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.
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.
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…