by Lance Hill
A Momentary Lapse of Reason….?
I was not much past turning 15 and it was the Christmas school holidays again. My mate Noel and I had been eagerly awaiting this time of year, because I was finally allowed to sit my driver’s license – a rite of passage every Kiwi bloke wants as early as he can get it. I sat the written and oral part of the deal soon after finishing my end of year school exams and was disappointed when I was told the earliest I could sit my practical test was in late January – shortly before starting school again. I was doing better than Noel though – his written and oral was booked for mid-January.
I had bought my first car in September in anticipation of getting everything done and dusted by the time my family went for our annual holiday to the Coromandel peninsula just after Christmas. It was a grey 1954 Austin A30 – one owner, genuine 70,000 miles. It was a deluxe model too – it had factory options of a heater, ash trays and chrome semaphore indicators (or ‘trafficators’ as they were known). I loved the thing, despite the fact that it had a top speed of sixty-five miles per hour and had been hand-painted in house paint with what looked like either a much clogged brush or a wringer mop and bucket. It also had the tendency to blow a cloud of smoke if it idled for longer than ten seconds. In the three and a half thousand miles I did in it, I reckon I spent as much on oil as I did on petrol.
Noel wasn’t sure what he was going to get when he eventually bought a car. We soon found out though – Noel’s brother David said he could have a Mini that he’d bought if Noel wanted it. Was Noel keen? Too right he was!
There were two conditions though – we had to be able to get it running. Where is it we asked? That was the second condition - under a tree, in a paddock, on a farm in Tapora. About a hundred miles from home – and we had to get it out of there and back to the farmhouse to be hooked up to the car for towing, so it had to be driveable.
No worries we said! How do we get there? David was share-milking on the farm, so he’d take us up there to stay with him and his girlfriend for a few days and then we could take the bus back to Auckland from Wellsford. When are we going? Well.......now.
I got permission sorted, packed a bag, grabbed my toolbox, jack and axle stands and got in the back of David’s mark 3 Cortina GT behind Judy. On the way up the country we got to hear a lot of music at the volume that us teenagers love to hear it at and the song Reckless by Australian Crawl was repeated so often that I learned all the words despite the fact I’d never heard it before. Still, it remains one of my favourites today. (link to the video here - Ed https://youtu.be/JIrUqsB-0vw )
We arrived in Tapora around 9pm. David showed us where to dump our gear and where the battery for the Mini was getting charged. The battery was an old Champion that had seen many years of work and not held a charge for many more. It was also not helped by the fact it had a dirty great hole in one end and the cell next to it would not hold acid, leaving only five cells to create the required ergs. Not promising....
The next morning was overcast and drizzly, but we were determined to find the mini and get on with our project. So, armed with my tools, the ‘recharged’ battery and an early life of helping my old man service and rebuild a heap of engines for the family cars and those of his mates, we set out for the paddock down the race, over the road and behind a dirty great barn.
The grass in that paddock told us that there had not been stock in the paddock for a number of months and also gave us a hint that shifting the Mini may require a physical effort we weren’t expecting. We weren’t wrong, but hey – nothing’s impossible when you’re fifteen!
My first view of the Mini was not a flattering one. It sat on half-flat, balding, cross-ply tyres amid a sea of pine needles that covered the ground up to its dented hubcaps. At the front, the debris reached and covered the bumper and lower grille almost to the indicator lenses and at the rear there was a large stump that the mini was resting against, so the rear too was dressed in an orange layer of decaying matter.
The bits of the actual car we could see were dull pinkish beige or black. As we got closer, the car looked more pink than beige in the dull grey light and the black bits turned out to be rust holes the size and shape of an A4-sized rendition of a map of Australia.
We couldn’t get to the driver’s side, so we tried the passengers door – locked. We managed to push a sliding window to one side and unlock it and tried the handle again – it opened with some reluctance, then dropped an inch or so on its worn hinges when it cleared the sill. Inside the Mini it was still relatively dry – thankfully – and everything appeared to be present and correct except for the ignition switch.
A dangle of wires hung down from behind the dash where it once had been. At the front of the car, I flipped the bonnet catch and coaxed the lid to rise. Yes, there was a rather oily 850cc engine residing there and everything again looked complete. Ok, now what? Since it was raining again, we retired to the barn to consider what we’d found and a plan of action. Noel was rather stunned by the Mini’s condition and his mood was not helped by my mirth.
My sense of humour wouldn’t let rest what we’d let ourselves in for and how different the reality was from the idealistic one he’d described. There was a huge pit in that paddock and I was all for pushing the Mini into it and covering it up. I made the observation that it looked as though that hole could have been where the Mini had been disinterred from anyway and had to dodge a perturbed Noel’s fist. It didn’t stop me laughing even harder as his fist connected with the corrugated iron of the shed wall.
“Calm down, mate. Could be worse.” I said
“That piece of sh*t could be mine...”
If anyone had opened the barn doors after that one, they would have wondered if there was such a thing as an Olympic event called “The indoor two hundred metre dash while laughing or screaming obscenities”.... “Come on, man! Lighten up!” “I’ll lighten you up – I’ll take your bl**dy head clean off if you keep on giving me sh*t about my car!” “I didn’t give you sh*t! DAVID was the one that gave you sh*t!!!” ....and around we went again.
Eventually he ran out of steam - which was good because laughing and running is twice as hard – and we sat on a hay bale and looked at the Mini through the drizzle.
“Woddya reckon we start on, mate?”
“It’s your car”
“Well, we gotta get it outta the rain.”
“Y’got that right, mate. I aint getting’ soaked as well as covered in crap. What say we have a cuppa and wait for the rain to p*ss off and then drag it in here to work on?”
“Yeah, s’pose here’s better than tryin’ t’ push it out th’ paddock an’ up the race t’ Dave’s, eh”
“Yup. Y’got that right too”
I unpacked my toolbox on the lone bench so it was easier to get to the tools we wanted. Noel unpacked his circuit tester, several rolls of insulation tape, a crimping tool and connectors and some CRC-556 (or Magic Water as it became known on that trip). The rain eased, so we grabbed a couple of spades we’d found and went out to shift some of the build-up of tree matter.
It was then that we discovered that when it’s been raining a while, it may have stopped out in the open, but it will still be going under the trees! Ah well...
After clearing between the wheels on the passenger’s side and in front of the car itself, we popped the handbrake and just tried pushing from the rear. The Mini wouldn’t move an inch. I started worrying that maybe the brakes had seized after years of sitting, but Noel wouldn’t hear of it. He lay down on the sodden ground and looked under the car – and spotted a dirty great chunk of pine in front of the right rear wheel that must have been put there when it was parked, although the only way to reach it now and get it out of there was by jacking the car up.
So, I went and got the jack, put a lump of board on the ground under the Mini and began jacking it up on the rear subframe. Noel sat grimacing at every squeak, creak and pop as the Mini went upward on the end of my hydraulic jack.
The squeaking was actually the sound of the rear bumper sliding up the stump it had been resting against and once it had cleared that, the Mini lurched backward and sat on the stump. Noel, who had been watching the ground clearance like a hawk, dived underneath the Mini at the same time to grab the pine log.
His grin of success was replaced with one of frustration when he saw what I was pointing at and his temper returned. He pushed the Mini forward with one heave – knocking it clear off the jack and taking the bumper off the Mini as the rear end came off the stump. I lowered the jack and moved it back into the barn while Noel brought forward such a hail of verbiage and adjectives that I was surprised the trees were still standing. However, the Mini was obviously now free and apparently able to roll.
Returning to the car, I helped him manoeuvre it out from it’s place of rest and backward into the barn. Here, we tested the brakes and the hand brake and made sure the accelerator cable was connected and working properly. I went to the rear of the car and opened the boot to put the battery in. It was then I saw that my jack had not held the mini up because most of the boot floor was missing – it was rusted through about three quarters of the distance around. To drop the battery into its holder would have resulted in the battery being on the barn floor.
Noel meanwhile was pumping up tyres, checking fluids and adjusting brake pads. I opened the driver’s door, pulled the back seat out and tossed it on the ground and tried to find a place I could get the main battery lead through to a place that actually still had metal. There was a minor rust hole in the bottom of the seat well, so I belted it with a hammer until I could drag the cable up through that. Then I got the earth strap off the remains of the boot floor and held it to the metal of the rear seat pocket with a pair of vice grips. Now we were finally ready for the battery....BUT was the car positive or negative earth?
“I reckon it’s positive earth, mate. Most cars pre-67 were positive earth – especially British cars”
“Nah – I want it negative earth so I can run a stereo in it. Wire it up that way round”
“I dunno if it will work, mate. Never done that. Might blow something we don’t want to blow.”
“Dont care. I want it negative earth, so it’ll be negative earth now or whenever I get it going. Wire it up and we’ll see what happens to it”
Stay tuned for Part II – Signs of Life
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