By 19 December 2010 15 Comments Read More →

Personalise your car – the universal way

Mike Humble fondly recalls when side stripes and seat covers were all the rage in the crazy days of the Car Accessory Shop.

Styling kits and vinyl roofs - lest we never forget!

Over the years, many well-known retailers have disappeared from our towns’ and cities’ high streets. Most people over the age of 30 will remember great names (some not so great) such as C&A, Co-Op Department Stores, Liptons, Rumbelows, Hepworths (just a little bit more style) and my chosen haven for all things battery-operated and rubbish… Tandy – the emporium for an ’80s child with the need for cheap blank audio tapes for bootlegging computer games. Nowadays, it’s the good old motor spares shops which are fast disappearing from the streets as car owners no longer have the desire and, owing to the ever complex workings, are no longer able to maintain the family car.

Lately, I have been trying to find a chrome tail pipe trim for my Rover and, here in RH12, we have not one single car accessory shop. Sure, I can buy one from Hellfrauds but I begrudge paying 23 million pounds for something that’s made to look like something you would see on a badly customised Citroen Saxo. I fitted a pattern made rear box onto my 25 and the tailpipe is ever so slightly short – besides, an extra dash of chrome might look quite nice.

Anyway, that’s set me off on another nostalgia trip and I sit here smirking like a Cheshire cat thinking about all the crud you could once buy for your car and wondering was it really any use or good? Well, after some consideration, I have come to the conclusion, no. It makes me wonder how the hell did we cope and why did we tolerate the truly awful rubbish that car accessory shops up and down the land used to flog to the motoring public that were foaming at the mouth to personalise their cars?

For a short while a good few years ago I may add, I managed two branches of a High Street chain of car parts & accessory stores. At this time, car alarm systems were all the rage and the sky was the limit as to how radical or high-tech you could go. Who could forget such legendary brands as Moss or Sparkrite – alarm systems, that on the whole, did nothing more than make you fall out with your neighbours and tempt local kids to kick their footballs against your alarmed motor.

Body styling kits were a bit seller too, thanks to brands such as Richard Grant making your square-shaped Ford Cortina MkV look even squarer. I remember the catalogue very well indeed – even fabulous cars like Audi’s Coupe GT, which looked the nuts in standard form, could be truly ruined with the application of styling kits which often looked home made and had an alarming habit of dropping off at high speed. I’m sure many of you are wincing because you too fitted an accessory grille kit with driving lamps and thought it looked good – I know I did.

One word which sent shudders of horror up my spine was UNIVERSAL. This word would be applied to countless items including radio aerials, throttle cables, thermostats, seat covers, wheel trims and so on. Anything with the term universal was almost guaranteed NOT to fit YOUR car. I once tried to fit an universal electric aerial to one of my Ford Cortinas only to give up, take it back and remove a genuine aerial from a scrap Ghia model in the breaker’s yard.

Who remembers body tape? No, not the erotic type purchased from Anne Summers which your wife threw back at you in disgust, but the gaily coloured stripes that looked liked they had been fitted in the dark by a blind drunk. Thin stripes, thick stripes, double stripes, all kinds of stripes – we were all guilty of buying them. You really had to be skilled when it came to fitting them. Oh, how I hated getting new cars ready for PDI – quite often we would apply side stripes to cars at the new owner’s request.

Even yours truly caught the side stripe bug!

Car stereo systems were massive business – in my day you could buy an in car CD player but they were over £200. We sold a range of Spark-o-matic radio cassette players to suit every budget including removable units – not a removable front but the whole bloody radio slid out of the tray. How cool did we look carrying the whole radio cassette player into the local Berni Inn. Massive shelf speakers in a huge plastic pod that had about as much bass sound as a telephone receiver were a must for that discerning driver of quality and taste.

How about a kettle that plugs into the cigar lighter? No problem sir, walk this way. Beaded seat covers that did nothing for lumbar support, but merely made you slide out of the seat during spirited cornering? A friend had that happen and wrote off his Volvo 360. My particular branch even had a pair of Marina front lever arm dampers in stock (for a pre ’75 model with the large eye bush). One day we had a spot check from the Fire Service who rollocked me for using a fire extinguisher to prop the door open. I substituted the said extinguisher for one of the aforementioned dampers and received a nod of approval from the Fire Assessor.

Still the chosen accessory of a Leicester mini cab driver

The back wall of most motor spares stores would be bedecked with the paint rack containing acres and acres of aerosol tins in long redundant  shades such as British Leyland Harvest Gold or Ford Terracotta Brown. We actually sold more to kids wanting to spray their bike frames (or bus stops) than car owners but, in the body repair section, nothing flew off the shelves more than T-Cut or David’s Plastic Padding – maybe it was the picture of Brian Jacks on the tin. Back in those days, people were much more DIY-orientated and were more than happy to service or repair their own cars. In today’s throw away society, people swap cars more frequently and no longer need to find a brush kit to recondition their own alternators.

Driving lamps - they cost a friend of mine very dearly.

Fog lamps and driving lights were trendy for a long while – I fitted two pairs to a Lada Riva I once owned and they were quite honestly offensive in brightness. After fitting the aforementioned lamps, I and my old mucker Richard went out for a midnight drive on the country lanes on the Northamptonshire and Warwickshire borders to see how well they worked. We were driving along the deserted lanes when, halfway round a bend, we met a car  in the middle of the road – we were licking along because we were trying to re-enact a night stage on the Lombard RAC Thetford Forest stage.

Swerving to avoid a collision and still of full beam, we avoided the car. Looking in my door mirror after we passed the heart-stopping moment I observed the aforementioned car drop down into the three foot ditch at the side of the road. However, after half a mile or so, our conscience got the better of us and we decided to stop. After a quick fag, we decided to head back and see if all was OK. We  pulled up and saw a stranded Astra but,  before we even had a chance to apologise for blinding the poor driver, the man begged us to help him. He had taken his 15 yr old son out for a driving lesson and didn’t think he would meet any other car. We kept schtum and, happily, I grabbed my sturdy tow rope from the boot and pulled the Astra from the ditch like a toy car! The guy gave me £20 for my troubles – oh, those halcyon days!

Anyway, to close my ramble: another friend fitted a plethora of driving lamps to his Escort Mk2 but, rather than use the fitting kit and relays as you should, he opted to wire them straight into his main beam circuit and replace the fuse for a nail or equivalent high amp yet unsuitable rating. The panic and laughter a friend and I experienced after we had bailed out of a smoke-filled Escort and then watched the poor thing burn itself out at the side of the road will be something I’ll never forget!

Kids of today with cars – you don’t know you’re born!

Posted in: AROnline Blogs, Essays
Mike Humble

About the Author:

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade. Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

15 Comments on "Personalise your car – the universal way"

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  1. Simon Woodward says:

    Another quality essay from Mike! Richard Grant spoilers and Wellers white 8 spoke wheels were so cool at the time.

    I loved those red reflective infills that fitted between the rear lights with XR3i written on them. How many hours did I waste colour coordinating my wing mirrors and applying stripes to my 1980s hatch?

    A guy I know was rather good at applying stripes to Capris without creases etc. He was so good his skills developed into a successful business signwriting commercial vehicles and, even 20 years on, we still call him Andy Stripe.

  2. Marty B says:

    Nice one, Mike. I too once managed a branch of a chain of motor accessory shops in the North. We had the Kingavon brand – a brand of tat which was guaranteed to make your car catch fire. The recall notices came through on a weekly basis, sometimes more than that…

    We also stocked good old ‘Paddy Hopkirk’ branded roof racks/boxes/cycle racks, which we nicknamed ‘Geoffs’, after a certain naff 1960s show starring Kenneth Cope.

    Oh, and yes, the back wall of the shop was filled with the Car Plan rattle tin rack… Surprisingly, Ford Goodwood Green was a good seller, along with a minty green but to just one bloke… Apparently, he did model bus repaints and those two colours were an almost perfect match for the local Corpy livery of years gone by!

    The amount of tat people stuck to their cars was mental and we did a roaring trade in stripes, stickers, novelty reg plates and tacky wheel trims… The local ‘Arfur Daley’ used to buy the cheapo wheeltrims by the bucketload in 13 and 14 inch sizes… You could tell when he had a Volvo 240 in – he would want 15 inch trims…

  3. Andrew Elphick says:

    Hey, that’s the Street Machine magazine project car from the late 1980s in fabulous beige!

    Would a collection of period CCC adverts be of interest to the fans of AROnline? I have been feverishly scanning recently…

  4. Mike Humble Mike Humble says:

    Andrew Elphick :Hey, that’s the Street Machine magazine project car from the late 1980s in fabulous beige!

    Would a collection of period CCC adverts be of interest to the fans of AROnline? I have been feverishly scanning recently…

    Yes,yes,YES!

  5. Ianto says:

    Top essay Mike, as ever!

    My favourite 1980s excess was a Saisho 16 band graphic equaliser which I coupled up to my Sharp radio cassette deck in my 1600GL Sportshatch.

  6. Will says:

    I remember my dad and his efforts at modifying:

    – He used to fit spotlights to every car he got but, one day, he found himself stumped after he had bought my mum an Astra Mk2 to learn in – the aerodynamic plastic bumper and grille didn’t lend itself to spotlights.

    – He had those beads on a long-distance driver.

    – Tyre paint was applied with a paintbrush and not a spray and he also used that interior cleaning chemical which made me nauseous.

    – The alarm systems that would go off if an insect was in the car at night or the wind blew the car slightly.

    – Tape decks that forwarded and rewinded to the next/last song, before CD players were common (and affordable).

    – Mobile phone holders with their own speaker and microphone, with the aerial going through the rear window (and blocking the rear wiper). Carphones were for the bosses.

    Mind you, plastic wheel trims are still useful when tidying up a tatty old car to sell – it can, though, be difficult to find a “tasteful” design.

  7. Hilton Davis says:

    I have to say I am guilty of being a member of the 1980s stripe brigade myself, Mike. I bought a new Datsun Cherry coupe in 1981 and later added a pair of twin orange/cream stripes(about 1/4 inch wide) on the upper body sides. I also had chrome (plastic!) wheel arch mouldings put on. These were fitted professionally by a car styling company.

    Mind you, in fairness, they didn’t look brash and I kept the design simple. The wheel arches added a bit of brightness to the car at a time when chrome had disappeared from mainstream models.

    However, I admit many cars which received striping looked garish – not, of course, your Rover 600 though!

  8. Paul says:

    This type of Car Accessory Shop must still exist somewhere – how else do all those Corsas, Novas and Saxos end up with underbody lights, racing fuel filler caps and Wurlitzer-like rear lamp clusters?

  9. Simon Woodward says:

    @Ianto
    I had one of those and a Fisher cassette holder which held 6 x C90s – when you pressed the button they would pop out with all the grace of a fairy elephant in a tutu.

    That bit of kit looked good in my white Austin Metro 1.0L – I had already applied red and blue stripes down the side to match the white co-ordinated wheel trims!

    However, the greatest gadget I ever fitted was a little black box which made electronic machine gun noises at other motorists to settle motoring disputes.

  10. Shep says:

    Does anyone remember those rolls of ribbed rubber with a self-adhesive backing with which you could fashion neat and effective door sill step protectors for almost any vehicle? I really wish that they were available today, as black Fablon doesn’t really cut it…

  11. Simon Woodward says:

    @Shep
    How about those self-adhesive initials? A lot cheaper than a private No. plate…

  12. Shep says:

    @Simon Woodward
    I remember that, back in the 1990s, a lot of people where I lived used to put those on their driver’s doors. *Shudder*

  13. Simon Woodward says:

    @Shep
    Ha! I am guilty as charged!

  14. Ianto says:

    @Simon Woodward
    What about the James Bond decal set with bullet holes for the back window as well? Just perfect for that 2CV…

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