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