by Mark Smith
It was sad to stand and watch the hydraulic claws of the grab-arm on the scrapyard recovery truck as they pierced the windows of the Morris 1000 and lifted it unceremoniously onto the back of the truck. It had been my first car and had done its job of ferrying me around very well over the last 10 months or so after I had passed my Driving Test.
We had enjoyed some fun moments like the time I had taken part in a Pike fishing competition as the guest of some friends at an old gravel pit. The service track around the lake was rough to say the least and after the heavy rain of the previous week, it was impossible to see where the potholes in the surface were. As a consequence, when we eventually finished at the lake, I discovered that the Morris had no brakes! The linings of all four drum brakes were soaked through. The drive home was ‘interesting’ to say the least and it took a few days for the linings to dry out.
And then there was the time during that previous winter when we had a significant amount of snow that then froze solid and lasted for best part of a week. The Morris handled the conditions very well but it was hardly a powerful motor. However, on the second day of the winter conditions, my preferred parking place at work was taken and I was forced to park in one of the turnings around the corner.
I worked at a domestic appliance store in the old Pinner High Street at the time and was forced to park in Grange Gardens, a turning in front of the lovely Pinner church that is situated at the top end of the Elizabethan High Street. The problem though, was that the gutter areas were covered with frozen ruts. I couldn’t actually drive the car tight enough to the kerb to park it and had to get out and slide it in by pushing on the passenger side until it would go no further. Getting it out at home time was even more of a problem.
I had hoped the cars in front would have moved and I could then drive it out but sadly they were still there, blocking my way out. I tried to push it out but I was working against the camber so it wouldn’t shift. As I stood contemplating my next move and whether I would have to catch a bus home, a gentleman came around the corner and offered to help. Between us we pushed the car far enough out to allow me to drive it home.
Well, it had gone now and I was left with the prospect of finding another car. Eventually, I saw a Sunbeam Rapier MKIV in our local paper and decided to go and have a look at it.
The Sunbeam was a great looking car with a wooden dashboard full of dials and pillar-less front doors. The rear side windows could be wound down into the bodywork and with the front windows downs, it left the whole side open which was great on the odd hot summer day.
Of course I knew nothing of any of this at the time, I had been attracted by the £95 price tag! When I saw the car I thought ‘this is the one for me’ and bought it there and then despite the fact that it came with four slick tyres that were so bald the canvass was clearly visible in places! Four remould tyres sorted that problem and I was ready for the open road again.
A friend came to have a look at it and spotted a spot of rust on the top surface of the passenger side indicator / sidelight pod. The indicators and sidelights were mounted on the front of a pod fitted to the body just below the headlights. I think this spoilt the lines of the car. In my opinion the lights should have been fitted flush to the body and I can only imagine the designer had had one too many G & T’s one lunchtime and thought this was a good idea ta the time. Anyway, my friend was not content with pointing out this rust bubble and insisted on investigating further by thrusting a digit into the area. Now I had a hole! Out with the plastic padding and spay can of British Racing Green paint and I was ready for the road…again.
The car drove very well and didn’t use any oil despite the high mileage and the cabin was a lovely place to be. The wooden dashboard was in great condition and the dials all worked. The seats were very comfortable if a little worn and it was like driving around in a gentleman club on wheels.
Before I passed my Test, my father was the only one in the family that drove and had never owned a car that was anything like the Rapier so polished wood was a novelty for me. Two of my friends (twin brothers and old school friends who were into custom cars by this time) were quite impressed too and decided that this car would make a great cruising machine.
In the late 70’s, there was (might still be for all I know) a big cruising scene in London and the two of them along with one of their other friends, decided we should take the Sunbeam on a cruising trip the next weekend. My old and fuddled brain can’t recall the full details of this event but I think it was held on Chelsea bridge on a Saturday evening. Being summer the evenings were nice and light and this particular Saturday was warm too.
The other friend was a bit of a twerp, for want of a better and printable term. He had what had once been a rather nice Vauxhall Viva HC in a dark blue but had jacked up the rear end, flared the rear wheel arches and shoved on grotesquely wide chrome slot-meg wheels. He had spent a fortune on the add-on’s and totally upset the geometry of the vehicle to the point that is was plainly dangerous!
He had offered me a ride in this death-trap on a number of occasions, but I had graciously refused citing health reasons…I wanted to live! Anyway, this character went to the cruise in his car and my friends came with me in the Rapier. The evening passed without incident, despite the Police interest in the event. I parked the Rapier somewhere nearby and my friends and I watched the custom cars go by from the safely of the bridge wall. The pillock with the jacked-up Viva joined the cars as they slowly drove over the bridge. After he had finished looking a twit, we all drove home. So ended my brush with the custom car scene of the 1970’s.
The Mary Rose was eventually lifted from the silt of the Solent in 1982 and was lying under a tent-like structure in Portsmouth Dockyard near to HMS Victory. The Mary Rose Trust were having to keep the remains of the Henry VIII’s flag ship drenched with fresh water to wash out the hundreds of years of soaking in salt water and to stop it drying out and becoming a pile of dust.
It went on public display in October 1983. By then, the girlfriend of my Morris period had dropped by the wayside and another girl was lurking on the horizon. The problem was that she had a boyfriend but he was a radio operator in the Merchant Navy and was away a lot of the time. I got on well with them both and one day he suggested I look after Susan whilst he was away. I thought this a rather odd suggestion but decided I wanted to go and see the Mary Rose on the first Sunday it was on display, so asked Susan if she would like to go with me in the Sunbeam. She readily accepted.
The day turned out to be quite a nice early Autumn day. I picked Susan up and we headed for Portsmouth. This was the first time I had attempted a long journey driving a car of my own since I had passed my test and just hoped the car made it there and back. The car ran very well and despite a long wait, we did get in to see the Mary Rose (they were only letting a few in at a time every hour on the hour). However, I soon discovered why the boyfriend had suggested I ‘look after’ the girl….she didn’t stop talking ALL day! The Chase and Dave song ‘Rabbit’ was written for her!
Not only did she not stop talking, she was also a fanatical fan of Boy George. Now I have to admit I liked his first hit, but this girl seemed to know more about his life and family than he did himself! It was Boy George from Harrow to Portsmouth. It was Boy George in the queue to see the Mary Rose and it was Boy George all the ruddy way home! By the time I dropped her off, I had the mother of all headaches! I did the only thing I could…I left her to the boy friend. At least he could get a break and give his ears a rest at sea!
The Rapier was a good car and I enjoyed driving it. The only problem I had found was on the yearly family pre-Christmas visit to see two Great Aunts in Banbury, Oxfordshire. Usually my father had driven but on a couple of visits, I offered to drive us in the Sunbeam. The car went well as usual….until we came off the M40 /A40 (the motorway finished before Headington in those days) when something very strange began to happen, the gauges went mad.
As we drove around the ring road to pick up the road to Banbury, we passed some electricity supply cables running along wooden pylons. The gauges in the Rapier had a voltage regulator to smooth out the voltage supply but the magnetic field around the power cables was interfering with the delicate mechanisms of the gauges and the needles in all of them shot across to the far right. Once we had passed the power lines, the needles settled back to their normal positions. This happened every time I drove past those power lines but the first time it happened, it was very disconcerting.
The car gave good service for a number of years but eventually it started to play up. It would start fine but once I had driven around a mile and a half to two miles it would suddenly cut out and would not restart until it had cooled down again. This was very odd because the engine had not overheated. I changed many parts but could never cure the problem so that car had to go.
Looking back, it was sacrilege to scrap a car like this but money was short and all a car meant to me then was transport - a way to get to work but still, it was sad to stand and watch the hydraulic claws of the grab-arm on the scrapyard recovery truck as they pierced the windows of the Sunbeam Rapier and lifted it unceremoniously onto the back of the truck…..
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