The other Sunday morning I pulled my McLaren F1 into a Cars & Coffee meet. A young man, probably in his mid-20s, approached me. ‘What’s it like to drive a car like that, with no driver aids of any kind?’ he asked.
In his driving life, about ten years, he has probably never driven a car without them. In my driving life, which is considerably longer, most of the cars I own and drive have no driver aids at all.
A good example is my #1953-Hudson-Hornet
, made just before the advent of power steering and power brakes so everything is nicely weighted and balanced, this was the first American post-war design that was totally fresh and new. It featured a Monobilt Step-Down design; that’s where the floor pan was not on top of the frame but on the bottom of it. this not only lowered the car but gave you more headroom. At 60in tall, the Hudson was a good 6in or so lower than its competitors, this gave it a much lower centre of gravity and made it the best-handling American car of the era. It ruled NASCAR in the early ’50s; what it couldn’t do on the straight it made up in corners.
Its Achilles’ heel was its 308ci flathead six-cylinder engine with two single-barrel carburettors, which in Hudson-speak was called Twin H-Power. In 1949, Oldsmobile revealed its new 303ci overhead-valve Rocket V8 that, with a four-barrel carburettor, gave 160bhp. Actually that was the same as the Hudson Hornet, but with those two extra cylinders and the gold valve covers it was a lot sexier.
I have a film strip that Hudson sent to dealers, to show prospective customers. It features two cars with the bonnets up: a Rocket 88 and a Hornet. Standing next to the Rocket 88, an exasperated customer yells to a mechanic in a filthy coverall, ‘Why does it take so long to tune up this car?’ ‘It’s those pesky overhead valves,’ the mechanic explains, ‘they’re just too complicated.’
then the camera pans to the Hudson mechanic who, in his clean, freshly pressed uniform, is gently closing the Hudson’s bonnet after torquing the heads, saying, ‘there you go Mr Johnson, she’s fit as a fiddle.’ As the Hudson owner beams with pride, he pulls away knowing he made the right choice with the tried and true flathead design. For a lot of people the last days of old technology were always better than the first days of new technology.
A really old-school Hudson feature was that the clutch is lined with cork and runs in oil. It’s amazing how smooth and reliable it is. Another Hudson quirk is two braking systems, in case one fails: a hydraulic system and a mechanical back-up. It’s said that Stuart Baits, the chief engineer, had a bad accident and was seriously injured while testing Hudson’s new hydraulic brake system.
Baits installed a steel rod, running from the brake pedal to the emergency brake on the rear wheels, to stop the car if the brake pedal ever went past the halfway point. As Henry Ford, who resisted hydraulic brakes up until the 1930s, said: ‘the safety of steel from pedal to wheel.’
If you ever want to talk no driver aids, look no further than the 1913 Mercer Raceabout. I consider this to be, at least in America, the first true sports car. While other manufacturers were putting a huge lump of an engine, some as big as 12 litres, into a lightweight frame, the Mercer, which also has a lightweight frame, has a five-litre, four-cylinder T-head engine, thus making an extremely well-balanced package. It also features a four-speed gearbox and is one of the fastest and best- handling cars of the era, with a top speed of 100mph.
It has a monocle windshield bolted to the steering column, no doors and minimal bodywork, the gas pedal is outside the car on the frame rail; your feet are so far apart that the women who’ve driven it say it’s akin to visiting the gynaecologist.
the brakes don’t so much stop the car as merely retard progress. You have an outside handbrake which stops the rear wheels only, here’s a foot pedal that works as a transmission brake on the propshaft. Caution: use this too often and it will catch fire.
Apart from the magneto, the Raceabout has no electrics. Even though electric lamps were popular, it has gas lamps, the advantage was that you could pop off the lamps, unbolt the fenders and go racing.
My favourite thing is the exhaust cut-out to bypass the silencer. A pedal by your left foot opens the exhaust at the bottom of the manifold, the T-head engine, in full song, sounds like four shotguns fired in unison.
If you’re a real purist about no driver aids, how about this? here’s no electric starter, so you have to hand-crank it. Take that, McLaren F1: who needs an electric starter anyway? Now we’re talking about no driver aids.