RAF Manston officers’ mess party tricks. Revisited.

It was in 1993 when she was 70.

I’d thrown a party and, of course, Ma was invited too.  She wasn’t the sort of mother you’d leave off the invitation list.  Not only were parties her natural element, but all my friends adored her.  There would have been trouble had she been left on the bench. She drove up from Somerset in her venerable automatic Volvo 323, in which she could out-corner and out-face most other drivers on the road.

She arrived on Friday night and, as ever, we did a little damage to a bottle of gin as I cooked supper.  Her, leaning against the kitchen worktop, peppering the conversation with tips; “Splash of sherry vinegar with that, Darling.”  She told me about her old people; the ones she visited and went shopping for.  She was still managing a local charity shop – full time – and keeping the local Parochial Church Council on the straight and narrow.

She recounted all the news over the meal, how she’d sent her latest fundraising idea up to head office, how the new vicar was settling in (“I think he may be a little evangelical for St John’s.  He won’t sing the gospel the way Geoffrey used to”) and her plans for holidays with her thick-as-thieves friend Christine.

The next evening, the party started.  Friends rolled in from across Oxfordshire and from far further afield.  Bottles were opened, glasses filled and, as ever, Ma held court from her accustomed chair.

I loved the way friends who were barely a third of her age would sit on the arm of her chair, keep her glass filled and listen to her stories.

And such wonderful stories.

And she looked so innocent.
And she looked so innocent.

She’d grown up in Kent in WWII, where she’d lied about her age to start driving ambulances and nursing at Dover’s underground hospital.  She’d tell the story of how she’d cycle to work through German air raids, sticks of bombs plummeting from ‘planes overhead “And of course, I knew I was safe. I had my tin helmet on.”

She’d tell the stories of how she used to be invited to cocktail parties at RAF Manston where various pilots would vie for her attention, plying her with cocktails.  “Well, I’d drink the first couple then tip the rest away under my chair.  I do wonder what the poor mess steward must have thought the next day.”

She was in the middle of one of these stories – about one of her mess party tricks – when something happened that will stay with me always.

“So, I’d balance a pint of beer on my head, get down on all fours, then lie down, light a cigarette and then stand up again.  All without spilling a drop.”

A barked laugh, and “Ha! I’ll bet you couldn’t do it now!”

One of my friends, intending nothing but a little joshing, instantly ended up on the pointy end of Ma’s gimlet stare.

“Would you get me a pint of beer and cigarette?” He looked relived to leave the room, but came back a few minutes later bearing the beer and a scrounged packet of Marlboro.

Ma stood up from her chair, thanked him, smiled broadly and took the pint from his hand.  After a typically comic sham of being the worse for wear (she could drink me comfortably under the table) she placed the pint on her head. With both hands, just to be sure.

Ma never needed to say much to command a room. Just walking in would usually do it.  So by this point, other conversations had died and everyone had turned to watch.

She loved it.

She went down on one knee, then the other.

Absolute silence.

From there, she lay flat on the floor, her arms in front, the pint of beer still perfectly balanced.

“Still so sure?” she grinned up at my doubting friend as she gestured for him to pass her the packet of cigarettes.

He did.

She called for a light.

She flicked open the packet, drew a single cigarette, put it to her lips and, despite having given up twenty years earlier, lit it and drew deeply.

Ma, doing what she did so well, larking around.
Ma, larking around, as she so often did.

The beer barely rippled.

Then, she drew her arms towards her, straightening up.

In a single, fluid movement, she stood. She put the cigarette in one hand and took the pint glass from her head.  She took a sip and passed the glass to her provocateur. A pause. “I never really liked beer.  Would you get me another G&T?”

I only heard the second part of the sentence because I was standing next to her.  The rest of the room was cheering, clapping and toasting her.

My mother achieved a huge amount in her 80 years.  But I was never more proud of her than at that moment.

Clipping the wings of small business

In yesterday’s double-dip “Emergency” budget, George Osborne announced a new tax that means that one group in society will be paying around £2,000 more from next April.  No, it’s not hedge fund managers, multinationals or the ultra-rich.  It’s small businesspeople.

A reform or just a tax-grab?

Sneaked in under the banner of ‘dividend taxation reform’, his tax hike on share dividends means people running their own businesses as limited companies and taking basic dividends will pay around £2,000 more tax next year.

How?

Taxing you twice

The Treasury used to believe that it was fair to tax things just once; apart from road fuel where drivers are made to pay Fuel Duty on the price of fuel then VAT on top of the Duty.  It seems that enterprise is now fair game too.

If you run a small business, perhaps turning over £200,000 a year and employing a couple of people, you pay Corporation Tax at 20% on the profits.  Business owners used to pay themselves using those profits (already taxed under Corporation Tax, remember) as dividends, paying no more tax until they hit the higher rate tax band.

Pay an extra £2,000 in tax – to start with

Let’s say, like most directors, you take some of your income in salary and some in dividends.  As of next year, you’ll be paying an additional, new 7.5% Dividend Tax.  Unless you earn enough to become a Higher Rate Taxpayer, in which case it’ll be an additional 32.5% of new tax.

For a pretty average business owner earning around £42,000, that’s going to be an extra £2,000 tax to pay on money that’s already been taxed once. And the Chancellor has made it very clear indeed that he sees this 7.5% tax raid as just the start. Expect to see it rise – sharply – in the next few years.

George has got his sights set on your wallet
George has got his sights set on your wallet

But it’s all OK because this “will continue to encourage entrepreneurship and investment, including through lower rates of corporation tax“. Let’s look at that…

Take the money now, get a bit back later

The new dividend tax hits straight from next April.  Reductions in Corporation Tax don’t start until two years later in 2017 (19%), then slowly phase in until 2019-20 (18%).  And the dividend tax take has a rather greater impact on small businessmen’s income than the reductions in Corporation Tax.  And, in the meantime, the Exchequer will see around £2.5bn in extra tax roll in.

“Aw, diddums,” you’re probably thinking.  “£42k a year, your own business and bitching about paying a bit of extra tax”.  Indeed.  That’ll be £42k that’s come from someone leaving employment and starting their own business.  No more company car, company pension scheme, lunch allowances, private healthcare, redundancy pay, sick pay or holiday pay.  A lot of hours and a lot of stress, sweat and tears in the hope that they’ll – one day – make it.  And most don’t.

Putting the brakes on enterprise

This is a raid on people who are starting out, perhaps a couple of years into running their own business and struggling to make it work.  These are the businesses that are heading down the runway, building up speed and hoping to get properly off the ground.

Osborne said in his Budget:

“This is the first Conservative budget for 18 years. It was Conservatives who first protected working people in the mills, it was Conservatives who introduced state education, it was Conservatives who introduced equal votes for women.  It was Conservatives that gave working people the Right to Buy, so of course it’s now the Conservatives who introduce the National Living Wage. For this is the party for the working people of Britain.”

He should have added “…unless they run their own businesses.”

An open letter to the Chancellor.

Today, George, you delivered your first budget as a Tory chancellor.  Those who voted for you, the people who believed Conservatism was about a hand up, not a hand out and who started their own businesses, are now sitting shellshocked, wondering how they could have been so utterly gullible.  They should have realised that the die is cast at prep school when the scions of the seriously wealthy first realise the earth is theirs, their pals’ and everything in it.

Thanks to you, they’re instantly around £2,000 a year worse off.  That’s because they always believed Tories thought owner-managed businesses were a good thing.  How wrong they were.  As you dish out Corporation Tax and Inheritance Tax cuts to your City pals, the impact of the changes in dividend taxation means small business people feel the pain.  Overnight, they go from getting taxed once, through Corporation Tax, to twice; once corporately and then again personally.  And they’re the lucky ones.

Many of them got a full grant for a university education; one of the most reliable ways of getting up and out of the swamp. Today, they wouldn’t be able to afford it.  No more grants; loans instead.  If they believed that education was about more than landing the plummiest job (no old boy network for them), they’d be screwed today.

But that’s OK. A university education only makes the plebs uppity. They should know their place, shouldn’t they, George?

They’ll have come out of university and rather than enjoying a gap yah or an internship, they’ll have got a job. A shitty, badly-paid job. But they’ll have worked hard at it and clawed their way up a bit.  And worked hard at the next one too.  Then the next.  And the next.  And that’s fine, because they’ll have learned shedloads and done well.  But they’ll also have learned that no matter how hard they worked, some kid with rich parents could always afford a better car, a bigger house, a smarter whatever.  But that was fine too; because they knew that no one could take what they achieved away. Until today.

This latest tax grab on those who dared to believe that they could make a go of running their own businesses is the worst.  Not because it instantly removes a chunk of their incomes, but because of what it means.  It may look, from the outside, as though they’re doing alright.  And, compared with most, they are.  But it’s precarious and a constant struggle.  They know that next month’s mortgage depends on capricious clients, unstable markets, luck and their own climb-that-bloody-hill determination. There’s no safety net, no employer to help out with sick pay, holiday pay, pension provision or benefits.  That’s fine too – their choice.

But George, you and your pals have family fortunes and trust funds that mean you’re able to make mistakes. People like them don’t and can’t.

But that’s fine too. they don’t want help from you or a Ma-Pa corporation. But what they do want is some acknowledgement that your world view – big houses, Pimms on the terrace and a maid to serve it – and theirs, are very very different.  And they want a little certainty; that someone like you can’t simply walk up, whack them round the head with a tax-filled sock and take a chunk of their income away.

George, you talk a lot about aspiration.  Plenty of people aspire and have been aspiring since they started.  But it’s bloody hard to keep at it when someone who’ll inherit a few million stamps their handmade Lobb boot on their head every time they start trying to get up.

You talked today about a level playing field.  But you’ve made it clear that means doffing their caps as they cut the grass, not being allowed onto the wicket to play the game.

Aspiration. Tonight there are plenty of people thinking you don’t have a bloody clue what it really means.

Say what you mean

Councils and the public sector are very careful about how they use language.  This is no bad thing.  It demonstrates an understanding that language is massively, foundationally important. The National Council of Teachers of English rightly says “language plays a central role in the way human beings behave and think.”

But language can be used to obscure as well as illuminate.  For example, earlier this year on Radio 4’s Today programme, a Head of Social Services was discussing the problem of dementia patients in care homes forming ‘inappropriate’ relationships with other residents.  In other words, of lonely, scared elderly people daring to fall in love. She talked with earnest concern of how one elderly lady was ‘supported to leave the room’ when their new partner walked in during a family visit. Translated, this meant she was bodily manhandled and frogmarched out against her will. Dolores Umbridge would be proud.

All this care with words makes the language local authorities use about the private car all the more remarkable. Or perhaps it simply shows what they really think of drivers and motorcyclists.

Let’s start with ‘traffic calming’.

Traffic calming

The term implies that traffic is so aggressive and beastlike that it requires constant ‘calming’.  Councils spend millions on humps, bumps, chicanes, gateways and pinchpoints.  Any motorcyclist who’s tried to negotiate the mess of overbanding mastic, poorly-maintained bumps and displaced gravel on a dark and wet February evening will not be calm. Drivers and riders are pushed, hooted and faced-off with oncoming traffic, made aggressive by artificial constraints. But in Councilland, this deliberately provoked and facilitated, full-on road user conflict is called ‘calming’.

Strangely, most traffic is a lot calmer without it.

No conflict here. Move along now.
No conflict here. Move along now.

Thumps

In some parts of the country, drivers and riders are faced with slippery, hard-edged, jarring thermoplastic humps.  If you have a back condition, these can be agony to traverse at any speed.  If you’re a motorcyclist riding in the rain at night, they’re as slippery as a slug and lethal.

To your local council, they’re ‘thumps‘. Yes, that council that does soooo much to avoid even the faintest trace of conflict and demonises ‘hostile’ language calls these ‘thumps’.  But, maybe, they just think those evil, private car and motorcycle users deserve being hit up a bit.

Pinch points

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.
Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Pinch points are designed to let just one vehicle through at a time. It’s clearly fine to ‘pinch’ drivers, rather as a spiteful schoolchild might pinch another when teacher isn’t looking. By forcing only one car through a gap at a time, councils promote conflict, anger and immense frustration at peak times. Giving those nasty drivers a quick nip when no-one’s looking is absolutely fine.

Village gateways

In ‘traffic management’ (there we go again – the implication that drivers can’t be left to use their own intelligence) terms, a ‘gateway’ is designed to protect a village and keep those nasty drivers out.  The very antithesis of of the faux-equality and ‘inclusion’ espoused by council thinking. Gateways narrow the road so that vehicles are forced to cross into the opposite carriageway into direct conflict.  Drivers and riders are forced into the path of oncoming traffic with the intention of reducing speeds.

Gateways also illustrate – beautifully – a complete lack of understanding of human nature.  Of course everyone should play nicely, giving way, not rushing, not pushing and not being aggressive.  But gateways encourage and promote the opposite behaviour as drivers insist on their rights of way by driving uncompromisingly straight and hard at oncoming traffic. Others try to sneak in the wake of a lead car in an attempt to get through.

It's all about safety, mostly for councillors' electoral chances.
The sign says ‘Danger! Road safety measure ahead’.

Pedestrian refuges 

See those poor, terrified pedestrians.  See them cower in the face of the evil drivers.  See them huddle, clutching each other on the isles of the pedestrian refuge.  The language is absolutely clear – the car is evil and a threat from which defenceless pedestrians need protection.

Clearly, cars are not driven by normal people with children, families and hearts. They are driven by the sort of people from who society needs to seek refuge.

Severed roads

“Severed” is a pretty strong word. An unusual one too. The dictionary has it as “divide by cutting or slicing, especially suddenly and forcibly.” Powerful language from organisations that would describe the frogmarching of a pensioner from a room as ‘enabling her to leave’. Someone must have gone out of their way to choose such a deliberately aggressive term.

They’re described thus; “Severed roads… provide the ultimate deterrent to rat running.” And imagine a councillor or council employee describing any other group in society as ‘rats’. They’d be taken away for reprogramming faster than a final council tax demand.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 23.44.58
Those damn ‘rat-runners’ trying to get to work to support their families.

Dragon’s Teeth

Another wonderfully hostile term describes white, spiked markings at the entrance to towns and villages.  Dragon’s Teeth.  Cornwall County Council’s website describes them thus: “Dragon’s teeth provide a visual change and narrowing of the road. They are suitable for village entry points. Cost £4,250 – 5,500.”

Designed to give those nasty, selfish drivers a visual nip, the language used is, again, clearly and openly hostile.

What does it all mean?

In the real world, this forensic persnicketiness about words doesn’t matter.  Despite what the language police think, normal, everyday people use unintentionally loaded, prejudicial and caricaturing terms all the time and don’t mean a thing by it.  But councils understand the power of words.  They treat language very carefully and thoughtfully indeed with the white-gloved care one usually gives nitroglycerin.

To hear council employees talking about using ‘thumps’ and ‘pinchpoints’ against any other group in society would be unthinkable. Yet it’s not only acceptable but encouraged when directed against private motorised road users. When councils talk about ‘severed roads’, and ‘refuges’ they’re making their position and view clear.

Their language caricatures drivers and riders as an aggressive, unpleasant, animalistic subgroup.  Certainly, in a minority of cases that’s a fair description.  But the mass of normal drivers and riders are far more considerate; just decent and perfectly normal people going about their everyday business. But private cars and motorcycles has been so successfully demonised that it’s absolutely acceptable to ‘manage’, ‘restrict’ and ‘control’ their use.

There is no other group about which officials would use language like this. So perhaps its time to stop using it about drivers and motorcyclists. Either that, County Hall, or fess up and admit you simply don’t like us.

Brooklands

There weren’t many better places to enjoy clear, blue sky and things with engines than Brooklands last Saturday. It must have been a study for the English country idyll in 1906 when Hugh Locke King (the chap who owned most of Weybridge) decided to build the world’s first motor racing track on his fields and woods.

All the best ideas need a bottle or two.

Like most good ideas, it was hatched over several bottles, a good supper and some good pals. I have pretty firm views on developers concreting over the countryside with legoland hutches to fund their habits for Range Rover Evoques and decorative au pairs, but Brooklands was different. It was the crucible that produced British motorsport and British aviation.

One I was sorely tempted to bring home.
A proper Rolls Royce. One I was sorely tempted to bring home.
The Brooklands banking in sunshine.
The Brooklands banking in sunshine.

For example, take one Selwyn Francis Edge, a businessman, car importer and noted motoring enthusiast. Even before the track was open, he decided that he would set a record for driving at 60mph over 24 hours.  That was an impressive ambition in the days when cars broke more than they ran and injured their drivers about as often.

Mr Edge and the Napier.

Mr Edge planned to use his seven and a quarter litre Napier with a heady 60bhp, on tyres barely wider than a motorcycle’s, and establish the record over the night of 28 – 29 June. He would start at 6 o’clock in the evening, so he’d still be alert when darkness fell.

The feat meant hustling a car that only its good friends would have described as ‘overpowered’ and ‘skittish’ around a banked concrete oval of 2.75 miles for 24 hours. With acetylene headlights needing – shall we say – a little help, it meant lighting the edge of the nighttime track with lanterns and flares. And it meant sitting on a seat that was really a green buttoned-leather club chair. With brakes that looked better than they stopped – and they weren’t pretty. Oh, and it rained all night. One leading doctor told Edge he’d either die of exhaustion or be driven mad through boredom.

To give a little context, just thirteen years earlier the first motor race had been run from Paris to Rouen. The winner’s average speed? 10.7mph. Although that would now get you a speeding ticket in parts of Islington, back in 1894 it was hailed as a huge achievement.

Mr Edge’s record?

Edge smashed the Paris-Rouen speed and covered 1,581 miles and 1,310 yards of Brooklands track at an average speed of 66mph, near as dammit. That’s an average 66mph. To get a sense of what it must have been like, try steering a wheelchair down the Stelvio pass – blindfolded – while people drench you with fire hoses.

That’s the sort of place Brooklands is. It reeks of history. Still. They made Wellington bombers here (2,500 of them), Sopwiths and Hurricanes too. The Royal Flying Corps’ 1, 8, 9 and 10 Squadrons had their homes on the in-field. Hugh Dowding (he of “Dowding Spread” machine gun harmonisation fame) learned to fly at Brooklands. You can still smell the 100 octane and cordite.

Historics’ Auction

The banking in the sunshine. 148mph, anyone?
The banking in the sunshine. 148mph, anyone?

I’d gone to see some of the cars in Historics’ June auction. There were some real beauties. And a couple I rather fancied. An Amazon 121 combi (that’s a shooting brake version of mine), a little Alfa 1300 Junior, a proper Rover P4 and a T1 Bentley (really a Shadow that reeks just a little less of cheap cigars and sheepskin). Also, to demonstrate what a taste-setter I am, a Rolls Carmargue – they’re soon going to be seriously hot property, mark my words. And a couple of BMW 635CSi s.

IMG_8342
No, that’s fine. Rest your catalogue on this E Type’s roof.
IMG_8351
They wouldn’t have let the likes of me in back then.
Some Mercedes are Grosser than others.
Some Mercedes are Grosser than others. Here’s a 600 on the finishing straight

The auction was fascinating. There were serious dealers with every other catalogue page clogged with Post-Its.  There were dilettantes like me, with more hope than expectation. And there were chaps in scruffy jeans with 18ct gold Submariners who, I suspect, owned some of the more exotic kit on offer.

The auctioneers had a perfect line in cynical, slightly combative patter. To a buyer offering a £100 increase “Ah, squeak. I see we now have a mouse-bidder” and, to another reluctantly plodding bidder, “I asked you for £50,000 twenty minutes ago and now you’ve just bid £50,000. You could have saved me the time, couldn’t you?”  All splendidly good natured.

Auction prices.

The first lot of the day – bits of a Bentley 3 1/2 that the uninitiated would use to make a garden shed – was expertly auctioneered up to just over £1,100. A white Bentley Continental R (perfect for your local property developer) with under 50k on the clock sold for under £25k. Even if it was white, that’s still insanely cheap for a soft top Bentley. A Noble Ferrari 330 P4 replica with a £30k reserve hit just over the target – which may have been bargain of the day. And a Delorean DMC-12 with barely delivery mileage and the factory papers still in the window clocked up a busting £57,120.

As a Z3M headed north of £17,000 I decided I’d stick with the Amazon.  But my Carmargue didn’t sell, so there’s always August’s sale…

The Brooklands the council wanted rid of.

So I left the chaps with wads of fifties that could choke a racehorse and went to look at the other Brooklands – the banking and the airfield.  There’s not much of it left now after decades of development and incursion from the surrounding area. But the finishing straight is still there, with the WWII air-raid shelter off to the right.  And the Members’ Bridge and banking.  A very special place.

On a summer Saturday I was expecting it to be packed. Instead, I had it to myself.

I walked in the sun up past the old Bofors gun towers and a soon-to-be restored AC Aceca and, simply by strolling through a gap between a couple of barriers, I was there on the pitted, concrete track.  I soaked up more sunshine as I walked what’s left of its length. Without doubt, this is the most important and significant piece of motor racing heritage in the world.

This was where motorsport records started.

Men and women with more ability than sense hurled unstable, overpowered and underbraked machinery round with little regard to their own mortality. Courage like that seeps into the stone.

An AC waiting to be restored.
An AC waiting to be restored.

A couple of other solitary pilgrims were walking by now. One father was telling his increasingly wide-eyed son about Birkin and Barnato’s Bentley Blower No1. I walked on, thinking that it must have been a wonderful, if closed, world for those fortunate enough to be part of it.

What would they have thought?

I sat down on what would have passed for a crash barrier and thought about how important this few square metres of racetrack are to British motorsport and aviation. And then about the chain-shop retail park that now sits at its south western corner, thanks to Elmbridge Borough Council’s decision to trade motor racing history for cash in the 1980s. And the risk-assessed, compliance and procurement-controlled corporate offices within its ambit. The tackybox housing estates.

And I wondered what Edge, Barnato, Dame Ethel Locke King, 84mph Joan Richmond and 143.44mph John Cobb in his 24 Litre Napier-Railton would make of it.

Not very much, I suspect.  But then they’d probably have taken the same view of an ex-comprehensive school lad from a rather different sort of estate hanging around their track.

Progress ain’t always a bad thing.

Up the Amazon without a paddle.

I blame my pal Damon. I’d always coveted his Amazon 131, slowly converted a part at a time for classic rallying. Every so often, he’d send me pictures of it going sideways with him grinning like a loon behind the wheel. The pictures would usually be accompanied by the line “Bought one yet?” His Amazon is a staple of our biennial Le Mans Classic convoy, so this year I was determined I’d be rolling off the ferry behind the wheel of my own Amazon.

I got to work. I’d toured the UK looking at 121s, 131s and 123GTs variously described as ‘perfect’, ‘immaculate’ and ‘superb’. ’Sheds’, ‘heaps’ and ‘wheeled chicken coops’ would have been more accurate. This was a little more challenging than I thought it would be.

But, on the way to a client meeting, I spotted a beauty of a 121 parked less than ten minutes drive from my village. There was only one problem. It wasn’t for sale.

It’s not for sale, y’know.

I wasn’t about to be put off by a little thing like that. Lifting the sprung chrome windscreen wiper arm (they made ‘em properly in 1966), I left a note with my email address. Three months passed with no news. Clearly, the 121’s owner had decided to hold on to his car. I poked at more rust-infected skips, kicked the rotten tyres of ‘recent restorations’ and peered earnestly at ebay pictures. Then, on Christmas Eve 2013, I got an email.

“Hello Mark – Funny enough while I have been over in Afghanistan I was feeling guilty about leaving the Volvo out in the elements and I made my mind up to find it a good home on my return. I put your note on the radiator to dry out so I hope I have the correct email?”

I headed to Faringdon in the pouring rain, took the old girl for a turn round the lanes to make sure everything worked and handed over the cash. I’d done it. I had an Amazon. A 1967, powder blue, single carb 121. It was as original as it left Göteborg and as well-built as a Bramah lock.

Built to last. Allegedly.
Built to last. Allegedly.

Dynamo. None of yer fancy modern alternators. Sealed unit, single candlepower headlights. Fear assisted, non-servo brakes. The two front static seatbelts clamped onto a central hook that had presumably seen duty as a storm lashing on the Tirpitz’ gun deck.

The Amazon and I rapidly became inseparable, if not actually rapid. For the first five weekends of ownership I drove, tweaked, adjusted and improved. I knew the engine would have to come out because she marked her territory by leaking emphatically from the rear crank oil seal. We visited family, clients, moved my partner Pip into her new clinic in Witney. We filled the huge, walk-in boot, rather appropriately, at Ikea.

P1010951
Who says classics aren’t practical?

Driving to the office each day I fell easily into the torquey, ‘stick it in fourth and leave it’ Amazon driving style. Even forty odd years after it rolled off the line, I could see why these daftly capable cars were so popular.

Lowering the tone at Spa 2015 (in the background)
Lowering the tone at Spa 2015 (in the background)

Oil consumption overtaking petrol consumption was the first early warning that I might not have bought a pristine car. That and the oily smokescreen that forced even the worst of the photocopier reps in their Audi A6s to keep back on the motorway. She needed rings, clearly. Possibly even valve seals. So I did a quick compression test to be sure. Then, because I didn’t believe the numbers, I did another one. How does an engine manage to run on 20% of its original compression, get up to 70mph and still do 29mpg?

Scrap. No, really. Total scrap.
Scrap. No, really. Total scrap.

Despite this, the call from the engine builder wasn’t encouraging. “The block’s OK, but everything in it’s scrap.” The fuel pump leaked. The single, ancient Zenith carb was shot. The rear crank seal didn’t. The door seals were older and leakier than a politician’s promise. The car was a mess. And the choice was between selling her as the shell for a classic rally car or immolating my wallet on the altar of a full restoration.

I took the coward’s way and offered the old girl for sale. I wrote the listing. I felt mean. Grubby. Faithless. I felt even worse when there were two buyers bidding and keen to trailer her away.

I was at the point of agreeing and waving her goodbye when another pal, Doug, called. As the owner and restorer of a 1930s Roche Talbot, he knows all about the ups and downs of classic car ownership. He took me to lunch and talked some sense into me. No, I didn’t want to sell her and buy a Mercedes 190 Cosworth or an E28 M5, he said. The Amazon suited me, he said. She was lovely, he said. I should keep her, rebuild the engine and restore her, he said. By the time we’d agreed to split the second bottle of red, I was thoroughly talked round and nipped out of the pub to make the call to the engine builder before I sobered up enough to think straight.

In the meantime, I went carb hunting. I knew the original Zenith wasn’t fit for service as a doorstop, so research began into the options. Initial ideas of a Weber twin-choke were dampened by asking a few Amazon afficionados. The view was that if twin SUs were good enough for the rallying 123GT, they were good enough for me. The initial pair I liberated from eBay had been carefully stored for the last six years in chicken guano. No amount of cleaning was going to work. The second pair just needed some advice on needles from Burlen in Salisbury and a rebuild kit.

I wanted the car to look as close to ‘factory’ as it could, but be properly uprated to survive lane 3 jousting with those Audiborne copier reps. So the engine builder (who used to build racing Aston Martin engines) rebuilt the engine from the block up. It’s now running a K cam, lightened flywheel and lifters, a gas-flowed head and a few other trick bits and tweaks. About the only original component is, as he predicted, the block. It goes well enough even if the driver doesn’t.

The brilliant Rob and Emma at Amazon Cars in Suffolk put everything back together, fitted overdrive, a new gearbox and the twin SUs. They also added 123 electronic ignition and an alternator.

Clearly, a gratuitous watch shot. Redeemed by Amazon car keys.
Clearly, a gratuitous watch shot. Redeemed by Amazon car keys.

Yes, I know I should have checked compression – and a whole billful of other things – before I bought her – but I’d argue that buying a classic with your head means you have no heart. If you’re not smitten, look for something else.

At Railway Wood outside Ypres

After that initially shaky start the story, nearly eighteen months later, has a happy ending. The Amazon is back, parked outside the cottage, and does duty as daily transport. I don’t get as far as clients’ reception areas anymore – they spot the car in the car park and come out to see it. When I stop, people talk and tell me about the Amazons they’ve owned. Yesterday, at Wellesbourne Airfield, an ex-Amazonian told me about the 123GT and string of Goteborg’s finest he’d owned. It seems they’re cars held fondly in a lot of memories.

There’s not a Classic this year at Le Mans. Instead, the Amazon and I rolled off the ferry at Zebrugge on our way to the Classic at Spa Francorchamps. And before you ask, yes, we made it back too.

1964 Bulova Accutron - powered by a tuning fork

Tick, tock, hummmm…

Watches are all about oscillations and oscillators.  A watch needs to have something inside it that moves in a way that can mark time.  Since the fourteenth century, this has been a balance wheel, mounted on pivots and powered by a spring.  The ‘tick, tick, tick…’ you hear when you hold a watch to your ear is the balance wheel swinging round, getting caught by the escapement and swinging back.

The more oscillations the wheel can make in a second, the more accurate the watch, by and large.  As watchmakers and metallurgists have got cleverer, so balance wheels have got faster.  The fastest mechanical watches today usually beat at around 36,000 beats per hour – around 10 per second – with a few specialist movements going a whole lick quicker.

The Zenith El Primero, running a 36,000bph movement.
The Zenith El Primero, running a 36,000bph movement.

But there’s only so fast a wheel can rotate before physics gets in the way.  So watchmakers started looking for better, faster, oscillators.  And that’s how they arrived at watches with a tiny piece of quartz as their oscillator.

Today, if you have a quartz watch on your wrist, the tiny quartz crystal tuning fork sealed in a vacuum inside is beating at 32,768 times a second.  Get yourself a Grand Seiko quartz with a 9F movement and it’s so accurate you only need to set it when the clocks change.

But there was a stage between balance wheel and quartz that often gets forgotten – tuning fork watches.

In 1953, sixteen years before Seiko’s first quartz watch, Arde Bulova and Max Hetzel collaborated to file the patent on a movement that used a tuning fork.  This is the watch that became the Bulova Accutron.  When the tuning fork vibrates in an Accutron, it moves a tiny ruby-tipped escapement that allows a 2.4mm diameter wheel to rotate, tooth by minute tooth.  The second hand sweeps, rather than ticks, around the dial.  And, rather than ticking, an Accutron hums.

With just 12 moving parts and a battery for power, the Accutron not only never needed winding, it was as accurate as its name suggests.  A battery meant there was no decay in power each day as the spring lost tension.  The tuning fork was practically impervious to positional errors.

1964 Bulova Accutron – powered by a tuning fork
1964 Bulova Accutron – powered by a tuning fork

Although the watch was accurate to just two seconds a day, this wasn’t that remarkable.  There were already mechanical watches running at this sort of rate.  But accurate watches had always been expensive, maintenance-intensive and relatively fragile.  What marked the Accutron out as different was its price, its freedom from the need for regular maintenance and its ease of use.  Accuracy had become democratic.

The button on the left pulls out to set the watch.
The button on the left pulls out to set the watch.

Accutrons have bounced along the bottom of the watch market since they fell out of favour in the 1970s.   As quartz took over, the Accutron and its heirs, the Omega Megasonic cal. 1220 and 1230, the Swissonic and the HiSonic, became little more than curiosities.  Now, they’re starting to become collectable in the mainstream.  The skeleton Spaceview, the Astronaut and gold-cased models are beginning to fetch serious prices.  Best not hang around if you want something historic in the watchbox that hums.