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Homepage. This page: The story of how Henry cut his (motoring) teeth with a pre-war Hillman Minx.

Hillman Minx Saloon.

Henry has been kind enough to send over a number of car-related photographs from his albums in recent times, and now he adds his own memories of a 1934 Minx that was his first car, one that has featured on the Minx photo page already. It's great to read first-hand accounts of motoring in the 1950s and 1960s like this, when pre-war cars could be picked up for relatively modest sums of money, and maintained on a shoestring using parts that were still quite plentiful in scrapyards across the land. Handily regulations surrounding the ownership and use of cars back then was a lot more relaxed also, this went a long way in enabling people to take to the roads for the first time.

My first car.

After hearing from an uncle that a friend of his had a car for sale, I went to the nearby village of Newburgh to view a very original Hillman Minx. As I was only sixteen years old it was not possible for me to road test the car, so as I was assured by the owner that the car was in good order a deal was struck for the princely sum of 15 GBP which also included about 6 months of third party insurance he no longer required, as he was giving up motoring. It sounds strange nowadays that insurance policies could be transferred like that, but back then it was by no means uncommon.
The 1934 Minx car
As I would not have the car on the road until August, I surrendered the policy, for which I received the tidy sum of two pounds and ten shillings, taking the purchase price down to twelve pounds and ten shillings (or 12.50 GBP). Although, by today's standards, the price seems cheap it must be remembered that at the time I was only earning about two pounds per week as an apprentice mechanic so it was quite an outlay.
As I said it was a very original car, it was also a very unusual car which made me think that the first owner must have been a rather wealthy person of some repute. For a start, instead of the normal three lights (windows) along the sides, the rear lights had been professionally filled in and embellished with a couple of beautiful brass/chrome "dumb-irons" on the outside, and on the inside there had been fitted two lovely units containing mirrors with festoon lights, ash-trays and also a cigar lighter, things usually found on prestige cars such as Rolls-Royce. Another unusual feature that the Hillman was fitted with was a "free-wheel" gearbox, which meant that by pulling a cable, the car free-wheeled on the over-run, and that could be hair-raising at times as you were relying totally on the Bendix braking system, and that could be "interesting".
The next few months were spent "modernising" it, and armed with a hacksaw, I proceeded to cut off the rear luggage carrier and also the beautiful "dumb irons", which using hindsight was sacrilege. During these summer months, as well as preparing it for the road a lot time was spent tearing about on the farm roads and fields until the inevitable happened, she broke a half-shaft. It was decided to tow the car up to the garage where I worked, so one fine summer's evening, off we set, under tow, until a half mile from the farm, a wheel come off, complete with brake drum and hub owing to the place that the half-shaft had broken. Now we had a problem, how to retrieve a three wheeled, unlicensed car from the side of the main road, but the problem was soon solved thanks to the farm tractor, the wonderful "Little Grey Fergie". The rear of the car was hitched on to the three-point linkage and it made an ignominious return to the farm and was parked up in the corn-yard.
On acquiring a second-hand shaft and enlisting the help of one of my colleagues from the garage, we soon had her up and running again. Fast-forward to the 23rd. August and the great day dawned when my new red book with my provisional licence came into force, allowing me to be legal when driving on the road, something we were never too fussy about, with both tractors and cars. I still have my first insurance cover note and it is dated the 31st. August 1957, so I presume that was when the Hillman was put on the road with a licence of less than a month because at the time all road fund licences expired on the 31st. of December and cost 12:10s:0d with quarterly renewals about the 24th. of March, June, and September costing 3:8s:9d.
During 1956, because of the "Suez Crisis" and the disruption of fuel supplies from the Middle East, the British Government introduced strict fuel rationing and also stopped the taking of driving tests, but decreed that learners could be accompanied by an experienced driver for one month, and thereafter keep your "L" plates on display but without the need to have a qualified driver with you. As this was still in force in September 1957, after the month's probationary period I was free to come and go just as I pleased, but it was coming to an end and an announcement from the Government stated that when your provisional licence expired, an "L" driver had to be accompanied once again. At this time a provisional licence only lasted for three months, so as my one was due to expire on the 23rd. of November there was a big panic to have the test passed before then. In spite of a bit of a set-back in October when I failed my first test, all was well as I passed at the end of November so all was well.
In 1957 running and driving a car was far more pleasurable than it is today, as there was nothing like the traffic there is today, no yellow lines and no traffic wardens in the towns. The biggest problem facing us young drivers was how to run a car on a shoestring, but being a motor mechanic certainly helped, as we could always source s/h parts and do all the work ourselves, and during the next six years I can safely state that no new parts were ever fitted to my pride and joy, sometimes even used old engine oil! One thing that was changed more frequently than the oil, was the engine, which, according to a fellow-mechanic, we fitted about eleven s/h engines with varying degrees of success as they were all mostly clapped out because, as the old cars did not rust like their modern counterparts, the most common reason for them being scrapped was that they mostly had a mechanical problem, and although an old engine only cost a couple of pounds or so, that made quite a hole in an apprentice's weekly wage.
One of the problems that I had more than once was that of a slight tapping noise developing in the engine, which meant that a small-end bolt had broken. If you did not stop right away, a con-rod would make a rather inglorious exit out through the side of the block, as the top of it had sheared off. This was usually at the dead of night, which meant a rather uncomfortable night in the back seat until a new day dawned.
One other problem that comes to mind was one day in July 1958, on my home from Aberdeen I heard a bump from under the car, and it was a case of get out and get under, where I discovered a track-rod end had dropped off. After "borrowing" a piece of wire from a farmer's fence, I carried out a temporary repair and set sail, but my joy was short-lived, as at the next bend there was an even bigger bump and the complete track-rod was lying on the road behind me. As I sat contemplating my next move, I gingerly tried to get her going and discovered that once you were up to speed, the non-steered wheel just followed its partner, the only problem was getting started as then the n/s wheel tended to go to full lock, but it drove perfectly for the eight miles or so home.
Until the 1960s the motorist had a fairly easy time of it, no car tests, no tyre laws, no breath tests, but that was all to change as successive governments sought to impose all sorts of restrictions on the poor motorist, starting in 1960 with what was then the 10 year test then subsequently the 7 year test, then 5 years, and finally the 3 year M.O.T. in 1967. Initially only three items came under the scrutiny of the tester, brakes, steering, and lights but that was continually added to, as the powers that be strove to get all the old cars off the road, supposedly in the name of safety! As only the above three items were tested, plus the fact that my workplace was one of the testing stations, meant that a pass certificate was acquired without too much bother and at minimal cost.
The cost of a test in 1960 was the princely sum of eleven shillings when it was introduced, one shilling to the government and ten shillings to the garage. Luckily at that time there were no tyre laws, and as long as there was no canvas showing, the local bobby let you go on your merry way which is a good job as some of the tyres we had fitted left a lot to be desired, often with more gaiters fitted than original tyre, and tubes with more vulcanised patches than tube. Originally the Hillman was fitted with 18-inch spoked wheels, but in about 1959 I acquired a set of 16-inch easy-clean wheels as that size of tyre was easier to get from the scrap-man. The Hillman continued to give sterling service through the various stages of my life, namely the completion of my apprenticeship, marriage, and finally the setting up of a home and family, until late in 1962 when she fell to the scrap-man's torch, the final ignominy being that he disappeared without paying, bringing the curtain down on what had a great relationship between man and machine.
I appreciate you sending over your stories Henry, I hadn't realised that the first ten-year-tests were so brief in their scope. If anyone reading this has memories of their first car, say in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, it'd be great to hear from you too.
More tales of car ownership in years gone by can be found in the motoring memories section.

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