Underwhelmed by slushers? Try a Saracen


Today we're going to talk about terrible transmissions. First though, a word about Subaru. It's hard not to feel sorry for their PR team. Once, Subarus were an easy sell because of their fine motorsports heritage and unique mechanical character. A mate of mine does a brilliant impression of a WRX accelerating simply by humming a rising note while his face is immersed in a big bowl of custard.


In today's brave new fuel-sipping world, the features that made Subarus special are now regarded with a warmth bordering on hatred. Lumbered in more ways than one with an outdated sporting legacy, overworked PR folk are obliged to scratch around like famished hens for credible new story ideas.

For the 2018 Impreza, they've been reduced to bragging about how well it's done in Japan's strict crash tests. Accident protection is important, obviously, but it's surely better not to have an accident in the first place. Frustrated 2018 Impreza drivers may struggle to do that because they will be concentrating too hard on driving around the inherent limitations of the awful CVT gearbox that these cars have been stuck with.

CVTs don't need to be awful. Ford's C-MAX TDCi wasn't notable for much, but when it had a Durashift auto gearbox it became strangely appealing. The Durashift CVT was (and for all I know still is) an electronically-controlled, stepless, belt-driven automatic which allowed the driver a choice of fully automatic or sequential manual modes, with seven preset gear 'ratios'.

The best feature of the Durashift was its stubborn refusal to allow the engine to rev. It delivered the next ratio as soon as the engine could take it. So, instead of the usual laboured cow-in-a-trench lowing associated with CVTs constantly aiming for the power peak, the only sound a C-MAX Durashift made was a fussless thrum as the C-MAX smoothly surfed on low-end torque. It was an eerie and pleasing thing.


Transmissions have certainly moved on a bit since Alvis, in its very finite wisdom, decided to fit a pre-selector gearbox to its mid-1950s FV603 Saracen armoured personnel carrier. You might think a 6-litre Rolls-Royce eight-cylinder engine producing just 160bhp would be unstressed, but that's the last word you'd use to describe the tortured yowl the engine makes when it's trying to shove this horrible iron warthog up a slippery slope. The racket is something else.

The driver's desperate search for power meant that any torque the Rolls lump might have had was effortlessly bypassed. Constant gear-stirring was required. And that's where your problems started.

To work the Saracen's pre-selector setup, you must occasionally depress the clutch pedal. Sounds easy, but it isn't. The clutch pedal's whimsical location and steam-hammer linkage require any driver to have a laterally-displaceable kneecap, a hip joint like a dredger's anchor and a left leg the size of Berlin to operate it. Anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves squinting bravely through an oily haze of tears and sweat while driving a Saracen on a military vehicle 'fun experience' will be full of admiration for the nutritionally-stunted National Service squaddies who had to wrestle these horrors on a daily basis.

So, Subaru, look ye to Ford and the Durashift. As belt drives go, that one was quite literally belting. And if any PHer wants a measure of how far things have progressed in the world of transmissions, buy a Saracen - but first make sure you've also budgeted for a jerrycan of petrol, a box of matches and a stamp for the insurance claim.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (10) Join the discussion on the forum

  • V8 FOU 19 Dec 2017

    A pre-selector gearbox doesn't have a clutch pedal.
    You select a gear by lever then engage it by depressing the gear pedal. Try doing it the other way round and it ends in tears and broken teeth.
    Stop/start is taken care of by a fluid flywheel.
    Not that difficult to master.

    Early paddle shift really!

    Tony. do check your facts first,eh?

  • richs2891 19 Dec 2017

    Saw a Saracen parked up in a field today, took a picture and was going to spend some time finding out what what it was, but PH to the rescue, and have been saved the effort now. No idea if it was a runner or not. Kind of want one.

    Edited by richs2891 on Tuesday 19th December 15:55

  • runnerbean 14 19 Dec 2017

    V8 FOU said:
    A pre-selector gearbox doesn't have a clutch pedal.
    Not universally true - my Talbot (which has a pre-selector) has a clutch - Roesch called it the 'Traffic Clutch'.

  • gweaver 19 Dec 2017

    I wonder if it's possible to re-map the Subaru Lineartronic CVT to use preset ratios?

  • Amanitin 19 Dec 2017

    gweaver said:
    I wonder if it's possible to re-map the Subaru Lineartronic CVT to use preset ratios?
    CVTs with fixed ratios are hilarious. Spend a gazillion to develop the thing, then rip out the essence so it can simulate a less efficient transmission. It's brilliant. It's tremendous. So much win.

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