Memories : Skipper Ford, Darlington, June 1971

Mike Humble shares another dealer snapshot in time, again from his home town of Darlington.

This time, it’s from the long-gone dealer group of Skipper.

When a UFO came to Darlington. Ed Straker’s Ford Zephyr-based car on show at Skippers 1971 – office admin girl Lynne Willans poses.

Amazing how time flies these days isn’t it? It only seems five minutes ago that TV series like Space 1999 made youngsters like me think how futuristic 1999 actually sounded – back in mid-1970s.

I do now, as I did then, love a cracking bit of science fiction – especially the aforementioned TV programme. Suffice to say my shelves groan under the weight of both of the series DVD box set and a stupidly large scale model of an Eagle One Transporter – the spacecraft in which Commander John Koenig, played by the late Martin Landau, whizzed around our telly screens.

Hmm, this has made me ponder looking back in hindsight at how many Eagle spaceships they had in their fleet – it must have been millions. It seemed that in every episode at least one ended up crash landing or being blown up by inter-galactic baddies.

That said, I was a very young lad at the time and it mattered not one bit. Just for an hour on a Sunday afternoon, the telly was mine and was all Moonbase Alpha – devised and produced by the legendary Gerry Anderson under his Century-21 brand and Lew Grade’s ITC corporation. The above image though harks from a lesser known Anderson show – UFO. Go check it out if you are not in the swim – it’s so awful that it’s brilliant.

When you think of Anderson, you recall in an instant the likes of  Fireball XL-5, Thunderbirds, Stingray or Captain Scarlet. UFO was a breakaway from the usual Anderson norm insofar as the characters were not marionette puppets with massive heads but walking, talking real life actors. UFO was based on the premise that the world had a secret organisation guarding our safety from alien invasion from outer space based in leafy Elstree.

This pseudo-military organisation was called SHADO – this stood for Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation, led by Commander Ed Straker skillfully yet eerily portrayed by the actor Ed Bishop, sadly no longer of this parish.

Despite the show only running for just one season, albeit with a staggering 26 episodes, it enjoys a cult status and regularly has re-runs on satellite or cable TV. The show also spawned a huge array of Dinky models that ranged from miniature alien spaceships, SHADO moon vehicles, SHADO Interceptor craft and Ed Straker’s car – the same vehicle you can see in the above image.

Tell us about the car…

These strange looking gull-wing doored vehicles, which were driven by Commander Straker and his right-hand-man, Colonel Alan Freeman, (played by the late George Sewell) were specially built for the programme and were in fact totally real and drivable cars. Under the hand-beaten aluminium and fibreglass body was a Ford Zephyr floorpan and chassis but fitted with a Cortina 1600 crossflow engine rather than the expected 3.0-litre V6 power unit. A number of vehicles were produced for the programme and built by Alan Mann Racing Limited of Brooklands. The Surrey-based company also built Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang as a consequence of its contacts with Walter Hayes (Ford Motor Company’s former PR boss) and 007 producer Cubby Broccoli – the latter produced the film based on the Ian Fleming children’s book.

Despite their futuristic look the cars were reputed to be a real handful on the road and proper pigs to drive. The alloy body had the rigidity of wet cardboard and this, coupled to what was effectively a sawn-down chassis, was said to cause scuttle-shake of enormous proportions. The shirt button steering wheel meant any driver had to have herculean strength to drive it in heavy traffic or on twisty country lanes.

Incredible as it may sound, there was a plan to put the car into production in limited numbers – the model was to be called the Explorer Quest, but only one was made with an all-fibreglass shell before the plan was eventually shelved. Dave Lee Travis went on to buy one of the TV show vehicles after the series ended and, as the car was were totally road legal, he often turned up for personal appearance gigs driving it.

And the dealer?

Back in olden days, a well-publicised local dealer event would sometimes cause a sensation with the curious car-buying punter. The UFO car did the rounds at a number of Ford dealers in 1971 – one such visit was to the huge multi-story showroom of Skippers which had been officially opened in 1967. Originally John Neasham Motors, Skippers’ ring road showroom was a well-known Darlington landmark for over 35 years. They were RS and Ford truck dealers for the Teesside area too and the massive showroom featured a car lift to take display vehicles upstairs – even up onto the roof.

 

The huge, state-of-the-art premises of John Neasham Motors Ford showroom shortly after opening. Just behind the Singer, you can spot the car-lift that took vehicles to the upstairs showroom and roof display area. 

The premises, even by today’s gin palace standards was massive in every sense – ridiculous looking back for a rural market town. I recall the Parts Department being the size of some dealers’ floor space stocking all the Motorcraft-branded paraphernalia, countless RS alloy wheel options not to mention a wall full of car stereo equipment. The investment in this gargantuan dealership, along with a new heavy commercials site at nearby Yarm Road Industrial Estate, was said to overstretch the Neasham company’s coffers and, soon after this mecca of all things Ford opened, the company was sold to the Skipper Group.

The Skipper Group was taken over in 1993 and eventually became part of the Evans Halshaw dealer chain. Following the takeover of the Reg Vardy Group in 2006, this concrete behemoth of a showroom closed down and relocated into the old Reg Vardy MG-Rover premises that was re-developed into a multi-franchise ‘motor village’ on the outskirts of the town and the old town centre premises were eventually demolished a few years ago.

Thanks are owed to Mike Clarke for the images.

22 Comments

  1. Skipper like many dealer groups back in the seventies and eighties, had interesting owners, in this case RTZ or mining fame.

  2. Re “They were RS and Ford truck dealers for the Teesside area too”, who was RS? As for RTZ – Rio Tinto Zinc – I worked for CRA – Conzinc RioTinto of Australia – on the prospect for the Argyle diamond mine in the late 1970s. And, about the photo here, dig those kinky boots!

  3. Those “classic” garages of architectural significance where cars were sold and serviced are of diminishing number, modern dealerships are all-glass and of little interest to historians. Two recent losses the Ford 1930s garage and the Vauxhall dealership in Lewisham , multi floored with a spiral car ramp connecting each floor, storage upon the flat roof level
    Here are a “classic” premises:

    daimler Garage Bloomsbury London:
    https://duckduckgo.com/?t=ffab&q=daimler+garage++russell+square&iax=images&ia=images&iai=https%3A%2F%2Flive.staticflickr.com%2F65535%2F49994167636_fd5b82f069_b.jpg

    Haywards Heath:

    https://duckduckgo.com/?q=vw+haywards+heath+caffyns&t=ffab&iar=images&iax=images&ia=images&iai=https%3A%2F%2Fassets.centralindex.com%2FA%2F76%2F116aeb03071577726c20cb8020402e57_256.jpg

  4. Michael Reeves (of the Norman Reeves family) told me that they sold the original base Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car to the film company.

  5. ….and even before any of those memories was “journey Into Space” on the BBC Light Program! I was an enthralled 8 year old and can still remember a guy called Lemmy! With regards to showrooms (sorry I can’t find any usable pictures), I well remember in the 60’s Walker Jacksons (Ford) in Swindon having a brand new all glass and concrete showroom built right alongside a very busy roundabout. Today its all gone replaced by a hotel that looks about as inviting as a prison. The area is virtually ‘dead’ and even the roundabout has gone.

  6. A 70s “modern garage” still in use is Beadles VW dealership in Chelmsford, at the Widford roundabout. I believe it was actually originally an office block which was converted with two floors of showrooms.

    • UFO is currently being shown in late evening on ForcesTV. It’s toe-curlingly awful and an effort to sit through an entire episode, even if you enjoy 60’s kitsch. One of the only pluses is the presence of Gabrielle Drake, sister of doomed singer/songwriter Nick Drake. She doesn’t improve the show in any way, but she is easy on the eye.

  7. I was looking forward to this item! I think Skippers also owned Selwood Ford Garages of South Shields and in 1971 I also viewed Ed Straker’s car in their showroom… It did look the worse for wear!

    Ed’s colleague was called Alec Freeman (not Alan). I was always and still am, a fan of the UFO series and owned the Dinky model of said car – sold it by auction in 2019. Must admit I had a crush on Gabrielle Drake back in those days. UFO was of its time but still watchable as nostalgia. Thanks for the memories Mike.

  8. UFO was made in 69/70 and imagined the world a mere 10 years later in 1980. They got the purple hair, silver mini-dresses and moon-bases fending off alien invasion wrong, but that curvy Ford based car isnt a million miles away from the original Sierra – only a couple of years out.

  9. I remember this garage as one of the few occasions a ford was looked at (not sure why here as there was Ansa Motors in Durham where we lived and I recently moved back to) – probably too normal for my Dad!

    There are still some multi level garages being built – check out this….
    https://www.taylor-design.co.uk/projects/west-london-jaguar/

    Thanks for this series of articles on the north east which are bringing childhood memories flooding back – anyone else remember the used car lots of Whessoe Road in Darlington and Blenheim Street in Newcastle?

  10. Yes Andrew P… I remember the Used car outlets in Marlborough Crescent / Blenheim Street. One was called Newton & Fothergill. Some of their cars often looked freshly resprayed! Adams & Gibbon Vauxhall dealers was up Westmorland Rd.

    • Adams and Gibbons – they seemed to have a lot of dealerships when i was growing up! Seemed to vanish at the same time as Bedford vans!

      The change in the Marlborough Crescent / Blenheim St area is amazing (although you could say that for a lot of Newcastle)

      I feel old!

  11. I think A&G had 5 dealerships then were taken over by Bristol Street Motors in the 80s. My old employers were based in Newcastle city and I used to park my car in the Cattlemarket car park. It’s now where the Centre for Life is built plus other hotels etc. Indeed very changed from the 70s & 80s. Happy days of my life.

  12. I can remember a Volvo dealership on Jesmond Road( possibly Minories) that was a little like Skippers in that it had an enclosed filling station, a showroom to the rear and offices on the upper floors. Not sure what it is now, but the showroom and filling station closed some time in the eighties.

  13. Yes Glenn… I remember the Minories Volvo dealers & petrol station on Jesmond Road which disappeared years ago. I drove past that area a few weeks ago but didn’t notice what’s there now. Minories is a name from the past like Reg Vardy and others. Mill Garages were another dealership chain. I bought a Datsun Cherry from them.

    • @ Hilton D, a few other long gone Tyneside dealerships, Monk Car Sales in North Shields( Toyota), Cowgate Motor Company on Ponteland Rd in Newcastle, again Toyota, whose boast was you could drive away a new Corolla with a £ 99 deposit. I’m sure as well there was a dealership on City Rd in Newcastle that was Rolls Royce.

  14. I worked there in 1984 to 1986 as a New car salesman ,Fiestas started at £3995 on the road I was asked to work on a Sunday which in 1984 was unheard of but people still boufgt cars because we were open ++
    I got paid £11.00 for a Fiesta and more if I sold underseal and £18.00 for a Escort and £21.00 for a Sierra we used to events which atracted people from miles Happy days

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