by Brian Allison
Firstly apologies to anyone who read part 5 of this tale of an impoverished, overworked apprentice in the 50's and found yourself wondering about the trailer at the end - Next time 1989 and the launch of THAT car - you may be racking your brains trying to deduce which car was launched in '89 that warranted the description.
Relax, it was a typo, should have been '59, which means quite a few of you can easily guess which car I meant. So, to the story.
1959 started with yet another new model for us to ooh! and aah! over. This was the second of the Farina Austin's, the A55 Cambridge Mark 2. What a departure from the previous A55 model, longer , wider, much more spacious and FINS!, something I'd only ever associated with big yank tanks. When the mechanics had finished poring over it I got a chance to have a good look and sit in it myself, which confirmed my first impression.
Big comfy seats, big windscreen, big everything compared to the old one. Apart from one thing, the engine! This turned out to be the same 1.5 B series as the Mark 1 but now fitted with a SU carb to wring another 3 or 4 Horsepower out of it. The unanimous verdict was that this car was a winner, the salesmen were almost wetting themselves. So a good start to the year.
And it got better. In March we took delivery of the first of the replacement for the A95, another unmistakably Farina design, the new A99 Westminster. Although mechanically very similar to the old Westminster it was an impressive looking thing, especially as the first one we got was finished in black, quite ministerial looking. This was where I first heard courtesy of our Granadian friend Mick, the phrase, " Big, black and beautiful". In later years I often used the same phrase to describe my P5B. Again the new model was greeted with all round approval and all seemed set fair for a very happy year sales wise.
April brought another major landmark which unfortunately coincided with the start of my unrest at Atkinson's. Like any young lad as soon as I hit 17 my thoughts turned to getting a driving licence. I'd been driving cars about the workshop for a while and never had a problem so reckoned getting a licence would be no problem. A few lessons to get road experience and I'd be flying. Not so easy as it turned out.
I mentioned it to Dennis and he said if the management would let me use the shop van he would take me out during the lunch hour, great stuff! So along I went and asked the foreman, Norman. " I'll have to have a word with Mr.P.... about it " said he. Next thing I'm told that I'm wanted in the office to see Mr. P...., who you may remember was the workshop manager. As soon as I was in the door and before I had the chance to say anything, he, in his usual pompous manner , told me that the idea of borrowing the works van was totally out of the question. "The last apprentice we allowed to use the van crashed it and I'm not going to let it happen again". I'd taken a dislike to him the first time I'd met him and this only made things worse, but I'd no option but to bite my tongue and get back to work.
When I asked Dennis he told me that the story was indeed true but that it had happened years ago, and the apprentice involved had since completed his apprenticeship, served his deferred national service, and was back working at the firm. Adding it up I made that at least seven years since the crash, time enough I thought for any reasonable person to have let it go. I was not a happy bunny! There was no way I could afford professional driving lessons, nor was their any family member who owned a car, let alone one who would have been willing to teach me. Likewise I could not expect any of the mechanics to let me add them to their insurance, even if I could have afforded to pay the increase in premiums. So it was a case of, nose down, a..e up and grin and bear it.
Whilst all this was going on I'd been attending Tech. on a course entitled "Motor vehicle mechanics work" which would if successfully completed lead to a City and Guilds certificate. I found the course very interesting and for the most part relatively straight forward. The head of department was a gent by the name of Simon Mudd, and it was he who took us for the practical sessions. He made learning more interesting than I ever imagined it could be, especially with him being able to illustrate what he was telling us with the various engines, gearboxes and bits and pieces available.
One of Simon's pet hates was anyone describing the combustion process as an explosion. "NO,NO,NO!" he'd say, "it's not an explosion, it's the controlled burning of combustible gases" He'd then go on to tell us that the only explosion present was in the case of an engine that was "pinking" or as he preferred to call it "pinging". This is caused when a slow burning mixture creates a pressure wave starting from the point of ignition and compressing a pocket of gas into a pocket which then will explode, resulting in the ping. All fascinating stuff to my ears at the time.
Another subject covered by Simon was diesel power, which gave rise to one of my abiding memories of that time. Diesel injection pumps at that time were very different to the present day rotary types, being inline units rather resembling a 4 cyl. engine in as much as they had a cylinder with a piston like rod, the element, which pumped a measured amount of fuel to each injector in turn. It was impressed on us that the elements and cylinders were precision parts and that each pair of cylinder and element were matched and not interchangeable.
We were each given a pump to strip and examine. After he'd been round explaining various things to us he then asked us to reassemble the pumps. This led to the only time I saw Simon almost lose it. One of the class who'll remain nameless, having failed to keep the parts in order was found trying to persuade an element into the pump with the aid of a pair of pliers used as a hammer. It did not go down well at all.
Despite this diversion I found the idea of wanting to learn more about and actually working on diesel engines fascinating and an idea struck me how to do this, and get away from the obnoxious Mr.P at the same time.
Atkinsons had two operations, one was the car workshop where I worked and the other was a body and commercial works at the other end of town, coincidentally much nearer to my home. I made what I considered a very well reasoned request that I be transferred to the commercial operation to allow me to gain experience on both diesels and commercials. Seemed reasonable enough to me but not unfortunately to our Mr.P. Request refused and back to square one. I still found the actual work enjoyable but had a growing sense of discontent.
By now it had rolled round to August and still no answer to my driving lesson dilemma, but the mood was lightened somewhat by the launch of yet another new model, which although we did not realise it at the time was to change the face of motors as we knew them. The new Austin 7 or as it quickly became known, Mini, had arrived!
At first sight it seemed a peculiar little thing. Tiny 10 inch wheels perched at each corner that looked as if they'd be more at home on a wheelbarrow. A sort of rounded off, cube shaped body, that with the external seams looked a bit like someone had put it's clothes on inside out. Door hinges stuck on the outside, and seemingly not enough space for an engine. Not very impressive at all. Then you opened the bonnet. There in all it's glory was the old A series engine but sideways, and where was the gearbox ? In the engine sump as it turned out. This led to much shaking of heads, how could you have a gearbox running on engine oil ? To be honest the only thing that really impressed was the amount of room there was inside the car. But as the man said, "Never judge a book by it's cover".
The more we looked at this odd little machine, the more we realised just how different it was. Rubber suspension?, how'd that work. Independent rear suspension on such a small car?. Front wheel drive?, the only front wheel drive I'd had anything to do with up to then was on the Landrover. One thing that we all agreed on was that we wanted to try it on the road. And what a revelation that was!
If I remember correctly Geoff was the first of the mechanics to actually take one on the road, and the grin when he returned said it all. Like driving a roller skate I think was what he said. It was about a week after when I got the chance to accompany Brian on a test drive. Being so low to the ground compared to other cars I'd been in the impression of speed was tremendous, and it went round corners like it was on rails. The salesmen loved it. Get a customer to take a test drive and if they were looking for a small car it sold itself, and all for under £500.
The Mini was to be the last new model I witnessed at Atkinsons unfortunately for reasons I'll go into next time around.
Next time :- New horizons and opportunities
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