by Paul Sweeney
The first instalment concerned the redoubtable Standard Vanguard (see Part 1) and ended when Dad reluctantly sold it in order to change to a smaller, lighter car more suitable for my mother to drive. Enter the Triumph Herald, which died dramatically on the occasion of it's first MOT test (see Part 2).
So there we were, the whole family stranded at Williams Automobiles in Bristol. The proprietor had just delivered the dramatic news that our Triumph Herald was a death trap - it was destined for the scrap yard. "Take a look at this one", he said, ushering Dad outside to where a grey Ford Cortina was parked tight against a wall. "It needs a new engine which is coming tomorrow, so I can't start it for you" he added.
In another strange decision for a man who had good knowledge and understanding of motor mechanicals, Dad decided to buy the Cortina despite being unable to start the engine, drive it or even look at the left-hand side! Nevertheless, before long the Cortina was our new family car, complete with reconditioned engine.
For once, fortune favoured the brave; both the new engine and the left-hand side of the car were fine. I can't explain why, but the Cortina is one of only two cars from my youth of which I can remember the registration number. The other was my own first car. The Cortina's was 999 RHU. I've often reflected that in the UK now, that number if available as a 'cherished plate' would be worth considerably more than the car. For the benefit of any non-Brits reading this, 999 is the Emergency Services telephone number in the UK, hence its potential value.
Life with the Cortina was relatively trouble-free. It had just three faults worthy of mention:
On one occasion, Faults #1 & 2 combined beautifully to create a 'perfect' day. Mum was about to drive to her Teacher Training college in Bristol on a particularly wet morning. "Don't worry" Dad told her. "If the car stops, just call me at work - I'll come and rescue you". We couldn't afford AA membership, so family and friends were our 'Rescue Service'.
With those reassuring words ringing in her ears, Mum set off into a heavy storm. Predictably enough, as she drove along an exposed road, the Cortina's engine suddenly died, leaving her stranded on the roadside. As this was many years before the advent of mobile phones, she wound down the drivers door window to see if there was a public telephone box anywhere nearby. As she did so, forgetting in the anxiety of the moment about Dad's warning, "Remember not to wind the window fully down", there was a clanging sound as the window glass hopped off the winder mechanism and fell inside the door. The rain was blowing directly onto the drivers' door and now came inside, soaking everything including Mum.
She sat for a while wondering helplessly what to do, when a car driven by a total stranger pulled up behind the Cortina. The driver (a man) hopped out and came to ask if Mum needed help. She told him what was wrong and he immediately offered to drive her to a public telephone box so she could call for help. "Thank you, but I don't have any money" Mum told him. Remarkably, he said, "Never mind, I have some" and very kindly drove her off in his car to find a telephone box, where Mum called Dad at work and explained the situation.
Fortunately Dad's office was relatively close by, so by the time Mum's White Knight took her back to the stranded Cortina, Dad was already there, retrieving the window glass from deep inside the door. By the time he had managed that, the engine had dried itself out and started easily, allowing Mum to continue her journey to college, a little damp and stressed but still in one piece.
My only other clear memory of the Cortina involves Fault #3; rust. The keen-eyed among you may have noticed rust bubbling near the offside front headlamp of the Cortina in the "Family Day out" photo above. Slowly but surely, the rust ate away the thin, untreated steel from the inside until there was a ring of rust clearly visible just behind the headlamp.
As luck would have it, some genius had recently invented fibreglass, a strange substance that could be moulded to any shape, then set hard. Dad and I decided to 'repair' the rusty Cortina, paint it up nicely, then sell it quickly before the rust returned, as it surely would.
Many, many hours of physical labour ensued. We cut away the rusted metal and inserted a cage structure roughly fashioned out of chicken wire (yes, really). Then, we applied layer after layer of fiberglass and waited for it to cure. As expected, it set hard as rock and was extremely difficult to sand smooth. We didn't have electric sanders in those days, so we worked by hand with various grades of emery paper and sandpaper, toiling until the surface was smooth and our hands were raw.
Next, we painted the area, first with primer and then with multiple layers of the correct shade of grey paint. Finally, we stood back and to be honest, it didn't look at all bad. We congratulated ourselves and felt we would be able to sell the car before the problem became too obvious again.
The very next day, an old friend and colleague of Dad's came to visit. His name was Jim Wright; Jim was a tall man I remember always having a pipe in his mouth. He was chatting to Dad outside our house, walking around the Cortina as I watched and listened. Without warning and a little strangely, he abruptly reached out and put his hand directly onto the area we had just bodged up, leaning his full and considerable weight onto the fibreglass repair. To his surprise and our horror, there was a cracking sound and the entire repair came away from the rest of the front wing and hung there by a few strands. Our work was ruined.
Poor Jim was mightily embarrassed but of course Dad never blamed him. I don't recall what Dad eventually did about that rusty front wing, but before long, the Cortina was gone from our lives, to be replaced but never forgotten.
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