Soon I was navigating on road rallies in a Hillman Imp (beg its pardon, a Singer Chamois) but, basically, I was crap at the job, throwing up regularly and missing checkpoints. I wasn’t cut out to be a navigator, I needed to be driving. Badly. The solution came in the shape of a 1955 Austin A30, for sale with MOT and tax at a local garage for £20. I hummed and ha-ed at the thought of such a major investment but eventually I sold the bike for £15 and the Austin was mine.
Ah, the heady sensation of an 803cc A series engine with 30bhp under my right foot. And cable operated back brakes. And 5.20 cross ply remould tyres. I can still remember parking her proudly in the hall of residence car park and standing back to admire her. I wasn’t put off when I lifted the wads of old carpet in the driver’s footwell and found, well, nothing at all really, except a good view of the road beneath.
Displaying the lateral thinking required for old car ownership, I ‘borrowed’ the crumb tray from the Baby Belling cooker in the kitchen on my floor and after a bit of hammering to reshape it, pop riveted and fibre glassed it into service as my new floor. Perfect. (I must return it some day.)
I never actually rallied the A30 but it did carry me and a friend from Bristol to the Lake District where we assayed Honister Pass. At the steepest part it became clear that I would need 1st gear so I executed the perfect double declutch (no synchromesh on 1st) but the jerk when I let the clutch in with full throttle was enough to displace the fan belt. We arrived at the top in a huge cloud of steam but from there it was downhill all the way.
On another occasion it occurred to me that I seemed to slow down for corners more than other folk. I therefore resolved not to slow down for the next bend. Fortunately I was on a country lane at the time and the hedge provided a very soft landing. I climbed out of the passenger door in time to see the inside wheels still turning slowly in the air.
Eventually, the next MOT was due and by now the front lever arm shocks were totally shot – a situation that was apparent whenever I attempted a ‘sporty’ approach to a favourite corner with a rough road surface. The little Austin simply refused to turn in. Moreover, an axle seal had gone, soaking one drum brake in oil. Still, nothing ventured so I put it in for its test.
The tester disappeared up the road to conduct the brake test (no rolling road in those days) and I watched as a cloud of smoke came from just one back wheel and the car slewed across the road. He returned and commented thoughtfully, ‘she’s pulling a bit under brakes’, which was the understatement of the year.
So my Austin had to go and without MOT or tax I sold her for £22.50, a profit of £2.50. I thought ‘there’s nothing to this car owning lark’ as I sank £200 in a Morris Minor van. How very wrong that turned out to be…