WORK - PART ONE - University Motors
I've already said I started work on January 1st 1961. In those days it was not a public holiday.
I turned up at 7 am for the 8 o'clock start. I rode my bike in, parked it next to the engine rack (they had a huge rack with 60 "Gold Seal" exchange engines on display opposite the reception) and waited. At about quarter to eight people started arriving. I meekly made my presence known and was taken to the foreman's office in the first floor workshop.
Mac, the foreman was a short chap, in a white coat. He had 2 habits. Firstly he would constantly be giving himself a dry face wash. Vigorously rubbing his face up and down with his hand. No harm but curious, maybe he had some skin irritation. No one ever mentioned it so I never asked why. The second habit wasn't so harmless. He would sidle up to you when you had a bonnet up and the engine running. Then he would put one hand on a spark plug lead whilst holding a finger on the other hand close to your nose. Let me tell you that 30,000 volts arcing from Mac's finger to your nose was very unpleasant. Once caught you knew to be aware, but it was amazing how good he was in seeming to have genuine reason to look at what you were doing. He also did this with the Champion Spark Plug cleaner and tester. The machine had a a plug lead which would produce 30,000 volts for testing plugs. He had this trick were he would connect the lead to another and attach that to the metal work bench. As you went to the bench he would switch on and it was funny watching the victim leaping back from the bench. Shocking behaviour.
Mac handed me over to Jimmy White who was to become my teacher, mentor and friend.
A word here about the core of men at University motors in the Shepherds Market workshop. Some of them had all worked there before the war (which ended only16 years earlier). They had all joined up in the tank corps together and went through the war together and returned to their jobs after. The didn't speak of their experiences other than answering direct question. "what did you do in the war mister" was a common refrain in those days. I'll try and describe these characters as we go.
I was taken to the small workshop consumables store and Alf handed me a set of overalls and 20 cleaning cloths. The cloths were exchanged for clean ones along with clean overalls once a week. Kitted out in a pair of overalls which were about 4 sizes too big for me so the legs and arms were rolled up and the arse was about level with my knees, i must have looked like a real waif and stray. I can't remember what we worked on that day but I just loved it. Heaven!
The next day we started work on time and Jimmy sent me down to the stores (nowadays called the parts department) for something or other. When I returned he was standing there with his usual little smile holding a job card. "Mac has sent me out to tow this car in. You better find something to do as I'll be out all day". No way, I was going with and said so. The company had an old Dodge SWB breakdown truck with a large crane on the back. However on this day, one of the worst weather wise that winter it was so cold it wouldn't start. In the basement was it's brand new Land Rover series IIA which had been prepared at the bodyshop as a replacement for the ageing Dodge. It was light blue (I think they were all that colour) and was a long wheel base model, if memory serves me right they were described as "short" - 88", and "long - 110". The crane was on the back as you would expect and on the front firmly bolted to the steel girder known as a bumper (more like a battering ram) was a steel bar clamped on.
We got the Landie up and set off down Piccadilly to our destination at a Service Station by the entrance to Brand Hatch in Kent. Weather? It was freezing and Kent had been cut off for two days with snow ploughs clearing single lanes on the main roads. The service station was on the A20 so we would get through. Exciting for a 15 year old. As we drove along Piccadilly both of us were literally shivering with cold. The Land Rover had no heater! So I disappear under the dash and remove the dozens of rubber bungs in the dash. It did get a bit warmer from the heat generated by the engine, but not much. At least the icicles on my nose melted!
Our journey there was uneventful until we got to the A20. The snow ploughs had cleared the road and a single lane had two huge walls of snow each side. Really they were far higher than the cab of the Land rover. I can remember looking up at the top, I had to duck down to see it! We arrived at the service station and pulled onto the forecourt.
The car we had come to collect was a Princess 4 litre R, the R denoting it had a Rolls Royce engine, not the one in the Shadow but an ali straight 6. It was parked at the side with the front stoved in. The outer service station parapet wall was lying flat on the forecourt side, almost in one piece where the car had driven into it on an icy road just before the snow came a week before.
We pulled the Land Rover in front and got the chains out, No point in protecting the front skirt or bumper, they weren't repairable. "OK, Norm, get the chains on and wind her up". With freezing fingers it wasn't easy doing the U clamps up. I then climbed on the back of the Land Rover and started winding away. It required a massive amount of strength to lift this two ton car, but, weak and feeble as I was it was slowly coming up as the cable wound around it's drum and the ratchet clicked away.
Now then, I'm not sure if you've ever experienced a fifth sense of something occurring that you're not actually aware of but feel it rather than hear or see it. I had that moment and stopped winding to turn round and look at Jimmy who was standing at the side, in the middle of the forecourt watching this poor little waif sweating in below zero temperatures, Except he was no longer standing. He was writhing on the floor - in laughter, tears were rolling down his cheeks. I'm not exaggerating he really was helpless from laughter and rolling on the cold floor. He motioned with one arm for me to get down. I did and walked towards him. Turning round I observed a 2 ton Princess 4 Litre R with front wheels firmly on the ground and a Land Rover with both front wheels in clear air off the deck. Now we knew what the big steel bar on the front was for. Being a long wheel base and with a fairly long overhang of the crane was not the best configuration for a breakdown truck.
Being smart and having all that experience from the tank corps, Jimmy, when he had stopped laughing, asked the garage owner if we could "borrow" a bit of his broken wall, Yes, of course, so we borrowed a big hammer and a chisel and broke the wall into smaller sections and loaded them onto the iron bar. Tied on with a bit of string the front wheels of the Land Rover were just touching the ground, but only just.
The journey back wasn't too bad, slow but OK. Until we got to the hill at Balham High Street. We were driving up the hill and the front wheels came off the road completely, Jimmy thought it great fun to be driving along whilst spinning the steering wheel from one lock to the other without any change in direction. Luckily the road there is straight and we leveled off without incident and carried on. We got back to the workshop at about 7 pm. Got changed and went home.
Some time later I was servicing an MGA, the B hadn't been launched yet. The servicing schedule called for the wheels to be rotated to even out tyre wear. This included the spare. When I removed the spare I found a brown paper envelope. Looking inside I didn't find a bunch of used fivers, but loads of pornographic photos. I took them to the receptionist handling the job. When the customer came to collect the whole workshop seemed to be in reception to observe what happened when the envelope was handed over. The owner went as red a a beetroot and denied they were his. We kept them and we had real porno pics all over the workshop walls. Porn the wasn't as sophisticated as it is now. These were black and white photos, mostly of girls sat in the back seat of cars like Morris Minors with legs wide apart and no knickers, or with their breasts hanging out over there dresses.
Talking about the MGB we had the first one in about two weeks before the launch. The manufacturers never shrouded new cars in secrecy then. We were all standing looking at this wonderful new car. The bonnet was up and Terry Eagles, who was doing the PDI (pre deliver inspection, in other word correcting all the build errors) had left the ignition on. As we were all looking and talking the engine started all on it's own. No one was close enough to press the solenoid and no one was in the car. Theory is that one cylinder was on a compression stroke (well, it would be, wouldn't it!) and the points were so close to opening firing the plug that it did and the plug fired and the petrol/air burnt and pushed the piston down enough to start the engine. I've never seen it happen since. Just in case you're wondering, no, Mac wasn't there.
I think it was 1963 when we started the Mini Bay. Mechanics didn't like working on Minis. When you're used to working on cars with engine bays big enough to host a dance, the tiny, cramped Mini engine bay wasn't in vogue.
Austin A60 (also known as the Cambridge)
Jimmy saw an opportunity. He went to the manager and asked if a few of us who didn't mind working on the Mini could form a four man Mini Bay. The management agreed but carried the theme on by creating a Sports Car Bay and a Saloon Car Bay. The Mini bay became highly specialised and knowledgeable in all things Mini. The other two, because of the variety of vehicles being worked on didn't.
It was a huge success. We all took on a a set of jobs and became very efficient at them. A couple of examples.
The early Mini had an oil feed to the clutch idler gear and the seals leaked like oil wells. They modified it so it was a phosphor bronze bush and the oil feed could be shut off. This enatiled removing the engine from the car, removing the clutch and flywheel and the end cover so that a small brass taperd pin could be driven into the crankshaft oil feed hole. Total time allowed was probably about 7 hours. WE looked at this, we were doing dozens a week. We made up tools (in the machine shop) which allowed the idler gear to be taken off the crank without removing the end cover. Then a pair of long nosed pliers had two grooves ground in the tips. Cut the first 1.8" inch off the tapered pin and it could be inserted in the crank whilst the engine was in situ. A long chisel placed on the top of the pin and a sharp whack with a hammer saw it firmly installed. Total tame taken, about an hour and a half. Clutches were commonly changed due to oil contamination. I can't remember what the time allowed was but 3 hours wouldn't be far off. I could drive a car into my bay, fit a new clutch plate and drive it out in under an hour. No tricks, just the speed gained by doing repetitive work.
However, all this pails into insignificance when we did gearbox overhauls. The early MIni had brass synchro rings, chocolate ones may have been better. The factory went to steel rings and all the early boxes were modified. Not exchanged but fully overhauled. Engine out, box off (it was in the sump), gears out, new bearings and synchro rings fitted and the whole lot put back and engine back in car. Total time allowed was 17.5 hours. Peter Steiner was doing one and a half each day. He eventually went a bit mad with the boredom of doing the same job day in day out so one of us would take over for a week or so. But no one could do the job quicker than Peter.
And the point of all this time saving. BONUS. We were paid our attendance time plus a rate for the time we claimed as charged out if it was above attendance. All our hours were pooled on one time card and the time was then shared out at the end of the week. The other three, Jimmy, Wally, Peter got two shares and I, the "lad" got one. In 1963 a good wage for a London mechanic was £20 a week, I was TAKING home, after tax over £60 per week. I was really well off.
Jimmy White was an experienced mechanic, not a fitter, but a mechanic. If the stores didn't have a part for a pre-war MG then he would go into the machine shop and make it. So did many of the others I was privileged to work with at UM.
During the war he was in the Tank Corps. He was the driver who sat inside operating the two brake levers which steered the tank by slowing one track or the other, operating the throttle and peering through a periscope to see forward. Like many who fought in the last world conflict he didn't speak much about his experiences. However I did get two gems.
After D Day, Jimmy was on patrol with his company. They were south of Caen, before the breakout at Avranches. They had a new, young Captain in charge who was ensconced in Jimmy's tank. The came to a "T" junction. The young captain ordered a right turn. Jimmy asked for clarification over the intercom as he knew the Germans were to the right and they should go left, away from them. The Captain enforced his order. The young upstart was reading his map upside down!
So the company drove on turning right. They were in a forest and the road curved to the left. As the rounded the bend a line of German Panzer tanks approached.
Jimmy and his mates needed to get away, The Panzer's had an electric turret, Jimmy's tanks were hand wound. The Panzer would get on target quickest. At this point the Captain panics and starts shouting down the intercom for them to do something.
Jimmy, in the lead, takes to the forest and gives it all the beans he can. He is now speeding through a forest of large trees pulling his brake levers like a demented barman would pull a beer pump trying to avoid the trees. His mates behind have had that few seconds to wind there turrets as the lead German tank hesitates while he decides to fire on Jimmy or the others. Our second tank gets a shot off and hits the lead German tank but only gives those inside a headache, the German tanks had excellent armor plating and only a direct hit at fairly close range from a British tank would penetrate the armor. However, the Germans by this time were no longer the fierce young warriors they were in 1939, they turned and retreated.
Meanwhile, not knowing this he was still charging through the forest. The inevitable happened and, of course, he went slap bang into a large tree, bringing his tank to a rapid halt.
And that's why Jimmy had a scar around his right eye as the periscope eyepiece cut into him as he was forced into it.
His other tale was when his section was sent to the Russian port of Archangel to fight with the Russians. As normal then, and all through the Communist period of Russia, the Russian administration was so poor, or they were just bloody minded, that the men were stuck just outside the port for weeks. Russian winters are cold. However I don't think I could imagine temperatures of -60c ! It was so cold that if you made a hot cuppa and threw the contents into the air it would hit the ground as ice. If you went for a pee, you had to wrap your penis in a cloth to stop your urine freezing to you as it flowed. But the most fascinating fact for me was that the chains that always accompany tanks would get so cold if left on the ground overnight that if picked up and dropped on the hard frozen ground would shatter like glass. Fortunately, after a few weeks they were loaded on a convoy ship and taken back to Blighty.
Peter Steiner was much younger, about early thirties (hope he forgives me if I've got that wrong, but to a 15 year old 25 is old). His Father was German, hence the name but had died. I never asked and was never told the circumstances. He was living with his widowed mother. He was a bit aggressive and always threatening to hit me. He was a big lad, not fat but tall and muscular. I was polite. However we got on and, when I had left (see below) and the chaps tried to get me to come back he was very keen for me to so do. He was living, and married, a very nice Indian girl. She was so pretty and so sweet that she was perfect for this young man who may have been a bit defensive due to his German father. 15 years after the war and many still hated the Germans, he probably had learned to defend himself at school where he would have been "picked" on.
I just remembered having a "conversation" on the MG experience forum a few years ago. An American chap had started a US business called University Motors following his time working there in the UK. This was after the Mayfair workshop had closed and I had left. This was his response.
I worked in Hanwell in 72/73. Jimmy White was service manager, later replaced by Eddie Bohn. The older fellows in the shop were Bill Sweetman, who smoked a pipe; Ray and Mick, pals who spent Friday and/or Saturday evenings at the Three Fishes in Kingston; Johnny Johnson, a little guy; Alf Fitzhugh and Mick O'Brien, who I've correspondd with; Barbara Brown, a Scottish gal; David Rice; Syd Borrit; Denzel Webber.... In the last ten years I've connected with David Worpole who apprenticed there in the fifties. I'd love to hear from you!
I only looked it up as I couldn't remember someone's name. This has reminded me of more of the lads but not the name I was looking for.
Lets go through those named above.
I recall Eddie Bohn but didn't really work with him
I will never forget Bill Sweetman and I'm surprised he was still working in 1972. He seemed to me to be ancient in 1961! It's that youth thing again. He was a very round man (ie fat) and did everything slowly and with precision. He smoked a pipe which was always in his mouth as he made gentle sucking noises. He told me that in the 20's (see he must have been old!), he worked at the Aston Martin works and raced the Flying Scotsman from London to Edinburgh. He drove up the A1, which would have been a narrow road with lots of junctions in those days. I believe this to be true, the fine detail may be wrong but Bill was a gentleman in every sense of the word and wouldn't tell tall stories like that. He worked in the bay next to me and did a bit of fathering. People like Bill are rare now, he was one of the best blokes I've had the honour to meet.
The owner of University Motors was Major Bradstock a landed gentleman with an estate in Gloucestershire. The estate had an ancient lawn mower with a single cylinder 500 cc JAP engine. Every year the van driver collected it from the estate and brought it into the workshop for it's annual overhaul. This year it was my turn. Bill guided me through removing the barrel with it's non detachable head and decoking the valves and grinding them in then running white metal and scraping the big end bearing. No bearing shells on this. The valves were accessed through the cylinder bore, which being 500 cc was large enough to get a hand in. All done I started it up and the concrete floor was viabrating and the bang, bang, bang was loud enough to wake the dead. Mac came out of his office to see this thing which was pretending to be a concrete breaker. He encouraged me to take it for a road test along the workshop run. I can see and hear it now, me a tiny 9 stone weakling pushing this large hand mower with an engine that you could hear ever firing stroke like a huge hammer coming down on an anvil whist the vibrations going through the floor could be felt at the other end of the shop.
Whilst I'm talking about Major Bradstock, in the first few weeks of my employment the Major would carry out a troop inspection every Monday morning at 0800. We all had our clean overalls on, stood in line and he marched along inspecting us. All the men were used to this, having served in the army, the lads found it a bit curious.
Ray and Mick were indeed pals. But that's all I can remember.
Johnny Johnson was indeed a little chap, with a big temper. I'm not sure he served in army as he talked about overhauling army Hillmans during the war. I observed him attempting to remove a sized king pin from an MGA. It had been soaked in Plus Gas (a fluid to unseize rusty bits). He was hitting the pin with all his strength and really going at it. They were prone to this type of seizure if not greased regularly. After a few minutes extreme effort he leans back, screams and throws his club hammer - right through the windscreen. Now that's Temper!
When I first started there was a subsidised canteen where you could get a hot cooked meal and a pudding for about a bob (one shilling, 5 pence). We all went there for lunch and after usually played darts. Wally, Jimmy's brother-in-law was almost to competition standard and no one could beat him. Johnny Johnson ahd a habit with regard cigarettes. We all smoked then, even me at 15 year old. Johnny would take one out of his pack, holding the pack close to his chest. He would then throw the empty pack into a corner of the room. This meant he didn't have to offer anyone as it was his last. Only it wasn't, the pack still had cigarettes in it and he would surreptitiously, that is until I took to treading on the packet and declaring that he had, by mistake, thrown a pack with fags in it away.
Alf Fitzhugh, known as "Fitz" again I remember the name but that's about it.
Mick O'Brien had a Morris Minor with a skimmed and polished head, twin carbs and was a real "jack the lad", nice chap.
Don't recall Barbara Brown, think she may have after my time.
Sid Borrit, the man who knew everything about carburetors, He was a legend. He taught me all I know about carburetors, mainly SU but Webbers as well. Really nice chap and had all the time in the world for us lads. I now consider myself a bit of an expert on carbs, even though I don't get much practice in now. Do spend ages getting the twin Weber DCO45's balanced correct mixtures on my Caterham but that's probably it. The Midget has a pair of SU's but I don't use the car much so it doesn't need tuning every 100 miles like the Caterham does. An interesting anorak fact. SU stands for Skinners Union. The early carbs had leather bellow (instead of the ali pot) so were made by skinners, leather workers. When I was working at the Maple Street garage (see below) Sid came in looking for directions to a car electric store (which was down the road). We had a good long chat before he left. Small world.
I recall David Rice but only as a name. I seem to think I may be losing memory as his name is so familiar.
Denzel Webber means nothing so I'm guessing he joined after I left.
If I've got the right person David Worpole was one of the five service receptionist. He's the chap who handed the brown envelope to the MGA owner. Again, if I recall correctly he became friends with a scruffy bunch of musicians who travelled and lived in a blue Austin A35 van. Band was known as the Dudley Moore Trio, well before Dudley's rise to fame. I seem to remember that David was close to one of the band with a Mexican name. It will come to me and I will come back and add it later. I think the chap committed suicide. It wasn't Gonzales but something like that. Probably turn out to be Smith! David was a nice chap, gentle and laid back but business like.
There was a receptionist called Kimber. The "founder" of MG, the service manager at Morris Garages in the 1920s, was a Kimber but they weren't related. He was tall and gaunt, bit like Sir Alex Douglas-Home (pronounced Hume-why do they do that?) Only old wrinklies like me will remember him.
One last chap, the name escapes me for the moment. I think it was Dick. He was a middle aged round chap with an infectious smile. He lived in a South London suburb. He had one of the first Honda motor bikes imported to the UK. However he also was mates with John Cooper and had an MG TC special built by John Cooper. I never saw it. If the Honda wasn't on the road he had a scooter, not a Vespa type scooter but one of those with pedals and a tiny engine. One Saturday morning I pulled up beside him in Park Lane on the way in. We sat there at the lights, me in my Mini, he on his scooter thing. I leaned across and slid the passenger side window back and said good morning. He looked across and gave a little wave. He took his hand of the throttle and the engine slowed down a bit but he caught it before it cut out. Lights change, I move off and Dick goes backwards into the car behind! Why, well 2 stroke engines will run clockwise and anti clockwise, when his engine nearly died and he caught it, it must have started running the opposite way. We laughed at that for weeks.
FOUND HIS NAME Forget the Dick, I remembered that the car came up for sale so asked Mr. Google what he knew:
This unique motor car is the work of Mr Victor Percy Drew of Coulsdon, Surrey, who was an employee of MG agency, University Motors
So, it was Vick, I remember that now. Just shows how Alzheimer's starts. The full article is HERE.
The manager when I joined was, I think, a Mr. Johnson. For some reason I was chosen to pop over to the bakers every day to get his bread. 1/0 (that's one shilling, 5p in today's money) was given to me for this purchase. It cost 1/0, so no tips involved. He ran an MG Magnette ZA (or ZB. The lads in those days had to do 1 week in about 5 (depended how many lads) on the Lube bay. Lucky worked there, changing engine oil and greasing nipples. Need I say that Lucky was a bubble (Greek). When the new wonder grease arrived, something like molybendium. Mr. Johnson's car was put on the ramp and raised. We, Lucky and I, pumped away with the grease gun. We had been asked to pump plenty in so to flush out the old stuff. It was running all over the place. As we were finishing, the boss wanders over to see how we're doing. He looked pleased at the pools of old grease all over the floor (when I became a workshop manager I would have gone ballistic if one of my mechanics had made a mess like this!). Dear old (only to me, age thing again. But he was probably in his 50s) Mr. Johnson then put his hand in his pocket and extracts a Shilling. Lucky leans forward to accept this tip. I've never seen a large, elderly man move so quickly. The hand offering the Shilling almost whished as it was rapidly withdrawn. The Shilling was for me to get the daily bread. Poor old Lucky, in both senses.
I'm not sure if he retired but he was superceded by one of the receptionists, I think it was Steve Leach. For some reason he didn't seem to like me. You will see how much he didn't as we get to the end of this chapter.
Being in the heart of Mayfair our customers would today be a star celebrity line up. I've already mentioned Sterling Moss. There were many film and stage actors and actresses. One of the specially chosen customers for the Mini Cooper S was Alex Douglas-Home's brother, William. I was servicing the green and white roofed car and fond a condom in the drivers door pocket. We were having a laugh at this and it was getting a bit of rough service. Now, I can't be clear on this, it was after all over 52 years ago, but I think a pin was inserted through the silver pack. I've always wondered if that boisterous larking around had any unwanted effects, like an unwanted baby.
Whilst we're talking about French Letters (condoms) did you know the French call them Capot Anglais (English hat).
At the top of the stairs to the workshop was an alcove. In this alcove was a tea/coffee machine and a chocolate vending machine. Now, I can't remember if the condom we had in this incident was one of the future Prime Ministers brother's or was acquired from someone else, but one appeared in the Cadbury's Milk Bar "window" of the chocolate vending machine. OK, a bit of a laugh for the lads. Except the first person to go to the machine was Mr. Johnson's Wife. I've no idea why I got blamed. With my angelic face how could I be accused of such mischief. Well I was accused and had a real bollocking from Mr. Johnson, which, of course, terminated with being given a Shilling to get his bread.
Another week had to be served by the lads in the Electricians shop. There were two electricians, who would sort out bulbs not working or dynamos not charging. They had this huge light grey machine called "Octopus". It was for testing dynamos and starters. To be honest it slightly frightened me, well maybe "fright" is a bit of an overstatement but it did make me uneasy. Whilst I didn't mind a week doing electrical work, unlike the Lube Bay, which I hated, there wasn't much excitement there. Until, that is the older of the two electricians had a bit of an accident. The MG1100 had a wooden dash which was held in by the ashtray lamp at one end and the ignition switch at the other. Clever idea as removed the need for any visible screws. To get to the ashtray clamp there was a inspection plate in the glove box, which when removed allowed access to the butterfly night holding the ashtray and the dash. The other end entailed putting your hand up behind the dash to undo the ignition switch nut. So, our elderly electrician takes the ashtray out and then slides his hand up the dash to undo the ignition switch. He told us later that the switch was really tight and he was struggling to undo it. His inside wrist was pressed hard against the bottom edge of the dash and his hand had gone numb. So, when the signet ring on his middle finger shorted on the heavy brown ignition wire he didn't feel the ring heat up and start glowing red. He smelt it though, followed by the pain of a finger being burnt to the bone. A finger burnt to the bone like this is not a pretty sight. The ambulance arrived fairly quickly and he was taken to hospital. That night I sat at home with anail file filing my tight signet ring off. And have never worn one since.
We also had a trimmer who repaired body trim and hoods. Lots of hoods in the workshop. I was fascinated how he would fit windscreens into fixed window frames. You fit the windscreen rubber seal to the body. Then put some soap in the inner groove of the seal and run a this, but strong string around the groove. Place windscreen in the groove, pull the string and the screen will be fitted to the rubber seal. Well not quite, you finish it off by whacking the outer edge of the screen with a large rubber mallet to seat it. That's the fascinating bit, watching a car windscreen being whacked to death with a large hammer.
I'm not sure if you remember Sir Hartley Shawcross, an eminent judge who had been the British prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trial. He had an MG 1100 and wanted, what we call today, a bit of bling. So Peter, the trimmer added another 6 chrome strips to the sides of the car! It, to my eyes, it looked horrible but I guess our judge thought it a proven case.
Chris Mumford was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. The son (I assume the oldest) of a family that owned a chain of BMC dealerships in Cornwall and Devon. He started work the same day I did. He was being put through every department of UM with a view of returning 5 years later to take up a directorship in his family business and, eventually, take over as MD from his father. Landed gentry and East End waifs and strays are not normally close friends but we just hit it off. He was about 4 years older than I and at that age that's more than you just 4 years, there's a big difference between a 15 year old teenager, one is just emerging into adulthood, could well still be and act like a child and the other is an adult, Well most of the time.
I've said the Shepherds Market workshop, actually in Carrington Street, if you look at Google maps (HERE) you can clearly see the roof with two cars parked on it. It's big! About 20 mechanics. The basement was used to park the cars waiting to be worked on. At the very end, in a dusty corner was a 1932 MG Midget M Type and a K Magna. The K is probably worth approaching £200,000 today, the Midget probably about £30,000. Chris and I asked if we could overhaul one of them. We were not allowed to touch the K but we could do the M. It had been to the coachworks and the body had been rebuilt. New ash frame and very shiny red paint made it look very nice. Probably not original and today I would be critical if I thought it had been over restored. The only bit missing on the body was the steady bar between the two headlight. We got the car up to the workshop and was allocated a space at the very end. Engine and box out in a hour or so. We stripped the engine and over the next 12 months rebuilt it with new white metal crank bearing, new pistons and a top end overhaul. For anyone reading this, anyone? excuse me whilst I get technical.
The Engine was from the Morris Minor (1930s, not 1960s). My understanding was that it was built under licence from the French manufacturer Hotchkiss. Wiki says it was a Wolsely designed engine. However the threads were all metric with Imperial spanner sizes, Whitworth I think. Actually this state of affairs went on right through to the last of the XPAG engines in the 1950's The BMC A and B series engines were the first to have UNF threads. We were always getting technical enquiries about "this new bolt wont fit".
This engine had a two bearing crank which looked like a little worm it was so thin HERE is the triple M web site with some pictures of the engine.
It had a single overhead camshaft which was driven by the dynamo mounted at right angles on a worm gear on the nose of the crank and the same at the head. There was a universal joint at the crank end. This joint was a circular leather circle with four holes and two metal straps were fitted top and bottom. The two yokes were bolted into the four holes. The leather didn't seem to rot with engine oil, a simple design that worked. The only problem was oil leaking from the head down into the dynamo meant regular dynamo removal and clean. In the 1920s we didn't have modern oil seals, paper and cork seals were about it.
The cams used banana tappets. Above, and to one side, of the camshaft was a rail with banana shaped wedges fitted with concentric holes onto the rail. Loosen the lock nut and turn the wedge and it went in and out allowing the correct gap to be set. Simple and much easier than shims. I was amused when Ford launched the New Sierra, the jelly mould model, and claimed the engine had banana tappets. Only 60 years after the MG.
The carburetor was a single, tiny SU, made of aluminum (early ones had leather bellows). Fuel was fed by gravity from the tank fitted under the bonnet against the bulk head. No gauge, just open the bonnet, take the filler cap off and peer in.
There was no water pump, the coolant was circulated by thermals. This was probably OK in the light traffic of the 1920s but could be a problem in the 1960s traffic. Must be a real problem now and I suspect most will have a pump fitted, maybe an electric one. It did have a rad fan which was driven by a large linked fan belt. The rad was, by today's standards enormous. A huge copper unit which was very heavy.
I can't remember the claimed horse power, probably about 30, this tiny (for those days) engine was 750 cc. Even the big MGs, like the 6 cylinder Magna, K and L were only 1200 cc. Before the war MG held dozens of land speed records with this engines, usually supercharged.
Chris and I worked on it from 7 to 8 am, lunch time and sometimes an hour after clocking off. The management did give us each a letter saying we owned half share in the car, whilst we were employed, a bit of a useless arrangement then.
Came the day we were ready to start her up. It wouldn't. We were flattening the battery trying so we were push starting it along the workshop run. Mac the foreman, watched us with a wry smile on his long and creased face, He was leaning against the wall by the side of his office. I can close my eyes and see him now.
As lunch was about to finish Mac says that we must have stale petrol in the tank. He rckons the fuel has been there for at least 10 years. Now, I had never given this a though but the spirit in petrol will evaporate leaving the thin oily stuff. He gave us the keys to the petrol store and we brought up a Jerry can of fresh petrol. A gallon in the tank, a quick blow of the carb float chamber and she started first time. I can still hear the little rasping noise it made. We drove the car back to its bay - heaven. Over the next few years Chris and I took this lovely little car to many MG Car Club meets. It's top speed was about 50 mph, acceleration fro 0 to 60 took about a week. But it was such great fun to drive it. I didn't have a driving licence then but did get a few miles in on country road.
A few years ago I tracked the car down. It's registration number was MG 23 and it had been sold to an American Museum and then bought back to the UK. I contacted the present owner and told him about the car and said he could stay in our gites for free if he fancied a nice holiday in France with the car. Never came, pity.
Note the V shaped windscreen and the bar between the headlights which was missing on "our" car. The colour is the same.
A very prominent customer, so prominent I can't remember his name had Princess 4 litre R, not the one at Brands Hatch, but another. He had one leg (probably lost flying Spitfires 21 years earlier). It had the throttle to the right of the brake pedal, no clutch, it was auto, which I think they all were.
I was given the job of servicing it. Brought up from the basement, into my bay (before the Mini Bay started) and duly serviced. Upon completion I has taking it back to the basement. Lads being lads I reversed the car towards the lift. I was going far to fast but slotted it into the lift perfectly squarely. Slight problem. Having the throttle on the left I slammed it down instead of pressing the brake. OK, no real harm, the back of the lift was wooden planks, may have scratched the car slightly and the rear of the lift may need some new planks, but not too bad after all said and done. Who am I kidding! Macs office was behind this wood panel. He was sitting at his desk eating his sandwich. Without warning a car comes through the wall and brings his ceiling down, And 100 years of accumulated dust, black, sooty dust. Mac emerges from his office which is bellowing black dust, he is coughing and spluttering but still holding his sandwich, which is no longer a finest cut white bread but a worst soot black bread. When he stopped coughing and spluttering and the ever increasing cloud of dust had started to settle, settle on everything and everyone in the section of the workshop, he just looked at me standing there trying not to show the tears rolling down my cheeks and covering up the squeaky chuckles coming from firmly closed mouth and gave me a look which is best described as, well withering is close, hatred? yes a bit, contempt, of course, I suppose it was all three. He walked slowly past me keeping steely eye contact all the way. When he'd washed up and returned, some of the men had started cleaning up and he seemed to have calmed down a bit, only a bit, but that look had gone. I apologised, saying I had pressed the accelerator instead of the brake but said nothing about the speed I had entered the lift.
This is a good opportunity to tell you about the three floor to floor car lifts. One went from ground to roof the middle and other end ones went from basement to first floor. They had been built in Victorian days for horses and carriages. Nothing special then. Well, yes, these lifts were powered by the underground tributary of the Thames, the River Fleet (Fleet Street?). The platform was mounted on a large single ram which was connected to the underground river. A large valve opened the river to the ram and the other way released the pressure back to the river. Two ropes running from top to the valve operated the lift up and down. Free energy and they are still working today, about 150 years after they were installed.
The workshop on the first floor had the bays to the Shepherds Market side and the access run opposite against the back wall. It was long, At lunchtimes some of us would practice our driving by doing acceleration tests from one end to the other. An E Type is not bad for this type of practice and the dark blue one was pressed into acting as a learners mount. I have no idea how fast I was going when I hit the wall, The whole front end crumpled up to the extent that I could no longer see the wall, only a dark blue bonnet rising in front of the screen. E types had one piece bonnet and wings. Hinged at the front they were, in effect, half the car. Expensive? Probably. Glad they never asked me to pay for it.
Thames 15 cwt vans. Remember them, the forerunner to the Transit. For some reason I had to move one parked in the car cleaning bay. I clambered in, with wet soapy boots and started it, selecting reverse gear on the column change. Slowly reversed out on right hand lock, stopped and moved forward on full left lock. I promise that I was not going fast, A three year old could toddle faster than I was going. I was moving towards the stud wall covered in hardboard which was the divider between the cleaning bay area and the offices. I moved my right foot to apply the brake. Only problem was my largish boot was stuck between the vertical steering column and the brake pedal. Had I slid my foot straight back towards the seat it would have come out of this trap with ease. But as you roll towards a wall in a runaway van panic sets in. I was trying to pull my foot up but the brake pedal pad stopped it from coming out. It didn't make much noise as the front of the van went through the hardboard and the thin studwork. The young secretary, sat at her desk typing on an old fashioned typewriter, no word processors then, just sat looking at the big white object that had entered her office but not used the door. She didn't scream, cry, have a fit, pass out, she just sat there looking at the front of the van and me behind the wheel.
I cannot remember her name but she did drink a lot of coffee from the workshop vending machine. I suspect she liked to display herself to the chaps in the workshop. I, at 15 years old, fancied her something rotten. Pretty, well a bit, sexy, could be, blonde and leggy, no. The feature that was causing a burning passion in me was breasts like chapel coat pegs. Her nipples actually curved upwards like tiny bananas. I couldn't take my eyes off them, they were magnificent. Having frightened her speechless she never smiled or spoke to me again.
There was a lad who started after me who I would describe as naive, not stupid, not thick but naive. Jimmy stood at his bench, as the lad was walking past, slowly as naive people tend to do. Jimmy suddenly lets out a scream and turns, half bending holding his left hand in his right, There is a red substance dripping off the fingers of his left hand. "Quick, Terry, run over the to the chemist and get me a Tampax for a big cut" Terry, (we'll call him that for now) turned and strolled to the stairs at a snails pace. Jimmy screams "Hurry up lad, I'm bleeding to death here, RUN". Terry breaks into a canter and goes through the door to the stairs. Jimmy does his agony impression and is rolling on the floor laughing with those tears running down his cheek. After a few minutes he is able to rise and wipe the paint from his hand. After 10 minutes or so Terry returns. No Tampax but a very red welt across his face. It wasn't paint. "Why wouldn't she serve me and why did she slap across the face?"
This was the lad who was down at the stores counter all afternoon waiting for the long weight.
These anecdotes are not in chronological order but as I remember them. Sorry, but that's just how it is.
16th October 1964 saw Harold Wilson win the general election. The following night some of us were going to the Motor Show, held those days in Earls Court. We set of at 5pm and went to the pub on the corner of Carrington St. and Shepherds Market. The pub is still there but the names changed. After a beer or 3 we made an executive decision. Sod the Motor Show, we'll have a pub crawl instead. We wandered towards Grosvenor Square and down a small road, which, I think was called King Charles II Street. I can't find it on the map so I'm probably wrong. The 4 of us (Jimmy, Alan, Rampling and myself) bundled into the pub which had a few pin striped, bowler hatted, rolled umbrella brigade sitting there. We got stared at as we sang "Good old Mr. Wilson" over and over again. I guess the beer may have been good, I never found out as we were asked to leave.
The four of us went back to the garage and bundled into Alan's Mini. I've no idea why but we were off to Theatre Land (Shaftsbury Avenue). Traveling North there is a Chinese Quarter to the right. It has many real Chinese restaurants. We arrived at about 7pm on this Friday night. We drove round for a few minutes and then spotted a parking space. Alan reversed into this space at a fair rate of knots, we all climbed out and Jimmy led us to a door in a wall. Inside the door was a long staircase going into the bowels of the building. We descended and at the bottom opened another door into a bar. It was buzzing. Someone bought a round. I was now drinking Scotch and Coke. It was now my round, I approached the bar, a young fresh faced kid who looked he should have been in school not in a smoky underground bar. The barmen were busy serving. As I waited my turn, a young chap sidles up by the side of me and said "good evening, can I get you a drink", "It's OK, I'm getting a round in for my mates", "Oh, I'll get them, it would be nice". He got the drinks, far quicker than I would have been served. I took them back to our table and announced that the chap over there had got the round in, wasn't that nice. "Drink up, lads, we're off" was Jimmy's response.
I hadn't really been exposed to the gay community before, could have been worse I suppose.
I seem to remember, in a scotch and coke haze have several more rounds before the pubs started to close around 11pm. We went back to the car, but couldn't find it. We walked around the square several times before coming to the realisation that it wasn't there. Someone had nicked Alan's car! In a wall near where the car had been parked was a row of old fashioned (actually they are now the height of fashion) telephone boxes. Three big lads plus a little weed pressed into the phone box. We phoned the Police to report a stolen car. I couldn't hear all the conversation but Alan said it went like this. "Wanna report a nicked car", "Ok, what's the Index Mark", Alan: "B537 TRP", "Oh, it was you, you idiot, you parked it across the small lane running across the square! It's in Elephant and Castle car pound". A taxi was hailed and we went to the Elephant and Castle car pound, paid the money, climbed in and drove off. No breathalysers then, we must have all been at least 3 times over the limit yet to be set. I, very drunk from scotch and coke, was dropped off at a bus stop and got the number 73 bus home.
To this day, 50 years later, if I smell scotch and coke I will be sick..
Whilst I was at UM I did some voluntary work for the MG Car Club. Mainly going on there rally's and meeting with some tools to fix broken cars. They told me they were making me a lifetime honorary member, but I've never had anything in writing so it was probably just words. On one occasion one of the salesmen took me, in his Midget demonstrator to Abingdon for a day of driving tests. The sort where you drive around a set course in and out of bollards and at high speed into parking bays and out again. I had a few goes and was complimented on doing well, for someone who didn't have a driving licence! On the way back I remember very clearly, in more that one sense, laying back in the passenger seat, driving through the Oxfordshire countryside, looking up at a clear, star filled sky. Being an inner city dweller, I think that was probably the first time I'd seen the stars that clearly. We now live in rural France, on the border of the Loire Valley and Brittany. All the village and town light go out at 11pm and, most summer night the sky is spectacular. On really good nights, the ribbon of the Milky Way is very clear. We have sat out into the small hours (3 am) drinking wine, chatting away and watching the International Space Station pass over every 90 minutes. It's clear with the naked eye, with binoculars you can see some detail and with the telescope you can see them waving (not really).
I digress. At one of these MG Car Club Meeting I took some colour slides of Old Number 1, the first MG which is a Bull Nose Morris. I also have a photo of a Mini Cooper S with the Reg number EJB.... There is a very attractive young lady sitting on the bonnet. I think this may be the famous Monte Carlo Rally winner which has the same registration letters.
Before we get to the end a word of explanation. I was taken on as an indentured apprentice which was for a 5 year term. It included one day a week at Paddington Technical College. Having just escaped from school I wasn't that keen to go back, albeit for one day a week. Now, I'm not sure if I failed the English and Math's exam deliberately or if it was physiological or I was just stupid (that's it, just stupid!) but fail I did. I was called into the managers office where he sheepishly told me I had failed the entrance exam and therefore couldn't be indentured. I would still do the five years (of course, cheap labour) but I wouldn't get my certificates at the end. It was suggested that I go to night colleger at Hackney Tech. I duly enrolled and went along one night a week. After about 6 weeks, where the tutor was still trying to get the principles of theOtto cycle into the numbskulls in the class I gave up. I knew how the four stroke cycle worked when I was 10!
University Motors had the lease on the workshop in Carrington Street, the showroom in Piccadilly (branded as MG as well as UM), a dealership in Kingston, another in Epsom and a huge multi acre site in Boston Manor Road, Hanwell. This site had the bodyshop on it, a row of cottages and some grassed area, like a park. I seem to remember it was 20 acres but I could be wrong as I only went there once. The lease on the workshop and showroom ran out in 1965. The owners wanted a huge rent increase and UM decided to move. The workshop became an NCP car park and still is, the showroom became to offices of a Middle East Airline and probably still is.
They got a quote from Pickfords to move all the parts, the largest BMC parts stock outside the factory. I don't think we were ever told what the quote was other than "expensive" but they wanted 2 weeks to move it all. One of the directors, not sure I'll remember his name but he was very tall and thin, gathered everyone together in the workshop. Mechanics, storemen, salesmen, office staff, everyone. He proposed we did the move. We would work in 12 hour shifts starting 5 pm on a Friday and finishing Monday morning. Two flat bed lorries and the pallets that went with them were borrowed from the factory. A team would be packing one lorry at Carrington Street whilst the other was being driven to Epsom and unloaded. The storemen were all at Epsom putting it away in bins. It worked a treat, the whole lot was in Epsom for 8 am Monday morning and at a fraction of the cost Pickfords wanted. We all got paid double time so no complaints there. There was 100% turnout frome the staff which, to my mind, shows we had a happy workforce.
The mechanics were all asked if they would move to the new purpose built workshop on the Hanwell site, As far as I can remember everyone agreed, including me, who lived on the other side of London, in Upper Clapton.
On the Saturday night, around 2 am I was going home from Epsom to Upper Clapton (I like calling it "Upper Clapton" rather than Hackney, more up market, don't you think). I went across Richmond Bridge and through the park. In the middle of the park there are (was) a cross road with traffic lights. As I approached the lights were red so I was coasting to a halt waiting for them to change to green. I became aware of a car behind me catching me at a rapid rate of knots. As I got to the lights, which were still red, a grey Hillman Minx went past and pulled across me and stopped. Four huge policeman got out and surrounded my car. Well surrounded my not be a good description, it went completely dark as four bodies blocked out all the light. I tried to get out but the one at my door said to stay where I was and open the window. After a short explanation why I went past them on the bridge at a speed well over the 30 mph limit I was let out. They then proceeded to keep me there for about an hour talking about cars, Mini's in particular and my very modified one. They wanted to know what I had I done to it and how much it had cost. (not much thanks to a stores with lax security, but I thought it best I didn't tell them that). When there curiosity was sated, they were all in traffic, and car nuts, I was waved goodbye and sped on my way.
However, this is were it went wrong, or right if you look at what "Norm did next". A few days before the move to Hanwell I contracted German Measles from my10 year old brother. It wasn't bad but I was given a sick not by the doctor and told not to spread my disease and have three weeks off. I duly phoned in and told Jimmy. I made it clear that I would be back as soon as the doctor said I was clear. Jimmy told Steve Leach, the manager. A few days later I get an letter from Mr. Leach. "Sorry to hear that you've decided not to join us at Hanwell but I fully understand that it a very long journey for you. Good luck for the future. Your cards an P$% are enclosed". I was devastated. The job, my mates were everything to me. But, I took it on the chin and when I was better looked for another job.
The sequel was that Peter Steiner rang me and asked if we could all meet at his place in Stamford Hill, just a few miles from where my parents, and I , lived. Lynne and I went along one evening. They wanted me to come back and made the excuse that Steve Leach had made a mistake and thought I wasn't coming back. Pull the other one, mate. He just wanted rid of me, I have my ideas why but I'll keep them to myself. The wives and girlfriend "attacked" Lynne, they were proposing girls nights out, weekends away, all very organised and girly. If Lynne could run she would have been out of there in an instant. She's not that sort, much prefers men's company to women's. There was no way I was going back. No matter how hard it may be I always move on and allow that closing door to be firmly shut. If, as you read of my future career you may think it was the best thing I ever did.
THIS is the front entrance to the NCP car park, previously University Motors central workshop. When it was a workshop customers would drive in and stop in front of the reception area which was on the left. On the right was a parking bay with a rack of 60 gold seal exchange engine against the wall. The lads would go downstairs at about 9am to see the ladies drive up in there older MGs which had suicide doors so we could get a glimpse of a stocking top or, better still, a piece of white thigh. Sad really.