Written by Muldonny McVriw
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Friday, 23 October 2009

image for The Classic English Roadster

Ah yes, the classic English roadster, for American purposes, it was any of a number of minimalist automobiles of a sporting nature, designed and produced by various manufactures (some were little more than cottage industries) in Great Britain, between 1946 and 1965 (after '65 there weren't really any new designs, just tired variations of the "same 'ol, same 'ol").

The typical roadster was built low to the ground, had a folding top (called a hood), and usually had two front bucket seats and a gearshift lever, which sprouted up from the floor, between the two seats. Most of these roadsters had a narrow opening behind the seats for occasional human occupants. Some cars provided a built in cushion (called a squib), which was passed off as a seat. This area was sometimes referred to as the jump seat or kiddy cupboard. This area would provide adequate seating for two small children but could also accommodate an adult capable of sitting in the lotus position for an indeterminate period of time. Most of these English cars were built primarily as fun transportation and were called "sports tourers" by the Brits, but once here in America, they became known as "sports cars".

The majority of these cars had a four-cylinder engine, a four-speed gearbox, and some of them even offered disk brakes on the front wheels. There were several models with six cylinder engines, and at least one with a small V-eight, but these were premium models and did a bit more damage to the pocketbook, so the four-cylinder variety became the popular choice.

From the earliest imports, and on into the early sixties, several makes did not have roll up windows, instead these cars came equipped with detachable "side curtains" or "side screens". The side curtain was a wire-framed fixture, which was leatherette or canvas covered and supported a clear, flexible, poly-vinyl, and curtain-like window. The windscreen, on the other hand, was a double sided, aluminum frame with two clear, Plexiglas panels, mounted into the frame. Either one or, optionally, both clear plastic panels could be slid fore and aft to allow outside air to enter the cockpit. By the mid-sixties, you'd be hard pressed, though, to find a roadster from any manufacturer still using either of these archaic items.

Well up into the sixties, a purchaser had to pay extra for what were termed "standard options". Standard options were items that were on all cars when they left the factory but were not included in the base price, when sold. The buyer was charged extra for each of those items e.g. windshield (wind screen) wipers, directional indicators (flashers), windscreen washer and the heater; yes, the heater, too, was an extra cost, standard option. Curiously, many early roadsters were provided with leather seats as a standard item (at no extra cost). As for optional extras, there really weren't very many available. The early color (colour) offerings provided a very limited choice, these pretty much consisted of red, black, white, blue or green exterior color, and red, black, tan or blue interior, with contrasting seat trim (piping). Within a few years, though, the palette became much more varied.

A very popular option with the "tweedy set" (the classic Anglophile who was wont to emulate the image of the classic English gentleman) were wire wheels. There was also a higher grade of tire available as an option, but most purchasers stayed with the less expensive, standard Dunlop rubber. If a buyer desired a radio, however, that was not available from the factory but was offered, instead, as a dealer-installed option.

Now, what was it like to actually experience one of these British tidlers from behind the wheel and on the road? Imagine, if you will, yourself as a new owner about to take possession; the feelings you would experience on that day. Metaphorically speaking, it might be like going on your first date with that special girl you always admired from afar, then finally got a chance with: you'd be a little nervous, maybe a bit anxious with heightened anticipation. You'd want everything to be just right, that first time, so of course you would put the top down, first thing. The sun would be shinning (you'd have planned it that way), it's springtime, birds are singing, the trees are blooming (all part of the plan), and the fragrance of flowers is in the air. You slide the Plexiglas side screen open, insert your hand and reach down into the upper portion of the side pocket, and pull on the fiber cord that releases the door latch. The door pops open with a satisfying clunk. You slide into the firm bucket seat and adjust your body as you accommodate yourself to your new environment. Your right hand falls immediately upon the gearshift lever so purposefully presented to your hand. You set the hand brake, which like the gearshift lever, also sprouts up from between the two-bucket seats. You depress the clutch with your left foot, push the gear lever up into neutral, let out the clutch, then put the key into the ignition switch, mounted on the dash. You turn the key and push the starter button, also mounted nearby on the dash. Now, you're ready to experience the adventure of actually driving one of these little beasts. Releasing the hand brake, you depress the clutch and push on the accelerator pedal, and as you flick the gear lever up through the gears, you hear the throaty sound of its engine reverberating as the gasses pass out the back, through the muffler. It is a very satisfying and hearty sound indeed. As you accelerate along a straight-away you see the revs climb on the tachometer and you feel that you are really moving very rapidly, then you glance at the speedometer and realize you're only doing forty, but it somehow feels much faster. That is the beauty of these little cars; you don't have to be going full tilt to enjoy the ride.

The real thrill, derived from a car of this sort, comes on strong when you find yourself driving out in the country, on a deserted stretch of open road. Think autumn with a slight chill in the air but with a warm sun shining brightly. You have the top down and the heater running, exhaling gently on your right leg, more for effect rather than for heat (no real heat ever came out of an English heater). The trees all display their brilliant fall colors. As you continue on, you see that the road ahead becomes a series of curves, hills and switchbacks, the very things for which the car was built. On the first corner you set up to keep your car as straight as possible, aiming for the apex of the curve, then gently applying the brake, you slow while simultaneously shifting down into a lower gear (if need be) well before hitting the apex. Then, while keeping the car in straight a line as possible, through the curve, you up shift and accelerate out of the corner 'till you're on the straight again or setting up for the next curve, whereby you repeat as before, using your brakes to slow going in and accelerating going out.

Now, in order to give a fair and honest assessment of operating one of these cars, the aspect of winter driving should be addressed. As previously mentioned, these cars are built low to the ground, so most of these cars displaced no more than five inches of air between the bottom of the chassis and the road surface. Driving in the winter snow didn't really take any particular skill, no more than with any other type of car; it required the same care, caution and an awareness of changing conditions. But beyond that, driving one of these cars in snow required a little planning. This usually meant that before driving off you had to think ahead, a little: you'd set your route, check conditions, calculate duration of travel, and inform someone of your plan. In addition, there are several particulars associated with the laws of physics that can affect you and the car when you are out in the snow. Because of the lowness of the car, snow drifts pose a potential hazard, as a good sized drift could bring your vehicle to a complete stop, and getting out of a drift does require particular skills that only comes with experience. Another hazard is ice, especially black ice; this could spin a small car 360 degrees in a split second, and that is not a good thing, especially when in traffic. Another bad thing would be the interior windscreen fogging, or worse, icing, as most English heaters never really put out any significant amounts of heat. Some experienced drivers always carried a can of deicer to deal with that probability. One more hazard must be addressed; the dreaded slush. When melting slush is encountered, it is not unusual for huge gobs of it to be thrown up onto the windscreen by other vehicles, thus bringing the wipers to a complete halt and obscuring your vision for half a block, or more, before recovering and again trying to clear away the obstruction. There is really nothing you can do when that happens, but pray. When slush freezes, it isn't so much a problem as a difficulty. When slush freezes on the road, ice ruts are created, these ruts are tracks made by larger cars and trucks. All small cars have a tendency to follow in such tracks; you can see the problem, especially since those ruts are hard to climb up out of.

Now that you've seen what is like to actually drive one of these little wonders, I'll give you a wee notion of what it is like to actually live with these eccentric little machines. Operating one of these little cars, even on a mundane, daily basis, adds adventure to your life: it's exiting, fun and liberating......frees your spirit, especially on a warn sunny day with the top down; however, it can be frustrating, challenging, and on a rainy day, down right irritating. The big issue with ownership concerns maintenance. The cars all have notorious reputations for requiring a lot of time, patience and money. Now this is not entirely true, the bad rep is the result of enthusiastic owners who do not appreciate these cars for their nuances of personality. These cars all have distinct personalities and character. They display individual behaviors that make each one distinctly different. Problems with these cars often stemmed from the owners' expectations. Many purchasers having been drawn to the car by its image while expecting the same park and forget it dependability of the average American car; disillusionment was often the result. These little cars crave attention, you see, you don't just drive them, they become a conscious part of your life, on an intellectual level. An English car, of this type, is not just another car. Getting the best out of one required planning and commitment, and in order to keep it operating properly meant keeping the spoiled little darling happy. With these cars, you didn't just "ride 'em hard and put 'em up wet"; rigorous maintenance was how you got the best out of these cars

The bane of any owner of a British car made during the last 100 years is the car's electrical system, as provided by Lucas Electrics. Lucas is the bond that that unites all current and former owners. Lucas, known universally as the "prince of darkness", provides the batteries (many of the early systems possessed two six volt units working in series to provide twelve volts of current), all the wiring, the headlights, directional signals, accessory light bulbs, the horn, gauges, etc, all came complements of Lucas. If anything could go wrong with any of these items, they would and usually did, most often at the most inopportune time possible, like driving down a dark country road and having the headlights go out, or the horn going off in the middle of the night just as you're driving through a hospital zone. If the car had an electric fuel pump, power passed through its internals and to a set of points, just like the points in the distributor. These were always a source of trouble and would periodically have to be cleaned, or else the fuel pump would not pump and then, the car would not run. Another big bug-a-boo with the English car was its wondrous ability to leak lubricant out of every conceivable part of the car that held any sort of lubricant. These cars' internals were machined with very generous tolerances and thus engine, transmission, differential, rear axel; etc spread ample amounts of lubricant onto the ground and all about the undercarriage. Checking fluid levels would always be a part of your regular maintenance routine.

This little dissertation presents some of the thrills, frustrations, pitfalls and the common hazards inherent to owning and operating the little English roadster. So, if you ever happen upon one going down the road (or parked beside the road for repairs), give the driver a little salute as you drive by, for hopefully you've gained a bit of admiration, and perhaps a bit of pity, for what that poor devil is going through in order to keep the romance alive

The Classic English Roadster
By Muldonny McVriw


Ah yes, the classic English roadster, for American purposes, it was any of a number of minimalist automobiles of a sporting nature, designed and produced by various manufactures (some were little more than cottage industries) in Great Britain, between 1946 and 1965 (after '65 there weren't really any new designs, just tired variations of the "same 'ol, same 'ol").

The typical roadster was built low to the ground, had a folding top (called a hood), and usually had two front bucket seats and a gearshift lever, which sprouted up from the floor, between the two seats. Most of these roadsters had a narrow opening behind the seats for occasional human occupants. Some cars provided a built in cushion (called a squib), which was passed off as a seat. This area was sometimes referred to as the jump seat or kiddy cupboard. This area would provide adequate seating for two small children but could also accommodate an adult capable of sitting in the lotus position for an indeterminate period of time. Most of these English cars were built primarily as fun transportation and were called "sports tourers" by the Brits, but once here in America, they became known as "sports cars".

The majority of these cars had a four-cylinder engine, a four-speed gearbox, and some of them even offered disk brakes on the front wheels. There were several models with six cylinder engines, and at least one with a small vee-eight, but these were premium models and did a bit more damage to the pocketbook, so the four-cylinder variety became the popular choice.

From the earliest imports, and on into the early sixties, several makes did not have roll up windows, instead these cars came equipped with detachable "side curtains" or "side screens". The side curtain was a wire-framed fixture, which was leatherette or canvas covered and supported a clear, flexible, poly-vinyl, and curtain-like window. The windscreen, on the other hand, was a double sided, aluminum frame with two clear, Plexiglas panels, mounted into the frame. Either one or, optionally, both clear plastic panels could be slid fore and aft to allow outside air to enter the cockpit. By the mid-sixties, you'd be hard pressed, though, to find a roadster from any manufacturer still using either of these archaic items.

Well up into the sixties, a purchaser had to pay extra for what were termed "standard options". Standard options were items that were on all cars when they left the factory but were not included in the base price, when sold. The buyer was charged extra for each of those items e.g. windshield (wind screen) wipers, directional indicators (flashers), windscreen washer and the heater; yes, the heater, too, was an extra cost, standard option. Curiously, many early roadsters were provided with leather seats as a standard item (at no extra cost). As for optional extras, there really weren't very many available. The early color (colour) offerings provided a very limited choice, these pretty much consisted of red, black, white, blue or green exterior color, and red, black, tan or blue interior, with contrasting seat trim (piping). Within a few years, though, the palette became much more varied. A very popular option with the "tweedy set" (the classic Anglophile who was wont to emulate the image of the classic English gentleman) was a set of wire wheels. There was also a higher grade of tire available as an option, but most purchasers stayed with the less expensive, standard Dunlop rubber. If a buyer desired a radio, however, that was not available from the factory but was offered, instead, as a dealer-installed option.

Now, what was it like to actually experience one of these British tidlers from behind the wheel and on the road? Imagine, if you will, yourself as a new owner about take possession; the feelings you would experience on that day. Metaphorically speaking, it might be like going on your first date with that special girl you always admired from afar, then finally getting a chance with; you'd be a little nervous, maybe a bit anxious with heightened anticipation. You'd want everything to be just right, that first time, so of course you would put the top down, first thing. The sun would be shinning (you'd have planned it that way), it's springtime, birds are singing, the trees are blooming (all part of the plan), and the fragrance of flowers is in the air. You slide the Plexiglas side screen open, insert your hand and reach down into the upper portion of the side pocket, and pull on the fiber cord that releases the door latch. The door pops open with a satisfying clunk. You slide into the firm bucket seat and adjust your body as you accommodate yourself to your new environment. Your right hand falls immediately upon the gearshift lever so purposefully presented to your hand. You set the hand brake, which, like the gearshift lever, also sprouts up from between the two-bucket seats. You push in the clutch with your left foot, push the gear lever up into neutral, let off the clutch, then insert the key, into the ignition switch mounted on the dash. You turn the key and push the starter button, also mounted nearby on the dash. Now, you're ready to experience the adventure of actually driving one of these little beasts. Releasing the hand brake, you depress the clutch and push on the accelerator pedal, and as you flick the gear lever up through the gears, you hear the throaty sound of its engine reverberating as the gasses pass out the back, through the muffler. It is a very satisfying and hearty sound indeed. As you accelerate along a straight-away you see the revs climb on the tachometer and you feel you are really moving very rapidly, then you glance at the speedometer and realize you're only doing forty, but it somehow feels much faster. That is the beauty of these little cars; you don't have to be going full tilt to enjoy the ride.

The real thrill, derived from driving a car of this sort, comes on strong when you find yourself out in the country, on a deserted stretch of open road. Think autumn with a slight chill in the air but with a warm sun shining brightly. You have the top down and the heater running, exhaling gently on your right leg, more for effect rather than for heat (no real heat ever came out of an English heater). The trees all display their brilliant fall colors. As you continue on, you see that the road ahead becomes a series of curves, hills and switchbacks, the very things for which the car was built. On the first corner you set up to keep your car as straight as possible, aiming for the apex of the curve, then gently applying the brake, you slow while simultaneously shifting down into a lower gear (if need be) well before hitting the apex. Then, while still keeping the car in straight an attitude as possible, through the curve, you up shift and accelerate out of the corner 'till you're on the straight again or setting up for the next curve, whereby you repeat as before, using your brakes to slow going in and accelerating going out.


Now, in order to give a fair and honest assessment of operating one of these cars, the aspect of winter driving should be addressed. As previously mentioned, these cars are built low to the ground, so most of these cars displaced no more than five inches of air between the bottom of the car and the road surface. Driving in the winter snow didn't really take any particular skill, no more than with any other type of car; it required the same care, caution and an awareness of changing conditions. But beyond that, driving one of these cars in snow required a little planning. This usually meant that before driving off you'd have to do a little planning: you'd set your route, check conditions, calculate duration of travel and inform someone of your plan. In addition, there are several particulars associated with the laws of physics that can affect you and the car when you are out in the snow. Because of the lowness of the car, snow drifts pose a potential hazard, as a good sized drift could bring your vehicle to a complete stop, and getting out of a drift does require particular skills that are only comes with experience. Another hazard is ice, especially black ice; this could spin a small car 360 degrees in a split second, and that is not a good thing, especially when in traffic. Another bad thing would be the interior windscreen fogging, or worse, icing, as most English heaters never really put out any significant amounts of heat. Some experienced drivers always carried a can of deicer to deal with that probability. One more hazard must be addressed; the dreaded slush. When melting slush is encountered, it is not unusual for huge gobs of it to be thrown up onto the windscreen by other vehicles, thus bringing the wipers to a complete halt and obscuring your vision for half a block or more before recovering, and again beginning to clear away the obstruction. There is really nothing you can do when that happens, but pray. Frozen slush isn't so much a problem but more of a difficulty. When slush freezes on the road, ice ruts are created, which are made by larger cars and trucks. These little cars have a tendency to follow in those tracks; you can see the problem, especially since those ruts are hard to climb up out of.

Now that you've seen what is like to actually drive one of these little wonders, I'll give you a wee notion of what it is like to actually live with these eccentric little machines. Operating one of these little cars, even on a mundane, daily basis, adds adventure to your life: it's exiting, fun and liberating…frees your spirit, especially on a warn sunny day with the top down; however, it can be frustrating, challenging, and on a rainy day, down right irritating. The big issue with ownership concerns maintenance. The cars all have notorious reputations for requiring a lot of time, patience and money. Now this is not entirely true, the bad rap is the result of enthusiastic owners who do not appreciate these cars for their nuances of personality. These cars all have distinct personalities and character. They display individual behaviors that make each one distinctly different. Any problems with a car often stemmed from an owners expectations. Many purchasers having been drawn to the car by its image but expecting the same park and forget it dependability of the average American car; disillusionment was often the result. The little cars crave attention, you see, you don't just drive them, they become a conscious part of your life, on an intellectual level. An English car, of this type, is not just another car. Getting the best out of one required planning and commitment, and in order to keep it operating properly meant keeping the spoiled little darling happy. With these cars, you couldn't just "ride 'em hard and put 'em up wet"; rigorous maintenance was how one got the best out of these cars

The bane of any owner of a British car made during the last 100 years is the car's electrical system, as provided by Lucas Electrics. Lucas is the bond that that unites all current and former owners. Lucas, known universally as the "prince of darkness", provides the batteries (many of the early systems possessed two six volt units working in series to provide twelve volts of current), all the wiring, the headlights, directional signals, accessory light bulbs, the horn, gauges, etc, all came complements of Lucas. If anything could go wrong with any of these items, they would and usually did, most often at the most inopportune time possible, like driving down a dark country road and having the headlights go out, or the horn going off in the middle of the night just as your driving through a hospital zone. If the car had an electric fuel pump, power passed through its internals and to a set of points, just like the points in the distributor. These were always a source of trouble and would periodically have to be cleaned, or else the fuel pump would not pump and then, the car would not start. Another big bug-a-boo with the English car was its wondrous ability to leak lubricant out of every conceivable part of the car that held any sort of lubricant. These cars' internals were machined with very generous tolerances and thus engine, transmission, differential, rear axel; etc spread ample amounts of lubricant onto the ground and all about the undercarriage. Checking fluid levels would always be a part of your regular maintenance routine.

This little dissertation presents some of the thrills, frustrations, pitfalls and the common hazards inherent to owning and operating the little English roadster. So, if you ever happen upon one going down the road (or parked beside the road for repairs), give the driver a little salute as you drive bye, for hopefully you've gained a bit of admiration, and perhaps a bit of pity, for what that poor devil is going through in order to keep the romance alive

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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