June 26, 2017

Baby and the Spitfire

How many of us remember the first car that we drove or our first proud possession? These memories can be mundane or precious, depending on which vehicle we handled in our precocious teenage years.

At the age of 14, I learned driving from my father’s driver on a car known as ‘Baby’ Morris. In an era where most vehicles were either black or white (the majority were Ambassadors or Fiats) with premium colors (at extra price) being blue or cream; the Baby Morris usually came in standard Maroon; making it stand out in the crowd.

My Morris Minor MM was 2-door sedan was originally manufactured by Morris Motors Limited from 1948 – 1972, in Cowley England. It was a part of the family of three variants; the Series II (1952) and Series 1000 (1956). The MM was made of what was then called the ‘unitary construction’ i.e. a vehicle of one piece frame and body structure, also called as unibody or unitized body, giving it a stronger and lighter frame. The car was spacious for its size, with excellent road handling and a quick accurate response to the steering. During the design stage, its designer – engineer Alex Issigonis named it the ‘project Mosquito’.

Baby Morris Car

The Baby was the first Morris vehicle to have an independent front suspension (aside from its unibody), and the rack and pinion steering system; making these technologies the fore-runners now used in most modern cars.  The engine itself was revolutionary and was designed to cheat the British taxman. In those days of the ‘Horsepower Tax’ was calculated from the total piston surface area (the “bore”). To minimize this tax, designers developed engines with a very long stroke and low piston surface area. The Baby thus had a 918cc side-valve engine that gave a top speed of about 95 km per hour and could accelerate from 0 – 80 km / hour in about 50 seconds (almost one minute). That was tortoise acceleration by today’s standards, but in those days of leaded petrol; it was a stable and powerful car that gave its drivers a sheer driving pleasure.

With its floor mounted stick-shift gear handle, a large size steering wheel with its chrome spokes, and a basic instrument panel, it was a rudimentary vehicle without frills or too much sophistication. Interestingly, it came with a factory fitted clock which was placed in the dashboard on the extreme left (in front of the front-passenger seat), making it hard for the driver to see it easily, but allowing the passengers to comment on the slowness of time.

Baby Morris Car 2

For those of us who love technical details, its wheel base was 2184 mm; length was 3759 mm and with width of 1524mm which was the same as its height of 1524 mm, giving it its box shape. At 775 Kg curb weight, it was quite a light car. By any standards it was a safe, sturdy and dependable car; a pleasure to own and drive.

Once I became a proficient and properly licensed driver, my usual ride was the one that I unofficially borrowed from my cousin. The Triumph – Herald Spitfire was manufactured by the Standard Triumph Company. The vehicle was of British origin, designed by Giovanni Michelotti in the late 1950s.

Spitfire via curbside classic

My two- door saloon / convertible car was the ‘spitfire’ model with 1147cc OHV (over head valve) engine connected to the 4-speed manual gearbox. With such a powerful engine and the synchromesh gearbox mounted on a chassis with a kerb weight of only 725 kg, it gave me the real “sport-car” experience of those days. It was also the first car in India that had front disk brakes. The other variant of this model was the lower grade Vitesse model with a 948cc OHV engine. Both variants had three unique features of those times. Firstly, the roof of the car could be unbolted from the body and the sedan could thus be converted into open tourer during good weather. Yes, in those days Bombay – as Mumbai was then known – did have few months of wonderful weather with nice breeze, and the fast sports-car made the drive much more fun. The second unique feature was that the complete front end hinged forward to allow access to the engine. The third was its rear suspension, an independent springing type via a single transverse leaf spring bolted to swinging axels, which gave the car a rather odd look with the rear tyres bending slightly inwards as they touched the roads. However, it did give the car good handling, lightest steering with the smallest turning circle of those times, and a tight control. With a height of only 1321 mm and ground clearance of approximately 177mm, it was the original ‘low rider’ that gave extra- stability when zooming around corners or on curving roads at higher than normal speeds.

Spitfire via retrorides

With its floor mounted stick-shift gear that was raised to height of the front seats, the usual feeling that the driver had was that of flying a fighter air-craft, rather than a just a car. Add to this the panoramic curved front wind-screen that gave a wide all-round visibility, the growling sound of the high-powered engine that consumed leaded petrol to give it that punch on acceleration, and the fighter pilot experience was complete. Not only did it handle like a World War II fighter aircraft, but with a wheel-base of 2311 mm, length of 3886 mm and width of 1524 mm; it also looked as if it was speeding, even when parked. The exhilarating part was with its acceleration. From 0-97 km per hour in 31 seconds; it was twice as fast as the Baby Morris on the uptake and with top speed of 110 – 115 km per hour, was definitely the rabbit as compared to the tortoise speed of the Morris.

Those were the fun days, the good days when humans drove the cars that were purely mechanical; and computerization was still unknown to civilization, as were safety seat-belts or inflating airbags. We drove by the seat of our pants, the mechanical steering column allowing drivers to connect with the road; the smooth patches, the potholes, the rough terrain notwithstanding; and we enjoyed the drives with the music of the wind in our ears and the devil riding shot-gun on our shoulders.

Note:    For the uninitiated, ‘leaded petrol’ was Petrol fuel that had as its integral component Tetraethyl-lead or  TEL, which was an octane rating booster that allowed the engine compression to be raised substantially which increased vehicle performance. TEL in automotive fuels was phased out from mid 1970s onwards due to its cumulative toxicity and negative impact on the environment.

Pics courtesy: (1) & (2) Wikipedia, (3) Curbsideclassic.com , (4) Retrorides.com

Article by ‘Sardar’ Sanjay Matkar (Twitter @sanjaymatkar)