To be a classic motoring journalist, you need driving skills like no-one else. You must be able to jump from one classic to the next and quickly adjust – well, you can’t go around pranging people’s lovely classics because you didn’t know where the brake was.
Ergonomics were yet to be discovered even as late as the 1950s. Take a Citroen DS, Ford Zodiac Mk2, Daimler Conquest and Austin Westminster A90 for example. All were in production in 1956 and the differences are staggering. Sure, the DS was quite unlike anything else at all, but let’s focus for the time being on gearchanges.
On the DS, you move a small arm that sprouts from the top of the steering column in its own quadrant. The car looks after the gearchange and clutch operation for you – you just tell it what gear to be in. The Daimler uses a pre-select gearbox, so while there is a ‘clutch’ pedal, you don’t use it as one. To move away, just select first and raise the revs – the fluid flywheel transmit the power. Select the next gear using the column change and operate the pedal when you want it to engage.
In theory, the Ford and Austin are much closer. Both have a column gearchange to a conventional gearbox – the Ford packs three cogs while the Austin manages four. But consider how you select first. On the Ford, you push the lever away and down, the Austin away and up. Second? Towards and up on the Zodiac, but straight down from first on the Westie.
It’s learning to adjust to these differences that enables us to do our jobs quickly and without breaking stuff. Yet there’s always one that nearly catches you out.
Austin Sevens I always find hard work. The clutch is a button with about an inch of travel, the steering is exceedingly vague and the brakes – especially on earlier uncoupled versions – are horrifically poor. I always return with a smile on my face though, even when one recalcitrant Ruby conked out on my test drive and only came back to life after vigorous hand-cranking. A journey in a Seven is never dull.
But it was a Morris Oxford Six, dating from 1933, in which I almost came a cropper.
For a start, the pedals are in the ‘wrong’ order. The throttle is in the middle, the brake where the throttle would normally be. The gearbox thankfully had synchromesh – I had driven an earlier Oxford without it and found coming down the gearbox a real challenge. What I didn’t know is that it had a freewheel! You can picture the scene as I come down a hill towards a red traffic light. I’m already focussing my mind on the pedals, so I don’t accidentally accelerate. My foot is right down and not a lot is happening – brakes weren’t very good in the 1930s. To make matters worse, there is no engine braking as the car is now freewheeling down the hill!
My heart was truly in my mouth as I sailed just past the stop line. I’m very glad brakes have improved since then! While it may have scared me, it was a beautiful car. It had a top speed of barely 60 miles an hour, but sounded absolutely beautiful. While it came close to killing me, I still did rather like it!