90 years special: McLaren Senna vs Austin Seven road test

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The Austin in question has a double connection to Autocar. Not only is it a 1928 model, as was our first road test car 90 years ago, but it’s also owned by one John Lilley, who was once our chief sub-editor. This Austin differs from that original test car only insofar as it lacks that car’s Gordon England saloon bodywork, but, to me at least, it is all the better for it. To me a Seven is an open two-door four-seater, headlights mounted at the side, not the front. While the notion of modifying Sevens spawned an entire industry, John’s car is completely standard and thus the perfect window on the motoring world of 90 years ago.

Then we hear it, snarling and snapping as it prowls up the road towards us. Even today it looks like something conceived in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future, and that’s before it parks next to somethingas simple, small and pretty as the Austin. The Senna has arrived.

At once I feel foolish. The gap is just too big. It is like comparing a product of the latest computer-aided design to a cave painting, an abacus to the avionics bay of a Dreamliner. But the truth is that the Austin was the car The Autocar was testing then, and the Senna is the car Autocar is testing now. Yes, we could have got a 41⁄2 Litre Bentley, a brand new product in 1928 whose performance was so incredible its top speed was double that of the average car of the era (and a stat even the Senna can’t boast). But we’d still be presenting to you a car on spindly tyres, with drum brakes at every corner and a four-cylinder engine under its bonnet, and it would still only do 92mph. And anyway, we didn’t test one in 1928.

Which would you drive first? The Austin, to make the Senna feel even quicker than it actually is, or the McLaren, to make the Seven feel even more puny by comparison? For me it’s the Senna for, professionally at least, I am a creature of the modern world and ridiculous though I know it is, I am up to speed with hypercard performance and that wrecking ball acceleration will seem if not normal, then certainly familiar – more familiar, I expect, than what the Austin has to offer. 

In fact, it feels almost manageable as I find the first stretch of safe, open road and try to put 789bhp to work. Yes, straights don’t really exist and you can’t be on the power for more than a moment or two without numbers highly prejudicial to your licence and liberty appearing on the screen, but even foot flat to the floor, the Senna still seems somehow containable. But then a little thought and an ‘I wonder’ moment.

So I press the button that turns the traction control off and try again, whereupon something close to pandemonium breaks out. The car doesn’t actually accelerate any faster but the dashboard is flashing different colours at me, there’s a strange whooshing noise from the back end and I’m suddenly having to work the steering really rather hard, which is odd given that this is a straight road. What has happened is that a pair of the grippiest, stickiest tyres ever bolted to a road car are in the process of self-immolation, and because this road has cambers and a less than pristine surface, the back of the Senna has developed a highly independent mind of its own. On a private facility I found it would do this all way through first, second and quite a bit of third gear.

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