30 cars – 50 years page 2

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vernonAbout three weeks later Frank called me to say he had located a suitable Morris engine twenty miles away, and that he’d already tested, removed, and transported it to his workshop, and given Granfer a lifesaving heart transplant. His bill for the entire operation was an unbelievable £10, so I shall never forget Frank as the disarmingly odd philanthropic Gentleman Engineer – and you don’t find many of those in today’s car care establishments.

This incident reminds me of a similar experience with the Hillman some years earlier when, following a severe blizzard at Christmas 1954 at Buckden in Wharfedale, I had been unable to start the car. I phoned a motor engineer at Kettlewell, some seven miles down the dale, who drove up to check over the car, returned to his garage to pick up a replacement top water hose, came back to Buckden and fitted it, cajoled the engine back into life and then asked only ten shillings (50p) for his time, expenses, parts and skill….and this was on Boxing Day. They don’t make them like Frank of Morley and Walter of Kettlewell any more.

Eventually, Granfer was sold to a colleague for £10 (he was even more impecunious than myself), who managed to squeeze a few more miles and months out of Granfer before ‘old faithful’ was finally laid to rest in what I like to think of as a Motor Organ Exchange Facility, in effect, a scrapyard at Hebburn on Tyne. His aluminium body may well now be reconstituted as a Transatlantic superjet, or more likely as a set of pans. R.I.P.

Posh Pitheap
We celebrated the start of the Sixties with an Austin A35 van which was 6 months old, had 6k on the clock and at £365 cost £60 less than its brand new OTR price – a posh purchase by the standards of our previous vehicles. Locally registered as PTY 750 and bought from a miner in Pity Me, Co Durham she was christened ‘Pitheap‘, for obvious reasons, but also because we could never totally eliminate the tiny fragments of coal which had collected in every nook and cranny of the interior. I added a home made, folding bench seat in the back, so, like many A35 vans of that era it became a windowless Austin ‘Countryman’ estate car, thereby saving the 25% Purchase Tax which applied to passenger cars.

Tax Penalty
As a penalty for this tax concession, officialdom had imposed a speed limit on vans of 40 mph, so in effect we were banned by law from driving in top gear on any road, including the fast new dual carriageway trunk roads being introduced. This diktat was perhaps a forerunner of today’s highway situation, where unrealistic speed restrictions are indiscriminately imposed on many major routes, enforced by photo-technology reminiscent of George Orwell’s Big Brother in ‘1984‘.

It also serves as a reminder of the bureaucratic DVLA rationale which encouraged (indeed exploited) the personal and cherished car registration plate market, only – with the complicity of Government – to impose petty and vindictive restrictions on the manner in which they are displayed.

Does anyone really believe, for instance, that ‘COMIC‘ is less memorable or identifiable than ‘COM 1C‘ as DVLA and police advisers claim? I’m sure Jimmy Tarbuck doesn’t, nor does any reasonable person whose thinking process is unaffected by the distortions of the Whitehall mindset.

I taught my wife to drive in the A35, mostly along the ruler-straight roads of Team Valley Trading Estate usually at weekends when the factories and offices were closed, and also on the A1, into the North Pennines and Scotland. She quickly became a very practiced and proficient driver to such an extent that on her driving test the terrified examiner failed her for over-confidence. Sometimes, you just can’t win.

Zany Zephyr-Zodiac
I think a touch of madness descended on the family for our next car, when we part-exchanged the A35 for a 1957 Ford Zephyr-Zodiac, a garish red and black 6-cylinder monster which only scraped (often literally) through the driveway gateposts with 3″ to spare. Steering column gearchange, bench front seat, grinning chrome grilles front and rear, this was the epitome of appaling pseudo-Yankee taste which I can only attribute to a rush of blood.

It was an aberration we were very soon to regret when the gearbox disintegrated, and the £35 replacement bill brought us to the realisation that any upper-middle class pretensions we might harbour were really not for the likes of us.

If only we’d known, at today’s values the registration plate would probably have bought ten Zodiacs. It was first registered to a Whitley Bay landlady as MTN 22, promptly christened ‘Dinky Doo‘. MTN 22 almost concludes my record of fortuitous acquisitions of rare motors and some even rarer registrations, at a time when they really started to appreciate with dramatic effect.

Cheerful Cherub
This chronicle cannot end without our first purchase of a brand new car. It was a basic Morris Mini, Minor, a cheerful cherry red cherub blessed with registration 3479 DN, and predictably named Deanna on first sight. By paying cash I received a £35 discount off the list £565, not much by today’s standards, but sufficient to buy petrol for the first few thousand miles.

Poor Deanna coughed and spluttered her way through our ownership and into old age as a result of my 3 year old son shovelling dust into the petrol tank following theft of the petrol cap. I stripped the carburettor countless times and had the tank cleaned, but every few weeks the car would cough to a standstill, ready to have the float chamber drained and the jets and filters cleared yet one more time.

Oddly enough, our Mini never suffered the wet-weather weakness of many of its fellow models (and also the 1100-1300 range), often seen stationary at the side of the road whenever rain fell in excess of a light drizzle.

We have run a wide variety of motors since that time in 1962, but few have brought the hairy incidents or happy memories which these first ventures into the world of wheels created for us.

Devilish Digits
In the ensuing 40 years, only one car plate will remain forever branded into my memory. This was YAK 666L, a 1972 Audi 100 LS which left a frightening trail of death, misadventure and sheer tragedy in its five year life and left me with an awed respect of the ‘Devil’s Number‘, 666.

I purchased it in 1975 from the estate of the original owner, a very successful businessman, who died suddenly from heart attack. Whilst in my ownership and on holiday in France I fell victim to that hated French rule of the road ‘Priorite en Droit‘, subsequently abolished.

The Audi was put into a garage in Le Touquet for temporary repairs, sufficient to get us back home. When put into a Leeds bodyshop for repair, the engineer pointed out a 9″ gash on the inside of the front offside tyre, with the inner tube bulging out, in which condition I had driven the family almost 400 miles back to Yorkshire.

3479 DW

But YAK 666L hadn’t finished yet. I sold it to a US airman stationed at Harrogate. A few months later whilst on a family outing with his wife, children and parents the car was involved in a horrific collision in which all the occupants died or suffered appalling injuries. Very sobering.

Today, we run a Ford Focus purchased new almost three years ago and it is perhaps a sad comment on the times that even now I simply cannot recall the singularly unmemorable computerised jumble of letters allegedly identifying our car. Now, if it was GR 4 or PTY 750 or MTN 22 . . . that would make a very different story.

Vernon Wood

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