Wednesday 9 January 2013

Vintage Woodie

The end of last year brought a new incumbent to the garage. It is a 1928 Alvis (a 12/50 to use the nomenclature) and it's rather lovely station wagon body was added in Shropshire in 1938 by the first owner, a local doctor. By the time he sold the car around 1970, the venerable conveyance was said to have covered over 300,000 miles! The new owner then thoroughly rebuilt the car although the woodwork was mostly (and surprisingly) sound. I became the third owner from new when I relieved him of the Alvis at the tail end of last year. Thanks to his considerable mechanical skills, the car is in fine fettle.

Travelling in a vehicle of this age is reminiscent of being in a pre-war railway carriage - all leather,  wood, and sliding up and down windows, ebony handles and nice levers to pull and push. There are traps for the unwary - the gearchange lever is to your right with what looks like another one next to it. This is a device for manually dipping the headlamps and by pulling or pushing, they tilt up or down. Another vertical lever actuates the handbrake. The resulting group is akin to a railway signal box. The accelerator pedal, not wishing to be left out of the fun is positioned in the middle between the clutch and the foot brake. Although I have driven many cars of this era and am reasonably proficient in the black art of double-declutching, my trial drive with the previous owner was hopeless. I simply failed in every attempt to progress from 2nd to 3rd gear in the aptly named 'crash' gearbox, my halting progress being accompanied by hideous graunching noises. After an hour of this misery in the country lanes around the Midlands countryside we gave it best and returned to the vendor's home - he now driving effortlessly and changing gear silently the while. Confessing to my wife my inability to perform the most basic function on this car she dismissed it with a cheery wave and said that she was sure everything would be alright, having utmost confidence in my driving skills! We bade our farewells to the trembling vendor and his wife exhorting them to process to the rear of their home, less to be able hear the ghastly progress of their much-loved vehicle. As it happened...nothing happened...or at least I magically changed gear almost silently and we were on our merry way back to Sussex via Essex. Put it down to nerves and stress. The previous owner had the vehicle for over forty years and knew every inch of it and I think it was preying on my mind. 

Now we've had a chance to get to know one another better, the Alvis and I, the relationship has settled down a bit. Gear changing is still no bed of roses and if I miss that all-important shift from 2nd to 3rd there's nothing for it but to stop, no matter where, and start all over again...embarrassing to say the least. We've had some magical moments though, like the first time we took three of the grandchildren out on a jaunt, they were absolutely convulsed with laughter at my attempts to change gear and at the attendant comic mechanical noises. Or the picnic on the village green at Staplefield where, with the tailgate let down and the gas stove on and kettle whistling, tea and bacon sandwiches were dispensed  to grateful chums. The battered aluminium kettle was perfectly in keeping, but had we been using a nice burnished Primus stove instead of Camping Gaz, the scene could have been pre-war.

Now we're looking for signs of Spring.

Tuesday 31 July 2012

From Greenwich with love.

New Anzac, or Peacehaven as it's now known has the singular (and I use the word deliberately) distinction of having the Prime Meridian pass through it. On its long journey around the world this imaginary but important line passes through Peacehaven and on through France and Africa until it eventually comes knocking at the back door of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich again. 

Charles Neville, the 'founder' of Peacehaven saw, as he did in most things, a PR opportunity of being able to walk from one hemisphere to the other in his 'Garden City by the Sea', and duly erected a wooden structure looking much like an oil drilling well-head. This was replaced by the slightly more tasteful monument shown here. Neville himself unveiled this and due to cliff erosion it has been moved twice since then. Quite what the health-giving or social benefits are to be gained from cross-hemispherical perambulations has yet to be discovered by medical science, but, as was so often the case, Neville was ahead of his time. All I know is that it's possible to play darts between the East and West in a certain establishment there. Who knows, maybe there is, right in the microscopic centre, a piece of international no-mans-land where all the world's disputes could be settled. Or not.

Thursday 5 July 2012


It's 1959 and we were the proud owners of an oval window Volkswagen Beetle. A sort of metallic grey colour (although the term hadn't fallen into common usage at the time), it was a delightful little car. My dad's standing there in the prime of life and obviously delighted with this German motoring masterpiece. An aircraft engineer by profession and a car and motorcycle nut by choice, he'd had dozens of vehicles, most of which he'd fixed up himself, but this was the first he'd bought from a recognised motor dealer. Not new, it was but a very few years old and in great condition. Its maximum speed, around 70mph, was also the cruising speed and its flat four air-cooled engine made a delicious sound from the back. A particular curiosity was the (and a first for us) windscreen washers being powered by compressed air drawn from the valve in the spare wheel located under the bonnet. Too many rainy days and it was advisable not to have a puncture. The poor car was grossly overloaded in this photograph carrying the remnants of the contents of my grandma's home - we were about to set off on a sixty mile trip, and as far as I can remember nothing fell off.

The Beetle was a source of fascination to him, and as he had to know how everything worked, he pulled the engine out one day on some pretext or another - satisfied, he put it all back together on the next. Eventually of course he tired of this faithful servant and bought a nice, but thoroughly corroded Borgward Isabella ts - another German car but nowhere near to being in the same league as far as build quality was concerned, yet satisfying his latent sporting motorist pretensions. By then his predilection for falling asleep at the wheel (he was a flight engineer and obviously suffered from what we now know as 'jet lag' but was then 'propellor lag') on his long drive home from trips abroad, saw the Borgward vanish down and along a construction trench in the road, never to exit. He wasn't injured and neither were the surprised pipe-layers who gentlemanly helped him from the steaming wreck after he'd almost killed them.

Oval window Beetles, like their earlier cousins the split window models, are much sought after these days and command huge money. I can't remember what we paid for ours but it wasn't more than a few hundred pounds, although that seemed like a small fortune at the time. I learned (illegally) to drive in it aged ten, and having been seen doing so was  reported to the police - fortunately having recently broken my arm, the old man managed to talk the sergeant who'd come to see us, out of the threat of prosecution, pointing to my left arm in plaster.

Here's to the VW Beetle, designed under Hitler but turned, thank goodness, to more peaceful use by the British occupying forces who took over the Volkswagen factory. They got the production lines going again after the war, thus paving the way for VW to become one of the world's most successful car companies. Ironic, eh?

Tuesday 26 June 2012

A Temple to Science

Housed in the old priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris, the Musée des Arts et Métiers contains a wonderful collection what can only be described as 'stuff'. Scientific instruments rub shoulders with Nicolas Cugnot's steam propelled 3 wheel gun carriage - believed to be the first road going locomotive. Ancient aircraft are hung as if they were Airfix models in a young boys bedroom, from the vaulted and domed ceilings, whilst murals adorn the walls. Primitive motorcycles and early motor cars abound, there's even Focault's Pendulum. It's the Science Museum but without quite the emphasis on entertainment. The building naturally has a sepulchral quality completely in keeping with its exhibits which have an 'oily rag' quality and are reassuringly unrestored. Objects here are viewed with reverence and one feels should never (in the ghastly preference of modern historians be spoken of in the present tense - why do they do that? - example..."Napoleon is virtually within the gates of Moscow"...can't stand it, I suppose they think it makes all sound hip and relevant...which it is without resorting to time-shifting). For a museum that has been open since the 18th century it has moved with the times but not so much that that its style triumphs over substance - a good balance I feel. It's well worth taking in if you're 'en Paris' for a couple of days.

Thursday 31 May 2012

Tom Sayers

Funny the things you find tucked away, probably in most towns. I found this though in the 'City' of Brighton and Hove a couple of weeks ago. This memorial to the great Tom Sayers, prizefighter extraordinary, is just screwed to the wall of a shop near the North Laines area. A relatively small man, Sayers was born into poverty in Brighton around 1826 and moved between London and Brighton in his trade as bricklayer. Becoming a professional fighter in 1849 he won the bout against Abe Couch. He maintained winning form for a while but failed as a pub landlord. This prompted the need to earn more money, but fights within his own class were becoming difficult to arrange due to his dangerous reputation. He fought out of his weight against heavyweights Paulson and Bill Perry - The Tipton Slasher! and won on both occasions. This was the precursor to The Big Fight, celebrated in ballad, against the challenger, the American, Heenan, known as The Benecia Boy.

Although the fight game was by now illegal nothing could prevent this huge contest at Farnborough, Hants on 17th April 1860. Sayers was nearly three stones lighter, five inches shorter, and eight years older than Heenan. Early on in the bout Sayers' arm was disabled but he managed to close Heenan's eye...they fought like tigers for forty rounds taking over two hours, only ceasing combat when the police moved in and closed the contest. It was declared a draw. Ulitmately both men were awarded the championship belt.

Sayers retired and a public subscription raised over £3000 for him. He made some unwise choices of female companions and a daliance with the circus failed too. After a fairly dissolute period of heavy drinking he died in 1865 and his funeral was attended by 100,000 people. Buried in Highgate Cemetery his memorial is a sculpture of his dog 'Lion'.

A true son of Sussex and bold as you like. 

Thursday 9 February 2012

Francois Chevalier

Whilst visiting the Rétromobile exhibition of Vintage and classic cars in Paris last week I had the enormous pleasure of meeting the extraordinary Francois Chevalier. This beguiling gentleman is a self taught artist, caricaturist and sculptor of great talent. Having run the famous Paul Ricard motor racing circuit for many years he has turned a hobby of making drawings into his main profession. He always has a small booth tucked out of the way at the show but those in the know make a beeline for it. Here you will be entertained, for he is almost as good a raconteur as he is an artist and there is always a drawing of his that is affordable and appropriate. If you're lucky there's a glass of wine on offer too. His loose style of drawing belies an innate understanding of exactly how things work, and therein lies his great skill. Sometimes he jokes with us through his monstrous inventions and adaptations of famous and historic cars....his six-wheel Bugatti Royale transporter being a great example. At other times his drawing is reportage and you are convinced that HE WAS THERE, when the event in question was aeons ago,

He doesn't confine himself to cars either. The drawing here is of a Vincent motorcycle having its clutch attended to - an event not unknown in my experience. And just look how he captures the wiseacres standing around 'assisting' the mechanic in blue with ever more helpful suggestions. The sculpture is in bronze and of Lockhart's Stutz Black Hawk in which he was killed aged but 26 years. The book jacket is of his superb 'Le Petit Bugattiste Illustre' a volume of 'cartoons' and captions.

He's a lovely chap and a fine and often humorous draughtsman. Do seek him out.

Monday 9 January 2012


A recent stroll along the cliff top at Saltdean brought a view of this 1920's futuristic house. It's a real survivor although it's singular pedestrian entrance way is no longer used. The door circled on the photograph leads to a flight of steps which passes up through the cliff to the garden in front of the building. This is ably demonstrated by watching the wonderful Pathé News clip from 1928. My late dad-in-law went to school with the son of the builder of this house and confirmed the several fascinating features. It sits above the main South Coast Road, the A259 in an area euphemistically named 'Rottingdean Heights' by hopeful estate agents.