ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
BOYS, HEROES, AND MOTORCARS:
Boys, when they get together, are fit for nothing. They talk endlessly of girls, heroes, and motorcars. Sadly, when they get older they generally do exactly the same, except with greater emphasis on motorcars. I naturally, should know all about this. At the last count I have turned a spanner on thirty of the mechanical members of my family from Austin to Wolsley, and do not wish to be reminded of the waste of time, spent on keeping the wheels turning. Some may argue that it's also a waste of time talking about them, and they have a point. They may also continue catching the bus.
To avoid merely a catalogue of misspent youth I intend to avoid the mundane and concentrate on the highlights of what can truly be referred to as an episodic experience, but will be severely truncated in the interest of sanity, mostly yours. Mine was prophetically lost when, as a teenager, I was giving a lift in a pre-war Bentley Park Ward something or other, courtesy of my thumb on a rainy and wind swept Great West Road. To this day I can still remember the smell of leather, and my heartbeat keeping time to the deep gentle thump of pistons or, when I opened my eyes, the gentle oscillation of the screen wipers. Of course nowadays it’s mostly an odor of some sort of vinyl, and you don’t hear anything because of the noise of the raucous cellphone. I know they’re a wonderful invention, but they’re also an irritation with no place in a motorcar. It would be a good idea to treat them like the Swedish treat booze; that is, confined to the boot, with a hefty fine if it’s not. Anyway, though I never actually managed to own a Bentley I can report that I missed two by a hairs breadth. The first was a two-tone brown 1934 Bentley 3.5 litre saloon by Park Ward sitting on the turf outside a dealer’s country home in Wiltshire. It was £600.00 and I offered him £500.00 as from the sound of it, said machine would definitely need a new exhaust system sometime very soon. He said he’d think about it, which was not a good idea on his part, for my local friendly garage, which I fancied would sort the problem out, said it would cost me an arm and a leg for the muffler, and anyway, I already owed them for a new battery. Tough! One down and one to go. Fast forward fifteen years, and a lot of wheels in-between, For my fiftieth birthday my beloved sought to grant this old desire, and found a Gurney Nutting 4.5 litre loitering somewhere in Devon at a not unreasonable price, but the lady knows a thing or two about haggling and wanted to know too much about the subject in question. After a series of telephone calls the owner must have decided he was on the losing end and withdrew from the contest. Sadly, two down and none to go. Which brings me by the usual tortuous route to the subject of this blog. Not so young boys alternative dreams.
This then is about two aristocrats that cost as much as a Bentley – though very second hand of course, where a vehicle is only worth what the impecunious are willing to pay, and not the ‘everyman’s’ two-seater starter that was a teenagers dream long before Jaguar stole everyone’s thunder, and could be purchased for the price of a bottle of Krug. But that’s quite another story that has already been mentioned in a previous blog, and must wait for another day.
But I’m jumping the gun. The first of these desirable beasts came hot on the heels of the local - jilted Bentley in the form of a 1960 Alvis TD 21 by Park Ward, and had absolutely nothing to do with my wife, who I give fair warning, appears with the second gem ten years later in this adventure, and in reality is part two of the Gurney Nutting saga. So, the Alvis was a 3 litre straight six, but that appeared to be the only thing that was straight. Setting that aside for the moment, it came with Connolly hide seats and burr walnut dashboard and oozed that sophisticated gentlemanly charm some bolides have. A shade roué some would say, but that’s being a little unkind, though it certainly had seen the other side of life. I don’t know how many they made of this particular model – possibly a couple of thousand I suppose – but hand built motorcars don’t come off the line like Mini’s. It had a less than rigid steel and aluminium body attached to an ash frame. At one stage ‘loosely’ seemed to be the operative word for the shaking, but turned out to be nothing more than unbalanced front wheels. It came to me by way of a farmer, also in Devon, and seems to have spent most of its life on a muddy farm with the potential for a lot of woodworm, the onset only becoming apparent when the passenger door went into flexible mode. It also didn’t have spectacularly good brakes despite being disc at the front with drums on the rear. It failed its MOT at the high tech garage, but I’d learnt a trick or two and took it to a small local garage where the owner also had an Alvis. He passed it with flying colours. On the road it was exceptionally quiet and if you stepped on the loud pedal it would happily ease itself up to 100 mph – and not down hill. The only draw back, beside the jelly roll body, was that it had a thirst like a Cumberland coal miner. It wasn’t as bad as my Studebaker Commander Coupe that would only travel from Salisbury as far as Hartley Witney on a tankful of petrol, but 18 mpg was giving it a run for its money. The really good aspect of an Alvis was that every part of the car was available, off the shelf as far as I can remember. Apparently they still are, courtesy of Red Triangle Garage, who now has sole rights to the name and manufacture of said automobile. These days £20,000 will get you a sound runner but – wait for it – a new one is a heart stopping £250.000! Christmas was never so far away.
Back to the Gurney Nutting saga. Having seen off the dubious Devon bolide my other half of a very determined nature looked around for something of the same ilk having decided that Bentleys were a lot of bother and a tad too vulgar given they had a certain market trader character in our neck of the woods. Combing the ‘ Exchange and Mart’ produced a vehicle that didn’t ring a bell unless it was the double decker bus of the same name. It sounded the business and the only drawback was that it resided in Yorkshire. The good lady consulted me on the merits of a Bristol 403 which had the merits of a Rolls Royce in that they were both heavily entrenched in the aviation business. But Tadcaster was a long way to go on a wild goose chase. But go we did, and money changed hands on a very large white motorcar, or so it seemed, being immediately dubbed Mabel-Dick given it had something in common with a whale. Those who are wondering why Mabel instead of Moby should know that to the English ships and aero planes etc. are always feminine – hence the Cornish “She sails like a witch, and leaks like a bucket.” Bristol motorcars were the first to be fitted with a seat belt as standard, courtesy of Irvin the parachute manufacturer. This 1952 Bristol 403 still had them fitted and, by the looks of them, had hardly ever been used. Fitted me like a glove, but I never used them either. Only 300 of this particular model were ever made, which is not surprising considering in 1952 you could buy a couple of bungalows for the same money. Its predecessor, the 402, was a convertible known as the ‘Hollywood Special’, a pair being owned by Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons. It was also a vehicle with a number of innovatory features such as a clutch less first gear you could select when stopped in traffic, and thermostatically controlled radiator louvers that allowed for a quicker warm up of the engine. Rather more disconcertingly was the door locking system copied, so I’m told, from the aviation system used on aircraft. Apparently it was the only vehicle the police couldn’t unlock. This was not quite as smart as it sounds as my wife, who seems to have used the vehicle more than I did, found herself locked inside and had to embarrassingly exit through the quite large door windows. Quaintly it had a roller blind on the rear window, something of a mixed blessing when you think about it. During my tenure it spent a rather sedate life, which was not how it ended up. With Italy on the horizon everything had to go and the Bristol was meticulously renovated by Mitchell Motors, Chicklade and almost immediately sold. Its new owner having been told that its engine was used in formula two racing cars immediately commissioned Mitchell Motors to bring it up to that standard along with the fitting of an overdrive. It was apparently good for 130 mph and could see off the BMW 7’s of the day. Little did they know that the engine was a re-engineered pre-war BMW 328 engine, most of which had been binned by Bristol as sub standard material in aviation terms. Of all the cars I have owned the Bristol was my favourite, and the only car that gave me the giggles when I drove it. It was a pleasure that brought out the very essence of a particular fancy, of being on a higher level than all the other vehicles around you. You certainly couldn’t be a shy wallflower in a vehicle that turned more heads than Marylyn Monroe. They really don’t make them like that anymore.
The hero? Sadly, the invincible and arguably the greatest racing driver of all time, Stirling Moss, died this year. Anyone who has tried hard to travel through the Futa Pass as quickly as possible will marvel at a driver who passed through the tree lined route, mostly at over one hundred miles an hour, and along the 1000 miles of the Italian Mille Miglia in just over ten hours. A record that will probably never be equaled. They don’t make them like him anymore, either!