by Brian Allison
Over the first few weeks my education continued apace, which rather surprised me as I had never really been what you would call fond of school. I'd never seen the point of learning things like algebra and French, which I was pretty certain I would never find a use for. I had no ambition to go to France or to be the next Einstein.
It had been mentioned during my interview that I would have to go to the Tech for one day a week and I reckoned I could cope with that, so it came as something of a bombshell when Norman told me I'd also have to attend two nights a week as well. " Two nights ?", I was appalled at the idea. I already had two nights taken up with rugby training, and the other three weekday ones were fully occupied as a trainee Don Juan at the local youth club. It was pointed out to me that I didn't have any option in the matter, so I had a choice to make, rugby or girls. Being a typical testosterone fuelled youth I quickly decided the rugby would have to go.
My real education was in the workshop. I'd never thought there was anything complicated about making a cup of tea. Wrong! One cup for yourself is one thing, making about ten cups, each with the correct strength, sugar and milk seemed to call for a good memory if I was to avoid the wrath of my fellow workers. In the event I needn't have worried, Rodney already had a list drawn up which he let me copy.
Another thing I quickly became good at was repairing punctures. Every Saturday morning was occupied fixing them and washing and polishing cars. Unlike today there was no such thing as a tyre machine, it all had to be done with tyre levers and brute force and inner tubes were easily nipped if you were not careful. Also unlike today the patches were not simply stuck on the tube but were actually melted onto them using a Vulcanizor machine. This was not the only piece of equipment that you would be unlikely to find in a present day workshop.
One was something that I have never encountered in any garage since. A contact breaker point re-furbisher. This, I would imagine was a throwback to the war years when parts were almost impossible to get. It was a little device that you could clamp in the vice. It was designed so you could mount either fixed or moving point on it, and had a small grinding disc to refinish the surface of the point.
We also had what I thought was a great piece of kit for stripping cyl. heads. This was a metal frame on legs which had 12 pegs about 1 inch dia. in row set in it. These blocks could be adjusted by way of sliding them along their supporting bar and vertically so that they corresponded with the valve spacing in the cyl. head so the valves rested on the pegs.
The actual fork that fitted over the valve caps was suspended from an upper frame and attached to a stirrup. So once the head was in position it was simply a matter of fitting the fork over the valve cap, press lightly on the stirrup, tap the valve cap lightly with a hammer and remove the cotters. Much simpler and quicker than using a conventional valve compressor, not to say safer too. I've searched in vain to find a picture of one but hope you get the idea.
We also had a lathe which was used to skim brake drums and dynamo and starter commutators. Slightly different from today's electronics laboratory you could say.
So life settled into a routine involving working alongside Dennis, making tea, going to the shops for the rest of the workshop's lunches, and of course generally keeping the place clean and tidy(ish). Doing the shop run was one of my favourite jobs. As a regular customer you could usually wangle a bit of discount from most of the shops, which considering the pittance paid to apprentices then was always welcome. I remember how exotic I thought the shop where I got sandwiches was. It was run by a Polish gent who'd stayed in England after the war, and was I suppose what we'd now call a deli. Long sausages of various colour and width hung above the counter and more exotic varieties of cheese than I'd ever seen before. I'd always loved cheese and made it my ambition to try them all.
An interesting job in those first few months was a chassis swap for a crash damaged P4. The firm did have a body shop but, along with their commercial workshop that was at the other end of the town. So we removed the body, using block and tackles and rolled the damaged chassis out from underneath. Setting the old and new chassis on stands we then transferred everything from one to the other. A fantastic way to get to know your way about a car. It gave me the chance to see every single part and how to check them for any damage and fit them. After we'd re-fitted the body away it went to the body shop.
It was October 1958 and I'd been been working for about 6 months when the replacement for the A35 arrived. I think it's fair to say that everyone in the shop immediately approved of the new A40 Farina styled model. Compared with the cuddly little A35 it replaced it looked bigger, more roomy and so much more of a grown up car. One thing that all the lads agreed on was how much easier it would be to work on with all that space under the bonnet. Mechanically it was more or less the same as the A35 so held no fears of new technology,(though that's a phrase I didn't hear on a regular basis for quite a few years).
One surprise was the rear brakes. I think everyone expected them to be hydraulic, whereas it turned out they were rod operated via a slave cylinder mounted under the car. Looking back I can only assume that this was due to bean counters at Longbridge, an affliction that would affect so many cars in the future. The colours available also made a big impression, especially with the contrasting roof. In many ways the A40 more resembled what we now know as a hatchback than a then conventional saloon car. I wonder if that might have been at the back of Pinin Farina's mind at the time?
As time went by I was entrusted to undertake simple tasks on my own, always on the proviso that Dennis checked my work of course. During one of these jobs I received what I still consider the only useful advice that Norman, the foreman, ever gave me. I was laid under the back of a car reconnecting the handbrake rods when Norman came along. "What are you doing?", "Reconnecting the handbrake", "Why haven't you got a hand light?", "Don't need one I can feel what I'm doing", " Get a light, only whores and burglars work in the dark". I got a light. Had to admit he did have a point.
I'll cover the launch of more new models in the next episode including my abiding favourite the Rover P5.
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