Twelve bad reasons to leave Wolseley in the bin of history

The news that MG is planning to revive some of its marques from the days of British Leyland fills Brian Sewell with dismay and disbelief
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Rumours that MG Rover, the last historic British car still, by a ruse, in independent British ownership, is perhaps to revive some of the marques with which it was associated in the dreadful days of British Leyland, should be greeted with snorts of dismay and disbelief.

Rumours that MG Rover, the last historic British car still, by a ruse, in independent British ownership, is perhaps to revive some of the marques with which it was associated in the dreadful days of British Leyland, should be greeted with snorts of dismay and disbelief.

Take Wolseley, an older marque than Rover -- 1896 to the latter's upstart 1904 -- which most of us remember, if at all, as a Morris of some kind, up-marketed with a classic radiator, with luck a second carburettor and, quite certainly, a higher price, a booted Mini its most ridiculous manifestation. What, in the name of reason and enlightenment, could be the point of resurrecting this classic of badge-engineering?

The last Wolseleys to be, at least in looks, marginally independent of Morris parentage, were those of the immediate post-war years -- two chubby little things called the "Eight" and "Ten'", two six-cylinder saloons much favoured by the police, dubbed the "Fourteen'" and the "Eighteen", and the "Twelve".

Oh dear: the Twelve. This was essentially the Fourteen with a four-cylinder engine of 1.5 litres under a shortened bonnet, on a chassis cut by six inches to save weight. Only 25kg were saved, and the bonnet, up-tilted by the radiator, made the car look as though it had been butted by a baby elephant.

It was a dreadful car, a thing of pomp but not of circumstance, designed to appeal to the Hyacinth Buckets of the day. It weighed as much as a middling Mercedes now, but its antique Morris engine produced the power of the basic Smart; with a mere 44 bhp at 4,000 rpm.

With five passengers, and luggage for a fortnight's holiday, journeys of 15 hours from Tooting to Torquay were regarded as sprightly, but any family attempting to climb Porlock Hill did so with it rather than in it.

At the foot of such a hazard, not even crashing in good time into the unsynchromeshed first gear would persuade the car to climb more than the first few rungs of the gradient.

Drivers were compelled to off-load passengers and tackle the ordeal alone, the wretched little engine droning its head off with the unaccustomed revs. On the open road it trundled jauntily enough at 40 mph, and with a following wind and favourable gradient might reach a mile-a-minute, but its consumption of 25mpg dropped below 20mpg if one played the fool too often.

This Twelve first came on the market in November 1938 and was re-introduced in November 1945, five months after the war's end; at £627, nearly three times its pre-war price, it cost as much as a backstreet Chelsea cottage. The only changes were that power was reduced from 48bhp to 44bhp, and that black was the only colour.

What, if anything, can be said in favour of this car? It had a chassis of iron girders that gave it great strength as well as the weight that was its undoing, and the sprung steel bumpers were keyed into this, offering the body really good protection.

Jacking was hydraulic and freed all four wheels with a lever operated from the driver's seat, and the spare wheel and tools were in their own boot.

Beyond this we enter the world of catalogue-speak: Suspension was "phased" and the car rode evenly because "the periodicities of front and rear springs respond differently to bumps". The steel body was constructed of "Wind-Hush" mouldings that reduced air speed noise. Did the writer of the catalogue later become an art critic, I wonder?

This car would have roared with wind resistance as much as any other had it been fast enough to do so. Its air of gentlemanly refinement lay primarily in its poor performance. Well screwed together it was, "hand-built by craftsmen of experience and trained in quality", but there was nothing innovative; it was a backward-looking, gutless wonder of the kind that brought the British motor industry into disrepute.

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