On the Open Road
FLIGHT CADETS' CARS
Car One: There were a range of cars driven by Cadets at Cranwell. In the days before the MOT, it was perfectly legal to drive vehicles that today would have raised eyebrows from scrapyard dealers. The diversity of 'limmos', as they were called, was astonishing. Saudi owned Ferraris and Lamborghinis were parked alongside battered old Fords and Morris Minors, vans with the previous owners' trades clearly visible through the repainting scheme, and pools of oil and hydraulic fluid contaminating every other parking slot.
My first limmo was a beautiful old Ford Anglia, the 'sit up and beg' variety, in black. I bought it from the father of Dick Shuster (89 Entry), at Skegness, following some friendly haggling, and eventually handing over six fairly dodgy post-dated cheques for the total grand sum of £30. Les Quigley (also of 89 Entry and probably taking a cut), had his driving licence, unlike me who, despite having earned a private pilot licence some two years before, had not got round to acquiring one for land vehicles. Clearly feeling the need to justify his commission, Les with all the objectivity of a second-hand car salesman, continued to sing the car's praises, as we struggled up the occasional 1:200 incline for which Lincolnshire is famous. 'Going like a Dingbat', Les retorted. I've never been quite sure what a Dingbat is or was, but the comment was clearly intended to reflect a performance which was not readily apparent.
As we were accelerating through Leadenham, trying desperately to achieve the target speed limit of 30 mph, there was a sudden lurch of the vehicle to the right, followed by a marked deceleration from 25 mph to about 10 mph, accompanied by a distinct graunching sound. Any thoughts that this might be only a temporary setback were dashed when from alongside, we were overtaken by a wheel attached to half a half shaft. The wheel, together with its fractured companion, headed off down the High St before executing a sharp left turn and descending into a dyke with a large splash, followed by an angry scramble of several terrified ducks.
My adventure with cars had begun!
Car Two: It didn't take long for the poor old Anglia to expire, as a combination of old age and inattention to even the basic servicing requirements tested it beyond its design limits. After flogging it to an unsuspecting Rock Ape, who clearly saw its long term investment potential, I acquired a Ford Consul Mk 1 from Paul Kelly, who was sadly later to die in a Buccaneer. Again, £30 was the agreed amount, which seemed a good deal for a car with an excellent engine, if lacking the bodywork to match. Indeed, the Consul had suffered so many scrapes, dents and outright collisions that the first time I parked in a layby to check my route, an anxious-looking fellow motorist stopped to enquire whether I needed him to call an ambulance. One feature of the car was the tendency of the front left door to swing open on right hand bends, which combined with a slippy plastic bench seat and no seat belts, led to some interesting departures for front seat passengers. Indeed, my father, whilst being driven by my elder brother to an event at the College, was within seconds of oblivion on a sharp right-hander, and was only saved by the quick reactions of my Sister-in-Law who, despite having mixed feelings towards Dad, managed to haul him back in on a busy roundabout in Manchester. Another issue, which would surely have resulted today in a legal claim against the vendor, was the dire state of the tyres, all of which were totally bald (slicks they call them today), to the extent that the red inner tube could be clearly seen in several particularly worn areas. The natural consequence was a propensity for tyre bursts, most which seemed to happen at the least convenient time. On one occasion, Mike Smith and I were crossing the Peak District when, at the summit of the Snake Pass, the rear right tyre gave up the ghost. A brief examination suggested that a quick repair, followed by a recut, would be pointless, so we concluded that we had better find the spare. Sadly, I had failed to keep anything like working pressure in the spare, but we reasoned that it was more likely to get us to Glossop safely than pushing our luck on the rim of the flat one. After some coaxing, the jack started to turn under the car, but there was no discernible upward movement of the vehicle. The reason for this odd behaviour soon became apparent, as the jack burst through the rust of the sill. Clearly, the initiative which we had demonstrated in the selection for Cranwell would be needed, and within minutes Mike had found a pine pole and a large rock, which we deployed as a lever and fulcrum, lifting the back of the car and enabling a successful wheel change. The sight of Mike squirming up the pole, like a Polynesian boy in search of coconuts, was for some reason a source of uncontrolled mirth to passing motorists.
Probably we acquired our first mechanised transport during our time at the College.
Car 3: A Sidecar on a Motor Bike: Having been warned by Flight Sergeant Bill Scaife that my Consul was both unsafe and inappropriate for a future RAF Officer, I parked it in my father's house in Liverpool and looked for more fun. It came in the form of a Triumph Speed Twin, sold to me by Glyn Davies, of 91A Squadron. After seeing the brilliant performance of the machine, and its automatic oil change facility (several oozing leaks in the sump area), we agreed that £50 was a fair price. Unfortunately, I didn't have a motor bike licence, but in a curious loophole in the law, we discovered that with any driving licence I could ride a motor bike above 250 cc, as long as it had a sidecar. Problem was solved when we discovered the frame of one in the old motor club hangar. After attaching it, it soon became apparent that right hand turns would bring the side car off the ground, so more weight was applied in the form of a large stone slab, which we secured with a few feet of rope. Job done, and Glyn dashed away with my £50, chuckling at my naivety and his good fortune. That weekend, appropriately dressed in plastic and long underwear, I set off for Manchester to see my fiancée, Irene, who was studying there at University. It started to snow, and I was soon in the later stages of hypothermia. Glyn had neglected to tell me that irrespective of external clothing, wind and wet will always find their way through to a biker's bones, leaving him numb and trembling. Hoping that the Woodhead Pass might be safer than the Snake in such treacherous conditions, I made it to the Highwayman pub, near the summit, grateful to be still alive. Prising myself off the bike, I crunched and creaked my way into the bar, ordered a Guinness and a hot pie, and sat down by the roaring fire. The pie and pint were delivered, to the table outside the door, to which I was banished with a comment: 'Sorry, mate, bikers outside only!' I have often wished I had been posted to a bomber rather than a fighter role, giving me the chance to wreak revenge from the skies on the oaf who denied me the simple pleasure of thawing out. I eventually arrived in Manchester, looking like the wretch in Dr Zhivago who survives several nights in a snowstorm. The bike had to go.
Car 4: From the above, a reasonable person might assume that I would have learned enough from the reckless purchases of dubious vehicles to have learned a lesson in what not to buy, and shady vendors to avoid. With these lessons in mind, I pitched up at a field just outside Sleaford, where a character, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Sid James, had constructed a car retailing park. After a futile attempt to put my old Consul Mk 1 in for part exchange ('I couldn't sell that to a Yank, Sir'), I was attracted to a dark blue Triumph Herald, which for £75 looked an absolute bargain. After an impressive test drive ('Just round the field once, Sir, we don't want to waste too much of your time'), I parted company with the money and set off back to Cranwell in my new gentleman's carriage. Shortly after stopping at a set of lights, I was flagged down by an irate motor cyclist, who ridiculously claimed that on accelerating away from the lights, I had covered him with a toxic mixture of smoke, oil and black soot. I sent him on his way.
However, I had to admit, when repeating the exercise, that the rearward visibility did reduce considerably as I applied the throttle. No matter; it looked good.
The following week, I headed to Manchester to show off my new car to Irene and her friends. Following a short stop, I noticed that the car appeared to be burping when I returned; despite the engine being switched off and the keys still in my pocket. I opened the bonnet and was immediately knocked backwards by the heat, which appeared to be emanating from the flatulent engine. Using all the mechanical expertise for which I had become renowned, I concluded that the only problem was a shortage of water, and possibly oil. On removing the radiator cap, a jet of super-heated steam filled the sky above, rather like one of those gushers we used to see in old films of Texas oil explorers. Dropping the molten metal, I dived for cover, allowing a few minutes for things to settle down. A kindly pub landlord provided me with a large jug full of water, which was sucked in by the radiator like an oasis surrounded by camels which had crossed the Sahara. Three trips back with the jug, and we seemed to have things under control. Just a quick check of the oil needed. At first I thought there must have been a few inches missing from my dipstick, as it came out sparklingly free of any sign of oil. But then, employing the aforementioned technical analytical skills, I noticed two loose wires under the bonnet. Some further analysis concluded that one was the connection to the oil warning light; the other to the overheat warning. Even I could work out that some mischief was afoot. After buying a gallon of the cheapest oil I could find, I started to see the beginnings of a smudge at the bottom of the dipstick and, after reconnecting the delinquent wires, I set off. My complacency was shattered when I noticed that the oil warning light was permanently illuminated, and that with oil now back in the sump my rearward vision during accelerations was again severely compromised. Hmm; this could be interesting. I made it to Manchester just as the overheat warning lit up, and on investigation found that again the dipstick was smudgeless, and the engine was hot enough to defrost a polar bear. This was the start of a period of high oil prices, as I invested heavily in large amounts of cheap oil, so impacting on the price of Brent Crude. My skill at identifying the worst possible cars on the market remained unchallenged.
Sequel: My motor bike was bought by a scrap dealer for £5; the Ford Consul was acquired by two discerning scousers in Liverpool for £15 the day before our wedding, so enabling us to afford a honeymoon in the lovely village of Beer, in Devon. The Triumph was part exchanged for a mini at Valley, and was later seen in a knackers' yard in Holyhead.
Chris Coville 91C
I recall the attempt to 'pimp' the Mk 1 Consul prior to the plan to sell on to an unsuspecting member of the junior entry. This involved a visit to one of the first drive-in car washes as hand valeting would have risked the possibility of deep lacerations from the edge of the rusting holes in the bodywork. After shelling out 2/6d the vehicle emerged from a discrete parking slot behind the garage and was lined up at the entrance to the wash ready for the glamour treatment. At this point the an unnecessarily hysterical garage owner rushed out to spreadeagle himself in front of the car claiming that Chris's fine vehicle would shred and destroy his revolving brush.
Despite such an insensitive and unreasonable attitude we adopted an air of aloof superiority and made dignified departure in a fog of Castrol fumes.