It’s 30 years, to the week, since I arrived in the UK from Australia to take up a job as a motoring journalist.
In practice, life was quite different. I’d been immersed in a culture of big-capacity, American-influenced V8 cars built by the Big Three (who are still in the news) with a restricted collection of Japanese cars, some locally built, in support. European cars were acknowledged as the leaders in technology and sophistication, but they were expensive and fairly rare because ‘foreign’ cars attracted high tariffs.
Thinking back to those days, when the Ford Cortina was a top-seller, the Jaguar XJ-S was still fairly new on the market and the best thing in the Rover stable was the SD1, it’s no great surprise that we’ve made huge progress in every single facet of automotive design: dynamics, styling and straight-line performance.
In the end, the car industry sells by making progress - I believe I could have looked forward from late 1978 and anticipated quite a bit of what we’ve achieved.
There are some areas, however, where I don’t believe anyone could have anticipated the change. The first is body roll, the second is fuel consumption.
When I was a junior road tester, responsible for producing wild-as-possible cornering shots to punctuate four-car comparisons once or twice a month (usually using the taxiways of Cranfield aerodrome, in Bedfordshire) the best-riding cars rolled a lot on corners and the stiffer ones didn’t. A Renault 14 would literally double the lean angle of a Golf.
Nowadays nothing rolls like it did. Even the softest, supplest cars stay flat. The Jaguar XJ6 was one of the first in my memory to achieve the feat of combining a compliant ride with flat cornering, but nowadays it’s no big deal.
Jaguars illustrate the extent of progress. I remember weekend trips to the West Country in an XJ-S, when I was proud to return 16 mpg in what should have been a 12-14mpg car. Despite a weight gain of at least 500kg thanks to safety structure and extras, the quicker, more powerful Jaguar XKR that we recently ran would easily return 23mpg when cruising – and some of us achieved as much as 27mpg.
One of my few regrets, perhaps because it represents a serial failure on the part of motoring hacks, is that we’ve never managed to get the wider public to understand the extent of these gains.
Onlookers who don’t understand much either about the motor industry’s high ethical standards, or the sheer engineering tour-de-force of halving a big engine’s fuel mileage (and slashing its toxic emissions by a far greater percentage) are inclined to ignore such progress, and not give the engineers the credit they deserve. It’s one area where we will all have to try harder.