Technician’s Update : Simple Simon met a fireman!

Mike Humble

Cortina Ghia

You’ve heard it before – never buy a builder’s house or mechanics car. It makes sense because who in their right mind wants to spend hour upon hour on their own property or car for free… in their spare time. Often as not, a house or a motor owned by said tradesmen tends to resemble something from Chernobyl or a death trap best fit for a banger circuit. In the past, my own bangers have tended to be tidy machines but I have driven and owned my fair share of dirty, rotten and rattling heaps in the days when an old car could be purchased for as little as twenty fags. You think I’m kidding eh? Well let me warn you dear reader – I’m not!

Over the years and more so when I was in my late teens and early twenties, I’ve witnessed a Chrysler Horizon be swapped for a 5yr old Jack Russell bitch, a rotten but legal Renault 14 exchanged for a pair of ‘Wharfedale Delta 3” speakers and an unloved ex Gas Board Marina van with no engine change hands for 20 Embassy and a case of Belgian lager. Cars were much cheaper back then and much to my late father’s disdain, I used to change my cars like the weather, subsequent hammering and grinding would take place on the drive or in the garage during long Summer evenings until one of my parents would threaten me with physical violence if I didn’t stop.

There was a small ‘click” of us who all passed their driving tests around the same time (I was first to do so) and then the 12 speed Raleigh’s would rust away in the garden shed as we threw ourselves around the County in our first cars. Very quickly, we would gain adept skills in fitting car stereo equipment, CB radios… or in my case, front driving lamps – and lots of them. You never forget the smell of hot melting plastic coming from the steering column thanks to a billion watts of halogen power simply scotch-locked to the full beam terminal of the headlamp on tired old car – relays??? No idea what you’re talking about mate!

But soon you learn the hard way, in my case when I connected the radio cassette player to the back of the fag lighter in my mates Marina 1.8 Super. It all went rather well as we drove around the town listening to Guns n Roses on his Sparkomatic tape deck which was all fine and dandy until some-one pushed the lighter in. All of a sudden our friend Axl turned into Jim Reeves as the tape slowed down to a grinding halt followed by a puff of grey smoke and a worrying smell of hot solder. Screeching to a stop, all the wires were quickly plucked from the back of the centre console and the rest of the evening’s entertainment came in the form of silence.

The Cortina Ghia did it all. When new - an executive express. When second hand - a veritable wood trimmed mobile bedroom. The hypnotic power of a Ghia combined with a trip to the drive-thru, 20 Embassy and the Simply Red album Stars on cassette was all a young lad needed to succeed!
The Cortina Ghia did it all. When new – an executive express. When second hand – a veritable wood trimmed mobile bedroom. The hypnotic power of a Ghia combined with a trip to the drive-thru, 20 Embassy and the Simply Red album Stars on cassette was all a young lad needed to succeed!

I confess to have no time for electricity, I understand the physics of it and am more than capable of swapping batteries / alternators and so on – but that’s it really. A former senior work colleague described a short circuit or a burning component as ‘letting the Genie out of the bottle” or in other words – the magic has gone. But the award to the electrical dunderhead of all time has to go to a fellow trainee mechanic I worked with called Simon. I sold him my 1.6 Ghia Cortina of V plate vintage on the understanding that it needed a new wiper motor fitting as the blades longer self parked and the wipe speeds were much slower than they should have been – in other words the motor was dying.

It became a bit of a standing joke with Simon because if we hadn’t seen each other for a while, I would greet him with ‘changed that wiper motor yet Simon?” Which of course… he never did. After a few months the weather turned as the leaves dropped off the trees and one wet Monday morning he was over 3 hours late for work. The usual greeting was given to him whereby he just walked passed me muttering expletives under his breath to the tune of suggesting I should go forth and multiply. It was only in the canteen did I probe further to find out the reason of his unusual moody attitude – ‘it’s that bloody car you sold me” he said.

This put the end to the car for Simon. A new motor would have been pennies taking just a short while to fit - Saying that.. many of us are guilty of equally shady bodge-ups in the past for certain.
This put the end to the car for Simon. A new motor would have been pennies taking just a short while to fit – Saying that.. many of us are guilty of equally shady bodge-ups in the past for certain.

Well, it turned out that the car had started blowing the wiper fuse regularly to which his repair was to use a fuse of higher capacity. When the higher rating fuses started to blow, the next rating would be inserted – not ideal really. His reason for being late revolved around the fact his car had gone up in flames in busy traffic thanks to his latest fuse blowing technique of wrapping the ceramic fuse with the base of the beef and onion pie he had eaten just that Saturday. An eagle-eyed senior fire fighter had spotted this and mentioned it to a traffic bobby who had also been called out to the debacle and Simon was told in no uncertain terms that he might be facing legal action.

Simon and I recently recalled the aforementioned tale of doom on the phone after being out of touch for many years and it’s nice to be back in touch.

Let’s raise a glass to Simon Needham – AROnline’s latest fan!

Mike Humble


  1. Fantastic! It was easier to make do and mend with cars in those days. I also fitted driving lamps to my Mk5 Ghia with scotch locks spliced into the main beam wiring.

    When you think back to the original Mini with dynamo and two 35 amp fuses, to today’s gadgetry with possibly even two fuse boxes with about 35 FUSES in each, life was so much simpler then!!

  2. Great tale that, reminds me of a mate of mine who wired up the spot lamps and and his new moss remote alarm,into the cigarette lighter on his mk1 sierra.
    The spot light were 4 cibie’s of stupid wattage, so while driving down a dark lane in the Gower the alarm started to blast while the familiar smell vacume formed plastic and melting cable insulation filled the interior.
    The outcome was being stuck in the Gower while we waited for his father to arrive to tow bus home.
    Oh the Sierra was a A reg GL which was only 3 years old at the time, his father worked for Ford, so had cars on the discount scheme.

  3. I’ve heard of nails & other means of replacing a fuse that kept blowing.

    High spec 1980s cars seemed to have problems with the electrics getting troublesome after 10-15 years.

  4. In the days when the cars might not have been as reliable, but it was possible to pick up a runner for £ 100. These days even a ten year old Corsa goes for a grand and it seems anything less than this is on its last legs.
    I do recall in the Whitehaven News someone in the eighties selling a Morris Marina and throwing in a 22 inch colour television as part of the deal. However, I’ve never heard of anyone trading in a car for a dog, but it must have happened, same as people used to trade cars in the pub.

  5. I love Mike’s description of the Cortina Ghia when New, then Used… very apt. My company had a fleet of Cortina 1.6 litre MK3, 4 & 5 Estates and we used to travel the whole of the UK in them – happy days.

    The best Cortina I drove was a hired “Crusader” run out model that was almost identical to the Ghia. Think it was a 2 litre…

  6. Hilton D – The Crusader was available in 1.6 & 2.0 both saloon & estate either auto or manual.

    Both based on the GL trim but the 1.6 had the L engine IE: single choke carb rather than the 1600 GL’s twin choke Weber type.

  7. Happy days, and a more innocent motoring era when speed cameras didn’t exist, you could park easily and most car parks were free. Also cars were simpler to work on and you could readily get parts from a scrapyard.

  8. Another entertaining tale, thanks Mike.
    It reminds me of the time I fitted a simple car radio to my HB Viva. It fitted nicely and I just needed a switched 12v live to power it up.
    The switches (lighting, wipers etc) were mounted on a separate bracket below the dashboard, so the terminals were easily accessible. I just touched the radio power lead to each one in nturn until the radio lit up (and went off again with the ignition. Simple.
    This worked fine for weeks, enabling me to listen to that new fangled Radio One. Then one day, I noticed that the radio had stopped working, a few seconds later, it started again! Very mysterious!
    Eventually I realized that the radio would only work when the wipers were off, as soon as I turned them on, the radio would stop, and immediately re-start once the wipers had parked!
    Consulting my Haynes manual I realized that the wipers used a switched earth, and were powered all of the time the ignition was switched on to enable the self park to work.
    I’d connected my radio supply to the wiper motor side of the switch, and this allowed the meager current required for the radio to draw through the motor without there being enough current to operate the motor! Obviously, when the wipers were switched on, tnis became an earth, and the radio stopped!
    A few years later I too fitted a pair of Cibies to the front of my car and although I knew I needed a relay, I hadn’t got one on the Saturday night that I’d fitted them, so decided to wire them temporarily through a simple toggle switch. I had great fun that night driving through the local lanes marveling about the light from my Cibies, switching them on & off using the toggle switch to prevent dazzling on-coming drivers. Then, after being abvle to have them on for a couple of minutes, I reached down to switch them off and the melted switch just came apart in my hand! (I thought I could smell burning plastic!

  9. I resemble this 🙂 Remember swapping a rusting Chrysler Horizon for a spare Black and Decker Drill – and fitting air horns to my first car (a 1302S VW) – they worked, only problem was that I had one of those cool chromed and drilled gearleavers – that looked like a sten gun – and everytime I hit the horn whist changing gear, I got a shock – literally!

  10. My dad was a motor mechanic and I’m an engineer so we managed to fit air horns, spotlights and radio cassettes without setting the car on fire!

    IIRC we used to nick the headlamp switches out of old Triumphs as these were rated for about 25 amps and would comfortably handle a pair of spots. My old Dolomite looked like it had 6 headlights as I had a set of spots set inside the twin headlights. 🙂

    Happy days.

  11. Smoke is essential to the operation of any electrical circuit, since they stop working once the smoke has escaped.

  12. Mike’s comments on vehicles being “bought” for very little reminds me that I once obtained a Velocette motorbike for £1.50p and a BSA for two bottles of Newcastle Brown!.
    With the prices such things make now, I wish I still had them!

  13. @ MIke H… great knowledge about the carbs on Cortina’s. Most Cortina’s I drove were in 1.6L trim so would have had the single choke carb. I think they put out 75bhp. Felt pretty fast on motorways at the time.

  14. @ Hilton D

    From memory:

    1.6 OHC in base / L / Crusader – single choke VV carb = 76bhp

    1.6 OHC in GL / Ghia – Twin choke Ford / Weber carb = 84bhp

    2.0 OHC in GL / Ghia – Twin choke Ford / Weber carb = 100bhp

    2.3 V6 in GL / Ghia – Twin choke Ford / Weber carb = 106bhp

  15. Did anyone exchange a clapped out car for a night out with a lady of the night? Makes you wonder when you hear tales of bangers being exchanged for drills and Jack Russells.

  16. @ Mike…great memory you have. I think the letters VV on the single choke carb stood for variable venturi? I well remember the 2 litre putting out 100bhp, but hadn’t heard of the 1.6 twin choke 84bhp version. Sounds like a useful power output for the engine size back then.

    • The automatic choke on the VV was notorious for “failure to start” and a flat battery on my X registration Cortina, the engine would fire up then stall within 5 seconds, it would take several restarts until the engine would sustain hopefully the battery was up to the task, (not always). It was not an isolated issue, many of the Cortinas on the fleet experienced the same, the dealers would change the parts but it made little difference, The V registration Cortina I drove had a manual choke, never any issues there. It was just another of the issues which made me conclude Ford cars are pieces of junk

    • Yes the Ford VV was a famous problem that irritated both mechanics and owners in the mid-late 1980’s. Comparible engines that use side draught SU or ZS carburettors were known for being a fair bit easier on fuel especially around town that downdraught carburettors, the accelerator pump being the culprit. So Ford got clever and made this downdraught VV carbie with an accelerator pump. Wonderful theory, must have worked really well in the lab however in the real world they only really worked for the first 10,000 miles or about a year then they flooded, refused to start, used fuel like a truck and it took a good few years before Ford threw in the towel and fitted Weber or Pierburg downdraughts. Why Ford didn’t fit SU or ZS feeders is strange. I can only guess it was because a downdraught gave a nice acceleration bite to make a Ford seem more potent than your Marina, Avenger or Viva which all used side draught dashpotted carburettors. There was the green diaphragm replacement for the VV and that didn’t work either. The MK3 Escort had the VV while the MK4 had webers or peirburg’s. But yes the Ford VV was rubbish. I remember 1.6 Sierras had them and they would stall and splutter while returning 25mpg and less. Late 1984 the 1.6 got the longer stroke E-max pinto engine fed by a weber as the pinto 1.8 was launched with a peirburg. Fuel economy was still poor. There was a conversion kit for MK1 and 2 Escorts to fit a Morris Minor SU to (I assume) the 1100 Escorts which I’ve heard say made them run a lot better. Wether this could have been fitted to the 1300 Escort I don’t know. It was a recurring issue with Fords in the 1970’s and 80’s, bad carburation. Why they didn’t just use the ZS CD3 is a wonder. The ZS had the slight advantage over the SU HS4 (HIF was a big advancement) regarding throttle response worked well on Avengers or Vivas while a x-flow 1300 Escort just used petrol heavily to the point where coming behind an Escort mean’t getting poisoned with exhaust gas reeking of petrol. This was the advantage a Marina or Allegro had over Ford, the BL while nor great for reliability would generally give good fuel economy. A-series and SU take a bow. Ford got too clever by trying to fit an accelerator pump to a variable venturi carbie. Why the heck Ford did not just do a deal with SU or ZS is one of these strange 1970’s corporate politics events which makes you think it could only have been pride, which comes before a fall.

      • My Grandad never owned a Ford because they had a poor reputation for cold starting, something important when you live out in the country.

        Oddly his daughter, my aunt has owned a few Fords over the years so they must have improved at some time.

  17. “Smoke is essential to the operation of any electrical circuit, since they stop working once the smoke has escaped.”

    Oh yes! A regular occurrence in my 50 years of mostly AR ownership. The last being on the MG ZR bought the day before which saw the fuse box go up in smoke(lots) when the wipers were turned on. Traced (eventually) to a duff headlamp adjustment motor!!

  18. @ Mike again… thanks for your responses. I also recall coming back from Heathrow to the North East in a Hertz MKIV Cortina 2.0GL Auto in 1977/78 (Daytona Yellow) which seemed to have a spirited performance.

  19. It would be interesting to find out what your best buys and sells were. Not the most profitable, but your favorite, the one that give you most pleasure:

    Mine was a Viva HA van (ex GPO). I bought it for £40 in 1989. The oil light kept flashing on and the paint was oxidized. After a 3 hour mopping the paint was like new and simply changing the oil and filter sorted out the mechanical issues. In fact the engine was excellent. About a week later I sold it for £800.

    Ive sold hundreds of cars, but for some reason I recall that sale fondly. I am disabled now (broken spine) and very much out of the game, but that that car is one I think about fondly.

  20. The Mk 4 Escort of 1992 was notorious for electrical problems originating in the fusebox.
    The soldered joints for the blade type fuseholders would crack leaving the circuit high and dry or intermittently powered. IUt was not an old-age related problem, the cars were playing up within a few thousand miles

  21. I do miss the local scrapyard, which kept the family mobile when we were short of money. I needed a new starter motor for an old Mark 2 Cavalier, rather than pay the dealer £ 150, got one from the scrapyard for £ 15 and paid one of their lads another £ 15 to fit it. Also a radio died in a Mark 2 Escort, again the scrapyard had one that would fit for £ 2. For poorer motorists in old cars, these places were a godsend.

    • Served a purpose Glenn. I had a company MKIV Escort Pop with plain steel wheels. I got a set of white genuine Ford wheelcovers for £10 in 1992. At least they made the car look a bit better than the base model it was.

      • Yes,, they were essential for poorer motorists like me in the nineties. My old Cavaiier needed a starter motor and a float unit, as the fuel gauge was jammed, and both were sourced from a scrapyard for a tenth of the price of visiting a dealer. Also they had someone on hand who was a mechanic, which helped. Then they ran a decent sideline in radios and radio/cassettes from scrap cars.

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