Technician’s Update : A shot blast from the past

Mike Humble


Facebook and other social media sites are fascinating things. I wouldn’t say I live on them, night-and-day, as some do, but I do frequent and – on the whole – find them good entertainment. Among my invites to play ‘odd socks’, or whatever the latest pointless game may be, my heart tends to flutter when an old chum sends a Friend Request out of the blue.

One old pal did recently. and that had me recalling the times we worked together at a busy main dealer on the outskirts of Northampton back in 1988. Numbers were exchanged, and a thoroughly good yap ensued as we caught up with the past 25 years. Those were halcyon days, as we followed Bobby McFerrin’s instructions to Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and £5.00’s worth of Four Star would make the needle move on the gauge.

Now, the aforementioned ex-former apprentice is about 18 months older than me, and whereas I relied on a Northampton Transport No:1 bus to Quarry Road, or my trusty 12-speed Raleigh for my daily commute, Steve – as I shall name him – drove a Ford Escort Mk2 1300 Sport. Even though Steve had a full year over me on the tools, even now he would readily admit all he was good for was oil and filter changes.

He also had an entertainingly good habit of writing cars off, usually by a point-blank refusal to understand Newton’s Laws. He’d fail to acknowledge during cornering that of your steering goes a bit light you’re in a pickle. Just like Captain Scarlet, he seemed indestructible, as no matter what catastrophic damage he would inflict onto a poor unsuspecting car, he never sported so much as a scratch or a mark.

Once a family afternoon out, the breakers yards are rapidly vanishing thanks to land values and the dreaded Health & Safety.
Once a family afternoon out, the breakers yards are rapidly vanishing thanks to land values and the dreaded Health & Safety.

We used to socialise by clubbing on a ‘school night, or trawling around one of the many breaker’s yards in Northampton. In those days, the South Midland town was a Mecca for the DIY motorist. Steve had three car-mad older brothers living at home with him, and the family residence front garden would strike a chord with any fan of  Keeping Up Appearances. Just close your eyes and think of Onslow!

As many of you will fondly remember, every sizeable town or city featured  breaker’s yards of repute. Northampton was certainly no different, sporting at least five or six. And having a thriving banger racing circuit in nearly Brafield ensured these yards remained prosperous. Today, with ever-strangling Health & Safety, the trusty ‘scrappie’ is becoming a faded memory – like the Cortinas and Allegros that filled them.

I eventually took a job with a bus and coach drivetrain workshop offering substantially more than my £44 per week ‘Employed YTS’ Ford trainee status. Steve continued to work with CVH, Pinto or Valencia lumps, whereas my new staple workload involved fettling a plodding Gardner or a horizontal Leyland diesel. We remained good mates, kept in touch and as my 17th birthday came and went. I learned to drive, passed my test, and became a social nuisance with my Cortina 1.6 Ghia.

Early one summer’s evening, Steve called round to show off his new toy. Sauntering outside the house I was greeted to the sight of a 1973 Morris Marina 1098cc van, brush painted in a brilliant white gloss. It made you wince – partly at the brightness, and partly in dread of what your neighbours were thinking. That said, I was 17 and didn’t care, as we lurched off into the sun in a stinking and laughably basic van.

Arriving at our watering hole (The ‘World’s End’ in Ecton), he reeled off his ambitious plan of souping up the van, jacking up the rear end, fitting some melody horns and a plethora of driving lamps. He wanted to know if I was up for helping. A couple of weekends went by and we found ourselves at the premises of Joe Ingram Motors – one of the now-long gone local breakers yards.

Never as popular as the Escort for customizing, the Marina Van had similar potential.
Never as popular as the Escort for customizing, the Marina Van had similar potential.

Ingrams was run by a chap of Caribbean origin who retired after making a fortune selling Ladas back to the Russkies. Right into the mid-’90s, he proudly stated in his Yellow Pages advert ‘Morris Marina Engines and Gearboxes Always Available’. I kid you not. Some folding stuff was handed over, and a clean looking 1.8-litre B-Series engine, and gearbox with ancillaries, were humped into the back of the van. The transplant operation was on.

With relative ease the engines were swapped over, and by sundown Sunday, thanks to the low ratio differential, the van accelerated like a scalded cat. At one point we had to pull over for a few minutes after some drag racing on the back lanes near Sywell Aerodrome. The brakes were literally on fire. Early Marina 1.3s and commercials featured all-round drums. The brakes were clearly a cause for concern.

I had previously suggested we fit the whole front drop link and hub assemblies from a car to gain disc brakes, but he ignored this. Steve often remarked about the effort involved to anchor the van, and he did get round to doing something about it – even if his plan was less than ideal. Rather than doing the right thing by upgrading to discs, he took the advice of a half-wit work colleague, who suggested he have the drums internally shot-peened.

By this point, the brakes certainly had some response, but they grabbed like fury. Initial pedal effort was lessened, but the side-effects now present outweighed any other advantage. For example, he went through two sets of brake shoes in as many months, as the drum surfaces munched through the linings like a dog chews biscuits. And the brakes now faded even quicker than ever before – as he was soon to find out.

His vantastic capers continued for a little while longer. But that ended when he turned up at the house with a plaster on his elbow, an impressive thick lip and a jolly nice bump on his head. The low ratio rear axle fitted to the commercial Marina was designed to combat the lack of outright power the standard 1.1 or 1.3 engine. Now armed with a fair bit of grunt the van struggled to stop effectively.

It turned out he was racing another chum, when after two or three good prods of the brake pedal, any anchoring effect simply vanished. From here on in, the Marina van then demonstrated its other party trick of cornering at speed with the grace and precision of a shot Giraffe. On a quiet unofficial racing route, not far from West Haddon, it overshot a bend, went through a picket fence, down a small bank and rolled onto its side.

What did cause a great deal of humour, were Steve’s injuries. He explained in the kitchen, with my late-father listening in with great delight. His battle scars were not the result of a flying wheel brace or spanner. Both my Dad and myself had to wipe tears from our eyes as Steve glumly explained that a land owner appeared Mr Benn style from nowhere, and roundly gave him a good hiding for damaging his property and startling his animals.

A month or two after this took place, my Cortina was sold for a slim profit, and I bought an Ital 1.3 with a seized engine. One Saturday morning, I was back at Joe Ingram Motors on the lookout for a 1.7-litre O-Series. In a dark corner, minus its engine, and looking rather beaten stood one very familiar looking accident-damaged M-registered Marina van in a perky shade of grassy white.

So if you are in your first flush of youth looking to upgrade your first car with a few extra nellies as us oldies did years ago, do the right thing and beef up those brakes…

Mike Humble


  1. Year’s ago, my mate did a similar job to his 1.1 Escort.
    Replaced the engine for a more powerful one- but did nothing else..
    Yes it went a lot faster but those already naff drum brakes couldn’t cope with the lunatic behind the wheel.. In no time at all the Escort was in a field, but only after first going through a stone wall .!..

  2. When I was doing my Electricians apprenticeship back in 1985 I had a Mini clubman 1100 and a mate from college had a 850cc Mini.

    Both our cars were the same mustard colour but my fellow apprentice changed the engine from a 850cc to a 1100cc but with a 850 head (don’t know if that is possible but that’s what he said) and the 850 gear box.
    On the unofficial drag strip near The Mumbles he could easily out run me from a standing start, and it took about 1/4 of a mile before I could catch him.
    But where my car was designed for the far more potent 1100cc his wasn’t and it never crossed his mind to look at his feeble brakes, which is why while he was showing off to another mate a car pulled out of a side road and his brakes faded and he found himself on a centre island taking a more that unusual look at a very bent and horizontal traffic light.
    Oh how we took the P*** out oh him the following Monday morning

  3. I assume this van was without servo assistance?

    We had a mk3 Marina (575) pickup, again with drums all round but graced with a servo, this was a very strange animal: up to about 25 MPH a prod of the pedal would remind you this vehicle had static seat belts, but over 40 it would fade faster than a red Astra’s bonnet!

    At the same time I bought a late Ital 1.7SLX with servo discs on front and drums behind, this was paradoxically exactly just the opposite!
    Father refused to pilot the Ital with it’s low speed grind to halt system but would quite happily bomb about in the pick-up.

    Rated at 10cwt or presumably 575kgs? the truck ought to have been safe carrying that weight- but load it up and handling was akin to pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with a waterbed.

    Interestingly both sailed through MOT tests with their respective braking anomalies!

    Happy Days.

  4. Supposedly all the Capris had the same brake system accross the range, from 1.3 to 3.0, which must have made stopping in a speeding fully loaded V6 interesting.

    • Rover did the same – I found the brakes on the old 216GSI merely adequate, thinking that the same setup was used in the Coupé with the heavy and mightily strong turbo up front is slightly scary…

  5. I didn’t know they did the Marina van with a 1.1- as that engine wasn’t used in the car version. Was it a Postman Pat special?

    And is it true that the van handled better than the car?

  6. A really good read but I must correct the reference to ‘Health and Safety’ as a cause for the demise of scrap yards. This is (like half a dozen myths received every week in this industry) just not true.
    The Health and Safety Executive have little interest in scrap yards unless the operation is run in an unsafe manner – likely to get someone (possibly a child), hurt.
    What has had a huge impact into scrap yard operations is the Environmental Agency and insurance companies. Just like the shop assistant who told the customer they had to take the box with their new shoes because of ‘elf-n-safety’ and the dog show that stopped serving hot drinks because of ‘elf-n-safety’ – it’s easier to blame them than deal with the truth.
    A third and even bigger culprit of misrepresentation is the ignorance of management and staff who couldn’t do a reasonable risk assessment to save their lives. The result – over zealous and unduly restrictive rules – but precious little connection with anything the HSE have promoted.
    As I’ve commented elsewhere on this site, I sadly miss the old fashioned scrap yard but environmental restrictions, insurance companies inflicting unrealistic dictates (to ensure they won’t ever have a claim) and inappropriate and unfounded behaviours by scrap yard owners and staff -are way ahead of any health and safety in causing their demise.

  7. Motoring wise I ‘grew up’ in the mid 70’s and regularly visited the local scrap yards for my car parts.
    My first car was an Anglia estate to which I fitted a custom fiberglass dashboard with space for many extra instruments. This eventually had a speedometer from a Cortina, a Riley 1100 rev counter, oil pressure gauge from a Jaguar and a Sunbeam Rapier fuel gauge amongst other things. I’m sure that I would have paid for the speedo & rev-counter, but the smaller 2″ gauges would easily slip into a pocket!
    In later years I was able to upgrade the front brakes and suspension of my HB Viva GT by using the parts from an un-loved FD Ventora that lay practically untouched for ages in the corner of one of my favourite ‘yards (next to an Austin 3-litre!)

  8. Totally agree with The Wolseley Man about health and safety. Poor risk assessments are to blame for most things blamed on health and safety.

  9. Fascinating , to say the least , to find a poster who quite calmly confesses to stealing parts , and even seems perversely proud of it

  10. @6 – yes the original Capris did all have the same feeble brakes across the range, it was only when the 2.8 injection arrived that that model got better vented discs. I had a Mk2 3.0 for a very short while and yes it was scary trying to stop!

  11. I suspect Mercedes did the same thing with it’s brakes, my four cylinder W124 has enormous very effective discs, shame it doesn’t have the power to use them.

    I saw a R32 Skyline the other day, it had every performance scoop and sticker you could imagine and the teeniest little discs lost in the middle of it’s enormous wheels. I wonder if that mighty scooped bonnet contained the awesome power of a 91hp 1.8, he must live in permanent fear of the traffic light grand prix.

  12. @ 8.

    The 7 cwt van had the 1098cc motor, whereas the 10cwt van and pickup had the 1275cc unit.
    IIRC the 1275cc motor was an option for the 7cwt model in which case it featured higher gearing.

  13. Young lads in beefed up Escort & Marina vans used to be a feature of my home town back in the early 80’s. I can still picture them. Thinking they were ‘cool’ , ‘hard’ or both they would park up and smoke at the end of the old railway line. Then every few minutes or so, to impress the girl sat in the passenger seat and scare elderly residents, they would take a tyre squealing circuit of town.


  14. The memories of having to climb to the 3rd car up on the pile to remove a starter motor etc with the yards dogs hopefully well locked up in the bottom car . These were the joys of motoring !

  15. I owned a ‘shot giraffe’ once…… not only was it lousy on the corners, but it wasn’t that clever on the straights either. Stopping at every tree along the way to refuel, very uncomfy seats, no heater and no cup holders!!

  16. This article made me laugh buckets. Thank you.

    Brought back many memories of scavenging round the scrappie on Kirkby Industrial Estate and another one in Headingley, not far from the cricket ground when i was at Uni. Happy days with a plastic front spoiler nicked from a Capri modified and bolted to the front of my Triumph 1500 and and extra set of spots inside the 4 headlamps. Switches andthose nice little round tell-tale lights nicked from dead Citroen GSs IIRC….

    PS, the real reason for the demise of the local scrappy is the environmental regulations governing the control of environmental pollutants and recovery / recycling of the various fluids in cars. You must have a sealed concrete yard, remove fluids from old vehicles into proper storage, tanks must be double skinned or otherwise bunded etc etc.

    Paperwork on paperwork (I know these things, trust me). I can’t imagine many of the old scrappie owners that I knew handling anything more papery that the odd £5 note or a V5! Hence, killed by paperwork or else turned into a “proper” business.

  17. Bangernomic Gav: Those R32 skylines are at least 250bhp (in GTS form, the more popular GTR makes much more than that) even in their lowest power output, they will blow the doors off any four cylinder Merc (or any 6 cylinder one for that matter!). It’ll have been the big daft wheels that made the discs look small as the R32 standard items are more than up to the job

  18. #12 Christopher. I was just honestly (that’ll surprise you!) reflecting on how things were back in the time I was referring to. (The scrappies were hardly squeaky clean from a legal standpoint). It was a game played by everyone I knew who visited the yards then and I would also always pay the asked price for ALL of the major parts I bought (and I bought loads) without ever haggling for a better price.
    I can assure you that I was hardly on the scale of the Great Train Robbers.
    I do apologise if my (completely honest) confession has hurt your Hoiier that Thou sensibilities, and trust that you have always been 100% honest in thought and deed throughout your life!

  19. legend has it west midlands police suffered a similar over sight with the sierra police cars they had in the 80’s- 2.8 v6 5 door l/lx spec!

    they went like sh@t off a shovel but wouldnt stop very well

  20. t evans ,years ago there was a scrap yard near the pit in a Kirkby in asfield industry park ,houses on there now ,the new one a few hundred yards from it is the new tidy style , on Austin cars ,they always had small engines , my Austin a 35 van had the 848cc engine ,it was a d reg , 70 mph down hill,

  21. HA,Takes me back.
    However the ‘smell’ of burning 20/50 @£1.99 a gallon from Halfords, seeping back from the exhaust, choking you in the cabin also added to the experience!
    I remember going downhill in my old 1.3 Marina for its and my first MOT (but actually the cars 11th)and wondering if the car would vever stop in time. Legs like Popyes arms to bring it to a halt!


  22. @23, the Kirkby I’m referring to is the one in Merseyside, now known as “Knowsley”. Always had a great selection of BL, Ford and Vauxhalls but not much foreign stuff in those days.

  23. The Xantia had ridiculously powerful brakes – picked it up from London, drove back to Belfast, on M6 past Birmingham and meet rush hour traffic, dab brakes and its near on its nose!

    Compared to the Gen7 Celica on which the brakes don’t inspire confidence at all…

    As for the old ‘slip a small bit of trim into the pocket / pay for the big parts’ I’m sure most people were at it, and I’m sure scrappies were well aware, so long as they got a fair price for the big item.

    Most scrapyards round here now just seem to prepare a car for sending to the metal recycling / export plant.
    The dismantlers now catalogue their parts, stored in a warehouse. You go to the desk and they look up what you need.

  24. I once fried the brakes on a Cavalier LD on the way across the A623. Ran out of stopping on a nasty downhill left hander entering Stoney Middleton whilst travelling a bit quickly. Unbeknown to me, I had a 40mph tail wind which deprived the brakes of cooling air. Plus with only 60bhp or so on tap, you drove the LD through bends to conserve momentum. A definite brown trouser moment although the Cavs brakes were normally pretty good and hence my shock at encountering sudden fade.

    Worst brakes as a generality, I would go with a Marina 1.3. Even after meticulous work they were capable of giving you a nasty shock. Usually this would be down to one or other brake cylinder leaking fluid onto the shoes. In this event, the Moggie would stop any direction but straight.

    BL quality control was not the best! Although we did later find that Lockheed cylinders were somewhat better than BLs own ones.

  25. My mate had either an A30 or A35 fitted with a sprite twin carb set up. He put his foot down on the Great Cambridge rd Enfield The needle shot up to maximum and the car continued to accelerate. He rolled it about 2 weeks later.

  26. morris miner cars had drums .press hard to stop ,one day I hired a sherps box van with modern breaks .I kept over breaking for most of the day until I got used to it ,pity about that when I got back to my car I nearly crashed as I under breaked ,forgetting to press realy hard with the drums .

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