Technician’s Update : Clutching the money…

Mike Humble

The Rover 400 - Not everyone's first choice as a taxi purchase.
The Rover 400 – Not everyone’s first choice as a taxi purchase.

Around this time of year, my hat goes off to the army of breakdown folk and mobile mechanics who sit in a lonely cab. Radio 2’s warbling in the background and they’re awaiting the dread of the mobile ‘phone ringing for desperate assistance from another hapless motorist who’s car is in need of some Christmas cheer. Travelling home from work yesterday I saw a stricken Seat Alhambra belching steam that would make Sir Nigel Gresley proud. It had an RAC chap buried up to his waist under the bonnet. And it brought back so many memories.

Fettling old knackers in any weather can be a thankless task – yet more so around this time of year.

The date of 23 December 2005 will be forever etched in my mind. It was for one of the most miserable and backbreaking tasks I ever undertook in a professional capacity to date – a clutch change on a Rover 420. As a mobile spanner-man back then at that time of the year, most of my income actually came via agency HGV trunking work for Argos. Mid-winter, most of the mechanical work had died off with punters spending their money on toys for Susie rather than tinkering their Sierra. A regular customer then phoned me with a plea to doing some work on one of taxis that made my heart skip a beat at the thought of a useful wedge of ready cash for Christmas.

A certain now long gone Taxi and coach operator in Shildon used to call upon my services when his usual garage was fully booked or out of his favour. Or more to the point, when he couldn’t pay his bill. His personal financial situation was no interest to me, owing to the fact he paid cash on the nail – and made it worth my while travelling from Darlington to Shildon by means of an extra 20 sovs on whatever invoice I submitted. He may have paid sometimes with pound coins from a takings bag. But money is indeed money – and it’s gratefully received at all times.

This was the first job I had done for a month or two and this was surprising considering his unorthodox choice of minicabs. His fleet comprised two 1.6-litre Rover 400 (HHR) hatchbacks and a recently-acquired petrol 420 saloon. Mark had rung me at the back end of Summer asking for a quote on a clutch on the 420, but I had back heeled the idea owing to the fact clutch changes are a time consuming maul of a job unless you can get the damn thing six foot in the air on a two poster ramp. Normally I could call upon such luxury but at the time I couldn’t – hence I declined the job.

Changing a clutch on a T series 400 is straightforward. But add an LPG kit with heavy snow and its a challenge!
Changing a clutch on a T-series 400 is straightforward. But add an LPG kit with heavy snow and its a challenge!

I had some useful contacts back then. A motor dealer who used me had a ramp in his premises who allowed me to use it for my own rainy day work on the proviso that I charged him favourable rates on his cars. Another contact was a pair of seemingly dodgy looking sorts who just happened to be a pair of the best paint sprayers I ever knew; and a local haulage firm with expansive workshops did my air conditioning servicing for next to nothing. An old schoolfriend had a respected tyre fitting outfit while another was a superb electrician and welder, so I really could offer the proverbial ‘one stop shop’ with motors.

Mark the taxi man called two days before Christmas amazingly still needing a clutch fitting in his 420, the difference being this time I was upside down with finances – or more to the point, there was a trickle of lolly coming in again against a tide of bunts going out so I accepted the job. Peter Bell my motor dealer chum, agreed to let me bring the car over to his Darlington premises so with my electrician buddy riding shotgun in my van, we sped over to Shildon to collect the car first light. I collected the keys from Marks house and arrived at the industrial estate where his vehicles were parked only to hit a very big and hard obstacle.

My mate Nigel jumped into the Rover only to find the clutch slipped so badly it would hardly even move on the flat let alone the undulating road across the Dales to Darlington some 10 miles away. So that knackered that plan, we would have to do it there and then so out came the jack and axle stands, Nigel was flicked a tenner and off he drove to a nearby garage for some grub and supplies. While he was gone, obstacles two and three were hit in quick succession. The clutch kit as supplied in the boot was not for a T series Rover but a K series one and Mark had also omitted to tell me the car had an LPG conversion.

The car had been driven for so long with a ruined clutch it was immovable.
The car had been driven for so long with a ruined clutch it was immovable.

I phoned Mark to vent my spleen and to explain that I had undertaken a clutch change and not travelled across Durham to mend a gas cooker. With some delicacy and while drawing sketches, I unplumbed the conversion piping and wiring required to access the bolts and fittings of the gearbox and when Nigel returned with the van, I had to drive warp speed to Darlington to gain the correct clutch kit from those fine blokes at Unipart. By the time I got back Nigel had the suspension arms dropped, the drive-shafts popped and the bulk of the gearbox work ready for lowering and then the final obstacle arrived.

Akin to the Arctic circle, it went dark in about 20 minutes and with no warning started to snow – and I do mean snow. My hired hand quite rightly said ‘f*** this Mike’ and we hopped into the van to plan our next move. I phoned Mark to offer a return on Boxing day to complete the job to which he got rather animated over the phone and hung up, just five minutes later he arrived on scene in one of his cars ready for a shouting match. A somewhat heated exchange then took place but the wind was taken from his sails after I explained the series of blunders caused by him not throwing straight dice and supplying incorrect parts.

After also explaining that potentially making ourselves ill owing to the weather allied with myself getting uncharacteristically wound up and mad caused him to change tack. After telling us that car had to be, by hook or by crook, on the rank on Christmas Eve, he offered to double what he initially agreed to pay. All of a sudden the thought of spending Christmas day blowing my nose and gargling Lemsip seemed rather appealing for the thick end of £500. A few hours later the 420 was ready to roll and the Corsa van heater never worked so hard than it did on our return journey home.

Two major factors caused me to cease my mobile work. Firstly the cab operator went bust which was a shame as a fair chunk of income came via that Shildon cab firm. Secondly, Peter Bell who ran the Darlington Diesel Car Centre retired early and failed to sell his business as a going concern – a good 30% of my business came from servicing and checking over his cars before sale and when the rain fell, I also had a place to continue my own work. Besides, returning once again to the warmth of a car showroom also earned me a nice living in a more favourable environment.

So for all those mobile folk and breakdown crews wielding spanners while the rest of wield a carving knife – we salute you!

Mike Humble


  1. Another good read Mike. Spare a thought for the Ambulance crews, fire crews and Police who are having to work today too

  2. I really appreciate the work done by mobile crews at this time of year. Well done everyone.

    BTW – Shildon to Darlington is not exactly the biggest journey in the world!

  3. Nicely told, as always.

    I hate the cold at the best of times (I get Reynauds, which means the blood circulation in my hands and feet instantly gets cut off on contact with a cold surface)- and the thought of having to do anything outside involving car mechanicals fills me with dread.

  4. I still do this caper,despite having a decent job in a huge workshop,to the wifes despair i cant say no,i see it has an extra meal out,filling the tank.To be honest,a lot was pals cars and the mates rates with it,i have tailed back this work and kept it to some good punters/payers.
    I always add between 20-40% on parts-why?im on the ‘phone/web/chasing parts so why not?if they supply spurious parts there is no guarantee whatsoever-i have learned the hard way with that one.I have invested heavily in diagnostic platforms because without it you are goosed and more and more this gear is required i.e speed limiter removal Connect van £60 please.

  5. I’ve never actually employed the services of a mobile mechanic but can think of several occasions when I’d have been extremely grateful for such!

    Mike, you are very keen judging by the posting date – the 25th December! Mind, for a variety of reasons, mishaps I ended up spending yesterday home alone. So, the ZR received a general fluid check and, in between showers, an extremely thorough wash & wax!

  6. Pity the customer didn’t get the right replacement clutch for you in the first place! Only right that he agreed to pay more for your efforts on Xmas Eve. If it had been me, I would have been eternally grateful… Happy Xmas Mike

  7. Talking of actual breakdowns, roadside, I’ll go back to Christmas Day 1996. I was driving to my Mum & Dad’s in Cumbria for the day. Junction 40 of the M6 and my 205 XS ground to a halt. Having no mobile I had to trudge accross fields to a tiny hamlet. No answer at the first two or three doors I knocked at with only one or two houses, at the most, left to try. Oh hell! Luckily the next door was answered but it was a tad awkward phonong my Dad from their front room on Christmas day!! Anyway my Dad travelled the thirty miles or so to rescue me. We anticipated just towing my car to the nearest garage forecourt but ended up towing the full way home. Not easy!!
    Just think how grateful I would have been that day to see a breakdown truck pulling up!! (a mobile phone would have helped too. In fact, when I got my first mobile I anticipated breakdowns being its only real use. How wrong I was there!)

  8. Great article Mike.

    @6. If they could put a years ticket on it, I think this is quite a good way to blow a monkey on a banger. Alloys, air, leather, no HGF to worry about being the 420 – you know it makes sense…

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