the force of springs. These pistons thus release a conical clutch which is normally held in place against an annulus. In so doing the clutch is freed and a stationary brake ring is activated and a sun wheel then lodges. This change in position naturally results in the one-way clutch overdriving. Planetary gears obviously control the precise ratio of the overdrive when the sun wheel and annulus come into contact during this process. In this general manner a driver can activate the “high” gear and simultaneously lower engine speed but retain a high, steady vehicle speed.
In contrast to this technical wizardry, the Borg Warner of the Fiat is comparatively hum-drum. Interestingly, Borg-Warner have had some experience with overdrive transmissions so it is peculiar that Fiat have chosen to reject this path in favour of the 3-speed automatic. The 1967 unit is not very different from the M-35 of 1965 barring the provision of an external transmission oil cooler, a fiddly and fussy little detail that does not, to my mind inspire much confidence, striking one as a remedy to a problem that could otherwise be avoided by other and simpler means. Another curiosity is that Humber also offers a Borg-Warner unit, so it looks like they are hedging their bets at the Rootes group office.
Miles covered: 12 (we got a bit lost between the hotel and the ferry).
Day 3. At Zeebrugge we drove to and stayed at the Palace Hotel, a veritable wedding-cake of a building and took stock of the journey so far. The Humber showed us a car with a high-grade of finish and plenty of room for the busy bank-manager’s family when they are touring during holiday time. The Fiat 2300 is touted as a car for a wide variety of motoring needs but is more of a sporting saloon. An estate is offered too and is much the better car. The Fiat has a twin-choke carburetor (Stromberg) and in the back a fine, large ashtray is set in front of those positioned on the comfortable if rather Spartan cloth seats. The fuel tank of the Fiat is a rather paltry 13 gallons compared to the Humber’s majestic 16 imperial gallons. By our calculations, the Fiat achieved about 22 miles per gallon while the Humber could boast a range of 20 t0 25 mpg, not bad for such a large and heavy car.
Miles covered: 3.
We motored on from Zeebrugge to Calais (in very congested conditions) and then ferried back to Ashford after taking the Dover-Calais boat. The steak and chips deserves a special mention – it revolted me. This tour offered a good overall mix of realistic driving conditions though the Fiat suffered a severe blow when a careless motorist in Calais lost control and hit the passenger side of the car, breaking the windows and removing the rear bumper. The Fiat dealer plundered a car for spare glass so as to allow us to carry on.
To compare these cars is not an easy feat. Perhaps if we turn to their driving characteristics we find some way to see which is the best as its chosen task. The Humber Super Snipe is an assured car for travelling comfortably from town to town and especially on the new, fast motorways. Yet its powerful, adroit engine allows it to handle the challenges of smaller lanes where the speeds rise and fall with each change of direction and each corner negotiated.
The Fiat, on the other hand, offers assured high-speed motoring above 110 mph though the necessary compromise is a somewhat less pliant suspension than Humber affords. Some drivers may prefer the Fiat’s light steering and the way in which the steering signalled conditions at the road’s surface. Others might decide that the Humber approach of refinement and cossetting might be more suitable for today’s ever busier and confined roads. Where can one drive at speeds over 70 mph now, one might ask?
But Fiat do offer an alternative to Humber’s approach which is certainly intriguing. I could not find very many obvious faults with Fiat’s design even if appears somewhat American on the outside and Spartan on the inside. The 2300 certainly lays the ground for a promising move upmarket for Fiat and when the time comes for a successor we can be sure it will at the very least, be an interesting and capable vehicle which ought to attract more buyers from the upper echelons of the car-buying public.
Nonetheless, choices must be made and were a chap to have £1500 to spend on his motor car, he could do no worse than to visit his Humber dealer and invest in a Super Snipe. Its reliable formula of wood cappings, leather furniture and soft, pliant suspension with space for six seems to this writer to trump Fiat’s somewhat brash and aggressive approach. I expect Humber will be able to win over customers from Jaguar through their competitive pricing and also whisk customers from Triumph and Rover by their superior quality. I am quietly optimistic that the next Super Snipe will be even more refined and desirable. Humber’s good name is in good hands, I say.
Miles covered: 77
At Ashford we completed our trip and as our cars were transported away for repairs, we reflected on the amazing ability of their makers to offer such variegated driving pleasure to the discerning motorist. And after all, it is choice that matters when we consider what is most important.
Miles covered: 6.
[Thanks for dropping by. A steady stream of readers view this article. If you liked it, please tell other Humber fans or leave a message.]