As Fathers Day is fast approaching, it got me thinking of all my dear dad's sub-standard family automobiles we had to endure as kids, if you're a child of the seventies and eighties this may relate to you, so please read on...
Foreword by Mark Jennings
Along with my younger brother and older sister we had a good education and a nice house, but the family budget would never allow for an expensive brand new shiny car. To be honest, even if my dad could afford one he'd still probably elect to get a bargain basement banger to run us all around in. His attraction with pretty British sports cars such as the Jaguar XK series or Austin Healey, definitely didn't rub off when choosing the latest family car. I'm probably being a little harsh, but when you're a pubescent young man pushing your dad's clapped out jalopy around a major roundabout just as the local secondary school kicks out for the day, was just one of many experiences any teenager would want the earth to swallow them whole!
The family holiday was always an experience. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved the actual holiday, but getting there was always stressful especially for the poor man driving with three argumentative kids in the back and nagging wife in the front, not knowing whether the car would actually make it there, let alone back.
Living on the south coast it was always a cheaper alternative to drive to southern France rather than flying. So we'd jam pack the car full of mainly my mothers clothes, neatly stuffing toilet rolls in places that would easily fall out on the road as soon as the boot was opened in an emergency, then head off to the nearest port just about making it off the drive without pulling the rear axle off with all the weight!
Anyway, that's enough from me. I'll now leave you with the humorous but audacious history of my dad's rubbish car collection in his own words (some names and local places have been censored to protect the innocent, or guilty). Happy Father's Day dad!
By Byron Jennings (aka Dad)
"I will try to remember all the cars I’ve owned and cherished, but some details, inevitably, are veiled in the mists of antiquity, and the chronology may not be exactly correct, but here goes...
The first was in about 1973, a 1959 Austin Cambridge, which cost £50. It was listed as the A55 Mk ll, with a 1489cc engine and large tail fins. They were good old cars – comfortable, easy to maintain and with a cavernous boot. It wouldn’t do much more than 65mph, but there were many fewer motorways in those days anyway.
Doing all my own servicing (which was easy on cars like that – all the engine parts were instantly recognisable, all your tools fitted, and so on) and buying spares – even including an entire exhaust system - from the scrappy, I managed to keep it running for a few years. Eventually, the underbody rot became uneconomical to repair and I sold it to a British Rail porter at the Docks for banger racing. (He did the banger racing at a rally cross track, not at the Docks).
I think my next foray into automotive whimsy was the royal blue 2-door Mk l Ford Cortina. This cost the princely sum of £25 and was acquired from a copper I knew who lived in a nearby town – his son had been using it, but had moved on to something more modern. I can’t remember how long this lasted, but not all that long.
I remember, one morning on my way to work, I was driving through the town Square when I was stopped by a rather pretty young WPC who informed me that the offside front wing was hanging off, and that it was dangerous. I was able to reply – in complete honesty – ‘It was ok when I left home a few minutes ago, officer. I’ll fix it in a minute.’ When I got to work, I borrowed a drill from the marine workshop and duly secured the wing with a few self-tapping screws. Shortly afterwards, the engine started to burn oil at a horrendous rate, and, rather than go to the expense of buying the expensive, new stuff from Halfords, I got the workshop manager at the local Renault garage to allow me to help myself to the contents of the ‘used oil’ barrel in the corner of the workshop, which I was getting through at the rate of about a gallon a week.
One morning when you were at school, I told your brother that I would take him for a ride (this must have been about 1980, when he would have been 4). We got about 2 miles when the engine blew up, and we had to walk home. I think I arranged a tow and sold it for a fiver. When I spoke later to one of the mechanics at Renault, and asked him exactly what went into the ‘used oil’ barrel, he replied, ‘Oh, everything goes in there, mate. Engine oil, brake fluid, diesel, the lot.’ Not exactly Castrol GTX, then.
You’ve forgotten the bronze FD Vauxhall Victor SL200! I bought this for £495 as a part-exchange clearance bargain from a dealer (long since gone). This was by far the fastest car I’d owned up until then – it would do a ton (just) and had quite decent acceleration. My colleagues (especially the younger, female ones) quite enjoyed being given a lift in this, as they said it reminded them of Starsky and Hutch. Unfortunately, one very icy evening whilst on detached duty at Birmingham Airport, I managed to wrap it around a lamp-post on the A45 at Sheldon. This must have been very early 80’s, as Birmingham Airport was then still operating out of the former site at Elmdon, near Solihull, not near the NEC, as we now know it.
I think next came the pale blue Ford Zephyr Mark lV 2,495 cc V6. This was bought from one of your Uncle's colleagues in the navy at Portsmouth for £150. Sitting inside was like sitting at home on a luxurious armchair, but, despite its engine size, the performance was absolutely hopeless. It was also unfeasibly long, and you virtually had to find two parking spaces together if you wanted to park it anywhere. The bonnet was about as long as a snooker table. Also, it was the first car I had known with an automatic choke: I was blissfully unaware of the fuel being used when the engine was cold until, one sub-zero morning on my way to work for an early shift, I ran out of petrol whilst reversing out of the drive. I had a gallon of fuel in a can in the boot, and put this in the tank, thinking that it would be enough to last me a couple of days. I ran out of petrol again 3 miles away! That meant, when the engine was cold and the automatic choke was fully operational, I was getting about 4mpg (about the same as a F1 car, but without the g-force). The realisation of this, allied to (once again) the dreaded underbody rot, as well as a slipping clutch, made me decide that it was time to move on.
All the while, I had a friend called Andy McBride, a heavily-bearded Dundonian (who, sadly, died in his forties), who lived in the same town. Although he had no driving licence, he had bought a Simca 1100 Special for £450 from a work colleague. This had a tuned 1300 engine and was very sporty. Andy’s idea was, that I should keep the car at home, service it and use it while I was looking for a replacement for the Zephyr; I was supposed to give him driving lessons whenever we were both free. Unfortunately, Andy was a (functioning) alcoholic, and he was always far too drunk to get behind a wheel – I never did get to give him a lesson. After a few months, I had been using the car for so long, I felt guilty, and offered to buy it from him for the price that he had paid. He accepted, and insisted on cash – not because he was afraid that a cheque might bounce, but because a cheque payment into his bank account would simply get absorbed by his overdraft, and needed cash to pay his bills. I saw him at the end of that week, and asked him if he had managed to pay all his bills. He had been so unused to having so much dosh on him, he had p***** the lot up against the wall, poor sod.
I ran the Simca for quite a while, and it was fairly decent. The water pump gave up on one occasion, and I managed to find another on an upside-down vehicle in a farmyard a mile away. I never did find out who it belonged to. Also, the gearbox gave up once on the way back from Tenterden – I had to drive in 3rd all the way home, slipping the clutch, and it took an entire weekend to fit a replacement. I found one at a scrap yard (long-since closed) up a lane near the ambulance station for £10: I had to remove the nearside front wing and drop the front suspension to access it! Do you remember Raj? He, too, had a Simca 1100, which he left outside Chris's (another work colleague) garage while he was working on a 3-month posting at the British High Commission in Delhi. It was rotting away by the hour – Chris had to go out with a dustpan and brush every day to sweep up the rust that had fallen from it during the night – but it had quite new tyres on it. I borrowed these to put on my car so that it would pass its MOT, and never did get round to putting them back again. Raj never seemed to wonder how his tyres had become so bald whilst the car was sitting in a driveway for three months. I took this car on another spell of detached duty at Birmingham Airport (spring 1984 – the new terminal opened while I was there), but it was, by now, getting well past its sell-by date. Those Simcas were made of notoriously rubbish metal, and the mechanicals were starting to play up as well.
On the motorway to Brum, I started to lose power – only slightly, at first, but gradually more and more until I was forced to pull in on the hard shoulder. I looked under the bonnet to be greeted by a strong smell of petrol and the sight of a fuel pipe with a large hole half-way along its length. Luckily, the windscreen washer used piping of the same calibre, which I was able to adapt and fit (after all, you can still drive with a dirty windscreen).
Whilst in Birmingham, the alternator packed up, and I had to put the battery on charge every night (I had had the foresight to take a battery charger with me). And, on one of my frequent visits to Ludlow on my days off, the c/v joints on the steering decided to give up the ghost. That was when I bought the Escort estate – for £150, from a garage in Sandpits Road. It had been used as a delivery hack, and was indescribably filthy, but it cleaned up ok. It had a very noisy gearbox and the speedo didn’t work; I found another gearbox at a scrap yard near Corve Bridge - I persuaded the owner to accept the Simca as payment in lieu of cash, but only after assuring him that it had a fully working radio! I managed to swap the gearbox over (at Woofferton, with the use of an inspection pit) in exactly one hour. Contrast that with the same job on the Simca! As you know, the Escort served us very well for many months – we went to St Jean de Monts and back, for example, as well as to Ilfracombe with your Uncle and his family, if you remember.
Eventually, the dreaded tinworm set in with a vengeance around the top of the MacPherson struts, and I sold it for spares for £25 to a colleague. I then bought the Avenger estate (£175, I think) from some shyster in the next town. It never was much cop, really, although it did get us to Ludlow and back at least once: I remember the thermostat on the electric fan packed up, so I wired it up so that the fan was blowing all the time. I did it so that there was a connection outside the car, just under the front bumper, so that you could disconnect it when it was parked! Once, whilst driving back home a Nickolls truck, passing the other way, dropped a stone from its load and shattered the driver’s window. It made a noise like a bullet – scared the sh*t out of me! I thought I’d been shot by a sniper. Such was the condition of the car by then, I never bothered to fix it. To avoid the (highly unlikely) possibility of theft, whenever shopping in town, I used to park with the driver’s door tight up against the wall in the car park at the shopping centre, and exit by the passenger door. I sold this for £25 as well, to the yard that there used to be in the town centre.
The Peugeot you’re thinking of was, in fact, a white Toyota Corolla E30 Wagon, which cost £500, from an old couple near the local hospital (the old chap had got beyond driving, I’m afraid). I can’t remember too much about this little beauty except that the engine blew up when I was driving to the docks for a nightshift, having dropped off Aunt Dot in Sevenoaks. Btw, I think it was the Toyota which we took to St Tropez and back, which was a fair hike!
Then it was the turn of the Burgundy Morris Oxford Series Vl, (£190) which was similar to the Cambridge but had smaller tail fins and a 1622cc engine. It was an automatic – Paul McKenna (my colleague, not the illusionist) had bought it so that he could still drive after breaking his left leg playing football. As with the Cambridge (they were practically identical, mechanically) it was very easy to work on. The only slight problem was, being an automatic, you couldn’t bump-start it; and, although there was a starting handle, someone had replaced the front cross-member with one from a later model – it had no hole for the starting handle to go through! I once had a slight altercation with a pick-up truck at the village roundabout – nothing serious, but when I examined the front wing, I observed that the slight bump had caused a large hole to appear, and that, lying in the road, was a piece of chicken wire surrounded by a pile of burgundy-coloured dust, that had once been filler. One Arthur Daley-type MOT later, this, too, was sold for banger-racing, for £40.
We then had the Volvo 244, another automatic. Also very comfortable, very thirsty, and not much performance. I bought this from friends of your mothers religious friends for £900, and only later discovered that the heater didn’t work. I didn’t dare complain, as they’d have probably set some God on me. It was during the ownership of this car that I managed to lose my licence, but we won’t dwell on that here.
On resumption of normal service, I noticed that the Volvo was starting to overheat badly, and as another French holiday was imminent, something else was needed, pronto. (I later sold the Volvo for £50 to a taxi driver who lived in a caravan next to the local pub). Enter the Renault 18 estate, bought from a guy not too far away for £125. This went quite fast but didn’t have very good brakes (I don’t know whether you were ever aware of that). It got us all the way to les Sables d’Olonne, but not, as you will remember only too well, back again. I don’t know whether we were weighed down with excess baggage (I still maintain that high heels and two evening dresses are not must-have items to take on a camping holiday) but it’s probably still rotting away quietly in that scrap yard near la Rochelle. All I know is, that whoever sold me that AA 5* breakdown insurance probably got the sack when the bills started rolling in..."
So as you can see your honour, I have a pretty strong case against our father. Although we love him dearly, he did absolutely nothing for our street cred when it came to the family car. However, it's these occasions that make our childhood memories; the smell of musty leather seats, cheap n' nasty lemon air freshners and Swarfega after a trip to the scrapyard in the drizzling rain. The rubbish cassette player that chewed up my new Mötley Crüe tape in 1987 and the time on holiday when the car was running so hot that when my Dad turned off the ignition the engine kept running ...but I wouldn't change it for the world!