ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
Just the other day, on the small regional motorway known colloquially as the FI PI LI (Florence Pisa Livorno), I overtook of all things, a very British Austin Mini. An early version at that, meaning very sixties in its basic form. By today’s standards it must have been like driving in a Mutti Pomodori tin. Well it was the same red colour, only a tad faded by the Italian sun. I don’t know why I’m sounding a note of disapproval on a vehicle that should by all accounts have long passed to that mythical celestial garage. I mean, a sixty-year-old Mini must be a chimerical fancy if ever there was one. If the sub frame didn’t get them, then the sills most surely did! But no. There it was, right under my wing as I passed at sixty miles per hour. It was not a solitary British Leyland offering I have to say, as there have been some slightly more modern Mini versions locally, two with ‘union jack’ roofs, which surely can’t have been an original option. Somehow they didn’t look quite so basic as the FI PI LI example, and somewhat to the point, don’t seem to have survived. As a matter of fact, neither did they look so obese as the latest vassal Mini offerings, all preening and bloated like an unctuous overweight teenager. I wouldn’t place any money on their lasting as long as the Pomodori tin. Mini’s came into the world as the ideal peoples’ car, a brave British attempt after the Fiat 500, VW Beetle and the Citroen 2CV. They have all passed into the memory of motoring folk law, no doubt because, despite being inexpensive, and mostly very sedate, they provided a modicum of affordable freedom to all the young wannabe’s. But the Mini was different, turning out to be the real thing, the ‘alpha’ of all mass-produced boxes, and where we shall begin.
The first one I set eyes on was in Henly’s show-room on the corner of New Street and Catherine Street in Salisbury, soon to be demolished to make way for a multi story car park. The 1960 price, if I remember, was £550, the cost of an up market modern bicycle, or a heating bill! It was also more than six month’s salary for the average punter of yester-year. Still, second hand ones couldn’t be far off. Couldn’t they just. It was ten years before I finally joined the club. In fact it was not I, but my dear beloved who needed a set of wheels of her own. The recognised atelier for such undesirable vehicles was a local dealer who specialized in motorcycles, occasionally taking motorcars in part exchange. If I tell you that such sales for two wheels consisted of hauling one from a large pile at the back of a building you probably wouldn’t believe me. But it’s true. You hauled it out, kicked the engine over, and if it started, off you went. If it turned out to be a lemon, you returned it to the pile, and tried another one. Motor vehicles were tidily crammed into a corner, which is where I found an orange Mini van. The evolution to your ownership was much the same as its two-wheeled brethren. If it started with a puff of smoke, you were off. It was some weeks before a concerned friend asked if we were running it on Ethanol as the vehicle seemed rather fast for a mini van, and smoked a lot. Having noticed a hearty appetite for engine oil I reluctantly took it to a friends workshop, where he diagnosed the onset of piston ring failure. Out the engine came to reveal that not only was its capacity 1100cc but it was running on Norton motorcycle pistons that provided plenty of slack. An original second hand engine of the correct 850cc was an expensive option, so we looked the other way, convinced the insurance company that it wasn’t a special, even though we had to be content with settling for a slightly increased premium. Those were the days. I can’t remember what happened to that van, given no dealer would have touched it with a barge pole. But the friend with a workshop had taken a crashed Clubman, or Mini Estate, and sewn the back end on to a perfectly respectable standard Mini. He’d liked the idea of my '110' van, only this time doing a proper job on the engine. He also listened to my good lady, presenting it to her in a colour seemingly called burnt orange, a sort of glittering rusty colour probably designed to hide the inevitable. Despite being perfectly reliable, at one point it developed an erratic distributer problem, just at the time, when for a short period, I was making trips to Falmouth in Cornwall, obliging me to carry a spare, just in case the unexpected happened. To avoid the traffic I left home late in the evening so I could make good time and cross the Tamar sometime just before midnight. Then a dash across Bodmin Moor, and I’d be in bed around one o’clock. The plans of mice and men. It began to rain. Not the normal drizzle one encounters on moors, but the proverbial cat’s and dog’s torrential deluge. Inevitably, somewhere adrift of Bolventor, the engine coughed and gave up the ghost. It was so black I couldn’t even see the road, and there was no chance of opening the bonnet and plugging in the spare distributer without being washed away. A police car stopped, and asked if I was going to be all right as things were not going to improve this side of breakfast. Brave lad. I staunchly rolled myself up in my duffle coat and nearly froze to death. The Bobby was correct, at about seven o’clock the rain finally ran out of water. I could hardly fit the distributer. I was shivering so much that when the motor started I sat for half an hour with the heater on at full blast just to get some life in my bones. It was not the last time the boys in blue were inclined to have a chat with me on Bodmin Moor.
Hybrid vehicles became something of a fashionable event in my life, one arriving in the form of a Mini used for hill climbing events. Besides being shorn of any excess weight, including passenger seats, it was running on 11 inch wheels, not the conventional 10 inch variety. The 140 mph speedometer was not meant to be a spoof, despite being extremely inaccurate, only being there because the standard item went off the clock in first gear, and it was illegal to run without one. A large oil cooler occupied the space where the front grill should have been, so it looked the business. I managed a passenger seat but sitting on the metal space at the back was character building. The last I heard of this particular vehicle was that it was back on the hills until the new owner’s wife missed a cog wrecking the box. That I can imagine if she was trying to hit the end of such a speedometer!
Having got the concept right British Leyland in a fit of caprice decided to up market the Mini principle producing the little Riley Elf. It was a truly deluxe version with grey leather upholstery, walnut dashboard and the cheeky Riley nose. One day I parked it outside a local dealer called Douglas, who’d preferred to be called Barry, and taught me how to kick tyres, just to have a chat on the vagaries of the business. A young man looking harassed dashed in. “How much do you want for the Riley?” he demanded. “I need to put my MG TC in for part exchange.” Before I could protest Barry had sold the Riley, handing me £200 and the keys to the MG. Looking through the showroom window we saw him gently guiding his very pregnant wife into the front seat of the Riley. As there was no adjustment on the seat of the MG I could see his, or perhaps her, problem. “His need is greater than yours,” Barry said. “I’ve done you both a favour.” I didn’t think so at the time, but many years later we moved the MG on for £16,000! Never mind. I was to have one more shot at taming the Mini.
One should always try to go out on a high note. At this point in time the Mini was reaching the zenith of its creation. Young mechanical engineers were making them go so fast that some drivers thought they ought to be fitted with ejector seats. Through one of these kamikaze pilots I bumped into a lurid yellow Cooper S. According to my source it was about to be retired and worth a punt. The 45 split Weber carburettor had been removed and replaced by a 2 inch SU, though the speedometer was still in front of the driver having originally vacated its central position to make way for the Weber’s long intake port. The cylinder head had been downgraded and replaced by a Stage Two version, but it still sounded aggressive. Apparently, at one time it held the Mini record for the long circuit at Silverstone, so it came with some sort of pedigree. My other half, being very experienced by now with Minis, thought it the business, and threw it about all over the place. At one point I thought I’d have to replace the gear lever reverse lock to stop these goings on, or get a seat belt for the Airedale. It was a big improvement on my trips to Cornwall, knocking twenty minutes off the ETA. However it was not without its moments. Falmouth having a harbour was a good place for fishing types – not of the Hardy rod and line sort, more the two or three men MFV found all over the Cornish coast. They went out in the morning, and came home late at night loaded up to the gunnels, mostly with 18 inch Mackerel. Chatting to one of these gentlemen over a Guinness (out of interest, the Cornish were supplied directly from Ireland, and a greatly improved pint from the UK brewed version.) I was offered some for two pounds ‘when the boat came in’. Needless to say I was alongside the darkened harbour when the catch came home, finding myself with a huge sack of Mackerel, far too big to go in the boot, which had left and right petrol tanks. They don’t make back seats for nothing, which is where they were deposited. Besides spreading this largesse far and wide among all known acquaintance the car smelt of the briny for weeks afterwards, and I got a lot of flak from my other half who didn’t consider the odour enhanced her perfume one little bit.
I was still on the road to Falmouth. One Monday I set off at four o’clock in the morning being boxed in with road works and an accident round Exeter. Having to make up time the Custard coloured Cooper S needed to be wound up a little, so that once clear of civilization I decided that between Okehampton and Launceston I’d ‘give it some welly’ as the boy racers say. The little village of Lifton lies right on this path as straight as a die in a very steep hollow. At six in the morning it was deep in slumber, and the rather open exhaust made a terrible racket as the Cooper hurtled booming into the abyss and up the other side, breasting the brow of the hill straight into a cordon of three police cars blocking the road. If ever a lad was caught in the act, it was me, and six Bobbies presented an awful lot of witnesses. Sliding the window across I expected them to throw the book at me. “Pressing on a bit there sir,” the Bobby said. “We heard you five minutes ago when you left Lewdown.” I winced. “Nothing in the boot have we sir? Mind if I take a look?” He came back. “Keep an eye out when you cross the moor. There’s a prisoner loose from the other side (Dartmoor). Just report it. Don’t give him a lift.”
As though I would, easing ever so gently on my way.
Without a doubt I’ve had my fill of noisy boxes, and cornering on the door handles. My poor old bones tell me I’m long past being a masochist, despite having had a lot of fun on the way.