Are the new cars any better?

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Jaguar SS 100.
Jaguar SS 100.

We take a lot for granted these days. Hands up all those who can remember boasting that their car would go up Sunshine Hill in top gear? For “Sunshine” use any hill from your youth. Mine was a 1949 Austin A40 and the year was 1959. 10 years old and the engine needed new rings, the bores were oval and the big ends were worn. It was not a million km car either.

I had struck up an acquaintance with the local garage mechanic Jack Rowe who asked why I looked down in the mouth. After telling him, he came round and measured the motor and confirmed that it needed rings, bearings and pistons.

That was almost the end of the world for me. I was the archetypal starving medical student with not enough in the piggy bank for tomorrow’s lunch let alone big ends.

However, I was lucky. Jack said not to bring it to the garage, but he would work on it at his home where he had some spare parts saved from the garage. The catch was I had to help him, but for me that was a wonderful life-line.

So every night I would pedal round to Jack’s house where he had the greatest collection of secondhand parts you would ever see. These were all parts that had been replaced by the garage, but were not totally clapped out.

Jack and I would work away, under the supervision of Mrs Jack who sat there with her five children under seven, breastfeeding the last two, twins. So I knew what Jack did when not working on cars.

Under Jack’s instructions I learned how to use a micrometer to select the best pistons and measure up the crankshaft. The pile of spare parts was thoroughly picked over and re-assembly was next.

After one week of nights, I had an Austin A40 which ran without knocking from the engine. (I had called the car Geronimo because it made “injun” noises.) Jack said that if I looked after it, I could expect 10,000 miles from the engine and it should climb Sunshine hill in top!

Naturally I took his advice and thrashed the living daylights out of it for the 10,000 miles, racing anything on the road that would respond to the challenge. After beating an MG TF in an illegal ‘road race’ I was even invited to join the MG Car Club. Those were easier days in the early ‘60s.

However, getting back to my original question, are the new cars any better? Simple answer is yes. Modern metallurgy for one, has given the reciprocating parts a longer life. It has also meant that cars can use aluminium, titanium (and best of the lot, ‘unobtainium’) and be much lighter. The ability to change settings of the camshaft by electronic means does mean that ignition is no longer a hit and miss static affair, but adapts to the road requirements. This means that today’s shopping trolley can cover zero to 100 km/h in around nine seconds. My Austin A40 (when new) returned zero to 100 km/h in 38 seconds. To measure performance in the good old days you could use a calendar, not a stop watch!

And while I like old cars such as the 3 liter Bentley, the SS 100 Jaguar, the Railtons, the Invicta Low Chassis Black Prince and even the racing SSK Mercedes, their acceleration times were nothing to snap your head from your shoulders. The SS Jaguar having a zero to 100 km/h of around 14 seconds. Compare that to a nine second Toyota Corolla on its way to the shops.

Having shown that the new cars are better (300,000 km is not unknown these days), however, what would you rather have? The Jaguar or the Corolla?