The Mercedes 230SL was very handsome, and it sure did handle well. But, again, I thought it was underpowered for the money. The model I drove had the Mercedes automatic transmission. It was the best from Europe that I have come across, but if I were buying the car I would take the four-speed manual. To be fair about this automatic, it shifted quite accurately, and there was no slugging or mushing. It snapped right in. For people who do not like to shift in traffic the car would be very suitable. This Mercedes is an outstanding lady's car, yet it will also take some manhandling. I drove it hard and got it out of shape a bit, and the car behaved very nicely, never tried to bite me.
Like the 230SL, the other German car, the Porsche 911, was a six, but a very different kind of six. The Mercedes straight-six is in the front. The Porsche flat-six, with horizontally opposed cylinders—an engine developed from the Grand Prix car of a few seasons ago—is in the rear. I was curious to see how much the Porsche had changed since I raced my Super, which had the four-cylinder engine. Boy, it's changed. Road noise used to be a problem with that rear-engine location, but on the 911 I got very little noise. The old Porsches had that violent oversteer tendency, and they would get out of whack with no warning. You'd be hung out and locked in your steering with nowhere to go. We used to decamber the rear wheels 2��, to 3��, so they kind of looked like somebody had sat on them, and toe them in half a degree to get a certain amount of stability. Now the problem has been corrected. The 911 was a very neutral-handling car, very docile, very pleasant to drive, and the five-speed gearbox sure was easy to use. The brakes were just fine. Once a gust of wind caught me on the back straight and slid me over a few feet, but the car didn't get radical in its handling.
There is a four-cylinder Porsche—the less expensive 912—and I imagine it has a little more snap at low RPM than the 911 but not as much top speed. With that six the 911 honks right along.
The English cars, the Aston Martin DB6 (minus the James Bond gadgets) and the Jaguar 2+2, are examples of the current trend toward stretching out the old type of Grand Touring two-seater to make some room in the back for kids or small adults. If your friends have 29-inch waists, you're O.K. The cars have somewhat similar engines—straight-sixes with overhead cams.
After driving the 2+2 with automatic transmission I felt that if you really wanted to get on it a manual box would be a must in this car. I thought the transmission was sluggish. Since the car was very new, I had to keep the RPMs down and I didn't push it. I had driven the two-seater XK-E and, as far as I could see, the 2+2 handled just like it, which is bloody good. I found it very smooth down the back straight at 110 mph. The seat was fine; the visibility was good; the brakes were solid. There is great appeal in the 2+2 for the man who will accept a compromise. He can put his two kids in the back, run his wife in the front and take off for his vacation. My wife was kind of keen on that 2+2. I don't see how they make it for the price.
The Aston, let's face it, is a gentleman's automobile. Neil was crazy about it, and I thought it handled very, very well. There are two things that I would like to see them do with the car: put wider wheel rims on it so you get more meat on the road and redesign the seats to give you more control of lateral thrust. I found that I had to hold onto the door with one hand going around corners. I'll say this, I was driving it a little harder, perhaps, than the average person would, and Jimmie O'Brien, whose personal car it was, took it like a gentleman.
The Aston is not a light car, by any means, but the brakes were quite good; there was slight fade after some exceptionally hard use. But, shifting up from fourth to fifth at top revs, you seemed to lose all your beans, lose your power. Both Jaguar and Aston may have to go to more cylinders some day to stay competitive. Nowadays the American market is putting out V-8 blocks that are able to pull 400 to 425 horsepower, stock. Those long-stroke English sixes are beginning to be just a little bit old-fashioned by comparison.
The Corvette was one of those V-8s, and the Cobra another. I was very impressed by the Corvette. Other than the Ferrari, it was the best car I drove at Riverside. And let's face it, it went out the door at $5,500 instead of $14,000. It had the big 427-inch turbocharged engine, and the four-speed gearbox, the stiffer suspension, short steering, and they were running low-silhouette racing tires on it. No question, it's a brute, a terribly quick car. It must be one of the fastest production cars you can buy for that kind of money.
I was doing a notch over 140 mph in it and could have gone faster. The brakes bobbled a bit at first. I got a little sideways on my first lap when I dive-braked coming into the shutoff marker for Turn Nine. But as soon as the brakes warmed up on the second lap they seated right in. The car handled just beautifully. Once I was going to race one of the old Corvettes, but I passed on it because it handled so badly. GM has done a wonderful job of making the Sting Ray handle right. At Riverside somebody turned on a sprinkler that got some water on the track, and as I was going into Turn One doing 120, I hit it. I kind of got on tippytoes when I hit the water, lifted everything and tippytoed through it, and then I got back on it right away to clear off the tires. No problem. No panic. The gearbox was smooth, and the ride was not stiff or bumpy. Yet when I threw the car into a slide I didn't pick up any rear wheels and I could straighten right out again.
The Cobra I enjoyed very much for its acceleration, which is brutal, and its brakes, which really get you stopped. I could not get a realistic idea of how well this particular car can corner, because the gas would slosh to one side of the carburetor bowl and starve out the engine. I know the work Carroll Shelby has put into the car, and I realize that the ones he prepares for racing are set up just right, so I am reluctant to call myself an expert on it. My knees were crying ouch an awful lot because of the seating position. When I went to hit the brakes I would hit my knee on the steering wheel, which could be a little smaller. But it was a real stoplight bandit on acceleration. I understand the 427 can get up to 100 mph and get stopped in just over 13 seconds. That is motoring.