Saturday, 17 October 2009

Something Special

After the War, Britain was in a pretty parlous state and life's luxuries were just not to be found by the average guy who wanted a bit of colour and excitement out of the drab scene of Labour's New Utopia, which as we all now know, was such a miserable pipedream.

With so little money floating about, the natural "make-do & mend" mentality of the rations-battered British came to the fore.
At that time, pre-MoT test, there were thousands of old pre-War cars on the road, still giving sterling service. Mainly Austin Sevens and Ford 8s and 10s.
These could be had for a few pounds and pressed into life fairly easily again. Then with a few bits of steel tube and some aluminium sheet a really smart new creation could be in your driveway in just a few weekends. A sports car, indeed.
These used a more race-orientated pre-War name of "specials", but post-War the Special became the be all and end all of British motoring enthusiasm. Before the War a special had been a racing or hillclimb conversion of something, usually with a bigger engine, meant for sprints and short course competition and so the name stuck after the conflict for anything that a reasonably able mechanic could cobble up in his back yard or shed.
My own father was just such a man and with a £5 Austin 7 from a breakers' yard he built a little 2 seater very much in the style of the Cambridge, one of the best looking of the A7 specials, but in the pre-War tourer mould.

My Mum still has happy memories of that little car. Previously all Dad had was a Coventry Eagle motorbike which would only go up steeper hills if my Mum got off the pillion seat!
He later built two more specials, refining the previous ones and getting a little sportier. Unfortunately no photos have survived of those.

Later, my Uncle also got the specials bug and I helped him build his very low, light, modern Austin 7-based special. He tried to get it to look a bit like a Maserati 250F at the front and it had the typical special-builder's short back.
I remember many trips in it at 70 or more MPH, which was good for any car then, let alone something which started life in 1937 and had only 747cc.
One night, during one of the last real "pea-souper fogs" we were travelling home on a 30 mile journey which would normally take about 35 minutes, but which, with me feeling the kerbside through the side-curtains, took 3 hours. The battery came loose and burned a hole in the aluminium back end! But, frozen almost stiff and dog tired the old girl got us home.

Pretty soon, the aluminium sheet jobs started to give way to the new post-War material, fibreglass and all manner of wierd and wonderful creations were popping out of tiny units up and down the country from recently de-mobbed servicemen looking for a new direction in life. Some, like the Falcon were really quite professional looking and some were just appalling to look at, but the public took them and a new industry was born, with several companies specialising only in the bits and pieces that would make your special go better as well as look unique.

I had thought most if not all these old fifties creations had disappeared, but, true to British form, many have surfaced again and been lovingly restored by a completely new generation who weren't even born when the cars were originally made for a hard-up motoring public.
Americans had hot-rods, mainly because their cars had all had thumping big engines to cover the mileages in that country and they hadn't had rationing of fuel and just about everything else to hold them back. But here we had to watch the pennies and a home-built special was the only answer. New cars had to be exported to try and get some money back into Britain's War -emptied coffers, so we built cheap and cheerful specials.
I'd love one, but they seem to be fetching as much, if not more than, the cars from which they were built. Not so long ago an Austin Seven Special was an affordable entry level classic car, but no longer.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Twas only a bird in a gilded 'Cage.

Many years ago now I was looking to find a suitable subject for an "on-spec" model and I found, quite locally, a company who had in at that time no less than three Tipo 61 Maseratis, otherwise known as Birdcages, because of their astonishingly complex multi-tubular spaceframe chassis.
I couldn't resist the challenge, so I photographed and measured the one that seemed to me most "unrestored", though I soon discovered there ain't no such thing as unrestored where old racing cars are concerned. This one was the ex-Moss and Gurney winner of the Nurburgring 500.

Measuring such a car, even when the bodywork is conveniently off it is no easy task. I decided to split the chassis up into imaginary "bays" and drew each one on the back of a business card (I had plenty!). Then I sketched all the difficult bits from different angles and, of course, photographed every little detail.

When I got home I started the drawings, but found that due to the number of diagonal members of the frame I had to resort to drawing them in colour to explain the different planes in which frame members went through space.

It was much later that I discovered such a system is used when computerised draughtsmen do complex drawings on CATIA, etc. for car body design and the associated engineering.
The model was to be made in my favourite for large models of 1/12th scale, or one inch to the foot, a splendid scale which is on everyone's steel rule.
Surprisingly, though a presumably metric car, I found it to have a great many dimensions that were spot-on Imperial including some of the many tube sizes.

I made the model from various scale sizes of nickel silver rod, because nickel is so much stronger than brass. All bracketry and platework that was part of the chassis was done in brass as I had some the right thickness. The removable panels were made in thin aluminium as are the real ones. These all fixed to tiny brackets soldered to the framework.

I had to make special jigs for the front suspension mountings as they sit in mid air at strange relationships to any pieces around them. The most difficult assembly of tiny bits was the front suspension tower, being many small pieces of thin sheet. The tiniest parts were the 1mm diameter steel ball joints in the throttle mechanism. I had intended having the model carburettors working as far as external mechanism was concerned, so turned the tiny ball joints in the lathe with a special tool and then "popped" them into undercut receptacles which then allowed a fully jointed mechanism all the way from accelerator pedal to engine.

Also the gear selector was made to work, so that you had to depress the gear lever to engage first and reverse and flip a little detent over to get reverse, too.

The jigs for the front suspension can be seen on the left of the above picture and the gear selector and gate on the lower right.

The steering worked with a real rack and pinion operation, which would have used correct steering arms, but the model was bought by an eager French gentleman before I got any further!
The steering wheel was made just as the real car, with 24 seperate pieces of wood, twelve either side of the aluminium rim, in four layers, with the grain running in the correct direction, like the rim of a cart wheel. The steering column had three fully working universal joints, a la Maserati, just 3mm in diameter.
I regret not fully finishing the model, but my unexpected French customer was insistent that he take it as it was, so who am I to have argued?

But I have some nice pictures of the work to remember it by.

Now you see it.......

When I was painting my canal scenes and engines I found a grubby little picture as frontispiece for a small book on Clyde Puffers, one of my favourite little ships.
It struck me that it would lend itself to a silhouette painting, something I'd never tried.
I found it to be a challenging and intriguing form.

The Puffer above was my first.

Then I tried a Fowler road locomotive working hard up a hill.

And finally, perhaps my favourite, Concorde on its last flight home from America, to be grounded for ever all because the French don't know how to handle a sweeper when bits fall off Boeings at their airports. As scurrulously political a "decision" as ever was forced upon a nation. And as good a reason as you'll ever need for not voting when the underhanded wastrels come a-knocking.

To make the impression as stark as a good silhouette should be I used Indian Ink that I normally used for technical linework. This is really black. Then on the Concorde picture I experimented with a faint lightening of the hue to suggest just a little detail.

Sunday, 4 October 2009


What?...a penny-farthing bicycle?
No, an Ordinary is what they were really called, as distinct from the Safety cycle.
And as distinct from BBC or CNN or BSkyB is news from the home land... the everyday, the ordinary stuff of which life is composed for most of us.

By special request of some friends in far off lands whose backgrounds, real or distant, genealogically keep them tied, however tenuously, to a feeling of belonging to Dear Old Blighty, Perfidious Albion, das Mutterland, I bring them tales of the everyday. A Lake Wobegone of the Odd's County.

Well, principally, to the weather. It's been dry down here in East Anglia for weeks.
The ground is so hard that some playing fields have had matches banned for fear of the poor dears hurting themselves when they take a dive in the penalty box. And that, friends, is all I know and more than I care about football.
Over here in the Flatlands we suffer wind. Eggs and pickled onions will do, no, really, we are scoured by an almost constant strong breeze which sometimes feels like there is nothing between us and the Russian Steppes.
Consequently, there are no trees to speak of round here and it's not because the landscape is largely manmade in the last 200 years from marsh and wetland, it's the wind.

We live our simple, uncluttered life in a small caravan in the corner of our daughter's garden whilst ostensibly restoring our boat and when that wind comes up it rocks us. The aluminium panels on the sides "oil can". They pop in and out making a noise like Rolf Harris on Acid as the pressure waxes and wains.
Trying to keep a picture on the digi-box with the aerial mast wanging about is a constant battle.

We have our TV aerial mounted on a pole which is tied to a washing line post with criss-cross ropes. In turn, it is stabilised from turning by having two furniture clamps fixed to it at the bottom, one each way with rope tied to each and tensioned back to the farmer's fence. So, you might see how getting a new position and tuning means standing in the howling wind, untying each rope and repositioning the clamps, retying and retuning the digi-box in the usually vain hope that it will bring in Stephen Fry's QI on the channel curiously called Dave or an hour later on Dave Ja Vue (oh, ha-ha).

On Saturday and Sunday evenings there is nothing on the telly at all. Really, it is dire, so Chris and I sit and listen to Bob Harris on Saturday on Radio 2 and the very excellent Guy Garvey on BBC Radio 6 Music, on Sunday, being seriously hip dudes, man, both digitally, via the telly. We usually listen to the last half hour of each in bed, it helps us nod off against the oil-canning walls, rattling sky light and howling canine chorus at the kennels down the lane. Don't get much hipper, dude, eh? (Juts chin and knocks ash of imaginary spliff).

As far as a wider Britain is concerned...the cheese rolling was held again at Cooper's Hill in Gloucestershire. A look at the website will show just how much organisation and preparation is involved in such a quick and inane event.
But eventually it is just a matter of a Master of Ceremonies throwing a (presumably Gloucester) cheese down a steep hill and inviting a hundred or more of the Cotswold's finest mentally retarded to hurl themselves after it in bumpy pursuit until, legs akimbo and heads too I shouldn't wonder, some cove alights upon the cheese and claims victory and, no doubt, in days of yore, the tupping rights of every virgin from Bourton-on-the-Water to Chipping Sodbury.

Far less dangerous over all is the annual period fest that is the Goodwood Revival Weekend.
This is truly a most astonishing event. I was lucky enough to be there two years ago at somebody else's expense and I loved it. I would probably have loved it almost as much if I'd have paid for it myself too. Yes, it really is that good!

Goodwood racetrack (the tarmac one, not the tedious nag run) was closed due to burgeoning beaurocracy in 1966, but, unable to resist, Lord March opened it again a few years back, but decided it will not have changed. And so, it is still the case that no car built after that year will compete or even take a position inside the environs of the track. And the crowds are positively encouraged to dress in the styles of the years before the cut-off date.

In the paddock, everybody has to dress in period or they simply don't get in. Ladies and their beaus, press and even mechanics must wear suitable gear. The mechanics wear a white overall and a flat cap in tweed. I augmented mine with a fob watch and chain which my wife bought me for use on the back of the boat.
It really is a remarkable sight. It shows how far we have all gone down the path to slobbery since those stylish days. Though I think '66 was a wee bit early for the micro-skirts worn by some of the models and public, but who's complaining, eh, what? Haw, haw. Ding, dong.

Proof that it could only happen in England is that there are so many foriegners come over to drive, look, party, buy or just join in and take pictures. I don't think anywhere near so many go to any other motoring dos than to Goodwood's Revival and the earlier in the year Festival of Speed up the hill to Charlie March's Big House. If they changed the Formula One schedule to clash, there wouldn't be many struggling for pole at Monaco, that's for sure.

When one attains a certain age in Britain, one gets a flu jab. I think it's probably pension age, 65 or thereabouts, but if you fit some other group you also have the right to one, free, of course, my overseas chums, quite free.
Fitting one of those other groups for the first time this year, I was able to just call for an appointment and toddle off to the local health clinic. There I was met, on a Saturday morning to boot(!) by a very pretty young nurse, guaranteed to get the blood circulating ready with a good vein and was sat down immediately by an efficient practice sister who asked me if I was affected by eggs. I answered only in the windy vernacular, but that otherwise, only if taken with pickled onions (sic.)
The next thing I knew she was throwing a tiny complete syringe away (such a waste to the modelmaking mentality) and it was all over. I had felt nothing. Not a scratch. I didn't even feel a little prick,............... but that's another story.