by Brian Allison
So it’s April 1958 and I’ve decided I’m going to be a motor mechanic, much against my father’s wishes who wanted me - me who is so artistic that I cannot draw a straight line without a ruler - to be a textile designer.
As I told earlier, during my research prior to applying for an apprenticeship, I’d been seduced by a diagram and description of the unusual overhead inlet/ side exhaust engine made by Rover.
My plan to get an apprenticeship was well plotted in my mind. I would write a letter to all the major garages in the town, attend every interview offered, then choose from what I was sure would be multiple offers of a job.
Ah! the foolishness of youth. This plan was scuppered before it even swung into action. And all because of a bit of printed paper. I couldn’t get that blasted engine out of my mind. I didn’t write to anyone except the Rover and Austin dealer, W.H.Atkinson & co.
I spent the next few days worrying what I would do if my developing fetish went unsatisfied, until I received a letter inviting me to go for an interview. Then I started worrying about the interview. What to wear, should I get a haircut,were my shoes shiny enough. And most of all I worried about being rejected, and having to seek a place with somewhere like the Ford or Vauxhall agents.
Came the day and I was as nervous as I had been when waiting outside the headmaster’s office wondering which misdemeanour, out of plenty to choose from, had been discovered, and what the punishment would be. In the event I was worrying needlessly. First I met the workshop manager, a rather pompous, ex officer type, who’s name I’ll not give to save his family possible embarrassment.
He obviously thought it was beneath him to waste his precious time talking to a scruffy little Herbert like me and swiftly passed me on to the workshop foreman, Norman Mellor.
Norman seemed a decent enough bloke and proceeded to show me around the shop while asking me various questions, chief of which appeared to be “ What makes you want to be a mechanic ?” I wasn’t falling for that trap ! Tell him I first wanted to be an electrician and I might as well walk out now. So I did what any well brought up young chap would do, I lied through my teeth.
“ Well I’ve always been fascinated by cars, wanted to be a mechanic for as long as I can remember, etc.” This was obviously just what he wanted to hear, and set my strategy for all future job interviews. Tell them what they want to hear, not what they want to know.
Anyway, I digress. Norman seemed more than happy with my flannel and pointed out where everything was, the lubrication bay with the only ramp in the shop, the long pit at the top with it’s wall of windows and benches under them, and an area I was to become very familiar with, the tyre and wash bay. He then introduced me to one of the mechanics, Dennis Roberts, a really friendly type of chap. I did not know it at the time but this was someone who was going to be a friend, teacher, father figure, and protector all in one. He left me talking to Dennis while he went off, presumably to talk to the manager, because when he returned it was to ask, “ Do you want to work here then ?.” Did I !! And apart from when I was talking to Dennis I’d never even mentioned that engine.
The following Monday at 8.00 am. I presented myself, complete with a brand new boiler suit, for the first day of my working life. I was greeted by Norman, shown how to clock in, and introduced to the store’s staff. Arthur Ramsden , manager. Colin Firth, assistant and another assistant who’s last name I can’t for the life of me remember but was known to everyone as old Fred. Then back into the workshop where I was delighted to be informed that I was to be Dennis’s apprentice and promptly handed over to him.
We didn’t immediately go to work but stood at his bench while he laid down a few ground rules:
After our pep talk we went over to the car that he was presently working on, which I was informed was an A125 or more commonly known as a Sheerline. This was a great beast of a thing to my eyes. Bear in mind the only car I’d really seen under the bonnet of was my brother’s Austin 7.
Dennis told me that he had already removed the cylinder head to de-coke it, and then went on to explain how the burning petrol produced carbon deposits that build up and caused loss of power and damage to the valves. I listened carefully with what I’m sure must have been a look of amazement. The pistons in this engine were bloody massive compared with the Austin 7.
Dennis said he was going to finish grinding the valves in, explained what he meant by that then told me to pick up the rocker box , which was full of parts I couldn’t start to identify, and follow him. This was my introduction to parts washing. A large bath of Paraffin with a mesh tray at one end containing a stiff bristled brush. I dutifully cleaned all the parts from the rocker box, put them on the mesh to drain, and feeling pleased with myself, went off to tell Dennis the good news, his parts were all cleaned.
He came over to have a look and told me of another rule. When he said he wanted something cleaned, he meant cleaned, not rinsed. “Do them again, properly this time.”, which I did, by which time my hands were almost numb from the cold paraffin. During my cleaning duties, about 10 o’clock another apprentice called Mick came round with a tray of mugs of tea and told me he would show me where to make it etc. so that I , as the youngest apprentice could do it in future.
Dennis explained that we were not supposed to stop for a tea break but were to drink it while working. Then he sat on his bench, opened his lunchbox, offered me a sandwich and chatted whilst we drank our tea. Some rules it appeared were better ignored.
The rest of the day was spent rebuilding the Sheerline engine and giving it a general check over which raised more questions from this eager pupil. What were points? How did he know when he’d adjusted the carb. correctly? What did this thing here do?
By 5 o’clock I think he was ready to give his ears a rest. I for my part felt more than ready for getting home, eating and going to bed. My mother was right in one respect. I wasn’t what you’d call a fan of being on the go all day. But I was eager to learn, and still looking forward to tomorrow when Dennis had told me we were going to be working on a Rover.
TO BE CONTINUED ...
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