"Combines scholarship with unbridled prejudice. Occasionally makes Clarkson seem strangely reasonable." - A.H. Davis
A great read, 'Alfa Mail' by Justin Allison is about Alfa Romeos. What made them great – and what will probably make them extinct. It’s also about other cars too – great, good, bad and appalling – plus planes, bikes, places, people, prejudice ... and tractors.
Motor vehicles are the greatest practical enablers of the 20th Century (even IT can’t physically take us to Hollywood, or hospital), and stir our emotions like few other artefacts.
Artefacts and their creators make history. Thus, this book is also about great endeavours and sad whimpers. About inspired artists, dedicated engineers, reckless drivers, and intellectually barren marketing people.
Fortunately, for sanity’s sake, this book is also quite happy to take the piss.
And Alfa enthusiasts are used to jokes.
• Alfa Mail: an Alfa book that isn’t just about Alfas
• Cars, Bikes, Planes, Places, People, Unbridled Prejudice
• Foreword by Ed McDonough: racing driver, historian & author
• Everything from Car Porn to The Joy of Scrapyards
• Brilliant Alfa Sud. Total Bloody Disaster
• Doctor jiggles my testicles. I cough obligingly
• Mr. Slow; probably still there, in his Toyota Colonica
• Constance Spry School of Flower Arranging & Bedroom Etiquette
• Two postwar 1.5-litre cars: (1) Porsche, 50bhp. (2) Alfa, 50bhp
• Seriously enhance your A30. With an oxy-acetylene cutter!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Justin Allison grew up in Dorset, England, among cars, planes, motorbikes and tractors – as well as guns and horses. Leaving a local public school at 16, he spent his Old Boys membership fee on a well-used Triumph Tiger 110, a motorcycle 99% as fast – and 45% as stable – as a Bonneville. His varied background has seen him study architecture, service electric milk floats, work in a scrapyard, and rebuild a 1934 AC Roadster.
Joining a famous London advertising agency in 1970, Justin has won several awards, both as a freelance copywriter and as a creative director. His writing covers journalism for publications such as Alfa Romeo Driver; poetry, for which he has been commended by the Thomas Hardy Society, and limited-edition art books, such as Relatively Virginal.
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Letter 1 (2008/9)
Caro Mondo/Dear World,
Having an age somewhere between those of HRH The Princess Royal and Sir Michael Philip Jagger, I’ve known cars since they were small and few, slow and grey.
When I was four, and my father was off, working for the USAF, a Mr. Gainsford took me to hospital, in a faded Standard with a split rear window. And I vaguely remember a Standard 9 tourer, one chilly grey afternoon.
Later, Caroline’s father - a solicitor - had what sounded like a Worlsney and someone else’s father - an accountant - carried the glow of modernity, because he drove a crappy little grey Hillman Minx. What made it special was that in 1952, it was post-war - and looked it. To our naive eyes, it looked almost like an American car.
Most fathers’ cars were pre-war. I loved the art-deco grille on the Jamesons’ Triumph Dolomite Sports Saloon.
In those days, you could easily be hanged; and even more easily killed in your car. According to the Western Gazette, some bloke was skewered to death by his steering column, in the quiet road just outside my school. He’d been lighting a fag, at just the very worst split second.
When I was about six, I worshipped the glamorous and ebullient Dr. Grace Rankin.
An Irish GP who roamed the world as a well-paid locum, she owned Bells House, an equally ebullient Victorian pile, near Wimborne. Its high ceilings were covered with angels and flora that, four centuries earlier, would have been executed by a moody Florentine with a brush in one hand and a stiletto in the other.
Her semi-or maybe-totally-detached spouse was an urbane chap called Charlie Lamb, who owned The House of Steps - a medieval cafe in Salisbury, that now houses the regional National Trust retail experience.
Dr. Rankin ran a strangely hideous silver Vauxhall. Until recently, its twin - possibly the only survivor - was parked outside the Bankes Arms in Studland. It was absent when I went to take its picture, but the beer was OK.
When this abomination was new, it offered two levels of performance.
Level I - the Wyvern - had 1442cc and a whole 33bhp, to whisk it up to 62.5 mph.
From what I remember of Grace Rankin, she would have insisted on Level 2 - the Velox (as in fast: cf veloce). Velox is a relative term: despite an engine displacing 2275cc, there were only 54bhp. The Motor - always inclined to charitable road-tests - clocked one at 74mph.
You’ve probably never seen either. Most of them rusted away years ago and I don’t think they were missed.
The Browns owned an elegant black RME Riley; as I discovered many years later, when I nearly bought one, it was a lot slower than it looked. 1½ litres-worth of delightful, if strangely designed, prewar twin cam sophistication. A single SU carburettor. 55bhp, at a rough guess. - which was pretty good for its time. But despite its sleek lines and fabric roof - stretched over a very sturdy steel honeycomb - the RME was a weighty old girl.
The only fairly quick car in our small circle was our father’s very pre-war 3½ litre SS Jaguar, which brought about 125bhp to the task. Since I know that he incorporated a few of the ploys used for semi-works SS100s, there may well have been more.
I remember him hitting an indicated 80, on a fairly short straight, while my sister and I urged him on. Side by side on the front passenger seat; had there been seat belts, I couldn’t have stood up, to turn the little handle, that opened the windscreen.
Henleys, the Jaguar main dealers, provided a brochure for the XK120, and I collected those Shell racing booklets - yours for the asking at Dears Garage, if you asked very nicely at the kiosk by the pumps: Hawthorn pips Fangio at Rheims, in the recently emasculated Formula 1.
Le Mans 1953: Henleys provided a well-produced hour-by-hour PR hand-out. C-Types 1st, 2nd & 4th. Alfa & Ferrari destroyed by disc brakes and Coventry grit.
My Hercules became Jaguar No 18, as we raced through the shrubbery, round the compost heap and pitted by the kitchen. Watch out, Rolt & Hamilton.
In our part of the world, most people cycled to work - and did so until the early 60s. The E-type drove onto quiet roads; just as well, in view of the real-world Speed/Roadholding/Driver Skill equation.
The first car - if you can call it a car - I actually drove was my mother’s A30. Like the Shell publicity material, this came from Dear Bros, a cheerful family firm that also supplied TV sets.
That nasty A30 replaced a delightful 1934 Rover 14 shooting brake (complete with Freewheel, an interesting device to aid economy and transmission wear).
Leaving aside its many dynamic problems, the A30 was a sick-making environment.
Like other makers of cheap cars, Austin had invented a special sort of plastic called Vomit-pong. Chuck in a vicious sister and a slavering bull terrier, on a back seat about three feet wide.
But it didn’t seem so bad as, aged eleven, I pointed it down a New Forest ride. Mother urged me on until flying gravel seriously threatened paint and glass.
This was nothing compared to what happened a few weeks later, after I had spent an enjoyable hour or so, flailing alder saplings, in the damp far corner of our Ten Acre.
Having parked the old Fordson Major, I gave the A30 an unplanned seeing-to.
Long story short: forgot to remove wellies; muddy, over-confident feet slip on nasty little pedals; car takes out 1930s chest of drawers - serving as tool chest - at back of garage.
The chest - bought for about five bob at Wimborne market, and delivered on a cart drawn by a skewbald gypsy cob - had aspirations. Its drawers bellied out, as it were, horizontally. Should you have the misfortune to look closely at an A30’s radiator grill, you’ll notice that they belly out vertically, even proudly, like a ship’s figurehead. As it were.
The two opposing surfaces met at the third drawer; a shower of splintered veneer revealed the precision instruments - micrometers and the like - within.
Our old Fordson - c.1950 - had a splined power-take-off (PTO) and a 3-point lift. The former drove implements and replaced the exposed flywheel and treacherous belt that had powered sawbenches and threshing machines. The latter placed enormous hydraulic power at the farmer’s disposal. The thinking behind every modern tractor had been patented by Harry Ferguson, as far back as 1926.
Since I’m sure you know this already, I apologise for being an anorak. The PTO and Hydraulic 3-Point Lift enabled what we would now call an Integrated Agri Pak. At last, a great big lump, like our old Major, could do the work made so easy by one of these little grey Ferguson 20s.
Q. Why do 20mph tractors have rev counters?
A. So that you can maintain the 540rpm, demanded by powered farm implements.
Though I was banned from the A30 for several weeks, it was the car in which, six years later, I flew my first solo. Actually, going it alone felt quite strange; I can see the case for those green P plates. I believe they’re compulsory in Eire; here, where they’re discretionary, only girls have the sense to wear them.
Having passed that vital test in a Morris 1000, guided by the charming Ms Lidbetter, I had some idea of what a decent small car should feel like.
When I drove the Triumph Herald, belonging to the mother of Pear-Shaped-Penny, I realised how charming an everyday small car can be. You sat fairly low; legs outstretched; stubby gearlever; sharp rack & pinion steering.
PSP paid for champagne; her mother paid for petrol.
I enjoyed being unpaid chauffeur to parties hosted by girls from the Constance Spry School of Flower Arranging and Bedroom Etiquette.
As this rather crude illustration - from a contemporary Dealer Advertising Block Service catalogue - shows, the Herald was a neat little car. Despite its narrow track (shared with most of its contemporaries) and dubious swing-axle rear suspension, it was remarkably refined under most circumstances. Furthermore, it had a steering lock to rival a London cab, and a bonnet that opened like an E-type’s.
Like the original Mini, it offered more than most of the rubbish then available. If old cars must be classics, rather than just old cars, the Herald is now a classic. The Vitesse, its 6 cylinder sibling, is a reasonably brisk classic.
By way of contrast - and years before some idiot decided that any old heap is special, the A30 was crap on wheels. GJT 944 was a dreary and not very faithful little servant. If if still exists, its most valuable component is its number plate. I’m sure it’s loved by someone: Geoffrey John Thomas perhaps, who just happens to own a Porsche 944.
Nevertheless, you’ll see plenty of A30s at venues where they stand proudly alongside other ‘classics’: Standard 8; Morris 8 Series E; Austin A40 Somerset; Vauxhall Viagra.
Nevertheless, that A30 and I shared a rich tapestry of experience, over a period of nearly ten years. Having passed my test, I started by trespassing, unintentionally, in someone’s front garden.
Despite, or perhaps because of his aeronautical background, my father had a problem with such terrestrial devices as tyres. Born the year after the Wright Brothers first flew, he grew up in the days when tyres existed solely to keep the wheelwright’s work out of the fertiliser.
When he was a young adult, not a lot had changed - as contemporary photos of 1920s/30s racing cars show only too clearly. Even in 1960-odd, the MOT only looked at ‘brakes, lights & steering’ - and, as far as most cars were concerned, road tyres were still fairly incidental. ‘High Hysteresis’ - i.e. at least some grip - was pioneered on motorcycles in about 1960. The most famous was the Dunlop TT. I read all about that in magazines that carried ads for 250cc Ducatis that did a ton, when the 250cc Royal Enfield Crusader Sports struggled to reach 80.
The Michelin X, which pioneered the radial-ply concept, goes back to the 50s - but its focus was comfort with longevity, rather than a short life and a grippy one. The Dunlop SP and Pirelli Cinturato were probably the first dedicated ‘sports’ tyres marketed for everyday cars.
The tyres on my father’s company car were as good as any tyres were then, because they were replaced as necessary when it was serviced. Mother’s tyres had become as bald as badgers, but none of us noticed. I knew all about bikes on wet roads and wet leaves; but until my first time out in heavy rain, with a full complement of passengers, I didn’t realise that cars were just the same.
I turned left at a familiar suburban crossroads, same speed as yesterday, when it was dry and sunny, and there was just me, and we had whizzed round with all the elan of which an A30 is capable.
The overladen A30 spun twice, thrice, at slightly above walking speed, before winding up on a lawn so brand new that the car immediately started to sink. The owner was very kind. Helping me push the muddy little heap out of the slime, she placed her finger vertically on her lips.
The first car I actually owned was a pretty little Talbot 10.
Twenty five quid, one careful lady owner. Dears had serviced it for her until at last, they persuaded her to chop it in for a Farina A40. A photo, which I wish I still had, showed that in 1939, she and the Talbot had made a rather dashing couple.
She’s probably long gone. And sadly, this isn’t the actual car, though it could be a clone of mine. I shot it with my phone, at a recent agricultural show - hence the various stickers and the rather moderate clarity.
Related to the Hillman Aero Minx, the Talbot 10 had most of the performance and handling of the more modest MG Midgets. It felt low, close to the tarmac. You sat into it, not on it. The leather bucket seats were adjustable; for which read squabs supported by slowly-leaking inflatable cushions.
I remember the first time I took it out. It was a sunny Saturday, as my sister and I admired the view: long bonnet, large chrome headlights, more shiny chrome on the radiator shell. Firm ride, direct steering. And on a smooth, dry road, halfway decent roadholding. Round a series of bends, I could see all that metal leading gently but firmly to a rewarding conclusion. Soon, a scary moment taught me that a full complement of passengers contributed to fairly major understeer; chuck them out, or raise the front tyre pressures a couple of psi and the steering returned to neutral.
For its time and pedigree, it was a cracking little car; sadly, pedigree - or should I say snobbery - was the problem. An MG PA - gorgeous looks and the archetypal English sports car - was based on a Morris, rather than a Hillman; somehow, it was a thoroughbred – and my Talbot wasn’t.
I was 17, with plenty of flying hours.
My first logbook entry had been a Link Trainer - the original flight simulator.
These days, simulators are like a lab, or an office; something with comfortable seats and digital displays, anyway. In 1950-something, you climbed into a real cockpit, with real controls, connected to almost-real control surfaces. If you stood up on tiptoe, you could just see stubby winglets. If you turned round, you could see a tailplane and fin. Beneath you, a fairly basic set of hydraulics acted like a slow-motion version of a robotic rodeo horse.
After the chilly spaces of a Lancaster bomb bay (the view down the fuselage was that of a long cold tunnel) the Link was cosy, welcoming; and after my stint, a Lootenant in Raybans said that Gee, I’d flown that thang darned well. Having told my sister the same thing, he left us in the control tower, with Cokes and comics, while the grown-ups repaired to the Mess.
Next up was a Canberra - a high altitude bomber/reconnaissance machine, made by English Electric, who also created the fabled Lightning. I watched the Tarrant Rushton ground crew start the two Rolls Royce Avons, using what looked like giant 12-bore cartridges.
Being up close and personal with a NATO deterrent was actually pretty tame, compared to the Martin Baker pylon at Farnborough. Intended to demonstrate their wonderful ejector seat, it was studiously ignored by those most likely to use it; aircrew do not parachute for pleasure. At thirteen, it seemed like a ripping wheeze. Once you’re strapped in, and you’ve pulled down the blind, well at least your neck won’t snap like a carrot. And then WOWWW! - your breakfast is a hundred feet below you; at least you haven’t also left your legs beneath the instrument panel - which, apparently, was a piece of cake, if you ever had to eject from a Lightning.
But despite all this, I was bloody impressed by my first Chipmunk flight.
As I staggered to the aircraft, with a parachute strapped to my arse, I wondered how on earth The Few always managed to run …
“Bale out drill dead simple” said the sadistic NCO, emphasising the adjective. “Canopy sticks, see that panel…” He pointed to some perspex, high up to my right, and slightly smaller than the chute I was sitting on. “Eileen was looking bloody shagged-out, when she packed your chute.”
When you’re fourteen and devoid of imagination, you’re hard to frighten. The good old Gypsy roared like a tractor. We accelerated, surprisingly quickly, and then that amazing buoyancy said “we’re flying”.
A banked turn at 1200 feet revealed the Solent and the last resting place of the old Princess Flying Boats. I looked around me, in a vacuum of peace. The headset crackled “OK for some aeros?” Loop, Barrel Roll, Inverted. Wow. Then “OK? Not too sick? You know the drill. Straight and level. Just look at the horizon. You have control!” “I have control! Sir!!”
Back on the ground, I felt a touch queasy and intensely pleased with life. Courtesy of the British tax payer, I had plenty more of that.
I fancied a Short Service Commission in the Royal Air Force. But despite a stack of A-Levels, I had never passed O-Level maths - the one thing the RAF was adamant about. So I hit on a crafty ploy: join the Army and transfer to the Army Air Corps.
The medical involved a doctor jiggling my testicles while I coughed obligingly.
Then I was called to a Selection Board, which was more fun. A batman woke me with a cuppa and called me Sir. After the odd pep talk, quiz and assault course, there were long evenings of taxpayer-subsidised alcohol. For three days and nights, I lived like an MP.
To prove our intellectual capacities, each candidate had to deliver a short talk on something or other. Most people chose World War II, Tory policies, the future of the underserving poor, or the need to exterminate mosquitoes.
I decided to show how the sports car evolved from the Victorian railway engineering of the vintage years, into the lithe beauty of the 1930s.
In Beales of Bournemouth, I bought The Thoroughbred Motor Car, by David (Bunty) Scott-Moncrieff – Purveyor of Horseless Carriages to the Nobility & Gentry since 1927.
Among other things, this fine Batsford edition informed me that:
Founded in 1934, the Vintage Sports car Club (VSCC) decided that ‘Vintage’ means literally any car made between 1919 and 1930. Prior to that, they were Edwardian; and prior to that, Veteran.
PVT. means Post-Vintage-Thoroughbred. The VSCC hands out this accolade to just a few ‘thoroughbred’ cars, built between 1931 and 1940. In alpabetical order, they include: AC, Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Alta, Alvis; the Bs include Bentley and Bugatti, F is Frazer-Nash and so on. S stood for Squire, a 1930s 1½ litre car with more performance than a brand-new MGB. Talking of which, I also read about the 1087cc MG K3, in which Nuvolari won the 1934 TT. In 1964, cars like these were still seriously fast. Some of them still are.
Despite their price tags, most of them are quite small; you could park an Aston Martin International on the bonnet of a DBV8.
An Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 made 4½ litre Bentleys look ungainly. So, to be fair, did most Bugattis. Admittedly, Alfa charged more for one of their dinky little two-seaters than Rolls did for a limo; more than a 1930s-spec builder charged for a row of decent family houses. Adrian Squire’s little jewel cost nearly as much – and he didn’t even make the engine. Nor did most of those other long-gone names: Lagonda, Frazer-Nash, Invicta, HRG
Most of them went broke – including Alfa, rescued by Il Duce, Mussolini. Not, in most respects, one of Italy’s finest ragazzi, he understood that good cars and efficient trains aren’t mutually exclusive, which is more than can be said for our lot.
Seventy-odd years later, those beautiful PVT survivors fetch utterly silly money.
But most of the ones worth driving go even better than they did when they were new. Grippier tyres, smoother tracks. For those with racing ambitions and deep, deep pockets, how about a brand-new cylinder block, crankcase and crankshaft? Conrods and pistons, too. Latest bearing technology; whatever it takes. And all digitally perfect. You’ll find the ads in MotorSport. Metal fatigue apart, the originals are too valuable to use.
On leaving my Selection Board, I sat in a friend’s garden enjoying his mother’s subtle elderflower wine. It tasted like the sort of organic soft drinks you simply couldn’t buy then. An hour later, when the day seemed even sunnier, I took Judy, an old girlfriend for a delightful spin; I use the term advisedly. Slowly, it dawned on me that it takes more than three days to develop the head of an Honourable Member.
A week or so later, the Army politely turned me down (possibly on the grounds that elderflower wine is a girl’s drink) on the day I finally got my maths O-Level and was accepted by the architectural college to which I had also applied. I’ve still got the Scott Moncreiff book.
The real deal.
Alfa Romeo 8C 2.3 Monza. In 1932, it was the fastest (il piu volecemente) of all the road-legal Alfas. Of all the road-legal anything, come to that.
Having grown out of Grand Prix genes, it was also the shortest (il cortissimo).
I’d already seen Earl Howe’s pale blue long-chassis (lungo) Le Mans winner at Beaulieu. Now, ascending the bumpy hill that was then out-of-town Holdenhurst Road, Bournemouth, I saw the unmistakeable grill – complete with the slots that now grace the pre-facelift 156.
It bounded towards me, with the unmistakable stance of a 1930s sports-racing car on a bumpy road. It glistened, discreetly, sounding inaccessible to the likes of me.
A few months later, I met Angela & Alan Cherrett. My girlfriend and I were in a bistro with Rowan, my sister, and Bill Holmes, her boyfriend. Bill recommended scrounging a coffee off the Cherretts: famous Alfa enthusiasts.
Angela has since written her Jano Alfa histories. Alan could identify chassis numbers and machine splined hubs. All very inspirational - but out of my league, obviously.
I couldn’t even have one of the newer Alfas. They were rare, special and costly. A 1600 Giulia Coupé cost nearly as much as a 3.8 E-type.
So the next best thing was a rather beautiful 1936 AC 16/70 sports/tourer, owned by Bournemouth car dealer and racing driver, Brian Cuttings. The coachwork was gorgeous, and so was the aluminium-block engine, with its 3 SUs. I had to have one. But I couldn’t afford that one. I think he’d have taken £250.
And then, in the local classifieds: an AC 1934 DHC. Supercharged, too. John Waugh, of Christchurch, was selling.
Once, it had looked like this. Not any more.
Its provenance included two years, standing on a cliff top. House paint, in several shades. Matronly dickey-seat coachwork that had seen far better days. But it flew down his driveway. His wife insisted.
The price was £40 with the Arnott supercharger, or £25 without. Since £25 was my budget, we removed the blower, replaced the SUs and I drove away – complete with a spare engine and a cockpit-full of old MotorSports. (Typical 1950s sale ad: C-Type Jaguar: £600.)
I later collected another trailer-load of parts: enough to build an AC Greyhound. Rather than take my mad purchase home, I left the car in a friend’s paddock. Duff had been thrown out of Bryanston School and worked for Maranello Concessionaires, which probably says it all. The next evening, it was raining. I visited my pride & joy.
The bonnet was open. The cylinder head was missing. And the bores were full of water. The culprit was at a party. I closed the bonnet.
“You’ve got a great engine there!” he said, next day. “It’s a Gold Head!”
“I don’t care if it’s a frigging diamond head. Where is it?”
“At work.” This meant the Ford dealership where Col. Ronnie Hoare ran Maranello, sole UK importer of Ferraris. Full of works-supported GTOs and LMs, plus the odd D-Type, GT40, or Giulia TZ.
Graham Hill drove for them. He once poured me a coffee.
“Well I’d like it back please. After a de-coke.”
The famous AC 2 litre – “the first light 6 –and still the best” - was designed by founder John Weller and began life as a 1500, which in 1921, covered 100 miles in an hour. Try doing that now.
A single overhead camshaft is probably the simplest way of opening and closing valves, and this is a delightfully simple engine in every respect. Virtually everything you see is shining alloy: the wet-liner block, with cast-in mounting lugs, the sump, the cam cover. Inside, the Weller cam-chain tensioner is an elegant length of spring steel.
Yet the head – where you might think that heat transfer should be a primary consideration, even with a 6.5-1 compression ratio, a bore/stroke of 65x100, and a red line at just over 4000 – is iron.
To be fair, quite a few of AC’s high performance contemporaries employed a similar configuration, but to compound the felony, the inlet ports – separate and beautifully machined on a Riley 9, for instance – are siamesed and unsightly. However, its life was as long as its stroke. 1950s versions in the ultra light Ace could keep up with a tractor-engined TR2.
Meanwhile, I had a £25 classic that didn’t really work.
Having raised the other £15, I bought the supercharger and built a cannibalised engine. In theory, this meant about 90bhp and an effective CR of about 9.5:1. Fortunately, the big ends were up to this mighty task. Lacking replaceable shell bearings, prewar AC conrods have to be re-metalled by specialists.
The greatest problem was keeping the head gasket in one piece. Corrosion on the miniscule surfaces of the fragile wet-liner casing caused plenty of problems. In the end, having soaked them for a week in easing oil, I was able to remove the head studs. I then countersunk each of the stud holes, before polishing the surfaces with valve grinding paste on a sheet of glass.
Performance was further enhanced when I chucked the insane Arnott carburettor, with its scimitar-shaped needle; fitted a 1¾ inch SU, from a scrapyard Jag, on a plumbing pipe manifold. Since supercharging is a fairly crude way of forcing mixture into an engine, subtle gas-flowing was not at a premium - especially when I increased the pressure, by fitting a smaller pulley. To avoid pre-ignition, 5-star petrol - at nearly 6p a litre - was now compulsory.
My father helped with the electrics and the intricate Andre Telecontrol shockers. At about this time, he decided that I was now nearly a grown-up. To signify this, he would occasionally say ‘bugger’, a word he normally only used with colleagues and fellow golfers.
I blagged a mate into swapping the well-shod 18inch wire wheels on his non-running 2½ litre Jaguar, for my bald 19 inch ones, which were also considerably narrower. Something about enhancing his final-drive ratio, I said. Perhaps he’d also been drinking too much of his mother’s wine. Perhaps, instinctively, he knew that the big cat would never leap from those piles of bricks in his mother’s garden.
Although Mr. Waugh had butchered the bonnet to accommodate the belt drive for the supercharger, most of the aluminium bodywork was in reasonable nick. But a lot of the wooden frame had rotted. The doors were devoid of their trim and windup windows. And the elegant swept wings sagged like a middle-aged Zapata moustache.
In 1934, the spare wheel(s) of many fancy English cars were carried in one or more of the front wings. Realising that wheels are heavy, most makers ensured that they were supported by a stout bracket, mounted on the (hopefully) stout chassis. This usually terminated in a splined hub, on which the wheel could look jolly stylish.
AC knew better and thirty years later, the results were plain to see.
I chucked the doors and wings and rebuilt most of the body frame from the scuttle The result wasn’t pretty – but it was more fun than the original. Helmet wings (£5 for two) came from Longham’s Lagonda & Aston heroes Forshaw. The business still thrives, though not in the old outhouse they used in the 60s.
Cutaway doors I made myself. Black coachwork with red wire wheels. Polished aluminium bonnet, covered in louvres. Very WO Bentley.
The seats also needed replacing. Ironically, since I hate Morris 8s, I sourced a really good pair of red leather buckets from a Series 2.
In hindsight, I should have cut at least two feet out of the chassis (and propshaft) scrapped almost everything from the scuttle back and finished the plot off with a minimal slab tank. I should have fitted the dead-cheap aluminium cycle wings that Mr Ferguson of Nailsworth used to advertise in MotorSport. (Years later, he made me some panels for a racing TR I was building. ) Less weight, more go.
Nevertheless, it went well, and drank deeply. Filling stations welcomed me. The police were surprisingly tolerant. If only I still had the Before and After pictures. I probably gave them to the bloke who bought the car.
But still no Alfa.
I learnt a lot, while servicing electric milk floats, with Transport Electrics. Character-forming. Think WW1 trench, traditional public school, BNI Chapter.
Gagging on the smell of stale milk, you lie under the vehicle, at zero minus something, somewhere on Salisbury Plain. The grease nipples are blocked. The clever milk person has filed the motor’s contacts to extinction. A passer-by knocks the release valve of the trolley jack …
My friend Mike Rose, the boss’s son, sounded slightly smug, when he told me that the Bendix brakes on my ‘thoroughbred’ AC came straight off a Morrison Electricar milk float. Other parts were shared with equally mundane vehicles. But that was OK: trade discount at Edmunds Walker.
If, as and when I next meet him, I’ll let Mike know that the Morrison is now a ‘classic’, with several websites to its name.
Perhaps he foresaw such an elevation. Mike learnt fast. Taking a tip from what the dying blacksmith made for his daughter, he converted a Sunbeam Talbot 90 from pie-in-the-sky, to four-on-the-floor, using cables, pulleys and a track rod end. Good for him.
He was right about common denominators, too. 1930s ACs shared chassis with SS i.e. Standard – and they used the same Moss gearbox, too. It was a nice box, if slightly gruff. Morgan owners put up with it as Morgan owners always do. Jaguar didn’t chuck it till the 4.2 E-type.
And it wasn’t always stale milk; the Co-op’s electric vans in Weymouth smelt of fresh bread. Long chatty journeys in the works van. That sudden highlit sea, seen through the arch on the right angled right hander, in Lyme Regis. And occasional hours of wonder and brilliance.
I was in the workshop, one summer Saturday morning, when the call came through from Swanage. The customer needed our spare vehicle. Milk floats have very limited endurance. Given fully charged batteries and a following wind, I might just make it.
Beautiful day. And – 60s, remember – far, far less traffic. Almost silent vehicle, too.
Down Old Wareham Road, I took my foot off, because an electric milk float goes faster freewheeling. I saw over 35 on the clock. It didn’t have 40.
No doors. Lean out and laugh into the breeze. And then, that mirrored sea, as I come down from the Purbecks. Made it, with about 10% remaining on the gauge. Is there something of a philosophical take, in all this?
Transport Electrics was big enough to have a rep. Keith Cundell was a good chap. His cousin, Something Woods, had an Invicta Flatiron – another of the legendary 4½ litre cars that look wonderful, but couldn’t quite hack 1750 and 2300 Alfas.
Anyway, Keith, while visiting a customer’s dairy, found what looked like an abandoned Ford Special. You know: gash bodywork. Sidevalve 8 or 10hp. 3 speed. Doesn’t work.
Then he peeped inside – and discovered a Riley 9.
In some respects, those low twin-cam/pushrod engines (“As Old as the Industry. As Modern as the Hour.”) are pretty daft. But it’s a great strapline and they led to the ERA.
And this one was his for a fiver.
£5 too much. For a start, the engine was all-but fossilised.
Having found an absolutely perfect Riley 9 Monaco at Crutchers scrapyard, Mike and I removed its recently rebuilt engine, gearbox and nickel-plated radiator, leaving the rest to the torch.
That Riley had a brand new MOT. God knows what it was doing there. Presumably, someone had died. Someone else needed space for a Wolseley 1500, or a smart Hillman Minx. It was a really good little car, that I should have bought and cherished.
Even after I had donated a spare louvred bonnet from my AC parts stash, the resulting Special was never a quarter as special as the car its best parts came from. And I knew that even then. I knew exactly what I was doing. Don’t look back. OK?
Yet if you like old cars, there’s always scope for learning. Solid axles. Kingpins and bushes. Friction dampers. Preventing Bendix brakes – which, at their best, are as good as any – from pulling you into a ditch or a head-on. Mechanical simplicity. Low-grip tyres. No electronics. And absolutely no Health & Safety.
When I read their tales of woe, I am amazed by the ineptness displayed in the Our Cars pages of certain ‘classic car’ mags.