17 July 2012

Caveat Emptor Indeed

Cars I should never have bought – Part 1

Everybody has stories of great car buys, but listeners tend to doze off hearing how smart you were. You can learn more from other people’s mistakes — though they may not stop you making your own. Here’s Part One of an occasional series.

1939 Fiat Topolino

I don’t really count the 1936 Ford 10 I owned when I was 11 years old, as that was a joint project with my friend David, and we pushed it off the White Cliffs of Dover when it quit.

My first real car was a 1939 Fiat Topolino that I bought for £20 in 1965 from a fellow student at Sunbury Grammar School, who was off to Oxford University (and was smart enough to sell it). It was a roll-top two-seat convertible; dead straight, good tires and nice interior. But it wouldn’t start.

I bought it anyway (sigh), and my brother and I pushed it home. The pale gray paint polished up nicely, but it still wouldn’t start. Next weekend, I pulled the plugs from the 570cc, four-cylinder engine, and when I shone a flashlight down #2, it was reflected in water filling the cylinder. I pulled the aluminum head and the news was bad. I called Ian, the seller, and he said, “Oh hell, I’ll give you back £10, that should be enough for a motor.”

There was one other Topolino in town and luckily it belonged to a friend of mine. It was a good running rust bucket with plywood floors. I offered him £10 pounds for his car but he countered, “I rather like my car, I’ll give you £10 pounds for yours.” So I broke even, which is as good as you can do on a Fiat, and I bought the 1936 Austin Seven Ruby for £7 10 shillings that my Dad had told me to buy in the first place. The seller wouldn’t give me the rotor, though — “You’ll just drive it” — and my brother and I pushed that one home, too. I had to ride back on my bicycle to get the rotor, but at least the car started.

1952 Austin A40 Sports

Facing a grim winter on a BSA Bantam in 1967, I jumped at the offer of a 1952 Austin A40 Sports FREE from my friend Phil. He gave me a ride across South London to a big housing estate and a tan Jensen-bodied convertible with a ratty top. The alloy body was straight, tires fair. “It’s only got first and second gear,” he said. “Hmmm. Do you have a tow rope?” I asked. He did, all six feet of it.

While I was figuring a safe way home, Phil jumped on the Kingston by-pass for 10 miles of 70 mph, four-lane traffic. Luckily I had brakes, and at least the snow flurries made his car seem farther away. Once home, I fiddled with the gearshift and found it had slipped on the column. An easy fix. The floorboards were gone, however, and I realized that alloy panels direct water (and salt) onto what will rust. Getting ready to pop-rivet floor patches, I was banging ragged edges when my hammer hit the frame, knocking out a chunk. Further investigation revealed that brake lines got smaller and smaller when rubbed between my fingers.

I called Phil, who had a 1953 Austin sedan. “If you want the head and twin carbs, pull ‘em, then help me push this down to the river. If you want the wheels and tires, get ’em later.”As darkness fell, we eased into a parking lot just off the high street, took the plates and stole away.  A couple of days later I saw that Phil (or somebody) had come back for the wheels. The body had been completely removed, with tin-snips.

1939 Ford Prefect

When I was 17, I totaled my father’s first new car, a 1965 Fiat 500 Giardiniera station wagon. I had borrowed it to go see my girlfriend (whom he hated) because the license plate had fallen off my 1936 Austin Seven, so I had painted the number on the front valance.

While the paint was drying in our garage, I lost control of the Fiat on the wet highway, about 150 yards from our house. The car spun around, jumped a 10-inch curb, crunched into a set of railings, collapsed the nose and spit me out of the driver’s door.

People ran out of nearby houses. “Cor, you weren’t ’arf lucky…” they said. I looked at the car, which was more or less triangular, and replied: “You don’t know my old man.” The police arrived, called a wrecker and allowed me to go home. I walked in at tea-time, carrying maps and coats. “You’re late,” I was told. “I had an accident with the car,” I said. My father rose from the table, where my Uncle Ron and Auntie Sheila looked like witnesses to an execution. “You mean you scratched it!” my father exclaimed. “Not exactly,” I said. “Look out the window.”  My parents looked out at dozens of flashing lights, and a wrecker picking up the car with a giant claw. “Wait here,” said my father.

“Are you all right?” my mother asked. “I tore my good trousers,” I said.” “You might at least have been hurt,” she replied. Things were difficult for a while, and I went to live with my grandmother. I had offered my Austin Seven to my father, but he didn’t fancy a kid car with loud Brooklands exhaust, cherry red wire wheels, wide whitewall tires, multiple spot lights across the front and an aah-oo-gah horn on the hood.

So I cleaned out the last £20 from my savings account and found a very straight 1939 Ford Prefect with new tires and current road tax at my local wrecking yard. It had been broom-painted black, with silver bumpers, and somebody had sprayed the mohair interior, so it was kind of stiff and crunchy, but it started, and it had brakes and lights. The deed was done.

My mother wasn’t very enthusiastic, but thought it might lighten dad’s mood rather than taking the bus and walking past the wreck of his car out back twice a day. I got my tools out and checked the Prefect. It was very low on oil and took three quarts in the 1172cc four-cylinder engine … so how much WAS in there and where did it go? The answer was plain to see when I started it. That kind of mosquito-fogger killed Jayne Mansfield; smoke that’s dark blue and doesn’t dissipate when the wind blows.

I left, hoping for some encouragement, but none came. Dad drove the car long enough to trade it on a really terrible 1959 LHD Fiat 500 from Belgium, where it must have been parked on the sea front. I saw him only once driving the Prefect, very fast. He was trailing smoke like a Messerschmitt Me109 shot down in the Battle of Britain. In Brockbank cartoon style, his expression was even darker than the exhaust.

Years later, when I was cleaning out the garage, I discovered dad had become a collector of magic bottles promising to “Repair Your Engine — Without Taking It Apart!” There were dozens and most were half full. It seemed like a lack of faith to me. I mean, maybe it’s like antibiotics and you need the whole bottle?

1 Reader Comment

  • 1
    Chris United Kingdom July 28, 2012 at 02:39
    Very entertaining, reminds me of my youth!

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