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Tim Jarman is the polar opposite of that classic-car character we know so well: the bloke with big ideas but no strategy, who fills his garage and garden with half-finished projects he has neither the time, the funds nor the capability to finish; the man who never has a classic he can actually use and would rather buy another lost cause to feed the habit than confront the reality of his addiction.
Jarman, on the other hand, is a man of rationalism and control who has always had a ‘theme’: small cars with air-cooled engines.
He is, in fact, slightly horrified by anything with more than four cylinders that even hints at any kind of flamboyance or ostentation.
An electronics boffin by trade, he has a natural affinity with technically unconventional things including vintage hi-fi and other redundant technology.
He is fully hands-on, which means that he doesn’t spend money paying other people to do things that he can do himself.
With no particular allegiance to one make or model, his fully operational three-car line-up has as much variety as possible.
Ranging in engine size from 360cc to 1200cc, but not exceeding 34bhp, this unpretentious trio represents three different ways – from three different countries – of transporting four adults at no more than 70mph and with the minimum of expense.
“I just like small, air-cooled cars,” he says. “Probably because there are so many things you don’t have to worry about – radiators, internal corrosion, water pumps, hoses. But they also always tend to be interesting designs.”
Jarman has owned his 1959 VW Beetle for 13 years: “The first keeper bought the car from Colbornes in Ripley [the first Volkswagen dealer in Britain] in 1959 and had it for four years until 1963, when he went abroad and sold it to his nephew.
“Using the old MoTs and service records as a guide, it looks as if it has done 217,000 miles – twice round the clock and still going.
“The engine is the original one and the car has never been restored – I just had to get it back on the road. I rebuilt the engine last year and the crank was still on-spec for a new one.”
The VW is a magnet for thieves: “I can’t leave it anywhere these days because people try to pinch things off it – the bits are worth big money on eBay – but I still use it for driving to work because the parking is secure.”
“The previous owner brought it in from France, lost interest and left it down the side of his house,” explains Jarman. “He was keen on undoing things but not quite so good at putting them back together again!”
The green Honda N360, imported from Italy last year, is Jarman’s latest and perhaps most intriguing purchase to date.
“I’ve wanted one for a while because it is a logical extension of what I already have,” Jarman says. “And I can fit all three of them in my two-car garage. In fact I could probably squeeze in a Fiat 500 as well if I tried.”
At £560 when launched in the UK in 1968, the Honda’s sternest opposition was the identically priced BMC marvel Mini in 850 form, which explains the rarity of the N360 (and the more export-focused N600) in a market where sub-360cc vehicles did not enjoy the tax advantages prevalent in the Japanese kei class.
Kei customers didn’t have to garage their cars overnight or submit them to a regular safety check; even the driving test was easier.
The high equipment levels produced a few UK N360 converts – with items such as a heater, reversing lights and windscreen washers fitted as standard – but it didn’t really have a chance against the bigger, faster Mini.
On home turf it was a different story: the N360 was Honda’s breakthrough car in its domestic market.
Between its 1966 launch and 1967, Honda passenger-car sales went from 3209 units to 87,000 thanks to the new baby model.
By 1969 Honda had sold half a million ‘N’ cars, the 360 having been joined by the N400, N500 and N600.
The N360 effectively started a belated horsepower race in the Japanese mini-car class where 20bhp or less had once been the norm. Bear in mind that Honda had only started making cars in 1962.
The 360’s air-cooled parallel ‘twin’ powers the front wheels with a chain-drive to the clutch.
Like the Mini, its gearbox is in the sump but you get dog clutches rather than synchromesh, like a motorbike.
The single-overhead-cam engine has a combined starter/generator and on 354cc it makes 28bhp – an unheard of amount of grunt for such a tiny motor at the time – and will push the little Honda to 70mph.
Although Jarman says you don’t really want to cruise at more than about 55mph, having braved a hairy drive up the M40 to the NEC Classic Motor Show last November where the N360 was on display.
Otherwise it has been used mostly locally. “I’ve done a car-boot sale in the Honda,” says Jarman. “I could have sold the car a thousand times.”
This N360 was homologated for France but sold new in Italy. “I can’t imagine there was a big market for them in Italy,” says Jarman, “but it is a hundred times better than a Fiat 500: much faster, better made and, I would imagine, more reliable.
“Having said that, short engine life is the curse of these cars because it’s all motorcycle technology and ’bikes don’t do big miles, really. This one has had its engine changed once. It’s very dependent on regular oil changes.”
The tyres are the same size as a Mini’s and you can still buy oil filters from Honda.
Whereas the engine is the best thing about most Hondas, in this case the actual car as an entity is interesting.
The N360 is about the same size as a Fiat 500 and, with its wheel-at-each-corner stance, was evidently inspired by the Mini.
At less than 10ft in length it is cute as a button but not comical in the way some microcars are. It holds its own.
As an exercise in packaging efficiency it rivals the British car with usable rear seats and a fair-sized boot, its lid moulded in plastic. The radio aerial lives in the B-pillar.
There’s lots of glass so you don’t feel hemmed in and the dashboard, with its fake wood and massive glovebox, feels grown-up.
Recessed doorhandles and padded sunvisors – embossed with ‘Honda’ – add to the sense that this is not an entirely ‘poverty’ experience.
The Japanese manufacturers learned how to make cars quickly and the Honda drives like a ‘modern’.
The overwhelming first impression of the N360 on the road is how noisy it is, although not quite in the Fiat 500 ‘garden machinery’ class.
It’s a willing engine that smooths out fairly well at 40mph, with another 10mph to spare in third if you exploit the engine’s full 8500rpm potential. You need to if you want to extract any sort of meaningful performance out of it.
Luckily the gearchange, which pokes out from under the dash, works beautifully and is very much there to be used, with a smooth, nifty action that only gets mildly obstructive coming down through the gears.
As a city car the N360’s diminutive size and quick steering make it almost as handy as a motorcycle, with the ability to nip into gaps and make sharp changes of direction you would not dream of in almost anything else. It even takes speed bumps well.
If you don’t mind the noise and are not easily intimidated by lorries and buses, it’s the one car that is almost certainly more fun in an urban environment than a countryside one.
The appeal of Volkswagens is not entirely lost on me, although I think Jarman’s is the only Beetle I have driven for any serious distance.
Designed to cruise at maximum speed on the autobahns that inspired its creation, the VW is as relaxed as the Honda is frantic; with a high 18mph per 1000rpm in top gear, at 70mph the famously durable air-cooled boxer ‘four’ is turning over at just 4000rpm.
It was still an entirely relevant small family car in the late ’50s and early’ 60s, even though the basic design was more than 20 years old. At less than £700 it was also competitively priced against the Morris Minor and Austin A40 local competition.
This car is one of 575,407 built in 1959. Yearly production didn’t breach the million mark until 1965, by which time the Beetle was already the slightly irritating ‘phenomenon’ we know today.
That’s not the car’s fault. Putting aside your preconceptions and prejudices, what you are left with is a dependable, faithful and beautifully made saloon with an unmistakable character.
The VW smells German inside in some hard to define way, and displays a mixture of excellent finish and bare-bones austerity that is both practical and self-flagellating, although there is a hint of decadence in the jolly white steering wheel and matching switchgear, which includes such anachronisms as a cut-off tap for the front-mounted petrol tank.
The doors shut superbly and their window winders have a smooth action.
The pedals emerge from the footwell, which is slightly pinched by the intrusion of the wheel box, and the gearlever comes vertically out of the central spine of the floorpan.
Its light, precise action is one of the nicest things about the VW; likewise the smooth and light steering, which has less than three turns between good locks.
You sense the limitations of the weight distribution and the swing-axles, but getting a reaction out of them is more work than you might imagine.
For all normal purposes the car handles neatly enough, and rides rather well.
In a straight line, 34bhp’s worth of flat-four won’t be rushed, but it gets up there in the end.
Forcing the issue in the lower gears just means more racket rather than discernible acceleration.
Getting to 60mph will take up half a minute of your life that you will never get back and, like all of these air-cooled cars, fuel economy suffers disproportionately when you thrash it, so there’s little point.
At higher speeds in top the soft rattle drifts away, as tends to be the case with rear engines, and it all starts to make some sense.
The Ami 8 is an origami French biscuit tin that brings back memories of the sort of hippy teachers that used to drive such vehicles when I was at school.
Launched in 1969, the Citroën unsurprisingly had its origins in the 1961 Ami 6, but also had overtones of the C60 and Project F prototypes conceived at huge expense in the marque’s bungled attempts to build a car that would slot between the Ami and ID19, and at the same time take on the Renault 16.
This was not that car, but with 755,000 sold between 1968 and 1978 it has to be deemed a success.
A small five-door estate with comfy cloth-covered bench seats, nothing about the Ami is conventional. Yet it works.
Inside there is only reasonable headroom, but the floor is flat and the rear load-space is usefully proportioned.
The single-spoke wheel allows good views of the 140kph speedometer and everything, apart from the heater controls, is worked via column stalks.
The wacky handles look like quotation marks and the door glass slides rather than winds.
The priapic gearlever pokes from under the dash to give fairly quick changes in a ’box that needs to be stirred freely to keep the noisy flat-twin on the boil, mainly using second and third.
Handily the shift is spring-loaded in that plane, with fourth down and back.
Revs rise and fall lethargically and you need to keep them up unless you want to turn into a mobile traffic jam.
The interconnected leading-arm front, trailing-arm rear suspension gives the Ami a wonderfully soft ride that floats over any traffic calming measures it encounters.
This comes at the expense of massive body roll but, being a Citroën, it doesn’t compromise the roadholding so you can throw the Ami around with impunity for as long as your passengers will take it.
Some car collections are random, others have too much of the same thing – which can get boring no matter how interesting the model in question might be.
Jarman’s small fleet of classics is cerebrally satisfying rather than viscerally exciting, a considered set of cars built around the theme of air cooling and the way different marques and countries faced the challenges of making small, affordable vehicles for an increasingly mobilised society.
Noise, emissions and the fact that people wanted better heating systems meant that air cooling was not the answer
Beetle, N360 and Ami buyers would, in any case, probably have turned their backs on these cars long before they were legislated out of existence. Luckily, all three firms saw the writing was on the wall before it was too late.
Doubtless there will be a fourth occupant of this motor house before long.
The point is, owning more than one old car can turn into such an undisciplined, messy and ultimately stressful pastime if you get it wrong that it’s refreshing to find somebody who gets the balance very right.
Images: James Mann
- Sold/number built 1967-’70/1145 (UK imports)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, sohc 354cc ‘twin’, with single Keihin carburettor
- Max power 31bhp @ 8500rpm
- Max torque 22lb ft @ 5500rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual or three-speed Hondamatic, FWD
- Suspension: front independent by struts, coil springs rear beam axle, leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes drums all round
- Length 9ft 10in (2955mm)
- Width 4ft 3in (1295mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1345mm)
- Wheelbase 6ft 6¾in (2000mm)
- Weight 1114lb (505kg)
- 0-60mph 29.3 secs
- Top speed 73mph
- Mpg 52.3
- Price new £536
- Price now £5-10,000*
Citroën Ami 8
- Sold/number built 1969-’78/755,000
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, ohv 602cc flat-twin, single Solex carburettor
- Max power 32bhp @ 5750rpm
- Max torque 30lb ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by leading arms rear trailing arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs front, drums rear
- Length 13ft 1in (3990mm)
- Width 4ft 11¾in (1520mm)
- Height 4ft 10¾in (1490mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10½in (2400mm)
- Weight 1598lb (725kg)
- 0-60mph 31.7secs
- Top speed 72mph
- Mpg 44
- Price new £649
- Price now £3-6000*
- Sold/number built 1945-2003/21,529,464
- Construction tubular central spine with welded floorplans, steel body
- Engine all-alloy, 1192cc flat-four, single Solex carburettor
- Max power 34bhp @ 3600rpm
- Max torque 65Ib ft @ 2400rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by trailing arms rear swing-axles, trailing arms; torsion bars, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering worm and roller
- Brakes drums all round
- Length 13ft 4¼in (4070mm)
- Width 5ft ½in (1540mm)
- Height 4ft 11in (1500mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10½in (2400mm)
- Weight 1609Ib (730kg)
- 0-60mph 32.1secs
- Top speed 72mph
- Mpg 38.7
- Price new £617
- Price now £10-25,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication