Monday, 31 March 2014

The best and worst car in the world

    There is something very satisfying about spending one of the first warm weekends of spring outdoors. Warm enough not to feel chilly, though not yet with that feeling of being in a warm bath from the air temperature one gets in the summer. Green buds showing on all the trees, the crows mobbing the buzzard when it came too close to their nest site, and a bumble bee meandering through the emerging greenery.
    I was outdoors because I was reassembling the Wreck's engine. Nothing too challenging, just a long sequence of parts to put together.
    Well, I say nothing too challenging. But I was struck as I have been before: with my engineer's eye I look at some of the assemblies and wonder why on earth they designed them as they did. The nut at the rear of the carburettor that requires either a 1/2" spanner with a 45 degree bend, or else a 2" long shaft. Or the exhaust manifold, the centre two fixing nuts of which can only be done up slowly by hand with a ring spanner.
    I once saw a documentary about the Wreck and its derivative cars. It had a section on the factory which was newly built for the Wreck's model line. I am guessing my car would have been built in its first few months. The documentary went on at length about how advanced the production line was, and how it was one of the first major factories to use CCTV for inspection. Very impressive, but I can only now think of those manifold nuts. If it's such an efficient factory it's churning out Wrecks at an impressive rate, right up until the point at which they attach the exhaust manifold. At which point there's a bloke with a ring spanner laboriously tightening up those two middle nuts by hand. No super-quick air tools will fit on them. It took me a couple of minutes to do each one, I'm guessing someone practiced could shave 30 seconds from the time. Or more likely not tighten them up properly, which I suspect is why the original manifold gasket had burned away around the two central exhaust ports.
    When Austin unveiled the Mini in 1959, the engineers at Ford famously bought one and dismantled it completely to cost its production. Their concerns that it would affect their Anglia model were muted when they concluded that it cost more to build than its list price. Looking at the Wreck's design, sometimes ingenious yet more often downright baffling, I can only conclude that the disease of poor manufacturing design was not limited to Austin's engineers.
    There are many theories about the decline of the indigenous British motor industry. In the 1950s and 1960s cars like the Wreck, the Mini or the Anglia were ubiquitous here and in many other countries, by the 1980s and 1990s their successors were something of a national embarrassment.  The misty-eyed will cite trade unions, dodgy Russian steel, bad management and disloyal consumers, but they rarely look at the cars and admit that some of them just weren't very well designed. Comparing the 1980s Austin Metro I had in the mid '90s with the 1980s Volkswagen Golf  I had at the end of the '90s was a revelation for me. Instead of a machine that required all sorts of know-how for fixing hard-to-reach parts which kept failing I had a car that just worked. And kept on working, even though it had had a hard life before I owned it and drank cheap oil as a down-and-out drinks Special Brew.
    I love the Wreck, with all its quirks. It's a slow car with major handling flaws and woeful brakes, but it's fun to drive and I like its period styling. But that won't blinker me as to why its successors are no longer in production and the site of the factory where it was built is now a housing estate.


  1. I heard a story once that sums it up for me. The Japanese factories bought some British bikes that were the best at the time.

    They took them apart to see what worked, and to see what could be improved. Then they produced their own machines based on it (some of them were really simply things like splitting the engines horizontally rather than vertically to improve compression and reduce oil leaks).

    The British engineers thought they would do some of that as well, except rather than accept that the world had moved on from the 50's the engineers were told by the ageing management that the British did not need to learn about bikes from the Japanese and just carry on as you are.

    Looking at the design of my 1980 Spitfire vs just about any other car from that period I have to agree! I love the Spit dearly, but it was a dinosaur years before mine was made! Why on earth did they not keep the styling but update the components used in it!

    I do also have a soft spot for 1980's VWs as well though. The LED dashboard warning lights and location of the stereo... Shame they undid it all when the accountants took over and introduced the Golf III (Ug!)


  2. I loved my 60's Singers but compared to modern cars they were cold noisy and unreliable, and they were quite up market models in their day. I enjoyed the style and performance that I got from Jade (A green lightly modified 1966 Singer Vogue) but in the end I had to sell her as it was just taking too much time and money keeping her going, whereas her grand son a Pug 405 just kept going, comfortably cheaply and effortlessly.

    1. Memories! Throughout my childhood my dad drove a 1965 Singer Vogue Estate, with a few of his own mods to help keep up with modern traffic...

      I adored that car (especially the linear speedo) and have so many memories of going on holiday to the Isle of White in the back of it...

      It wasn't his classic car, it was just what he could afford (and being a mechanic / body working he didn't have the bills for repairs that I have with the Spitfire!) and I remember it in two different paint schemes when it rotted away and needed restoring, and remember it breaking down with a horrible smell one time when the clutch died.

      It was boiling in the summer, and freezing in the winter (though he did fit a heater to the rear of the car to keep me and my brother warm). And in shorts you stuck to the seat somewhat painfully!

      But even with all that, what a car! (The wings on the back!!!!)

      Stace (with a rose tinted reminisce smile on my face now!)

  3. Sounds pretty much like the designers (I use the tern loosely) of electrical light fittings. They look nice but some of them are incredibly awkward to assemble and fit. Many of them are designed thinking a little three-core flex is going to supply it and there is absolutely no space for the usual circuit cables found in modern houses, sometimes as many as twelve cores in the ceiling roses. I carry a magicians wand in my toolbox maybe you need to do the same Jenny....LOL

    Shirley Anne x

  4. Out of curiosity what make of car is the wreck. I don't know why but I seem to have come to the view it is a Triumph Herald....just wondered? I have owned many of the cars you talk about and have many memories. Emily

  5. Or is it the ubiquitous Morris Minor?

  6. Hi all, Not the most conscientious of comment repliers here, to put it simply I've had a sod of a month.

    Yes, the Wreck is one of Canley's finest. I mentioned bad designs, well I'd put the Minor's underfloor brake cylinder firmly in that bracket.

    Personally I think car design peaked in the 1980s. They conquered rust, oil, and dodgy metalurgy, but hadn't picked up the taste for pointless computerisation of everything that puts a mechanically perfect modern in the scrapyard when its thousand quid digital dash fails. And I'm an electronic engineer, I should be all for it.

  7. Having removed much skin to no avail I would say that the minor had a major design fault there! We had to pump the breaks before setting off and I taught my partner to drive without breaks and anticipate. Worked fine until some idiot caused a need for lack of speed and the foot went straight to the floor!

    Unlike cars, humans can self heal to some degree and time helps. Hope that sod of a month is replaced by something better.