I was always interested in how things worked.
A very early memory is trying to operate a hammer so that a nail would go into the wood. I was about 3 years old. I had a wooden stool, a bag of nails and a small hammer. I spent hours and days ... indeed months ... occupying myself with this project. It was during the war, and there were no 'toys' in the shops, but this served the purpose, and I learned a useful skill in the process.
During my childhood, I became very good at taking things apart to see how they worked. I was less good at putting them back together. There is some evidence that this characteristic has lasted throughout my adult life as well.
My parents bought a car like this new in 1935. It is a British Ford 8. Our car had the registration number DPE328 ... perhaps the first number I ever learned.
During the war years, there was no petrol available for civilian use, so the car sat on blocks in our garage for the duration of the war. By the time I was about 4 years old,. I spent hours sitting in the car playing with the gear shift and the steering wheel. When the war ended we were very fortunate. Most people had sold their cars because their was no petrol, but my parents did not ... they simply stored the car until the war ended. After the war, the demand for cars was enormous, and the manufacturing capacity severely limited. In fact the wait time for a new car was several years. This situation lasted for a long time in the UK and when my parents eventually replaced this car around 1953 there still a wait time of several months.
When I was about 12 (in 1952) I was given a very decrepit 35 year old Levis motorbike similar to this.
Two of my cousins and myself took it apart, rebuilt it and got it going. There was a dirt road around our house and we spent hours navigating this machine round the circle. Finding parts for a motorbike this old was a challenge. I recall the tires being pneumatic, but 'bead-edged' and not used in decades ... and having problems with the vee-belt drive, the rubber was rotten and simply stripped off, and the same applied to all the potential replacement belts we found at the local garages. In any event we had a huge amount of fun ... and really felt we had accomplished something.
I bought my first car when I was a student at Cambridge. Very few students had cars ... we all had bicycles ... and a car was really something, even if it was in terrible condition.
This example of a 1935 Morris Eight convertible is in very good condition. I was able to buy one of these in quite awful condition. It was mechanically reasonably sound, and a coat of green paint ... bright green, not British racing green ... made it something of a stand out. During the spring and summer with the top down, it could carry quite a crowd of students. I remember one time going over a hump bridge near Huntington with several friends sitting around the rim of the rear compartment and completely losing steerage as the front wheels became airborne. Great times .,.. we survived.
Towards the end of the summer term I was able to trade up. I exchanged the 4-cylinder Morris Eight for a powerful 6-cylinder Wolseley Hornet similar to this. In its day the Wolseley Hornet had a sporty reputation with twin carburetors, and a 4 speed gear-box ... a real sports car of the day, and very competitive with the MG of the time.
The Wolseley Hornet was a major step up in car prestige. One of my friends and I worked hard to have it live up to its potential ... but this turned out badly. When we were tuning the twin carbs something happened and a connecting rod came loose and knocked a hole in the side of the crankcase the size of a watermelon. Now what to do?
After some effort, we found an old 6 cylinder MG in a scrap yard ... purchased the engine, and then set about installing it in the Wolseley. How we did it, I do not know ... because everything was different ... but somehow we got it to work. My friend was the genius that made it happen ... I was merely a willing 'helper', but not much more.
In the summer of 1960 I had the opportunity to work for the summer in Canada. I was a member of the Cambridge University Canada Club which chartered a Boeing 707 from Air France to carry us from London to New York in the early summer, and then back to the UK in the early autumn (fall). We each paid £70 for our return tickets.
I worked for the Foundation Company of Canada in Montreal for about 10 weeks and then drove a car like this ... a 1955 Cadillac Town Car ... from Montreal. Quebec to Edmonton, Alberta. a distance of about 2,200 miles. The dealer was able to buy the used car in Montreal and sell it in Edmonton for substantially more. We got a free trip in exchange for driving the car.
The power of this car was immense. Two of us shared the driving. I had never driven a car with automatic transmission and this sort of power. In fact we drove from Montreal to Sudbury ... something more than 400 miles before realising that we had not released the parking brake. Not a good move ... we had to do the rest of the journey, almost 2,000 miles, with a severely compromised braking system!
Later that same summer, three of us purchased a 1953 Pontiac for $30 in Toronto with a view to drive to Key West in the South of Florida. We had tickets for a brief tourist trip to Cuba departing from Key West ... a trip we were able to take as 'Brits' but recently banned for Americans because of Castro's communist takeover of Cuba.
The trip was relatively uneventful until we got to Georgia ... where the water pump failed, the engine overheated and we started to consume oil almost as fast as we consumed gas. We had the fuel pump replaced ... costing us as much as our original price for the car! Then we crossed into Florida and were immediately stopped by the Florida Highway Patrol who told us in no uncertain terms that 'we could drive a car like that in Georgia, but not in Florida'. They gave us 24 hours to get the car fixed or get it off the road.
We managed to reach Jacksonville where there had been race riots the weekend before. As we went down the main street in Jacksonville our car was backfiring and we were laying a smoke screen. Our car sounded like a barrage of gunfire, and folk took cover, thinking it was more of the riot. We found a junk yard ... and that was the end of that car. We continued by Greyhound Bus to Miami with plans to go on to Key West.
We did not get to Key West. It turned out that bridges had been knocked out by a recent hurricane and there was no road. We missed our trip to Cuba, but we did get to go to the Republican National Convention that was going on in Miami Beach.
During my university days back at Cambridge I was a member of the ROTC. I did not have to do 'National Service' in Britain because my birthday was just 8 days too late and the requirement to serve ended. My school (Blundell's) had a Combined Cadet Force (CCF) so it was fairly natural to become a member of the ROTC at Cambridge. We got to do many activities that otherwise would not have been possible ... like learning to parachute out of an aircraft!. I became a driving instructor which turned out to be one of the scariest experences in my life. The instructions were delivered in WWII Bedford (Chevrolet) trucks somewhat similar to this. The ROTC vehicles had seen war service many years before and their condition was appalling ... and especially the stearing. The 'slack' in the stearing mechanism was enormous and how we escaped catastrophe is beyond me.
In the summer of 1961, I repeated the Canada Club trip. I had organized a summer job with the Austin Motor Company of Canada in Toronto. At the end of my stint of work the company loaned me a Riley 1500 very similar to this. Compared to an American car, it did not have much power, but the leather was beautiful.
I have no idea how far I drove, but I got as far West as Pittsbugh, Pennsylvania and South Bend, Indiana, and South as far as Baltimore and East as far as Boston. Im the course of this trip I was able to visit almost all of the major steel mills in the area at the peak of heavy industry in the USA. Very few of these steel mills were still operational just 35 years later.
When I got back to the UK, I started my first real job post University and bought an Austin MinVan.
In 1961, the minivan was a cost effective way of getting modern transport. Because it was a 'commercial vehicle' it did not attract the 'purchase tax' which at the time cut the out-of-pocket cost of the vehicle by 33% (it might even have been 50% ... I cannot remember). The bad news is that the rules for commercial vehicles had to be followed, and at the time lorries (including minivans) had to observe the speed limit of just 30 mph.
My first job ... as a Graduate Management Trainee with Davy United in Sheffield did not give me much free time. Most of my driving was in heavy traffic from the 'hostel' to the factory ... perhaps a total of 10 miles a day and the speed limit did not really matter. I lasted a full year without getting a ticket.
But then I left Davy-United and moved to London to train as a Chartered Accountant, articled with Cooper Brothers. Now I started driving all over the country to audir clients, and many times to Birmingham where I was on the audit team for Stewarts and Lloyds, the steel company. Britain's first motorway, the M1 ran from just outside London to several miles outside Birmingham and was designed for high speed driving just like the famous German autobahns. Within a year I had been ticketed twice and was facing the prospect of a third ticket and losing my licence! The minivan had to go.
This was my next car. A Jaguar Mark VII similar to this.
The big advantage of this car was that I could not afford to drive it ... the fuel consumption was a limiting factor. From time to time I drove some distance and on the motorway it was an impressive performer with 100+ mph quite easy. I remember being challenged by a Triumph TR4 on the M1 and easily pulling away from the sports car. The engine was a derivative of the famous Jaguar engine that had huge power and impressive racing success. The brakes and ability to stop the car were not so impressive.
Chevolet Biscayne Station Wagon
BMW 300 Series
Mitsubishi Station Wagon