23 December 2013

Ice cold in Egham

How the search for an Austin Seven axle led to a snowbound barn at Christmas

I began my senior year at Sunbury Grammar School inauspiciously, with the front of my car punched in from an accident on holiday in Devon, two weeks after getting my driver’s license. With only five student cars outside the school, it rather stood out. By lunchtime I considered putting a note on the windshield explaining what happened – just to save time.

I had been following a line of traffic down Telegraph Hill into Exeter, when everybody else had stopped. I hit the brakes on my 1936 Austin Seven, but my progress was barely retarded, and I smacked into the back of a Triumph Herald convertible. My colleague David leapt out of the car and announced: “It wasn’t his fault!”, previewing a legal career. But the unhappy couple in front was on their honeymoon. Despite my warnings that we were still on a hill, they pulled forward, bending their rear valance, which was hooked on my front bumper. As I watched in dismay, my brakeless car rolled forward and hit them again.

So much for  the shortest driving career ever, I thought, as I twisted my headlights around,  so they would at least face forward. We limped to my uncle Stuart’s house in the next county of Somerset, to straighten out the car for the last 150 miles home, where I would get to explain it all over again.

The real issue didn’t occur to my 17-year-old brain until later. Where did all the oil come from that coated the rear brakes? My exhaust was so finely tuned (noisy to everybody else) that I missed warning sounds from the differential, until I ‘failed to proceed’ a couple of months later. Where to find an axle? My car was too old for such an item to be easily available. Then I remembered an abandoned 1938 Austin Big Seven in a parking lot down by the River Thames. The wheels were gone and it was on its side, so I cycled down there with tools, and my friend Dennis’s kayak trailer. I Did The Deed and legged it back home with the axle.

Next weekend my Dad allowed me to push my car into the garage “provided I was done by the time he came home”, so he could put his new Fiat 500 Giardiniera wagon inside. No worries, I thought. It only took me half an hour to get the other axle, how hard could the swap be? The rear axle on an Austin Seven is supported on quarter elliptic springs which slide into the frame rails at a narrowing  angle. It’s a simple system, and I had retrieved the other axle with its springs, for the fastest exchange. A hour later, I was ready. But the springs would not go all the way in, however big my crowbar. Almost, but not enough for me to bolt it in place. At this point Dad came home and ordered me out. I had to reinstall my busted axle and push the car outside into the rain.

I hit the books and found to my dismay that the Big Seven springs were a quarter of an inch further apart than the Austin Seven. The scoundrels. Winter was fast approaching and with it the prospect of rain and snow, and no way to get to my hotel dishwashing job, which would generate the money to get me back on the road. Then, in mid-December, I remembered where I had seen another car like mine. It was abandoned behind a barn on a small farm that had been encircled by the four-lane Staines Bypass, near the Egham roundabout, about 15 miles west of town. I enlisted my brother’s help, we borrowed Dad’s car on a Sunday afternoon and set off into late afternoon twilight and falling snow. There seemed to be no access road to the  farm, so we pulled down into the field, behind the barn and set to work with tools and flashlights, as traffic whizzed by at 70 mph. The motor was gone and most of the glass, so it was pretty clear this was the its last resting place.

“What if there’s somebody there?” said my brother anxiously.

“Well, there’s no lights on, and the place looks abandoned. There’s no access road; it had to be a compulsory purchase for the motorway. Besides I have three pounds; and even if somebody shows up, that’s a fair price.”

“But what if they have dogs ‘n’ shotguns ‘n’ things?” he said.

“Well, the sooner we’re done the better,” I said, and we set to work. Half an hour later we had an axle that looked OK and heaved it back to the car. By now, it was snowing quite heavily, it was dark and we were freezing. Unfortunately, the axle wouldn’t fit in the tailgate with the springs attached, and we didn’t have a big enough wrench to undo them. There was only one thing for it; we rolled back the full-length canvas sunroof, loaded the axle, sticking out of the top, clawed our way up the bank onto the bypass, and drove home with the snow coming in.

This time it WAS the right axle and I was able to install it in the next couple of days at the price of getting a terrible cold. But I had my car back for the Christmas season and copiously medicated, I made it to work and all the parties to which I was invited (and some I wasn’t).

I know what you’re thinking: What about all the people he gave his cold to? Listen, when you’re six-feet-tall and weigh 130 pounds, with big ears, a big nose and a complexion like a Dalmatian – basically a sincere dork – the only person you’re going to share your cold with is your dog.


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