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.

1 comment:

  1. We did have rationing here in the USA and I’ve sent you the scans to prove it. Not sure how long after the war it lasted.
    However you’re more than correct about our ridiculously huge displacement car engines.
    Oddly it was the smaller ones that made the hit with the hot rod crowd after the war.
    Overhead valve V-8’s took off in the 1950’s however. Look where that got us!