Education and social conscience have improved a lot since us ‘old boys’ were at school. When my careers teacher asked me what I wanted to do, I’d said, ‘be a Car Designer’. I can still hear his laughter ringing in my ears!
This scorn hurt me and went deeper than he could have ever known. In that meeting, he totally destroyed this 14-year-old, and I decided to have nothing to do with cars. Instead, I’d direct my efforts into my second career choice and be a Furniture Designer. I didn’t tell the ‘scornful one’ though. I just left school at fourteen and a half and got a job.
I trawled through four years of being a Furniture Salesman and then a Manager – but, one day, looking across at the windows of our town’s Vauxhall-Bedford main dealer, I decided I had to follow my first love. Still in my best ‘designer’ suit I walked into the main office and asked if I could have a job. To my utter surprise they said yes.
Getting a dream job
I binned the suit, immaculately Cossack’d hair and polished shoes and donned a pair of overalls. ‘You do know you’ll be starting at the bottom,’ my new boss had told me. He wasn’t joking! I began by cleaning out the parts-wash bins, using the car wash and being the workshop dogsbody.
However, having worked my way through several departments, I eventually settled on the job of my dreams.
At the end of each day I would go to the office and be handed a plain brown envelope. In this I would find an address and the registration number of a new Vauxhall or Jaguar. The destination could be literally anywhere on mainland Britain.
I revelled in the sheer joy of being ‘my own boss’ at just over 18 and having the whole of the mainland to explore. It taught me confidence and resourcefulness and in spades. Even now, fifty years later, if I’m asked where is ‘such and such’ a town? I’ll probably which county it’s in.
I got to drive the mundane and the extraordinary. I got to drive home in a huge variety of used cars and experienced getting ‘lifts’ as well as travelling for miles on buses and trains. I learnt to ‘make do and mend’ and not expect a perfect world!
Because I was so young the insurance company ‘threw the toys out the pram’ and insisted I undertook (and scored highly in) an Institute of Advanced Motorists (now IAM RoadSmart) course. That got me into a world of high driving standards and I’m still involved to this day – still taking my RoSPA retest every three years.
My direct boss was a humourless lady, who clearly had a more meaningful relationship with the older guy I’d replaced: she treated me and spoke to me in a manner that would be totally unacceptable today. I was allowed two shillings and sixpence (25p) for an evening meal if I stayed out after 6pm.
Her whole focus was on me doing the job without stopping overnight or paying me the extra money! Grudgingly, she conceded that when I took cars to Scotland I had to stay in a B&B. This was before the days of credit cards, so I had to have the cash to do whatever I needed to do. The car that I was likely to drive home, would probably have an empty tank.
About one in five trips involved delivering a new Vauxhall Viva HB to Liverpool – getting a lift from the docks to Ellesmere Port on the Wirral and then collecting a brand new Viva from Vauxhall. Because we were part of a major national combine (the main thrust of which was animal feeds, flour, dairy packaging and bread making) many of the cars were for representatives and the management of various offshoots of the parent company.
My ‘Liverpool trips’ were thoroughly enjoyable and I don’t regret a moment but, as a retired Risk Manager, I fear that some aspects were, to say the least, questionable.
The brown envelope on the day would have a discreet ‘Car 1’ scrawled in the top left hand corner. This meant I would take the car home and then leave at 4:00am. The roads to Liverpool were basically good and I soon developed a route using ‘paths less trod’ and could put up a reasonable and reliable time. A mid-morning delivery to a car park somewhere in Liverpool docks (below) would be followed by hitching a lift (very easily) to Ellesmere Port.
The Vauxhall car collection point was just off a major trunk road – if all went well, I could be in and out of there in ten minutes and off back to base to arrive mid to late afternoon. The humourless one would greet me with ‘There’s Car 2.’ I’d then repeat the whole thing and get home about midnight! In her defence, the lady always gave me shorter trips either side of the Liverpool ones.
Sometimes, of course, it all went ‘belly up’: thick fog, (not the mist we have today) torrential rain, flooding or thick snow all threw a spanner in the works. Her schedules were sent awry, but I loved every minute of the driving experience.
I got to know several Players Number Six representatives who drove Ford Escort Mk1s. I remember one trip involving a heavy snow fall – with a good foot or so of powdery snow covering the roads. One guy and I left a certain cafe in the Midlands at the same time, and we stayed in sight of each for about a 100 miles. If he faltered in the snow, I’d pass him and then stop and help to get him moving – and then, a few miles later, he’d do the same for me. We made it, but that trip from Ellesmere Port took about ten hours! I had a fabulous sense of achievement, though!
‘Sign Your Life Away’
Obviously, the vehicles I collected from Ellesmere Port had no Pre-Delivery Inspection as they were on their way to the dealer for this to be done. We used to have to sign a form, which, (if my memory serves me correctly) indicated that we drove the car at our risk and that the manufacturer would not be held responsible for anything that went wrong. To be honest, I remember it as a whole page of prayer-book-size print, but I’m pretty sure that was the inference.
This is where resourcefulness and a positive attitude was essential. The trip home was about 175 miles and this had to be done enthusiastically – even with a possibly serious malfunction on the car. The ‘humourless one’ did not like problem ‘phone calls! I always carried a piece of string so that, in the event of the wipers not working (a common malfunction), I could tie one end to the left wiper and one end to the right. Then, with the windows down and puling from side to side on the string, a modicum of wiper action could be achieved.
A lack of indicators resulted in using hand signals. Many cars had no working handbrake, but that wasn’t a big problem of course. More of an issue was finding that the brake pedal ‘disappeared’ within a mile or so; several times I had to drive home using just the gearbox and the handbrake. Such a car would, of course, take twice as long to bring home at an appropriate restricted speed. Thankfully, I never had one where both braking systems had failed! When I got home I’d get no sympathy from my dad. ‘Two of my Alvis’s never had front wheel brakes – can’t see your problem,’ he’d say.
A couple of cars had no clutch after a few miles, but that wasn’t a big issue either as the delightful little Viva ‘box’ was a piece of cake to drive ‘clutch less’. Fortunately, my route didn’t take me through too many busy towns: that could have been a bit of a challenge!
About half-a-dozen Vivas had an engine problem and I had to fiddle about with the distributor or the carburettor – but I got all of them home. A Viva never failed to do that. In fact, I never failed to bring any car home during the whole period. All of the above has to be taken ‘in its time’: the late 1960s and early ’70s. Also I drove scores of new Vivas’ from Ellesmere Port and I’m relating just the few instances of note – but the majority were all fine.
Another favourite destination was Tooley Street in London where the dairy packaging company had its Head Office. The Jaguar 240 and 340 were favourites for the management team here, so I took several over the period.
They were all superb to drive and the same location took an occasional Jaguar 420G (MkX). There’s not much to say about the 420G. It was the equivalent of sitting in your lounge on a soft leather sofa surrounded by walnut furniture and doing 70mph in almost total silence. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Delivery of the Victor 101 always filled me with utter joy. The panoramic screen, the huge glass area, the airy feel of the cabin, and that ‘oh-so-smooth’ ride were captivating. The standard model was a bit ‘van-like’ with its bench front seat and column change, but the De Luxe model with its individual leather seats and better trim was perfect.
The replacement for the 101 was the ‘coke-bottle’ Victor FD – as far removed from the 101 as you could get! I enjoyed this model too, but always found the steering had a ‘dead’ feel with very little feedback from the wheels – though, with looks like that, I’d forgive it anything.
A sort of Chauffeur…
Before any of this, when I was still in my blue overalls, the CEO approached me in the company pound one day and said, ‘You, boy(!) take me to the sub-branch now!’ Rather taken aback I simply said, ‘In what Sir?’ (Well, I was young and very respectful in 1969!)
He looked about him and said, ‘In that – quickly now!’
So, that was how I got to drive a Jaguar E-type 3.8…
When we got on the open road he insisted I go faster. He was not a man to argue with so, on one straight stretch we saw the speedo hit 130mph! (Goodness knows what the IAM would have said!) When we arrived at the branch – where there had been something of a serious crisis – he simply said, ‘You can be my Chauffeur,’ and got out. Then added, ‘Don’t wait for me boy – get along now!’
Later I learnt that the ‘crisis’ had been the Branch Manager robbing the till, pinching a brand new car and doing a runner with the Receptionist! (You couldn’t make it up could you!) For a while I was his part-time ‘Chauffeur’. He had a beautiful PC Cresta De Luxe and I got to drive this quite a bit. I loved it and two years later I acquired one, but only because there was a Fuel Crisis and cars like that were being virtually given away.
Eventually, the CEO fired me.
What happened was (I sound like the late Jethro now!) we were approaching a hump-backed bridge and I’d slowed down but probably not enough. Unfortunately, the guy had been sleeping in the back. He chose the exact moment that we launched ourselves over the bridge to wake up. It must have been a bit scary and he shouted “your fired” as we came back down to the tarmac.
I’d like to say we laughed about it later but we didn’t: he never spoke to me again!
When a neighbouring large dealership went under, it was all hands on deck to get every new Bedford out of there and back to our main dealership. I only passed my test in 1967 and so in ’69 I would have been twenty and held only a standard driving licence. Anyhow, I got told to drive a big KM chassis cab back to base and then later in the day a chassis with no cab – just the rudimentary piece of hardboard in front of the my knees. This thing was so quick off the mark it was difficult not to spin the rear wheels on take-off. Driving a big chassis like that, sitting high up with no bodywork around me and the wind in my face, was great fun. I absolutely loved it – but I’m not sure it was legal at nineteen.
An (up)lifting Story
As mentioned earlier, getting from the docks to Ellesmere Port involved hitching a lift. Most were uneventful, but a couple stick out in the memory. There was the time I went in an ERF – one of those with the lovely wrap-around front screen that was divided in the centre. As I climbed up into the cab I heard the driver say, ‘It’s a bit oily in here, sit on this.’
‘This’ was his coat and to be honest it was as oily as everything else. It was plain to see what the problem was. The oil was a fine spray emanating from the front of the internal engine cover. This resulted in the roof of the cab dripping oil on to every component within: dashboard, steering wheel, gearshift, seats and ‘us’ – everything was covered in engine oil.
On another occasion I got a lift with a kind fellow in a Thames Trader rigid platform truck loaded with fresh veg. As we took off the guy said, “Don’t panic, but I’ve actually got no footbrake!”
Thankfully, he was very skilful at anticipation – and at working the gearbox and hand-brake. He almost got caught out on one occasion when we were going through an open barrier on the docks. A security guard stepped out in front of us with a raised hand, but soon dived back into his hut as we trundled through. My driver shouted ‘sorry’ as loud as he could but surprisingly no one came chasing after us.
Liverpool docks was an amazing place at this time. I could have just sat on a fish box on a wet and misty December day and written short stories that would catch the atmosphere of despair – whole areas of disused warehouses and desolation. The only place you see something similar now (albeit in a different city) is by watching a car chase in The Sweeney!
Lunch was always a pleasure – if somewhat rushed. There was a cafe set in a tunnel like the Cavern Club and, in those far off days, I could get steak pie, chips and peas and cup of tea (in one of those big white cups with a tiny little hole in the handle) for about two shillings (20p). Jolly good it was too.
The other stuff
Bringing back used cars from these far flung locations was often a real challenge – and sometimes an absolute delight. The challenges included the previous user shouting something like, ‘The brakes aren’t up to much’ as I wound the window down to say cheerio. The usual crop of malfunctions included completely ‘shot’ wiper blades, very suspect tyres, a missing headlight, faulty indicators and a collapsed driver’s seat.
Most of those malfunctions were the result of a total lack of care or maintenance – company reps were cruel and criminal in their treatment of a car they perceived didn’t matter.
A smattering of the ropey ones were a small price to pay for the absolute joy of bringing back some lovely motors. Top of the list has to be a ‘special job’ – picking up a relatively new Lamborghini 350 GTV (above) from somewhere in Aylesbury. Other than the sheer pleasure of driving the thing, I can’t remember any other details. I have it in my head it was one of the first in the country, but why it was coming to a Vauxhall-Bedford main dealer in Wiltshire I have no idea.
Another very special car for this almost penniless 20-year-old to find himself in was a Ferrari 275. Again, I can’t remember quite why but I was asked to pick it up from a stables about six miles from base. In my young naivety, I remember preferring the Lambo ‘cos it felt ‘tighter’, sportier and more ‘precise’ than the Ferrari. But heck – what did I know?
Other memorable drives that have stayed with me?
Bringing a Renault 16 (below) about 300 miles home – what an absolute driver’s gem! In total contrast but equally loveable – a Fiat 124. This was one of those cars – a bit like an Alfa Romeo V6 Spider – that you just want to head off for Monaco and to hell with the fact you haven’t packed a case!
Because we were Vauxhall-Bedford, there was a certain snobbery about some of the upcoming foreign opposition. The Simca 1000 was derided loudly when I brought one back. I actually loved it, but then I have a penchant for rear-engined velocipedes. A similar lack of respect was often shown to things like the Renault 8 or 10. ‘They don’t go round bends,’ they would insist. ‘That’s why they’ve won the Tour de Corse three years in a row,’ I would retort.
I did, of course, get to drive all the late 1960s and early ’70s cars and ‘boy’ were they all different! Getting out of a BMC 1800 and into Hillman Hunter, or swapping a Humber Sceptre for a Ford Corsair, just demonstrated the individuality of the period. The shapes, smells, instruments, seating posture – all very different in those days.
Driving Under the Influence
So, what influenced a twenty-something driver who usually drove well over 1000 miles a week? CAR magazine! I read every word from those great writers: LJK Setright, George Bishop, Mel Nichols, Doug Blain, Ian Fraser, Mike Twite and, a little later, the wonderful Steady Barker.
This influence affected the way I dressed – although, to be fair, it was the ‘costume’ of the Car Delivery Driver. I drove everywhere in every kind of weather with the driver’s window down and the heater flat out in the winter. I wore Paddy Hopkirk driving gloves – yes, the ones with all the holes – and a camel coloured driving coat with a fur collar. I resisted the temptation to wear a trilby like LJKS as I thought that might be too much ‘hero-worship’.
The new Bedford CF van was a revelation when it was released. Being the area’s main dealer, we got one of the first. Within a day or so I got given another one to deliver spares about the countryside as it had been wildly sign written and unashamedly boasted its presence.
For the younger observer of today it would be like going from a Fiesta to a Jaguar. The previous model, the CA, was a great van and streets ahead of its time in the 1950s – and the CF repeated the revolution. It was more spacious, quieter and a lot faster – and arguably was the best-looking van ever! (Subjective of course).
Other vans I drove at that time included the BMC J2 and J4 and later (after I’d moved on to work for a car accessory company) my all-time favourite Commer PB.
On one occasion I had to bring a van back from the Midlands and, early on during the trip, the throttle cable broke. I had no tools to release the stricken cable so had to bypass it by tying my leather belt round the throttle arm on the carb and get power by lifting the belt with my left hand and doing everything else with my right. It was a bit noisy without the engine cover on! We made it home of course – if a little erratically.
At about the same time we had a big Scammel truck and I’m darned sure I wasn’t supposed to drive it at my age, but the usual driver was very relaxed about it if we were down country roads. And he was certainly relaxed when driving it himself!
I think it had 16 speeds with a transfer box but it’s all a bit hazy, so if there are any truck folk out there, I’m happy to be corrected. I do remember he would start off in one gear and have enough time to get his ‘fags’ out of his pocket before the next ratio could be selected. He’d then take one out and find his lighter before the next change was ready. He’d then light the fag before the next… Well, you get the picture, it was not the fastest gearbox in world!
Some years after my Vauxhall-Bedford time I drove a brand new BMC JU Van all over the south. AROnline’s regular readers will know I’m a BMC/BL supporter whenever I can be but I’m afraid to say, in my humble opinion, the JU was a disgrace. But this view is only because of one facet of the design – the drivetrain. Even in the early 1970s, 48 mph flat-out amid a screaming noise that can only be likened to a banshee through a big pair of Vox speakers, was just not acceptable. Maybe it was just the drivetrain that my company had chosen but, if that’s the case, it should have been taken off the ‘options list’!
Just before I sign off this little piece, I can’t ignore the joy I had driving a little Bedford Viva HA van around Wiltshire delivering spare parts – and just one little story.
Heartbeat and more…
At a picturesque little village I had to call twice a week on a little old-fashioned village garage. It was run by a very nice fellow who was very advanced in years. The building was a simple rectangle with large sliding doors at the front. His office was through a door to the left. There was no heating of any kind and he mostly worked by the light of an inspection lamp. Everything was deep in cobwebs and walls were adorned with Ford Model T wheels and scores of vintage grills and other parts. (Think village garage in Heartbeat, but not as tidy).
There were three car ramps side by side. He used the two on the right, but the one on the left (nearest the office) had a big 1940s Humber on it. The beast sat there on four flat tyres and was so long that there was but six inches between the bumper and the closed sliding door. That meant that every time he came from his office he had to squeeze through this tiny gap, muttering and moaning all the time.
I said to him one day, ‘why don’t you move it?’
‘I can’t’ he replied. ‘Haven’t got the key.’
I said. ‘How long has it been here?’
The guy was incredibly interesting to talk to and had held a high rank in the RAF in the World War Two. At lunchtimes we would go over to the pub and drink Guinness and sometimes we were joined by a guy called Alex Moulton. Alex always left an inch of Guinness in the bottom of his glass and one day I plucked up courage to ask why.
He responded with something like, ‘Because the last inch has had to sustain the weight of the rest of the liquid and therefore the molecular structure will have been destroyed’.
Three years of wonder
It sounds daft bearing in mind some of the responsible positions I’ve held over the years, but if I had to choose what to go back and do all over again – you’ve guessed it: I’d deliver new cars.
In reality, of course, I’d hate it because times are different and those rose-tinted spectacles would be knocked of my face in the first hour! I imagine such delivery jobs are rare nowadays as car transporters are much more prolific and one rarely sees trade plates anymore.
So, here’s to a wonderful three years. In that brief period, I learnt how to strip a Jaguar engine and rebuild it, how to sell a Viva, how to repair some body damage and how to find my way around the country – and loads more besides.
Well, not exactly but I did get to buy a car from the company. I was walking into the workshop one day when a Salesman I knew quite well came the other way. He threw me a car key on a fob and pointing to an old car said, ‘go and hide that bloody thing.’
I said, ‘she’s beautiful, why hide her?’
‘Because it’s a load of scrap: look at it for goodness sake, it’s hardly our image is it?’
My next question was, ‘How much do want for her?’
‘Twenty quid in cash tomorrow or you’ll have to take it to the scrapper!’
I went home and told my dad and he gave me the twenty quid with no hesitation. The next day I paid for the car and drove it home that evening. The car had been owned by the ‘Lady’ of the village where I now live. She’d traded it in for a Pampas Green Vauxhall Viva four-door. 1930s cars were just junk to a Vauxhall-Bedford main dealer in those days…
And that is how we managed to own a beautiful, one owner, immaculate 1939 Jaguar SS 1.5-litre saloon. We enjoyed it for six months or so. Then dad decided he’d fallen for another car I’d found at a village garage – a 1958 Daimler Conquest Century Automatic.
We advertised the Jag and a soldier bought it and took it to the US. He gave us £350. In 1970, this £330 profit did make us feel like we’d just won the lottery! The reality is one would struggle to find a car in that condition now for less than £45k!
Damn! Another bum decision!