Slow? Slow? Quick? Quick? Slow!

Where is the real car for today’s roads?

Too much entirely? Image : evo.co.uk

My recent speeding endorsement re-awoke my idea that what the world (meaning Sean Patrick) needs is a slow sports car. The problem is that modern cars’ abilities have become so high that driving them at legal limits is pretty stultifying.

Basically engines are too powerful and tyres are too wide. Their competence is such that any sensation is insulated until you get up to speeds that risk doing your licence, not to mention yourself and others, irreparable harm. The above photo shows EVO’s Jethro Bovingdon, demonstrating an admirable determination to minimise tyre wear. Doubtless he’s having fun but, if I had a Nissan GT-R for daily use, how often would I?

There are possibly a few Japanese kei type cars that might come close to what I’d like. In some ways, an Austin 7 based special of some sort might provide much of what I desire, but I feel that the car should draw on modern technology. We have come so far in automotive engineering that it would be a shame to reject it all for something deliberately crude.

Too crude:? Image : retrorides.proboards.com
Too crude? Image : retrorides.proboards.com

The engine should make a nice sound. Possibly a motorcycle based V or flat twin. Ride should be good, as should handling. Very narrow tyres would ensure that roadholding would not be ludicrously sticky and that steering would be direct yet light enough without need of power assistance. Probably I’m describing a 2CV at present, but its roll angles are too alarming to onlookers to render it sufficiently discreet.

image : roadandtrack.com
Too demonstrative? Image : roadandtrack.com

There should be visual entertainment on each journey. Something like exposed wheels and cycle wings that turn with the steering would be nice. Ah, now we’re talking Morgan 3 Wheeler, but that isn’t really what I have in mind.

Image : roadandtrack.com
Too impractical? Image : roadandtrack.com

It should present uncompromised tactile pleasure. The gearchange should speak to you of oiled, precise engineering – though as anyone who has ever put a hot knife through butter could tell you, that is not the way you want to change gear. It should probably have rear wheel drive, allowing light direct steering, and fully independent suspension. Now it’s turned into a Lotus Elan.

Still too fast? Image : tomhartleyjnr.com
Still too fast? Image : tomhartleyjnr.com

Except I’d like it to be reasonably practical, able to carry 4 passengers at a pinch, or two people with a reasonable amount of bits and pieces in the rear. This would be a car for my pleasure, not onlookers. Open air motoring under the right circumstances is a desire, but decent weather proofing should be an option, plus security. Yet as a stylistic starting point, I’m now thinking more Citroen Mehari than MG Midget.

Too dumpy? Image : cargurus.com
Too dumpy? Image : cargurus.com

Devoid of aids, its underlying engineering should bear close scrutiny. Putting your head underneath the car, or just opening the bonnet, should present you with a pleasurable view, not a tangle of non-user serviceable parts. So we’re almost talking not Austin 7, but Bugatti – though Ettore’s, not Ferdi’s.

Too expensive? Image : thevintagent.blogspot.co.uk
Too expensive? Image : thevintagegent.blogspot.co.uk

This isn’t the sort of car that any manufacturer is going to invest any time or money into building. Understandable since it’s likely that it wouldn’t be cheap, the only potential customer would be me and I probably couldn’t afford it. Still, that’s a pity.

39 thoughts on “Slow? Slow? Quick? Quick? Slow!”

  1. Sean – I’m with you on this. I have an Austin-Healey Sprite, a great car for feeling as if you are going fast without much danger of losing your licence (doesn’t meet all of your criteria though). I drove another vehicle last week which was an absolute blast and had zero speeding fine potential. A Reynolds Boughton RB44(!). If you’re curious check out carswithasideofcouscous.

    1. A few years ago I borrowed a colleague’s MG Midget to drive across London. Even at 1.9 metres, I seemed to fit and with the hood down it was memorably enjoyable. I’d not come across the Broughton, but I borrowed a 1/2 ton lightweight Land Rover for a week years ago and, again, it was a very memorable experience with no chance of losing my licence once out of town.

  2. The open wheels/Caterham style is the biggest obstacle to finding an existing nimble, low-speed funster, Sean.
    Among the existing cars, a 1994 Polo estate with a few adjustments might work: turbo charge the smallest engine, the 1.0 litre and fit narrow tyres. £1004 should do it.

    1. Since writing this rather theoretical specification, I’ve started sketching how it might look. So far there is something of the Smart Coupe about it. So as you suggest Richard, an attainable suggestion might be a Polo ‘estate’, but don’t you think the earlier 1981 Mark 2 would be better? Though from experience driving one, I’d need the £1,004 to upgrade the brakes.

  3. GO ON A TRACK DAY, someone usually bellows from the bleachers at this point. Except I suspect that you, like me, really enjoys driving on normal roads. Besides, track days are expensive (entry fees plus fuel plus tires plus wear and tear) and unless you are really going for it, quite boring.

    I know it doesn’t tick many of your boxes, but have you thought about an MX5? Fun but not fast, I gather.

    1. An MX5 is still too fast. Much as I think it would be a nice thing to have.

      I’ve never done a track day. I’ve often wondered, but I’d feel self-conscious arranging it for myself. The usual way (I understand) is to drop a hint to your partner around your Birthday. In my case I fear that I’d get a resounding “I’m not paying for you to kill yourself – at least not unless you’ve increased that pitiful life insurance cover”. Also, I really don’t fancy mixing it with a bunch of people of varying abilities and testosterone levels – which don’t actually increase in direct proportion to each other.

      And, yes, irresponsible though it may sound, I’m not sure I’d actually enjoy the artificiality of driving round a track compared with driving on normal roads.

    2. What about an MX5 with half the HT leads uncoupled?

      I don’t think the car you want actually exists. The closest would probably be a classic, something like a Dolomite. But then you’re potentially opening yourself up to a world of pain.

    3. I had high hopes for the new Twingo GT. But apparently they’re just not that much fun.

      What about a Smart Roadster? They can be had very cheap.

    4. I’d thought about the Smart, but it lacks a nice, old fashioned gearchange. If you aren’t going quickly, things like changing gear properly are where you get the fun. It’s a pity about the Twingo, though it would have been hoping for too much that they had given it Porsche like handling. Last week D.Gatewood was speaking well of his ownership of a Skoda Rapid.

    5. “It’s a pity about the Twingo, though it would have been hoping for too much that they had given it Porsche like handling”

      Whatever that means, I’m not sure we really need that kind of nonsense from a grown up man like you…
      I got to drive a Twingo for a week while on holidays in France last summer and there are some good things about it, and some not so good. The rear-engined, rear-wheel drive feel is definitely there but it’s very tame, as expected. The engine has potential and the gear box is quite good for a Renault. The main problem is that it feels like a much bigger car, partly due to the steering which is much too slow and imprecise to make it enjoyable in town and on twisty roads.
      So I too have great hopes for the GT which, if early reviews are to be believed, has had some of those issues addressed (but not all). Still, maybe worth a test drive for anyone looking for a town car with a bit of character, but not a boy racer’s pocket rocket.

    6. Laurent. “grown up man …”. You flatter me. But I’m perfectly fine with the Twingo. Somewhere here there’s a reasonably flattering test drive of it by me. All I mean is it’s fine as it is probably. Why make a GT at all?

    7. I had forgotten about that report on your test drive. I’ve just read it again and amazingly you ended it by asking yourself if you were grown up enough to get one… Clearly the answer is still no.

      Personally I’d really want to try the GT as the one I tried just wasn’t sharp enough, yet I liked it.

    8. Laurent. I hadn’t read that recently. I might be an idiot, but I’m gratified to see that I’m a consistent idiot. The steering was the disappointment I remember.

    9. Indeed, all the more so as everything else was much better than expected.

    10. An original 1600cc MX5 would fit the bill nicely, as long as you only need two seats and enough boot space a couple of sandwiches. No need to be going fast to enjoy it.

      It one of the things I love about driving the A310 – even at legal speeds it feels fun and sporty, with steering so direct and full of feel it makes a 911’s steering seem dead and lifeless.

      But as my mechanic said of the 2CV, you can have a bad day at work, then thrash the pants off the 2CV on your drive home and arrive knowing that whilst you’ve really enjoyed yourself, you’ve not done anything (too) illegal!

  4. In this era of unbearable summer heat, you left air con out of your definition of the empty set.

    If you can do without air conditioning, why not a Panhard?

    1. Yes, I could live with a 24CT. Also an Alfa Giulia saloon. But really I wish someone made a modern car that fulfilled my brief.

      As for air conditioning, I’ve got used to it but I’m trying to think minimal. The aircon on my motorhome failed in Southern Europe with temperatures around 35 degrees last summer. With the windows open I survived, though my partner felt quite strongly that, as someone who thinks they know so ******* much about cars, I could have seen it coming.

  5. If a Mazda MX5 is too fast, this is what you want – a Honda S660:

    Tiny and 60bhp. Not for sale in Europe so you’d have to import one, but it’s a Honda so you don’t need to worry about reliability.

  6. The pic of the 2CV is the exact same car Chris Harris tested for the exact same reason the article suggests, driving a slow car fast for just because it gives such a massive feedback and the need for anticipation, ie a more demanding driving situation under legal limits.

    Video here:

  7. Panda 100hp, Fiat 500 Abarth, Suzuki Cappuccino, chipped Defender 90 T5, Triumph Spitfire (better hood and boot than the Midget), Morris Minor with midget engine and Ford gear box. So many to choose from but are any exactly right? Surely a Fiat 850 Coupé, if you could ever find one, would tick most boxes.

  8. Numbingly predictable of me I know, but here goes; Lancia Fulvia Coupe or Alfasud Sprint Veloce.

    1. They’re too fast. My Fulvia Zagato wanted to cruise at 85 – 90 mph. If nonexistent lack of congestion would let me hold that speed nowadays I’d lose my license. And old crocks like these need more maintenance than I’m now willing to do myself, also more expertise than I have. When I was younger and more foolish I was braver.

      And now comes the heresy. What my Fulvia could do, my ’84 Civic 1500S could do as well and with better reliability and (dare I say it?) air conditioning.

  9. I think with my Citroën GS I have found a car that fits my personal quick/slow brief quite well. And it also ticks some of your boxes: narrow tyres, moderate power, nice engine sound. Visual entertainment is right in front of you, it comes as an illuminated rotating drum showing your speed.
    What’s more, the main controls are extremely pleasing to act upon, especially steering, brakes and indicator switch. The gearchange a little bit less so, but still OK. It’s no 2CV, but you still shouldn’t be too afraid of roll angles.

    For me, this car sits at a sweet spot between ancient, with direct, mechanical feedback from the road and the mechanical bits, and modern, meaning safe roadholding and cosseting comfort. On sinuous roads in not-too-alpine settings it gives me immense pleasure and the occasional challenge when coping with steep ascents.

    1. The GS – probably one of the best cars ever when compared to what it was up against (in its class). As much as I liked the novelty of the later dashboards, I actually preferred the dashboard of the earlier ones. And they had proper, non-self cancelling indicators!

    1. Bit toppy, that. I would’ve said £6k max. It’s not like Talbot has a huge following in the UK. Perhaps they’re hoping a museum will take it on?

  10. I live in what is effectively a time capsule. We lived on Highway 1 in Nova Scotia in a tiny hamlet seven miles from town when we arrived from England in 1959; the proverbial main road. There was no reduced speed limit despite houses lining the road for scores of miles. It’s still there just the same today. Economic development has passed this place by. All the dual carriageway we have was basically finished 35 years ago. The land that time forgot.

    Still, because of that, and the myriad of twisty secondary roads, both paved and gravel, or what we call dirt, it is possible to have a go in a modern car on the roads of ones’s youth, hundreds of miles of them. Roads like English lanes don’t exist, no hedge-lined atrocities a car and a half wide, where 20 mph is beyond reasonable. No, there is a full-width ditch both sides to plow snow into, and the right of way width is one chain (look that up!), laneways 11 feet for each direction, or as the twits in our provincial governement now put it “and public highway shall, until the contrary is shown, be deemed to be at least 20.1168 metres in width.” Some people just cannot understand metric conversion.

    So, dial up those memories of the route! Sure there are Mounties now, just as there were then, but the odds are good you won’t see any. Any CCTV and speedcams out there? You must be joking.

    Consequently, I remain impressed with what we were able to get up to 50 years ago in a Volvo 544. On one particular road, the idea upon exiting a village was to get to max revs in third before braking for a curve. That’s about 75 mph. Just a couple of miles further on is a dogleg of quite small proportion, in effect a tiny roundabout in the middle of nowhere. Engine braying, we managed between 45 and 50 mph in second through there, after a bit of practice. Well, we did participate in a few rallies, so that was the excuse.

    I have to inform you that doing the same thing in a Subaru Legacy GT is not always possible with my current level of bravery! The dogleg in particular, where 60 km/h is my limit. Sure, I haven’t reached the tire’s limits, merely my own. But the same could be said of the old Volvo on Goodyear G8 size 5.90 x 15 on three and a half inch rims. It always dissolved in understeer at the limit, and yet, we always got through that dogleg. So … limit not reached. Fast wheelwork was/is the key. And watch out for windblown dust pools on lightly travelled roads’ corners -they can upset your calculations.

    Certainly, the Subaru has no problem eclipsing the acceleration of the old car, but one still has to be mindful of sharp curves ahead. Since lateral g is defined as Velocity squared divided by Radius of the turn, going from 40 mph to 50 requires a 25:16 increase in available grip. In other words, going a bit quicker than the old days isn’t quite as easy as it would appear at first glance. In race mode, confident of no oncoming traffic, sure you’d run away but mainly on the straights – then you need decent brakes from the constant slowing down from higher speeds. At “having a bit of a go” speeds on public roads, I feel a nutter in that old Volvo would keep up with me on roads where a quarter mile straight is all before you get to the next unsighted hill or corner and a death wish is not on the cards.

    Therefore my nomination for balls to the walls caning is the original 39 bhp Ford Anglia 105E on 5.20 x 13 two ply rayon crossplies. But watch out on roads with decent straights and the occasional longer downhill where the speedo needle could bounce of the peg at just over 80 mph. The official speed limit then was 60 mph. Today it is a mere 56 mph (90 km/h)) on the very same roads, despite super rubber, proper brakes and fusslessly powerful engines. People drive no faster either, although nowhere near as slow as some did then in old Chevy pickups carrying pulp logs or taters and down a foot at the rear, so the average is quicker.

    Where extra power came in handy, and where I found/find it nice was getting up steep hills. Instead of roaring up one maxed out at 38mph in second, and trying third only to slow down, a bit of oomph was nice. I think a decent amount of power is 0-60 in 12 seconds unless you live in real mountains. Any better is a waste.

    Coincidentally, that is what the aforementioned Volvo 544 would do. At only 1778 cc, but with twin 1 3/4 inch HS6 sidedraught SUs sucking air through pancake air filters, it gave the impression of a bit of a hairy-chested brute, and made glorious noises. I get in a modern Corolla that would nip the Volvo by a bit in the acceleration stakes, and the engine gives off the vibes of a lightweight putt-putt scooter. There’s an absolute lack of rortiness and character. It’s like a tinfoil replica of a REAL engine, the car is heavy but feels lightweight, while the Volvo feels sturdy but weighs only almost exactly 1,000 kg. The Corolla 1.8 engine is ally, the Volvo a big hunk of cast iron with gigantic main and connecting rod bearings, forged steel crank and conrods. Overbuilt with none of the finicky manners the MGB engines had, like running-on, the need for constant tappet adjustments, and carburettor linkage designed by Fred Bloggs out of bent wire so the sync was always going off.

    Could it be that what we miss is just the way some good old cars worked? And the involvement they required for rapid progress?

    1. Driving an underpowered vehicle relatively fast is far more rewarding than the other way round – which is the way it is with far too many cars today. From my Citroen twin driving days anticipating the road ahead correctly, getting ready for overtaking opportunities, not losing speed on corners, etc was immensely satisfying when you got it right. The only downside was the fact that the one thing that no anticipation could counter was gravity, and the loss of speed on a long uphill stretch was frustrating to the point that, futile though it was, I couldn’t resist that twitching forward in my seat movement as if I could add my own weight to push the car a few mph faster.

      Actually I still get that today in my motorhome, which has surprisingly good roadholding and I can generally cruise (possibly not the right word for a clattery commercial diesel) at legal limits on autoroutes, but when confronted with a long incline slows markedly. This is something that can be countered to a degree by changing down and bouncing the engine off the 4,000 or so rpm rev limiter, but which the mechanically sympathetic part of me doesn’t really like doing.

    1. Possibly, although I feel that the Renault version mentioned above is the more honest design. The Smart tries to look more radical than it is. Actually I always liked the look of the Smart Crossblade, but again there is that unrewarding transmission. There’s also the idea of an Aston Cygnet fitted with a rear wing from a Le Mans Vantage.

  11. Great fun reading comments and opinions on this spot on topic. That’s why I have a trusty 1972 Fiat 500 that ticks most of Sean’s boxes and truly does give that ultimate feel of speed at barely 70kmh. Open the huge sunroof, lower the windows, listen to that noisy two cylinder, great seats, prettu good driving position, fabulous dashboard, shift a lever on the floor and let the heat of the engine warm you in the comfort of your own cockpit, the smell of engine oil comes as a bonus to really live the full experience. Tweak the engine, add a few more HP and you’re in supercar territory, at just 110kmh. Isn’t life just wonderful?

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