The Autocar’s first road test was in 1928
Can the first car this magazine road tested have anything in common with the most recent? We find out
Perhaps the single most remarkable thing about The Autocar (as it was then) conducting and publishing the world’s first road test back in 1928 is that neither we, nor anyone else, didn’t do it a hell of a lot sooner than that.
By 1928, the car as we know it was more than 40 years old, for goodness’ sake.
The first cars were 19th-century horseless carriages built at colossal expense as amusing playthings for the rich and brave and fitted with solid tyres, tiller steering and total-loss lubrication where oil was essentially poured from tank to ground via the insides of the engine. Yet there was still enough interest in them that in 1895 Henry Sturmey deemed demand to be sufficient for “a journal published in the interests of the mechanically propelled road carriage”. Yet it still took The Autocar 33 years to get around to actually applying sufficient rigour to its assessments to call them ‘road tests’.
By that time, the cars had changed out of all proportion. To prove this point, join me in Herefordshire where my cooing over a very charming old Austin Seven is about to be rather rudely interrupted.
The Austin in question has a double connection to Autocar. Not only is it a 1928 model, as was our first road test car 90 years ago, but it’s also owned by one John Lilley, who was once our chief sub-editor. This Austin differs from that original test car only insofar as it lacks that car’s Gordon England saloon bodywork, but, to me at least, it is all the better for it. To me a Seven is an open two-door four-seater, headlights mounted at the side, not the front. While the notion of modifying Sevens spawned an entire industry, John’s car is completely standard and thus the perfect window on the motoring world of 90 years ago.
Then we hear it, snarling and snapping as it prowls up the road towards us. Even today it looks like something conceived in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future, and that’s before it parks next to somethingas simple, small and pretty as the Austin. The Senna has arrived.
At once I feel foolish. The gap is just too big. It is like comparing a product of the latest computer-aided design to a cave painting, an abacus to the avionics bay of a Dreamliner. But the truth is that the Austin was the car The Autocar was testing then, and the Senna is the car Autocar is testing now. Yes, we could have got a 41⁄2 Litre Bentley, a brand new product in 1928 whose performance was so incredible its top speed was double that of the average car of the era (and a stat even the Senna can’t boast). But we’d still be presenting to you a car on spindly tyres, with drum brakes at every corner and a four-cylinder engine under its bonnet, and it would still only do 92mph. And anyway, we didn’t test one in 1928.
Which would you drive first? The Austin, to make the Senna feel even quicker than it actually is, or the McLaren, to make the Seven feel even more puny by comparison? For me it’s the Senna for, professionally at least, I am a creature of the modern world and ridiculous though I know it is, I am up to speed with hypercard performance and that wrecking ball acceleration will seem if not normal, then certainly familiar – more familiar, I expect, than what the Austin has to offer.
In fact, it feels almost manageable as I find the first stretch of safe, open road and try to put 789bhp to work. Yes, straights don’t really exist and you can’t be on the power for more than a moment or two without numbers highly prejudicial to your licence and liberty appearing on the screen, but even foot flat to the floor, the Senna still seems somehow containable. But then a little thought and an ‘I wonder’ moment.
So I press the button that turns the traction control off and try again, whereupon something close to pandemonium breaks out. The car doesn’t actually accelerate any faster but the dashboard is flashing different colours at me, there’s a strange whooshing noise from the back end and I’m suddenly having to work the steering really rather hard, which is odd given that this is a straight road. What has happened is that a pair of the grippiest, stickiest tyres ever bolted to a road car are in the process of self-immolation, and because this road has cambers and a less than pristine surface, the back of the Senna has developed a highly independent mind of its own. On a private facility I found it would do this all way through first, second and quite a bit of third gear.
This means the limiting factor of this car on the public road is the grip of its Pirelli Trofeo R tyres, which tend to be the go-to choice for manufacturers wanting to break the Nürburgring lap record. Gerhard Berger once said that a Formula 1 car would only have enough power if it could spin its wheels at any speed, in any gear in any place on the circuit.
Well, if you limit that speed window to what a sane and skilled driver might choose to do on a deserted, wide and open public road, you can say as much about the Senna. And really the most incredible thing about it all, to me at least, is the way the electronics contrive to keep you safe without any sense of intrusion at all. At times it just feels like a 500bhp car, at others maybe like a 600bhp car. Just occasionally you might ascribe the work of 700bhp to the sensations you are feeling, but away from the race track it’s a …read more