Preservation of old vehicles is a subject close to my heart. It’s just that I prefer to let others do the work. I have no doubt, however, that if I had
If I did succumb, such a pleasure would be more a renewing of an acquaintance rather than a totally new experience. I’m now a classic myself and I’ve seen most post-war vehicles in day-to-day use. The earliest motorcycle I’ve ridden is a 1915 Triumph, while the earliest I’ve actually owned is a 1949 500 cc AJS competition bike. It was a £10 wreck when I bought it and my father put it together over several months while I actively looked on (not being so good with the spanners myself, you know).
Tinkerers of the world unite
I have travelled extensively in pre-war cars as a child. My father, an inveterate tinkerer, owned a succession of pre-war Austins and Morrises, among others. I recall one holiday in the mid
The little car, laden with four souls and a fortnight’s worth of luggage, was severely challenged to maintain a steady 40 mph cruising speed, but it got us there. I still remember the smell of those 20-year-old leather seats. Nothing, however, compared with the aroma of dad’s finest barouche, a magnificent 1949 16hp Armstrong-Siddeley Lancaster.
The Armstrong Siddeley is a vehicle that was ranked right up there with the best when new (ours wasn’t, it was well over the hill but smelled just as good). I always remember it had folding vanity mirrors with lights alongside the rear seats, something which imprinted itself on an impressionable young mind.
The oldest car I’ve actually owned is a 1951 Volkswagen Beetle which I bought for £60 in the mid sixties. It was one of the post-war models with the split rear screen; it was left-hand-drive and had previously been registered in what was then communist Czechoslovakia. I drove that people’s car all the way to Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin (and back to London) and it never missed a beat.
The day I met the Imp
This is more than could be said for the Hillman Imp. I bought one new in 1965 and regretted it immediately. This blunt-nosed Scottish-built vehicle had a rear-mounted 875cc engine (which didn’t add to handling on slippery roads) and cost me £508 1s 6d, according to Wikipedia (uncharacteristically, I’ve lost the invoice). However, I expect I went for the de luxe version (an extra £34) because I wanted a heater.
The Imp was by far the worst and most unreliable car I have ever encountered. I went through a clutch in the first month (it was a new car, bear in mind) and things just dropped off along the way. Far from taking it to Berlin, I was lucky to get it to Birmingham without having to call out the RAC. The Imp represented much that was bad about the then British car industry. Worse vehicles were to come, of course. To the Imp’s credit, it was better than some successors. Shoddy workmanship and wall-to-wall strikes had put paid to the industry by the late 1970s. By that time, every car was a Friday car.
Now, if you want a British-built economy runabout you have to choose between Nissan or Toyota, although the Mini, owned by BMW, is still made here. The Mini, which was the direct contemporary competition for the awful Imp, has proved its worth by surviving, although it is now much plumper than the spindly original. Ford and Vauxhall (Opel) are still around but are no longer made here.
If the Imp had not been such a dud, I suppose that, in a parallel universe, we could have now been driving around in a fatter, all-bells-and-whistles Hillman Imp, perhaps produced by BMW or Peugeot.
I haven’t seen an Imp for years. So when I arrived on spec at Brooklands last weekend and discovered the Hillman Owners’ Club in residence, Impish thoughts came to mind. I looked forward to taking some photographs and chatting with Imp owners about impromptu roadside halts.
Sadly, Imps were not at all in evidence. They are a bit rare in enthusiast circles, apparently — possibly because not many have survived. You’d certainly need the patience of Job and a large box of spanners if you wanted to preserve an Imp.
The Hillman Minx, on the other hand, was a much better car than the ill-favoured
The Minx was a desirable car, a cut above the average rep’s tin can of its day, and it’s so encouraging to find these cars still around. Perhaps more to the point, it is fortunate that there are enthusiasts around to preserve the marque.
We are used to old Porsches, Bentleys and other expensive cars being paraded. Most of those vehicles have survived and are cherished, unless written off in an accident. Lesser marques, such as Hillman, are in greater danger because the allure is not as great — except in the eyes of the experts at the Hillman Owners’ Club — and much of the production run has ended up in breakers’ yards over the years.
The members of the Hillman Club, fortunately, have taken up the challenge and will ensure the survival of the remaining specimens for decades to come. It has not been easy going over the years, as I found out while chatting to the owners.
Some manufacturers, such as Ford, have given great support to preservation enthusiasts over the decades. But it is only relatively recently that Peugeot — inheritors of the Rootes Group legacy — have paid serious attention to the old marques. Back in 1977, for instance, the company threw all the old design documents and many replacement parts into skips outside their offices. Enthusiasts could be seen pulling out this valuable trove and taking it into care.
One owner of a Hillman Minx, Glenn Brackenridge, told me that there is now a dedicated centre in Banbury which is devoted to scanning and storing all the microfiches found in the course of the cleaning up operations. This is no doubt a great comfort to the current owners of these post-vintage cars.
Most of the rally vehicles turned out to be Minxes. Mick Ranger showed me his pristine 1965 De Luxe Series Six with its 1725cc engine and four-speed gearbox. He’s owned the Minx for only two years but has long been involved in the classic car world, previously owning a 1968 Vauxhall Cresta.
He uses the Hillman frequently, mostly at weekends and for car meetings, and reports that it is happy cruising at 55 mph and can return up to 32 miles per gallon. Things have changed a lot in the past fifty years when even the most humble vehicle can push 90 mph and return much greater fuel efficiency.
The well-preserved 1939 Hillman 14 shown in the photographs below has been owned by Eric Strange since 1980. He bought it as part of a self challenge to own examples of both his first car and his first motorcycle.
The Hillman had been the family car but Eric drove it in his teens and decided that he must have a Fourteen
Now he is the owner of a virtual replica on which he can relive his earliest two-wheel experiences. Eric is clearly a man for a bit of adventure because, in December 1962, he drove a Morris 1000 van all the way from England to India. It seems that the whiff of petroleum spirit has played an important part in his life.
Interestingly, Eric has been a professional photographer for most of his working life. He ran a commercial photography practice in Cobham, Surrey, called Dawson Strange Photography and has retained a love of the craft in his retirement.
Six of the best
It isn’t only cars that catch the imagination of collectors. I found Nigel Prosser sitting in the cab of his 1934 Commer 8cwt van, a vehicle he has owned for the past five years. It is based on the 1932 Hillman Minx but only six vehicles were made. Nigel’s van, with its 10hp side-valve power unit, is the only known survivor and must be something of a celebrity in collecting circles. A month ago he drove it in the London to Brighton Historic Commercial Vehicle Run.
Unfortunately you won’t see Nigel’s Commer in this entertaining little video. But don’t you just love the steam lorries?
A couple of months ago, on another impromptu visit to Brooklands, I found the Bentley Drivers’ Club on full chat for their annual gathering — complete with Fortnum picnic hampers and period motoring fashions. But this is what you would expect. Everyone can identify with old Bentleys and it is sort of expected that they will be cherished and preserved, despite the enormous expense involved.
It is more surprising to find similar enthusiasm lavished on more run-of-the-mill vehicles such as Hillman. Yet you see the same brand of dedication. The preservation of these less exotic vehicles probably gives us a bigger insight into the social history of motoring than all the Bentleys, Porsches and Rolls Royces rolled into one. These were the cars one saw every day, parked in towns and out for the Sunday excursion.
Back to the future
For me, seeing these popular cars from 50-plus years ago brings back a bit of my youth. I look at them — the skinny steering wheels and gear sticks, the faux American styling cues, the bench seats, and the total lack of safety features that we now take for granted — and wonder how we once thought they were the bee’s knees. When I splashed out on the Imp I would have given my right arm for a Minx.
I asked Nigel Prosser if he was worried driving his Commer van without headrests, with no airbags, no indicators, but he wasn’t concerned. After all, the van cruises at only 30mph and other road users tend to steer clear, especially with the warnings posted on the back door.
Mick Ranger also wasn’t overly concerned about the lack of modern safety aids. The biggest problem, he said, is that the 1965 Minx is slow, cruising at 55 mph, and it can cause annoyance on modern roads. Overtaking can also present a challenge, it has to be said.
Unfortunately, overall road speeds in crowded areas such as south-east England are rapidly returning to the norms of 1965 or, even, to 1935. With 20mph limits about to be introduced on roads throughout Greater London, these classic vehicles could come into their own again. I suspect the next step by the campaigners will be to reduce the speed to 12 mph and, eventually, to insist that a person (it used to be a man) with a red flag walk in front of every car.
These old cars give us a flavour of what it was like to motor in more adventurous days when all of us felt we were much freer than we are today.