My First Proper Car: The story of my voyage of discovery, leading to a fascination with Morris Minors, and a wife

In November 1974, I passed my driving test at the first attempt in Newtownards, County Down. I was the first of my peers in the neighbourhood to pass my test, and was encouraged by my parents to go out and gain experience on the local roads in the evenings and after school – I was seventeen.

In 1974, the traffic was a lot less, and more sedentary in nature, and driving around the rural roads of scenic County Down was a pleasure.

Quite soon, Dad realised that I was clocking up quite a  mileage on his car, so it was decided that I should have a car of my own. His Austin 1300 was a great driver, and was only a few years old at the time.

Dad’s first attempt at encouraging me to take an interest in cars as opposed to motorbikes had been partially successful, he bought a 1962 Scootacar, which I could at that time drive at 16, and which continued to live with me until around 2004 – by then in boxes! It cost him £67, and one just like it but in slightly better order sold last year for £25,000 – it was intact but needed a full restoration.“The Dalek”, parked up once I became a four wheeler”

The Scootacar – British built by Hunsletts of Leeds – a railway locomotive manufacturer – was just too late to the market and was soon eclipsed by the arrival of the Mini.

I believe only two or three came across the Irish sea to the island of Ireland, one to Dublin, the others to a Belfast dealer in Northern Ireland.

We heard that our local garage had a Singer Chamois for sale for £200, which he reckoned would be a fair proposition, so we went to look at the car and drive it. It was obvious straight away that there was a problem, a misfire and steam at the tailpipe warned of a possible warped head, so we began to leave, when a Smoke Grey Morris Minor drove onto the forecourt to the pumps.

As we were still chatting to the garage owner’s son, the driver of the minor came in to pay for petrol, and mentioned that he was selling the car, which led to a series of events that would result in quite a long story…

Following a brief negotiation outside on the forecourt, £35 changed hands, and I was the owner of a 1962 Minor 1000!

I remember thinking at the time “This isn’t really what I want, but I’m not paying – don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!”

As soon as I got my hands on the car I carried out extensive (for a seventeen yr old schoolboy!) modifications, by fitting an Astrali steering wheel, and a spotlight, which stuck on the inside of the windscreen and was steerable – oh and an eight track tape player.

There was plenty of rust, and after owning the car for a few weeks a friend of Dad’s, Herbie, ( who drove a white beetle, by the way ), who was a part time teacher at the technical college nearby, suggested we look underneath and survey the rust. Immediately, the car was taken off the road and Herbie began stripping the front suspension and removing the front carpets. – we found that the chassis legs were both rotten and the torsion bar on the driver’s side was barely hanging on!

A week later and after a fair bit of welding and fettling the renewed chassis and floor was passed fit, painted and rebuilt – black bituminous paint and hammerite were liberally applied!

I drove the car for several years and never thought again about the choice, I loved it and it was mine. My then girlfriend liked the car to – she married me a few years later and is with me now as I recall these tales. – A Minor but lasting romance.

At one point, while out for a drive during a “free” period at school, accompanied by several classmates, I overtook one of those invacar invalid three-wheelers, at quite a moderate speed, only for the bonnet to fly up with a bang against the windscreen and obscure the view ahead! Luckily, there was a gap at the bottom of the screen where the hinges held the bonnet, and I was able to safely pull in as the invacar putted slowly on it’s wobbly way.

The result of the bonnet slamming against the front of the car was that it was badly distorted, and the supporting frame inside was pulled apart and twisted. We managed to cobble together the remains and limp the car back home.

Fortunately, a few weeks earlier, I had noticed an apparently abandoned Teal blue minor in the carpark of a local hospital where my mother worked, and I learnt that the owner had had it towed there after the kingpin collapsed, with a view to having it fixed, but she had instead bought a replacement car, the minor was about to be scrapped, so she gave it to me as a source for parts.

Her’s was a four door while mine was two door, but the bonnet was perfect as were the blue leather front seats, so my car was soon fitted with both, making it distinctive as a smoke grey car with teal blue bonnet and pale blue leather front seats.

I continued to enjoy that car for another year until the rust became too much of a concern, so after reinforcing the boot floor with freshly troweled cement coated with black bituminous paint I sold the car and the remaining parts of the now stripped blue one for £37! The new owner was aware of the “repairs” but said he was going to restore the car.

Next was the arrival of a mini, then another, then a few years of assorted increasingly newer and more expensive cars, a new job, engagement, marriage, Home ownership, a new family, and eventually retirement. About 1984, in a moment of weakness, I responded to an advert in the Belfast Telegraph for two Morris minors for £200. I reasoned that I could possibly make one up from the bits, and arranged to collect the two cars. They looked scruffy but reasonable, one had fibreglass wings and both were drivable although not roadworthy. There was the usual evidence of advanced rust, but, rose tinted glasses….

I had them delivered to a farm where I was for a time storing the Scootacar, and occasionally visited and drove them while contemplating where to start…and where to get the time to do so!

Eventually, I sold them on to another man, and lost contact with them. The Scootacar I sold to a man who fully restored it and has kept in touch, he even traced down the previous owners and had us all together for a photo call at a show in Bangor – where it won Best In Show!

Retirement brought with it certain benefits. I was considered “available”, so people from all directions offered me “wee jobs” to keep me occupied in my new-found spare time. I would warn you, if you are still in work and dreaming of a quiet retirement with loads of leisure time forget it! I’ve never been so busy, I don’t know how I had time for work!

Retirement also brought me back to an interest in old things, and a re=awakening of my fondness for the Minor.

In my first years of minor ownership I had become aware of Charles Ware and the Morris Minor Centre in Bath, and had at that time bought his book “Durable Car Ownership”, as well as building up a small library of books on The Minor. These I began to re-read, which resulted in 2019 in me calling Charles Ware’s, now in Bristol, and buying a 1970 ex MOD traveller – for a little more than £35 this time, but it has considerably less rust, and was sold as having only recorded 39000 odd miles from new to the MOD.

Freda, named after my late Mum, was the first vehicle from the 70s I had driven since probably around the mid 80s and it was a revelation to remember that all the niceties we expect in modern cars didn’t exist in cars then – power steering, two speed wipers, heated seats and screens, power mirrors, electric windows, etc, etc….

I really enjoyed the experience and having flown from Belfast to Bristol to collect her we took a week touring the area staying with friends in nearby Pershore before driving home through Wales and the Republic of Ireland. Freda didn’t miss a beat, and attracted waves and smiles all along the route. At the ferry terminal in Wales, the line of cars where we were parked, the car ahead was a very nice red Triumph Stag, and the owner and I quickly fell into conversation. It turned out that he was from Belfast, but was based in London where his job took him, and was bringing the stag home to enter the annual Kilbroney Show, which was scheduled for the following week – I had known about the show and had already booked Freda for the same show, before we had even collected her. As we talked, two coaches full of tourists pulled up in the next line.

Many of the passengers poured out and began clicking pictures of the traveller, with Alison, my wife, sitting inside reading a magazine, they paid scant interest in the stag!

Freda managed several other shows in 2019 and a couple of runs out in early 2020 before we all had to stay at home, but has been out quite a few times in 2021 for short runs and to attend her first – and now probably last MOT, which she passed with flying colours. She lives in the garage, accompanying my other “special” car, a Landrover Defender Heritage, 50th anniversary edition, which is also finished in the same Deep Bronze Green – they look great

together at the shows they have attended together, and I look forward to more of the same as we resume in the new normal. Once home with Freda, I joined the Morris Minor Owner’s Club, Northern Ireland branch and have met many friends there. I’ve now been swallowed into the club committee, who knows where this will all lead?!?!

It’s my intention to replace Freda with another traveller, which I hope to have modified to make it more comfortable in modern driving conditions, as I don’t want to make too many changes to Freda, as she’s almost original MOD spec, and quite rare. Her mods to date have been an alternator and disc brakes fitted as well as telescopic dampers.

All the work was carried out by Charles Wares, and is capable of being reverted to completely original for the purists out there.

So, the underlying message in this tale is this:

If you’re bitten by the minor bug, it may lie dormant for thirty plus years, but it will come out, given ImageImagehalf a chance, and rightly so – Charles Ware’s Durable Car concept was and is a great notion and very much in keeping with the green thinking of today, but with all the benefits of today’s technologies, such as electrification and renewable energy, is even more relevant today.

The original Astrali wheel – waiting for it’s next host car. It’s been in seven of my cars over the years!
The original Astrali wheel – waiting for it’s next host car. It’s been in seven of my cars over the years!

Let’s keep the Minor alive. It’s more than a car, it’s a lifestyle!

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