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Homepage. This page: Nostalgic memories of riding in, and driving, cars that we now call 'classics', back in the 1950s.

Motoring, 1950s style.

Laurie contacted me in March 2011 with his recollections of cars and motoring at the time that he was growing up, ie in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. Hillman Minxes feature regularly, in addition to other makes and models, such as a Lanchester fitted with the pre-selector gearbox, a 10hp BSA car, and an Austin 10 that his mother learnt to drive in. Over to Laurie now for his personal motor-related memories of that era ...

The Hillman Minx workhorse.

In the days pre- 7 years old back in the late 1940s, my father was working for Smiths Aircraft Instruments at Cricklewood London and our family lived in a flat at Harrow on the Hill NW London.
Hillman Minx DHC in the 1950s
The Minx dhc that belonged to Laurie's father. A photo of a similar Minx drophead coupe can be found on this page in the vintage photo gallery section.
Very soon after my father began working at Smiths he was given a company car (Smiths was the same place that did instruments for cars and clocks and watches as I expect you would know from classic British cars having Smiths Chronometers and so forth on the dashboard). That first car was a Hillman Minx drophead coupe and this is the only picture I have of KGC 558, which was initially in pale green but resprayed in black towards the end of his use of the car. Here in this photo we see the very car with my mother and her cousin sitting on the bonnet out on a trip to Dunstable Downs to watch Gliders. For my brother and I, who were ages 8 and 6 respectively, journeys in the Hillman were a fantastic experience as we could stand on the seat in the back or in the front and, when the hood was down, have the wind in our faces rather like riding pillion on a motorbike. A super thing to do when it's summer and you're that young.
My father used to visit Rolls Royce in Derby and undertook various trips to aircraft manufacturing companies, so he really got around in whatever car the company gave him. This Hillman was followed by the later 1950s model hard top. Then another Hillman of the next newest design, and one car he had in between those was a split screen Morris Minor in black.

RedEx Upper Cylinder Lubricant.

Motoring back in those days was a whole different world. No self-serve petrol stations. Analogue dials on petrol pumps and occasionally my father would ask the fellow filling up the tank, for a shot of "upper-cylinder", which was RedEx squirted into the petrol tank to keep the valve seats clean and to help slow down the coking of the engine.
Big end bearings used to be a problem in those days of longer-stroke engines. De-coking was something that regularly needed doing if an engine did high mileage. Also something you rarely if ever hear today - "pinking" when an engine was not being fed high enough octane fuel, and a pre-ignition rattle when accelerating. This was also a sign that the engine needed a de-coke and the valves seats re-grinding.
Motoring through villages and small towns then was very much the idyllic scene that we now see romantically portrayed in archive films. Even as late as the 1970s you could sometimes park in a small town like Bromyard Hereford on a double yellow line, and the Traffic Warden would ignore you if you had an appointment somewhere and would be moving off again in half an hour or so.

The old Lanchester and a 10hp BSA.

We had an uncle who lived in Worthing and he occasionally visited us in Watford and arrived in a Lanchester which had faded yellow glass in the side windows. We never knew why it faded but I think later there was a scientific explanation as to why the glass didn't remain clear. The Lanchester had a pre-selective gearbox like a London bus, with a Daimler fluid flywheel transmission. It was a lovely car. In 1964 I bought a BSA 10 Horsepower four-wheeler car that was made in 1934, and that had an identical transmission to the Lanchester. It cost me about 10. I rewired it with my brother's help but sadly the project ground to a halt through lack of money, and when our family moved to Dorset my mother paid a scrapyard at Mill Hill, 12 shillings and 6 pence to tow it away. That car now would be so rare if I'd kept it and restored it that it would probably be worth many thousands of pounds. Such is life.
National Benzole Mixture was one of the fuels of the day as well as Shell and BP. Garages had Castrol Signs all over the place including those tin ones that were circular and spun round in the wind.

100 octane fuel.

Once when we went to Luton Airport in the late '50s my father was doing some business there and he used to fill the Hillman tank with 100 octane aircraft fuel, which made the Hillman turn into some kind of turbo machine! Luton Airport then was a grass track runway with a small control tower and to get to it the roads went right through the middle of the campus for the Vauxhall car factory. I remember spotting Vauxhalls by the recognisable "flutes" in chrome along the bonnet that was their trademark in the 1940s and 50s.
Some friends of ours had an old Rover 14 and I remember being intrigued by the way it had four jacking points that you could screw down from inside the car to raise each corner in turn, depending on what wheel you wanted to change. The 4 bolts that wound down each of the four jacks built-in to floor, were concealed under a flap in the carpet. This was sheer luxury being able to jack a car up while still inside!

Early driving lessons.

During the early 1950s my mother had driving lessons from a school at Harrow on the Hill, and she was taught in an Austin 10 which I went in the back of during her lessons, as there was no way of leaving me at home alone. I can remember the flick-out solenoid-operated traffic indicators that came out of the pillars and lit up in orange or yellow. The small oval back window of the Austin had a roller blind you could pull down. Such was the unimportance then of seeing what was behind. They did teach hand signals but back then, there was no Mirror Signal Manoeuvre ruling taught.

Under-age driving, of sorts.

In 1958 my father took my brother and I to Durham in the Hillman Minx to stay with a relative during an illness that took my mother into convalescent home for a short while. During our driving around the Durham Dales my father let us steer the car at about 50 mph around some wonderful empty winding roads that were very like those on Dartmoor. We were thrilled to do this as we'd only ever had experience of steering a kiddie's pedal car. We almost fought over whose "go" it was next. The roads were deserted then. I doubt if there were more than 2 million cars in the whole country in the 1950s. My brother and I were keen on photography as a hobby, and in this next photo we are seen sitting on the bonnet of the black Hillman Minx somewhere near Kirkstone Pass in 1958.
1950s Hillman Minx saloon car
Prior to this date we'd both had our phases of Car Number Spotting or collecting, and it was almost a rule in our house that you remembered what the registration number of each of our Dad's cars were and sadly I can still remember them today. The first was KGC 558 then this one in the photo PYW 885, then the newer Hillman was WLO 270, and so on right through Rovers, Ford Consul, Triumph Heralds and more Morris Minors!

Servicing cars.

The Hillmans were always very reliable and the only time we seemed to have trouble was following a "service" where on one occasion that comes to mind, a garage on the North Circular not far from Smiths at Cricklewood - called Campbell Simmonds. A mechanic doing the service cleaned the carburettor and left some of the jets out of it when re-assembling. The Hillman kangaroo'd down the street and Dad was forced to walk back to the garage and "tear them off a strip" for being so negligent and he made them come out and tow it back and get it right. Usually though service from companies like that was pretty good.
We did do a lot of mechanical work on cars at home once we began to own old bangers, and before we were even old enough to drive or have a license. It was good practice to know how to strip down a side-valve engine or how to adjust tappets on an OHV Singer. Though neither my brother or I fancied Motor Mechanics as a career when we left school.

Spark plugs.

KLG Spark Plugs was the make in the forefront of plug design and there was a tie up there with Smiths and Kelvin Hughes. I still have a bottle opener with KLG on the side which is made from the same Hylumina porcelain like material that was invented by KLG.

Petroil.

In the 1950s petrol stations used to sell Two Stroke fuel ready mixed, and you had to pump it into the motorcycle or moped tank manually using a lever that you had to work side-to-side to deliver the fuel. Mostly though, two stroke was created by pumping ordinary Regular Grade petrol into the tank and then follow it with a measure of Two Stroke oil appropriate to the quantity, and then you'd put the cap on the tank and shake the bike from side-to-side to mix the oil into the petrol turning it into what we called "Petroil". There were some cars on the road using 2-stroke engines, possibly the Morgan 3 wheeler or others like it, with a JAP engine on the front. I'm not sure if they were 2 or 4 stroke.

Corgi motorcycles.

A friend had a collection of Corgi motorcycles which were salvaged from bombed-out houses after the war in Paddington district. From all the wrecked scooters he made up one good running copy, and this was my first ever solo ride on a two wheeler with an engine. The Corgi was folding and used in the war to drop with paratroopers over fields behind enemy lines. Back then it was known as the "Wellbike":- 98cc Villiers engine - only one gear plus a dog-tooth clutch.

A classic pre-war Talbot.

Round the corner from our family home in Watford was the home of the late Town Clerk, and his daughters remained in his house and they had a gardener who looked after a huge old car in the garage. It was a Talbot London. It had taxi-like seats in the back with fold down spare seats facing backwards. The bonnet was almost as long as the rest of the car! One day the gardener there asked my father for help starting it up and he managed to get it going. A few weeks later the two daughters asked my father if he would take it out for a long run to "clear it out" and he agreed. We were all going to tag along for the ride and so arrangements were made to drive to Ashridge Park. We never got there! The car broke down with a failed petrol pump well before the destination and I think it had to be towed back. I have no recollection of how we got out of that spot of trouble. It was around 1957 when I was just 11 years old. I have no idea whether it was scrapped but I imagine it would now be one of only about 2 in the world left. Worth a small fortune no doubt.
There are lots more memories that spring into my mind daily, but for now that will probably be enough. Lots of other memories are the same as everyone else's, like the days when RAC and AA men would salute you if they came the other way on a Motorcycle sidecar combination, or if you had an AA or RAC badge on the radiator grill.

Thanks for sending that over Laurie! Visit the motoring memories pages at oldclassiccar for more collections of stories just like this.

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