25 OCTOBER 1963, Page 17

Wheels Within Wheels

By HENRY AWBRY As an exhibition the annual Motor Show at .1A.Earls Court occupies a position analogous with that of the British motor industry itself. Compared with the shows at Geneva or Frank- furt or Paris, it is late, it rarely offers much that has not been seen before, and it is always break- ing records that somehow leave matters much as They were. This, admittedly, is not quite the picture that filters through to the newspaper reader. Sated with superlatives from the faithful motoring correspondents, awed by attendance figures, and misled by news of multi-million- Pound orders, he is inclined to see the show as one more place where (in the inevitable phrase) Britain leads the world.' Whichever way you look at it, this just isn't so.

British car output is going up, but, then, other people's is going up faster.. As the president of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders put it in an eve-of-show speech : 'The output of the West German motor industry is appre- ciably greater than ours; that of France is almost as big, while that of Italy, though still smaller, Is rising steadily.' To which may be added that the American industry outproduces all of them, without counting the output of its European sub- sidiaries.

Ford and Vauxhall, who make a big contribu- tion to 'British' exports, are well known to be American companies, but the relative position of the British industry cannot be accurately assessed without taking into account the impor- tant American accessory makers here: for example, Trico, the Windscreen-wiper people, Champion sparkplugs, Borg-Warner, who have a near-corner in automatic transmissions for British cars, AC-Delco, who supply ignition parts to Rolls-Royce, and the tyre firms, Firestone, Good- year and US Royal.

You might think (and you surely will if you read certain motoring correspondents) that the British car industry keeps its end up in sheer inventiveness. Here again the facts backfire. At the luxury end of the price range the British in- dustry has trailed far behind Detroit with such items as automatic transmission, power steering, electric windows, air conditioning, and limited- slip differentials. At the other end it mobilised for the minicar market years after Fiat's 600 and Citroen's 2CV had navigated the route.

This year the novelties on British cars at the show include the new Vauxhall Viva's acrylic paint, which. needs no polishing, the de Dion springing on the new Rover 2000, and the alternator on the new Aston-Martin. The acrylic paint is an American development used on Detroit cars for several years. So is the alternator, which keeps the battery charged even at idling • speeds. The de Dion springing is a perennial of French origin dating back to Ed- wardian times.

By contrast, the German industry is showing at Earls Court an NSU car powered by the remarkable Wankel rotary engine, and the Ameri- can industry can point to Chrysler's gas-turbine car. The Wankel, an original concept that may one day supersede the piston engine, is due to be marketed next year, and the Chrysler turbine car is already going out to selected users in the States. Meanwhile, Rover, whose gas-turbine ex- perience dates right back to wartime, continues its long-drawn-out attempt to develop a market- able turbine car.

Just the same, it would be wrong to portray the British car industry as stagnant. Manufac- turers are shedding much of their usual conser- vatism. There is now a wide variety of design on the British stands and you can find specimens unthinkable a few years ago. There are engines driving at the front or from the back, suspension (the trade's ancient misnomer for springing) by steel, rubber or hydraulics, and numerous fashionable refinements like the permanently lubricated joint and the American four-headlamp system. The industry deserves special credit for persevering so successfully with disc brakes after Chrysler and others gave up—though disc brakes are not, contrary to motoring-correspondent lore, a 'British invention.' There has also been an immense improvement in styling, led by BMC, who handed over this department to Italian con- sultants, and by Ford and Vauxhall, who have imported the crisp and elegant shapes developed by their parent companies in Detroit.

Thus, year by year the British product gets better, but hardly ever by innovation of its.own.

It is a favourite contention of the correspon- dent claque that BMC has suddenly leapt into a technical lead with its front-wheel-drive cars. But this system is a commonplace on the Continent and has been the Citroen standard since the early 1930s. BMC's variation is to mount the engine sideways instead of longways—which gives some idea of the level of thought that passes for 'revo- lutionary' in motoring.

BMC has certainly been original with its water- bag, or Hydrolastic, suspension on the Morris 1100. This is the latest of a series of breakaways from steel springs initiated by Citroen's famous 'sighing' system in the mid-1950s and followed by less successful air systems on Cadillac and others. It remains a matter of opinion, though, how far any of these radical mechanisms im- proves on a well-engineered steel layout. At any rate, the consumer magazine Which? found in comparative tests that the Ford Cortina, which is conventionally sprung, gave a better ride than the Hydrolastic Morris. It also found that the Hillman Imp, with independent steel springs at both ends, gave a substantially better ride than the Miniminor, which is sprung on rubber.

The point is that the test of merit in the long run is whether an innovation is generally copied by rivals. By this test the British car industry has little to chalk up, and the question arises: why? Part of the explanation may be that cars are too easy to sell. There was a sellers' market for years after the war, and rising living standards have ensured that demand for cars continues to outpace supply. At home, too, the car industry was long shielded from foreign competition by a 30 per cent tariff, reduced to 25 per cent this year. But, perhaps even more unhealthy, it is rarely exposed to informed public criticism.

Hence the user reports of Which?, with their hair-raising revelations of faulty workmanship, shook the industry. It was used to respectful admiration from the motoring correspondents (who, incidentally, were full of indignation at seeing their job done properly for once—and by interlopers). - What the industry needs is fair assessment of its progress through constant public compari- son with foreign rivals. It does not get it because its heavy spending on press advertising makes far too potent a weapon with which to nudge critics back into line. It does not get it because most motorists are cut off from direct compari- son with foreign can by the tariff-inflated prices.

It does not get it because of a lingering ob- scurantist view that criticism of a British product is at worst unpatriotic and at best unhelpful to exports.

And so the industry coasts on a cloud of con- gratulation, and its annual show remains notable for the opportunity of seeing which particular foreign advances have at last been adopted on British cars..