1928 vs 2018

First road test sub­ject meets lat­est

Autocar - - THIS WEEK - PHOTOGR APHY LUC LACEY

Per­haps the sin­gle most re­mark­able thing about The Au­to­car (as it was then) con­duct­ing and pub­lish­ing the world’s first road test back in 1928 is that nei­ther we, nor any­one else, didn’t do it a hell of a lot sooner than that. By 1928, the car as we know it was more than 40 years old, for good­ness’ sake.

The first cars were 19th-cen­tury horse­less car­riages built at colos­sal ex­pense as amus­ing play­things for the rich and brave and fit­ted with solid tyres, tiller steer­ing and to­tal-loss lu­bri­ca­tion where oil was es­sen­tially poured from tank to ground via the in­sides of the en­gine. Yet there was still enough in­ter­est in them that in 1895 Henry Sturmey deemed de­mand to be suf­fi­cient for “a jour­nal pub­lished in the in­ter­ests of the me­chan­i­cally pro­pelled road car­riage”. Yet it still took The Au­to­car 33 years to get around to ac­tu­ally ap­ply­ing suf­fi­cient rigour to its assess­ments to call them ‘road tests’.

By that time, the cars had changed out of all pro­por­tion. To prove this point, join me in Here­ford­shire where my coo­ing over a very charm­ing old Austin Seven is about to be rather rudely in­ter­rupted.

The Austin in ques­tion has a dou­ble con­nec­tion to Au­to­car. Not only is it a 1928 model, as was our first road test car 90 years ago, but it’s also owned by one John Lil­ley, who was once our chief sub-ed­i­tor. This Austin dif­fers from that orig­i­nal test car only in­so­far as it lacks that car’s Gor­don Eng­land sa­loon body­work, but, to me at least, it is all the bet­ter for it. To me a Seven is an open twodoor four-seater, head­lights mounted at the side, not the front. While the no­tion of mod­i­fy­ing Sevens spawned an en­tire in­dus­try, John’s car is com­pletely stan­dard and thus the per­fect win­dow on the mo­tor­ing world of 90 years ago.

Then we hear it, snarling and snap­ping as it prowls up the road to­wards us. Even to­day it looks like some­thing con­ceived in a dystopian, post-apoc­a­lyp­tic fu­ture, and that’s be­fore it parks next to some­thing as sim­ple, small and pretty as the Austin. The Senna has ar­rived.

At once I feel fool­ish. The gap is

just too big. It is like com­par­ing a prod­uct of the lat­est com­puter-aided de­sign to a cave paint­ing, an aba­cus to the avion­ics bay of a Dream­liner. But the truth is that the Austin was the car The Au­to­car was test­ing then, and the Senna is the car Au­to­car is test­ing now. Yes, we could have got a 4½ Litre Bent­ley, a brand new prod­uct in 1928 whose per­for­mance was so in­cred­i­ble its top speed was dou­ble that of the av­er­age car of the era (and a stat even the Senna can’t boast). But we’d still be pre­sent­ing to you a car on spindly tyres, with drum brakes at ev­ery cor­ner and a four-cylin­der en­gine un­der its bon­net, and it would still only do 92mph. And any­way, we didn’t test one in 1928.

Which would you drive first? The Austin, to make the Senna feel even quicker than it ac­tu­ally is, or the Mclaren, to make the Seven feel even more puny by com­par­i­son? For me it’s the Senna for, pro­fes­sion­ally at least, I am a crea­ture of the mod­ern world and ridicu­lous though I know it is, I am up to speed with hy­per­car per­for­mance and that wreck­ing ball ac­cel­er­a­tion will seem if not nor­mal, then cer­tainly fa­mil­iar – more fa­mil­iar, I ex­pect, than what the Austin has to of­fer.

In fact, it feels al­most man­age­able as I find the first stretch of safe, open road and try to put 789bhp to work. Yes, straights don’t re­ally ex­ist and you can’t be on the power for more than a mo­ment or two with­out num­bers highly prej­u­di­cial to your li­cence and lib­erty ap­pear­ing on the screen, but even foot flat to the floor, the Senna still seems some­how con­tain­able. But then a lit­tle thought and an ‘I won­der’ mo­ment.

So I press the but­ton that turns the trac­tion con­trol off and try again, where­upon some­thing close to pan­de­mo­nium breaks out. The car doesn’t ac­tu­ally ac­cel­er­ate any faster but the dash­board is flash­ing dif­fer­ent colours at me, there’s a strange whoosh­ing noise from the back end and I’m sud­denly hav­ing to work the steer­ing re­ally rather hard, which is odd given that this is a straight road. What has hap­pened is that a pair of the grip­pi­est, stick­i­est tyres ever bolted to a road car are in the process of self-im­mo­la­tion, and be­cause this road has cam­bers and a less than pris­tine sur­face, the back of the Senna has de­vel­oped a highly

in­de­pen­dent mind of its own. On a pri­vate fa­cil­ity I found it would do this all way through first, sec­ond and quite a bit of third gear.

This means the lim­it­ing fac­tor of this car on the pub­lic road is the grip of its Pirelli Tro­feo R tyres, which tend to be the go-to choice for man­u­fac­tur­ers want­ing to break the Nür­bur­gring lap record. Ger­hard Berger once said that a For­mula 1 car would only have enough power if it could spin its wheels at any speed, in any gear in any place on the cir­cuit. Well, if you limit that speed win­dow to what a sane and skilled driver might choose to do on a de­serted, wide and open pub­lic road, you can say as much about the Senna. And re­ally the most in­cred­i­ble thing about it all, to me at least, is the way the elec­tron­ics con­trive to keep you safe with­out any sense of in­tru­sion at all. At times it just feels like a 500bhp car, at oth­ers maybe like a 600bhp car. Just oc­ca­sion­ally you might as­cribe the work of 700bhp to the sen­sa­tions you are feel­ing, but away from the race track it’s a rare oc­ca­sion in­deed when you sense nearly 800bhp work­ing for you.

And here’s the thing: drive the Senna as fast as you pos­si­bly can on a quick and de­mand­ing race track and you’ll soon learn its lu­di­crous ac­cel­er­a­tion is ac­tu­ally its least im­pres­sive as­pect. Thanks to its light­ness, sus­pen­sion ge­om­e­try, those Pirellis and an aero pack ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing down­force al­most equiv­a­lent to plac­ing a Lo­tus Elise on its roof, what it can do in a straight line com­pares quite poorly with what it can do in the cor­ners. So any talk of reach­ing the true limit in pub­lic – not just giv­ing it a boot­ful of throt­tle in a slow cor­ner for a cam­era – is the purest fan­tasy or, worse, in­san­ity. I took John with me, vet­eran of many a fast car test, but the Senna still tem­po­rar­ily re­stricts his ca­pac­ity for speech – which is an im­pres­sive thing to do to an An­tipodean. So while he com­poses him­self, I wan­der across to his lit­tle Austin.

First thing to note: I’m 6ft 3in and while I may look ridicu­lous, I am en­tirely com­fort­able be­hind its

❝ It’s like com­par­ing com­puter-aided de­sign to a cave paint­ing ❞

wheel. John has had four peo­ple on board, it has the same amount of lug­gage space as the Senna (none) and yet it weighs less than an Ariel Atom. Re­ally.

You could risk break­ing a thumb crank­ing over its 747cc en­gine by hand but I find it eas­ier to tread on a lit­tle floor­mounted but­ton. The en­gine fires in­stantly, far faster than a mod­ern car. It has four cylin­ders and, on a good day, not quite 11bhp, which prob­a­bly wouldn’t be enough to run the Senna’s air con­di­tion­ing if, in­deed, the Mclaren had air con­di­tion­ing.

The in­te­rior is laid out like that of a mod­ern car – in­deed, it was the first main­stream pro­duc­tion car to place its ped­als where we’d ex­pect to see them to­day rather than with a cen­tral ac­cel­er­a­tor, as was the norm at the time. But still, there’s a lit­tle learn­ing to be done: the gear­box has three speeds, the gate goes from right to left and there’s no syn­chro­mesh so you have to dou­ble-de­clutch in both di­rec­tions and give the throt­tle quite a big blip with the edge of your foot be­tween down­changes. But I’ve driven plenty of rac­ing cars with ped­als less pleas­ingly ar­ranged for heel-and-toe­ing than this.

Be­sides, it’s all easy enough: the only real chal­lenge are the brakes, be­cause the pedal only works the drums at the rear and if you re­lied on those alone, you could easily be in the next county be­fore they brought you to a halt. If you want to do more than merely trim your speed, you have to pull the hand­brake that op­er­ates the front drums, and then the Seven will stop per­fectly ad­e­quately for a car of its lim­ited per­for­mance. John reck­ons its top speed is prob­a­bly 40mph, which means this car could be out­run by at least one breed of do­mes­ti­cated dog.

None of which makes it less than a de­light to drive. It has that im­me­di­acy, that lack of in­er­tia you find in any car with so lit­tle mass when need­ing to change di­rec­tion. Its steer­ing is far closer to that of a kart in both feel and di­rect­ness to any­thing you’d find on a mod­ern car. And be­cause ev­ery gearchange needs to be timed and be­cause you need both hand and foot to slow down, you’re al­ways busy and never bored. For any­one used to even the most mod­est mod­ern car, it brings a new di­men­sion to the word slow, but the fact that it takes more time to reach 20mph from rest than it takes the Senna to reach 120mph doesn’t mat­ter at all. Its per­for­mance feels ap­pro­pri­ate to the en­vi­ron­ment it cre­ates for you, and not once did I find my­self wish­ing it were faster.

Then again, we didn’t travel far. Ninety years ago, fam­i­lies would think lit­tle of pil­ing into their Sevens (or Chum­mys, as they were known) and phut­ting down the road un­til their jour­ney ended at the sea­side or, far more rarely than you might think, at the side of the road with steam com­ing out of the ra­di­a­tor.

For the Austin Seven may not have been a fast car but it was a good one. It was the great en­abler, the car that, more than any other, put Bri­tain be­hind the wheel. The Senna’s

con­tri­bu­tion – quite in­cred­i­bly to be the third Mclaren af­ter the F1 and P1 to ex­pand the abil­ity en­ve­lope of road car per­for­mance – could hardly be more dif­fer­ent.

And yet I loved driv­ing them both. More im­por­tantly, my thoughts on leav­ing could not have been more dif­fer­ent from those with which I ar­rived. Of course the gulf be­tween th­ese cars is im­mea­sur­able: I thought of list­ing all the things they had in com­mon but when I had to pause af­ter wheels at each cor­ner and one with which to steer, I thought bet­ter of it. But that is not to say they share noth­ing. For the truth is that even the Austin will take you any­where you need to go that doesn’t re­quire get­ting wet, and by far the great­est lim­it­ing fac­tor in the dis­tance ei­ther car can travel is not the me­chan­i­cal frailty of the ma­chine but the con­cen­tra­tion and fa­tigue lev­els of the per­son be­hind the wheel. If there is a weak link in the chain, it is us – and it al­ready was 90 years ago. As our first truly af­ford­able, re­li­able, main­stream mo­tor car, the Austin Seven was prob­a­bly the sin­gle most lib­er­at­ing in­ven­tion to come from th­ese shores. It en­abled fam­i­lies to work, play and in­ter­act with friends, rel­a­tives and col­leagues in ways never dreamt of be­fore its cre­ation.

Which is why, separated by 90 years and a tech­no­log­i­cal chasm as they are, what I re­alised in our time to­gether that day is that, some­what to my as­ton­ish­ment, what sets th­ese two apart is as noth­ing com­pared with what binds them to­gether.

❝ The gulf be­tween th­ese cars is im­mea­sur­able, but that is not to say they share noth­ing ❞

The Au­to­car’s first road test was in 1928

as they get Lil­ley’s Austin Seven is about as orig­i­nal

Both cars in­volve and en­gage their driver, but in dif­fer­ent ways

The Austin’s 749cc four-pot pro­duces 11bhp, so no trac­tion con­trol re­quired here

The Seven lib­er­ated Bri­tain; the Senna can’t claim the same

Lil­ley (left) gives Frankel a driver brief­ing

Amaz­ingly, the Austin seats four – mi­nus their lug­gage

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