Davis: Letter from London by Mike Davis (12/6/2004)
On what our neighbors across the pond are driving this year.
As noted at the end of my recent Letter from London (TCC 12/6/04), there seems to be a dearth of car museums in the London area, if not in all of Great Britain.
This is surprising because in general Britain has splendid museums, mostly free, covering a variety of subjects.
However, the Science Museum, a part of the U.K.’s National Museum of Science and Industry and located in a cluster of public museums in London’s West End, has a large exhibit hall devoted to the evolution of transportation.
This main floor (“Ground” level in European usage, not “First” as in America) display puts the motor car into the perspective of the typical centuries-deep British experience, the latest in a continuum from horse-drawn carriages and early steam railroad engines.
For example, there’s a handsome Royal Mail coach, dating from 1810. Recall that early Chevrolet roadsters, vintages 1914 to 1922, were called Royal Mails. What a great model name — wonder why GM never revived it?
Anyhow, these horse-drawn coaches carried mail and passengers the 200 miles between
Next in the sequence, there’s the oldest steam locomotive, dating from 1814 and first used not to transport passengers or general cargo, but rather to move coal from a mine to water-borne transportation. In
The next car on chronological display, a brass-radiator Ford Model T, demonstrates this chassis layout pattern. Curiously, the T on exhibit is left-hand drive. The labeling did not indicate whether it was built in North America or
Frankly, I was surprised to see this ubiquitous American car so prominently displayed where I had expected to see Rolls-Royce and other notable British marques. The point of the T being exhibited, nevertheless, was its dominance of worldwide production by the 1920s, when the word "Ford" had become synonymous for "car" in some languages and in many places. Indeed, the leading Ford historian in the
On to the “first” floor
At this point in the
The vertical space thus opened allows for an unusual pylon display of "popular" — that is, entry-level — cars familiar to
Parked beside the pylon is another historically significant car, an experimental 1950 Rover roadster with a gas turbine engine. This is notable because it came out several years before General Motors and Chrysler experimental turbine cars in the U.S. GM’s futuristic Firebird I was introduced at the 1954 Motorama.
Around the corner is
The final significant bit of British motoring history displayed at the Science Museum is the low-priced sports roadster, in this case a 1961 Austin-Healey Sprite Mk I, known in U.K. as the "frogeye" model and in the U.S. as bug-eyed. No matter, it sold for 669 pounds sterling, with an 83-mph top and an unimpressive 0-60 of 20 seconds, according to the labeling. Thanks to veteran auto journalist Jack Teahan at Automotive News, I can report a new Sprite sold for $1795 in the
The exhibit invites you to climb into the car to "experience what a sports car of the time was like" or words to that effect. I tried. I really tried. I just couldn’t fold my 73-year-old somewhat-tubby body and limbs into the close quarters of the driver seat.
If you’re not familiar with RHD stick-shift cars, did you ever wonder just how the pedals are arranged and whether the shift pattern is reversed like the steering? The answer is, the pedals are not changed, just moved over, and the shift pattern is the same as on a LHD car.
Which reminds me, in 1961, floor-mounted transmission controls were something of a novelty on both sides of the pond. Following American custom established by 1940, European sedans had column shifts, not "three-on-the-tree" selectors, but four-speed sticks on the column. There was the normal "H" pattern plus a pull-down extra leg for reverse.
Examining the controls of the Sprite did remind me of early experiences with British sports cars in the Fifties. Specifically, that the pedal space was very cramped — Brits, I thought then, must have awfully tiny feet, because invariably my size 9-1/2 Cs would depress two pedals when I only wanted one.
Another pair of cars in the transportation hall were examples of the postwar "microcar," Messerschmidt and BMW three-wheeled enclosed cyclecars. But they weren’t Brit.
Curiously, suspended over the cars was a shiny twin-engine 1935 Lockheed Electra, identical to the plane in which famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart disappeared on a 1937 cross-Pacific flight. An accompanying VCR screen showed rare film of her last take-off from
I include these tidbits to emphasize that often as not, car enthusiasts also are interested in aviation history, and for Americans, Britain seems to be where history was invented — and continues to this day.