“Events, dear boy, events”…Rt. Hon. Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton.
Isn’t it remarkable how a chance event in an idle moment can have a dramatic effect on the rest of one’s life? It was October 1962 and I was footloose and fancy free and some way from being required to earn a living. Transport was a couple of motorcycles and a Rolls-Royce 20/25 but the latter had just developed a cracked cylinder head. This was no big deal, I thought, as I had an ‘arrangement’ with a certain ‘Alf’ at my local funeral directors who ran a fleet of 20/25s and, providing one was not spooked by picking one’s way past the coffins most parts were available in exchange for a few notes. However, in the case of said cylinder head, Alf’s opening gambit was more akin to the price of a decent Austin Seven Special than a few notes. What to do? Motorbikes are all very well but they do require a certain amount of paraphernalia, notably in the sartorial department. T-shirt and jeans may be fine, if somewhat unsafe, for California but the climate of the English Midlands usually demanded sturdier apparel such as was made by Messrs Barbour or Belstaff. It had also not escaped my notice that girls of the calibre of which I was interested, while happy to be driven around in a Rolls-Royce while I worried about where the next gallon of petrol was coming from, rapidly found something else to do when two-wheeled transport was suggested.
A small sports car seemed the obvious answer, relatively economical too. Equally obvious was the choice of make and model…a TA/B/C-Type MG as used by all those dashing RAF types we saw in the films, no contest. After some protracted maternal haggling sufficient funds were secured, the 20/25 shoved in the garage and off I went to the newsagents to get the latest ‘Exchange & Mart’. Now, every week there were usually half a column of T-Type MGs for sale from the ‘suit enthusiast’ (basket case) to ‘perfect order (runner)…take your pick, caveat emptor, no guarantee, cash only. This week there were none! I couldn’t believe it, not one. I very nearly took leave of my senses and considered using my cash as a deposit on a 1926 Red Label 3-litre (£425) or even a Healey 100/4 (£250) but common sense prevailed. Then came that fateful moment; still staring unbelievingly at the page hoping I’d missed something I noticed out of the corner of my eye a telephone number. It was the adjacent Birmingham exchange to my own…just up the road…I looked more closely; ‘Morgan 4/4, Taxed, MoT, Excellent order. £125 o.n.o.’ “Not likely” I thought “a Morgan is the last thing I want to be seen in.” This jaundiced view of the marque was, it has to be said, based on somewhat arguable foundations; a) total ignorance b) that my father had owned a JAP 3-wheeler of which I had been scared witless as an infant and c) that a recent girl-friend’s brother owned one and he was the most obnoxious oaf I had ever met. No thanks!
On the other hand…I had 75 quid burning a hole in my pocket…no harm in having a look…need only keep it until I find a decent MG. I stared at the telephone…and made the call.
An ‘appointment to view’ was duly made as in “See you there in half an hour” and so it was I met ‘NPA 46’ a flat radiator 1949 Morgan 4/4 and its vendor Ashok for the first time. Ashok was a charming Indian gentleman and I mean ‘gentleman’ of the Nabob and Maharajah variety! His father was a general in the Indian Army and Governor of Hyderabad while Ashok had just come down from Trinity and was working at GKN as a graduate trainee. However, charming or not, I didn’t agree with his valuation of the Morgan. From the front the car looked very sporting but the rear end seemed a bit odd being a sort of 2+2 with a vestigial rear seat. Not only that but the doors and rear coachwork could best be described as ‘geometric’ i.e. totally flat with sharp corners! Lifting the bonnet revealed an engine with “Morgan” emblazoned on the rocker cover.
“Not sure” came the reply, “Standard I think”
“It says 1267 in the log book”
“It’s not worth £125; I’ll give you 70 quid for it”
– “OK, £85 it’s a deal”. The handshake…“I’ll bring it round tomorrow night”. I was a Morgan owner!
With minimal insurance arranged I awaited the arrival of my new transport with mounting excitement and car and owner duly arrived with the owner’s girlfriend in her Mini Traveller chase car. Now it was time for my first drive in a Morgan.
“Er, I’ll take you for a demo run first” says Ashok, “just to show you the ropes, as it were, and point out a few foibles.”
Foibles? There had been no mention of foibles, but still, no matter, off I went for my first ride in a Morgan before taking that seminal step of driving the thing.
“The gear shift pattern is opposite to normal, Meadows ‘box, might take a bit of getting used to.”
Actually it didn’t…what did take a bit of getting used to was the fact that the ‘box jumped out of third or rather wouldn’t stay in that gear at all unless one held the lever very firmly in place.
“Probably just needs the detente spring adjusting” was Ashok’s observation.
“Yes, very likely” was my fatuous response, neglecting to ask, if it was so simple an adjustment, why hadn’t he fixed it? Still, minor problem no doubt!
Now it’s been said before, I know, but one’s first drive in a Morgan really is akin to your first drag on a cigarette or puff on an opium pipe, not that I have experience of the latter I hasten to add! Two diametrically opposite scenarios are possible; either you detest the experience, rapidly curtail the activity and vow never to repeat it or…after initial bewilderment …common sense and reasoned logic fly out of the window. You begin to fall under the spell of this rustic from the Malvern Hills. The crag-hopping antiquated suspension system is ignored; the homespun build quality is deemed meritorious when it would be the subject of adverse comment bordering on derision in any other marque. It’s a car built by artisans not craftsmen and you half expect to find the remnants of a trimmer’s sandwich behind a panel yet those who build them put a bit of their heart and soul into each car. No two are exactly alike nor have ever been. Even today I can recall that first drive as though it was yesterday. It was a lovely autumn evening with a mist beginning to rise; the exhaust crackled and the Stromberg hissed but it was the scents and smells I remember most. The hot oil smell coming back through the louvres in the bonnet, the hot mud on the exhaust but most of all the autumn scents of fallen leaves, wood smoke from the chimneys and the sense of being at one with the car and its environment. A heady cocktail and I was hooked…this was to turn out to be a fanatical adherence to the Morgan marque and a lifetime addiction.
‘NPA 46’ and I travelled over 20,000 miles together in the next 3 years and many are the stories to be told of her (or ‘Françoise’ as she was universally known having the name of my favourite songstress, Mlle Hardy, painted on the bonnet) but that’s for another time maybe. She never let me down except for two simultaneous punctures in Banbury at 2 in the morning, hardly her fault. My last drive in her was from Birmingham to Christchurch in Dorset on a very crisp afternoon in February 1965 when she was part exchanged for a Plus 4, the well-known ‘SLB 930’. While I was naturally excited at getting the power of a TR engine in front of me I was very sorry to see ‘NPA’ go because, you see, apart from serving me well she was directly responsible for my meeting my future wife and my association with the marque Delage…as we shall now see. Subsequently Ashok and I lost contact for many years (49!) but that has now happily been rectified and here we are re-united 50 years later. Great joy!
Then in the racing drivers’ bar at the ‘Dirty Duck’ I got wind of another lead. This didn’t come from the usual wafflers but from a friend whose daily transport was a 1928 low-chassis Lagonda and, in addition to having the appearance of a vintagent straight out of a Brockbank cartoon, certainly knew his vintage cars. Apparently an ‘old sports car’ had been discovered in buildings being demolished during yet another re-development of Birmingham’s city centre. Needless to say Ashok and I were in hot pursuit the following day but more disappointment; a car had been unearthed, in fact an Alvis 12/50 no less, but this had been claimed by the former owner of the property. Damn…off to drown our sorrows I introduced Ash to ‘The Cabin’ in Union Passage. That watering hole is worth a blog post of its own so here’s a contemporaneous pic…taken in 1964:
“I’ve got a vintage car”
“Oh really?” says I “What sort?”
“A Delage, it’s French”
“Really?! What model?” This was something of a rhetorical question as, apart from sketchy knowledge of their racing exploits, I knew absolutely nothing about the marque.
“D8” replies Vicuna Coat, “4 litre straight 8, Chapron drophead…lovely car, or was”
“Yes, I’ve not used it for over ten years; it’s stored at my yard…needs a bit of work”
“Would you sell it?”
Three double Glenmorangies later and the sale was agreed, price TBA and an appointment made over a handshake. It would have to be said that I was very sceptical. I’d met a few con artists and was somewhat more streetwise than Ashok whose upbringing been more palaces/public school/Oxbridge but I had to admit that this could be the Holy Grail that we’d been searching for. However, I still harboured the vision of Vicuna Coat casually mentioning a Georgian tea-pot or Gainsborough that he happened to have in the loft after eavesdropping other conversations that might yield a single malt or two. Still, nothing ventured nothing gained so plans were made to view and, hopefully, collect the Delage on the following Saturday…this was our first mistake as we will see! We decided to have a 100 quid in notes about our person with a view to using as little of it as possible which itself was not easy in those far-off pre ATM days. Then there was the tow-car; Ashok’s A90 Atlantic was deemed unsuitable due to its hopeless reliability and the Morgan was out of the question but Ash had a colleague with a 1938 SS Jag 1 ½ saloon so this was pressed into service. The rest of our ‘equipment’ consisted of a tow-rope, a piece of cardboard painted with ‘On Tow’ and the Jag’s registration number plus a bag of rudimentary tools including a tyre pump. Viewed from 55 years later ‘wildly optimistic’ doesn’t even come close but that’s how things were in those far off happy days.
Vicuna Coat had given us an address in Aston and my being a dyed-in-the-wool Aston Villa fan I knew vaguely where it was…not the most salubrious part of the great city that’s for sure. When we arrived there seemed to be an inordinate number of people about, all in jovial mood with much singing and chanting and being gently shepherded along by mounted policemen…it was the day of the FA Cup semi-final at the nearby Villa Park! The SS was parked up in a side street with its owner refusing to leave it unattended while Ash and I sought out Vicuna Coat. To say that he was living in reduced circumstances would be an understatement. It was all very sad as he had once obviously been a man of substance and a connoisseur of fine motor cars. I think we knew he was genuine and we were going to find something worthwhile up in the yard and it seemed rather unseemly to haggle, in spite of the fact that we had not even got any proof of the car’s existence, let alone condition. We put the £100 on the table knowing full well it was going to swell the profits of some Scottish distillery and the buff log book was produced along with the keys…we shook hands.
“I’ve found a picture of the old girl in better times”
He produced a photograph almost identical to the one below:
Ash and I could hardly get back to the SS fast enough whereupon we consulted our battered A-Z. The yard appeared to be somewhere north of Erdington, terra incognita as far as we were concerned, but we set off negotiating the milling throng and duly arrived at the address given. This turned out to be a field containing a load of those ancient goods trucks that could be hoisted off the train and onto a lorry similar to this:
“You’ve been had” was Jag’s helpful comment.
“No, it must be in one of those trucks” said I hopefully, “let’s start looking”.
So we did; God knows how long the trucks had been there, the pins in the door bars were all virtually rusted solid and had to be hammered out and the drop-down doors seemed to weigh a ton. Some of the trucks were piled on top of one another and seemed extremely precarious but on we bashed. After the fifth empty truck spirits began to fall, maybe Jag was right or, perish the thought, someone else had got there first.
The sixth truck…bash, bash, lower the door and…
“This one’s full of wood shavings”.
I made a desultory poke with a stick at the shavings and, metaphorically blinking in the daylight, a huge Marchal headlamp appeared!! Now I don’t actually know how Howard Carter felt when he first cracked open Tutankhamun’s tomb but I have a very good idea! I can’t remember if we danced a jig or screamed deliriously but I expect we did. Hastily we pulled out the wood shavings and there in all its glory was the magnificent Delage radiator with its emblematic blue and gold logo. The car was covered in these shavings and cardboard boxes and one match would have sent the whole lot to kingdom come. Feverishly we removed all the ‘packing material ‘to reveal a beautiful drop head coupé just as we’d seen in the faded photograph. The soft top was a typical coupé set up and much more substantial than the ‘hood’ shown in the picture above…and it was up. The car was almost as wide as the container truck and we wondered how the owner had got out when he’d parked it. Ah, there was another drop down door adjacent to the driver’s door. More pin-bashing, heaving and straining with expletives (deleted) and we managed to get it open. The driver’s door opened as if it had been closed only half an hour ago and I slipped behind the huge steering wheel and had a good look around as far as was possible in the gathering gloom. Obviously rodents had been in and the rear seat particularly was pretty far gone with springs sticking up everywhere but the rest of the interior looked in amazingly good order, even if covered in dust. I tried the brake pedal and was relieved to note it was not seized albeit with a long travel while Ashok reported that there was still some air in all of the tyres.
“We’d better get it out, it’s getting dark”
Now we were going to find out if the brakes worked or if indeed the car was even movable. The SS, (now looking a lot smaller than previously!) was backed up, the tow-rope attached and I got behind the wheel. I half expected the brakes to be seized resulting in either the rope breaking or the back end of the Jag being wrenched off but no, the Delage rolled sweetly forward and I tried the brakes gently…they worked; they required a mighty effort but they worked…first recovery hurdle overcome. Slowly we eased it out; it was now almost dark and the only light we had was a bicycle flashlight but what a glorious sight. We’d discovered the barn find of our dreams!
Jag produced a tyre pressure gauge from his car’s toolkit and we set to pumping furiously.
“We can’t tow it with no lights” opined the ever-helpful Jag
“We’ve got the flashlight, the battery might last” says I
“It’s not red, it has to be red” Captain Obvious Jag again
Whereupon I spotted two teenage girls who had been watching our antics and I rushed over,
“Has either of you young ladies got a lipstick by any chance?”
“Yes we both have”
Now it says a lot for those happy and so much safer times that two young girls would happily walk into a gloomy field with three scruffy weirdos and hand over their make-up, but they did and, smearing the lipstick over the flashlight lens, we had a tail light. I gave them 10 bob to buy more lipstick of a superior brand to the Woolworth’s stuff they had.
The trip was, to put it very mildly, interesting. The tow rope broke at least three times rendering it shorter each time, we had hoots and insults from vehicles backing up behind us, the SS huffed and puffed and had to be given a rest to cool down but…we made it. With the Delage safely tucked up we had time to make it to the ‘Dirty Duck’ and take centre-stage recounting our exploits to an incredulous audience!
Now I expect indomitable readers who have stuck it out thus far will expect the finale to be Ashok and me enjoying the fruits of our labours bowling along in one of the finest cars ever built. Sadly this was not to be the case and black clouds lay ahead; that will be the subject of a future post…cue dramatic end of episode music!
©Colin Musgrove 2019