I recently purchased a reprint of Car’s Car of the Year 1970 feature (printed for publicity purposes for the UK distributor of a certain car company from the March 1971 issue by George Pulman and Sons Ltd Bletchley Bucks). Almost (but not quite) as old as I am (what’s three years amongst friends?), it served to remind me what we are missing these days from motoring journalists.
First, I refuse to mention the main subject of the feature, the car which won this prestigious award in 1970, on the basis that we get complaints that the manufacturer of said winning car receives far too much coverage on this site. Second, it’s the quality of the journalism which has bewitched me, much as it was the featured car which captured my attention to said publication in the first place. Third, I’ve given up on Citroën these days in any case (damn!).
The first thing to note is that Car’s award came in a material form: Carl Olsen was commissioned to design and prepare the trophy for that year, which was 24 inches high (the whole feature is written in Imperial measures), of cast aluminium and mounted on a black acrylic base. Second, votes came from 21 (!) judges from around the world, and included Stirling Moss (who, it is noted, modestly forgot, “to mention that he was Britain’s finest driver of the ‘50s” in giving his own short pen-portrait), Franco Lini (ex-Ferrari team manager), and Alan Baker BSc, ACGI, CEng, FIMechE, former editor of Automotive Design Engineering.
The articles incorporated in this feature span a ‘xxxxxëx miscellany – facets of xxxxxëx history’ by Jon Winding-Sorensen, an interview with M. Raymond Ravenel, DG of xxxxxëx SA, as well as a Giant Test of the winning car by the staff of Car Magazine and a Technical appraisal of it by L. J. K. Setright (interestingly, when mentioned as one of the judges, he uses the less formal ‘Leonard Setright’). The first of those pieces is a syntax of ‘the cars’, ‘the cast’, ‘associated marques’ and ‘miscellaneous’ facts about the manufacturer of that year’s winner and is a work of the art of research in itself.
Focusing in on the Giant Test for a moment, the best word I can find to describe it is ‘dense’. It took me a great deal of concentration and attention to get through it in one reading. Photographs (in b&w of course, bar a glossy colour centrefold of the lovely winner) are few and grainy in resolution; I can’t tell whether this was done for artistic effect or just poor light and equipment (I’m no photographer, so would have no idea).
There are four A4 pages of solid script, flooded with technical detail. There’s none of the boyish, sardonic humour so irritatingly over-played in modern car magazines. The stand-out paragraph for me takes up roughly 20% of one of those pages and covers the instrumentation. Here are some highlights:
“Instrumentation is uninhibited. The volt-meter and fuel gauge are straightforward enough, as is the double row of 10 symbol-marked warning lights …. (With 10 such lights a systems-check device would be a good idea though). … the speedometer is even stranger: a hidden drum rotates to show the speed as a number through a magnifying plastic lens. … As an attention-getting gimmick it works splendidly but as an instrument it is a disaster. … Tests we carried out show that at 80mph you cover around 120 feet while your eyes are performing this operation [looking down to take in the speedo reading] – 120 feet that is, when you are not seeing the road clearly. In this instance [xxxxxëx]’s first principles approach has regrettably misfired up eccentricity alley”.
Can you imagine what Car’s road testers of 1971 would have made of today’s infotainment system distractions?
Setright’s subsequent technical review is one of his typically flamboyant, know-it-all, showpieces covering four and one half pages (employing that quaint habit of being ‘continued on page 9’, alongside one of the other articles on the back page), and includes some lovely period-piece cross sectional diagrams. It starts by quoting Voltaire ‘the secret of art is to improve on nature.’ and duly heads off on a promenade through aerodynamics, body engineering, engine specification (including estimates of the power drain caused by the cooling fan), suspension (including tyres in some detail) and brakes. For instance, on the subject of the engine, he writes:
“It is a flat four, so it is very smooth running and remains vibrationally undetectable at all speeds up to those considerably beyond its placarded maximum. This free revving ability (it goes to 8000 rpm without any fuss, but is redlined at 6750) is due to the short stroke (only 59mm) which keeps the mean piston velocity at peak revs down to a friction-mitigating 2500ft/min. The bore is 74mm, making the vital statistics 1015cc swept volume, 0.8 to one stroke/ bore ratio, nine to one compression ratio, and 26.3sq in piston area. … In SAE testbed conditions the exhaust system may differ from the type on the car, and this probably shares with the cooling fan the responsibility for soaking up that missing 11.5bhp, as well as hauling the peak power down by a fairly substantial 250rpm.”
You’d never get anything the like of this in a motoring magazine of today. To be fair, the average reader of said publications would probably not read it, given how unfamiliar we have all become with unbroken, solid columns of prose on a single page.
My overwhelming conclusion, and indeed recollection, is that reading Car, even in the much later mid-eighties’ editions, was much more of a literary and technical feast than it is today, taking many sittings and a digestif of reflection to consume properly. Moreover, I know I’ll want to read and re-read the articles in that feature, and take in more and different aspects at every sitting. This is probably why I still have dog-eared and falling to bits copies of Car dating back from 1983 which I still read, whereas this month’s copy is already in recycling. I need say no more.