Thirty-nine dollars poorer, but I was as happy as if I had just bought a new Jaguar. I was 22 years of age and had bought my first Morris Minor. I walked out of their kitchen and opened up the bonnet again and looked down at the rusty old side-valve engine. I walked around, opened the driver’s door, leaned in and turned on the ignition, listened to the few clicks as the fuel pump filled the carburettor bowl with petrol. I pulled the starter and she kicked over the first turn. I walked back around the front and watched and listened as the little engine idled. I was hooked and I hadn't even driven the car. The owner had driven me around the block. He was about the same age as my dad and had probably seen me as just a kid and didn't trust me to test drive his car.
For the last three years, I'd driven a 1959 Renault Dauphine. My father once owned the earlier 750 model with which he used to go back and forth to work. That was some years ago, I remember it fondly as a kid. That lovely smell we all know and love - the mixture of petrol and old upholstery.
Since my dad owned a Reno, when it came time to choose my first car it was a natural progression to buy an old Renault. Unbeknownst to me, not all Renaults were created equal. The model I owned was a one-off, an experiment that never really took off. It was a normal Reno overall, the only difference was that it had an electric clutch.
You're probably already saying to yourself, “electric clutch, that sounds like a nightmare”. Believe me, it was. The basic idea was that once the gear stick was touched or moved just slightly an electric current would create a magnet in the clutch causing it to depress while you changed gear. Once you let go of the gear stick the clutch will then engage again. There was no clutch pedal. The whole idea was simple, you touched the gear stick and the clutch disengaged. The problem was that when you let go of the gear stick - if the system was adjusted one way too far, the clutch would be let out with a violent clunk and you'd take off, sometimes with a slight skid of the back wheels. But if you adjusted it too far the other way the clutch continually would slip. The trick was in the adjustment, but I could never achieve the proper adjustment. The problem was acute by the fact that the car had an old 6-volt system. Six-volt systems are bad enough, let alone one with a current-sucking electric clutch added to it. Thank god the car didn’t come with an old valve radio!
I must have adjusted it about a thousand times but could never get it to work correctly. It'd either take off with a violent clunk if adjusted in one direction or if adjusted in the opposite direction it would work smoothly until nightfall came. Then I'd turn on the lights and the clutch would start slipping. In the end, I put up with the clunky takeoff adjustment. But the clunk was too much for the die-cast gearbox, the housing eventually split in half. I sold the car to a young guy for five dollars. He towed it away behind his mother's Holden Kingswood.
I lived in the outer suburbs of Sydney. A car made life easier to get to work, the beach on the weekends and take my girlfriend out on Saturday nights. All of which could have been done by public transport, which unlike most people I didn't mind using. I lived about a mile from the railway station, where I could walk in twenty minutes. Furthermore, I had, and still have a keen interest in railways. If there was a steam locomotive hauling a train, it wouldn't matter what type or age of car I owned I'd be on board the steam train.
When I purchased the Minor I was on the market for either a Morris Minor or a Ford Prefect 100E. There were still plenty of Morris Minors on the road in those days, Prefects were becoming a rarity. People told me they were no where near as good as a Minor – they wore out quickly and were prone to rust.
My next-door neighbour owned a Minor. Compared to my Dauphine it appeared much stronger and more reliable even though it was a few years older than my Reno. His Minor always started the first kick. Meanwhile, the Dauphine needed plenty of coaxing with the 6-volt system. Much of the time I had to push-start her down the hill. I was lucky to live on a hilly street. The battery often wouldn't have enough charge to kick the engine over, especially if I'd been out the night before and had used the lights. When I arrived at my destination I'd also look for a hill to park on just in case she wouldn't start. In case I couldn't find a hill and she refused to start, there was always the trusty crank hand that I used regularly. I kept it handy under the driver's seat.
On one sunny Sunday morning, I was driving along in the Dauphine and in the opposite direction along came a Morris Minor low light tourer. The hood was down, the body was a very faded red. The guy driving looked as if he'd just bought it and dropped the hood to take his girlfriend out for a drive. It was basically a bomb. Faded paint and a dent here and there, but, with the hood down, it had loads of style. I remember feeling jealous. This guy had an older and a less expensive, junk pile of a car than I did but from the smile on his face, it was obvious he was having more fun than me. But the character of the car impressed me, having seen mainly highlight hard tops driving around Sydney, on sighting of that lowlight tourer I realized it was an early model Minor. The sight of it stayed in my mind from then on. I wanted one and promised myself one day I'd go out, find one, and buy it.
I presented my new Minor to my father. He wasn't impressed when I opened the bonnet to reveal a side-valve engine. He called it a piece of shit. He didn't like side-valve engines. My father had purchased an Austin Wasp back in the mid-fifties. It was still going but blew some smoke.
“The price was right so I bought it, but a few months later I took the head off only to find that someone had fitted cord oil rings. Instead of one oil ring, cord rings were a series of very thin rings. They were good at holding back the oil, but they scored the bore badly.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Well there wasn't much I could do but pull the engine out and give it a full re-bore, new pistons, rings and bearings.”
“It must have gone like a rocket after that?” I asked.
“Yeah sure, after about 20,000 miles it was just about worn out again. The problem with side-valve engines is that the fuel isn't burnt as well as in an overhead-valve engine. The other problem is that much of the fuel goes out the exhaust pipe un-burnt compared with the efficiency of the overhead valve engine.”
To me, it didn't matter that the engine was inefficient; having a car with a side-valve engine was different. I'd become a side-valve engine enthusiast. I didn’t realise it at the time but this enthusiasm was going to stay, or haunt, me for the rest of my life. But the fascination is not only side-valve engines but Morris Minors in general. Why do these little cars draw so much attention and attraction?
At the time I drove a taxi one or two nights a week. The taxis were new cars, I'd drive the length and breadth of Sydney during my 10 or 12-hour shifts. While I'd be driving these new cars I'd often find myself thinking about when I finished the shift and how good it would be to get back to the taxi base, hand the keys to the cab into the office and drive home in the Minor. Even the way it handled had an inexplicable attraction. It was slow, but that didn't matter, the feel, smell and sounds made up for its underperformance.
But performance is relative. Get into a new BMW and take it for a drive, you'll not have any fun until you're at least doing about 160kms/hr. Drive along at 100kms and it's boring; the problem is, most maximum speed limits here in Australia are 100 km/hr. So it's hard to put your foot down and have any fun. With a top speed of just over 100km/h that the side-valve Minor is made for, getting her up to 80 or 90 km/hr and wow! I’m having fun!
In the original Morris Minor MM series motor manual it states that the top speed is 62 mph. But I could never get her to do any more than 59 mph. It was going downhill, foot flat to the floor with a strong tailwind. Not that I have a lead foot, in fact far from it. Rarely did I ever take her over 40mph. She’d been designed as a slow old workhorse. I accepted that fact and lived with it. Even on long trips out into the country, I tooted along at 35 to 40 mph.
She gave excellent service for a full year, knocking up over 8000 miles. There were the usual problems during that period. The first problem to show up was if I switched the lights on at night they'd run the battery flat. I took her to an auto electrician; he checked her over and replaced the voltage regulator, charging me $30. This seemed somewhat expensive considering I only paid $39 for the whole car.
The next problem reared its head on a 600-mile trip from Sydney to Brisbane with two old school friends, Allan and Chris. The whole cost of petrol came to about $2 each. We stopped at night and camped alongside the road. She rattled along the whole way but towards the end of the outbound voyage, something under the bonnet started to rattle. It sounded like a bearing, but I couldn't work out where it was coming from. Was it a big end, main or maybe a loose gudgeon pin? I picked up a long straight stick like I'd seen my father do and placed one end on the sump and the other on my ear and listened to the noise like a doctor with a stethoscope listening to his patient’s heartbeat. I went all over the engine but still couldn't be certain where the problem was. Then I placed the end of the stick on the generator. Ah! That sounded like the place the noise was emanating from. I gave Al and Chris a listen and they seconded my opinion. I stopped the engine and loosened the generator belt. Without the generator running there was no knock. Problem solved – now all we had to do was fix it.
We were parked near a large park somewhere in the outer suburbs of Brisbane. It was a warm autumn day and just down the street, conveniently located, was a Repco - auto spare parts store. I opened the boot and took out my motley collection of old hand-me-down tools and got to work.
I studied French for a short time during high school but I didn't like it and never did very well. My teacher suggested metalwork. This gave me a basic understanding of metals and tools. Whenever I needed something fixed on the Renault Dauphine I'd get my father to show me how to do it. From these simple beginnings, I soon became adapted as a backyard mechanic. Occasionally I've even read the manual, but mostly I just stuck to intuition and guesswork. As most backyard and cowboy mechanics will confess, it's just easier that way. Manuals just tend to confuse. I once discussed my mechanical know-how with a doctor. He was impressed that I could work on a car without any formal education in the subject of automobile mechanics. He went on to tell me that he'd always felt overcharged whenever he took his car to a mechanics workshop. So he’d decided to buy a manual and read it from cover to cover. He read it about three times but still couldn't get the basic idea of how it all worked. I suggested to him that I couldn't work from a manual either. Unlike medicine where you can learn it from a book, simple mechanics is different. I think the only way to learn how to fix a car is to have someone show you. It then becomes easy and logical.
My tools were a collection of hand-me-downs. They included a pair of pliers, multi-grips, an adjustable wrench, a few basic Whitworth, BSF and ASF spanners, a screwdriver and an engineer’s hammer. No luxuries, like ring spanners. Tools were expensive in those days before the Chinese started mass-producing them.
I took the generator off, wiped it down with a rag dipped in kerosene and pulled it apart. When I got to the main bearing it just fell apart, the ball bearings dropping down onto the picnic table we were working on and rolled down onto the grass. It was obvious this bearing was where all the noise was coming from. The next problem was that the bottom cone of the bearing was seized to the main generator shaft. I tried holding a screw driver on it and got one of my mates to hit the screwdriver with the hammer to loosen it but it failed to move. The problem was eventually solved when the park’s gardener came over to see what we were doing on one of his picnic tables. At first I thought he was going to read us the riot act and tell us that the tables were for eating from, not workbenches for fixing old cars. But he was more interested in what we were doing. He could see our predicament, picked up the shaft and said 'Come with me fellas'. He led us over to a shed on the side of the park, opened a side door and led us into a small room full of lawnmowers, picks, shovels, garden brooms, fertilizers and insecticides. He then led us into another small room off the side which was a small maintenance workshop. A press drill and a grinder stood in front of us. He started the grinder and quickly ground off the bottom cone from the shaft. I couldn’t thank him enough. I took what was left of the old bearing and walked down the street to the auto parts store and purchased a new bearing for about 50 cents. I took it back to the workshop and the gardener fitted it to the shaft and reassembled the generator and even fitted it back into the car for us. The engine ran smoothly again, we bid our gardener friend a fond farewell and thanked him for his help and again hit the road. Maybe we should’ve also thanked the Brisbane City Council or even the ratepayers of the city. Just hope they don’t decide to send me a bill if one of them reads this book.
But we weren't about to get back to Sydney with just a worn bearing in the generator slowing us down. The great Moggy god in heaven had more problems installed for us. We had made it 300 miles south and were about half way home. Passing through the small coastal, fishing and oyster-farming town of Nambucca Heads, I put my foot on the brake pedal as we coasted down a hill just on the south side of the town. The pedal went to the floor. I eased on the handbrake and we came to a standstill. I got out and checked all the wheels and lines, expecting that there was a problem with the hydraulics, a blown hose, brake line or wheel cylinder. But there was no sign of brake fluid leaking from anywhere. I checked the brake fluid reservoir, it was full. A closer inspection showed that the plunger connected to the brake pedal that fits into the master cylinder had broken. It was late afternoon, the sun was fading fast, so I drove a few hundred meters further up the road and parked on a grassy spot under a tree. We set up camp there for the night.
The next morning I dismantled the brake pedal assembly and pulled out the broken parts. It surprised me that such an important and robustly built part of the braking system could break. Furthermore, it appeared that it had broken before and had been brazed back together. This time it broke again in the same place. I took the parts down to a garage near where we had stopped the afternoon before. The boss said he'd get one of his mechanics to weld it up so that it wouldn't break again.
“Come back tomorrow morning, it'll be ready”.
We headed across to the beach and spent the day surfing. The next morning I went back down to the garage and asked if the part was fixed. The boss went out into the workshop and picked up the brake pedal. It still hadn't been welded. He looked at the mechanics who were preparing for the day.
“Hey you blokes, will one of you fix this for these poor blokes. They’ve been stuck on the side of the road for two days now”. It was ready in 15 minutes. I took it back down to the car, put it all back together, got the brakes working again and we headed off the next morning.
We'd done less than 100 miles and stopped at Kempsey. I was coming to a standstill in a parking lot, I put my foot on the brake and the pedal went to the floor again. This time the problem was simpler. The brake shoes on the back driver’s side wheel had worn down so much that the piston popped out of the slave cylinder. I took the worn shoes to a spare parts shop opposite the parking lot. Luckily it was that they had new shoes in stock. We were up and running again in less than two hours and continued our trip to Sydney without further incident.
Within a few months of returning to Sydney I sold her in good going condition for $40, having owned her for a little over 12 months. Conditions had changed and at the time I had no more use for a Morris Minor as I was moving to the country and needed a small truck. I chose another Morris, but this time a Morris Commercial LC5, one and a half-ton truck. It didn't have a side-valve engine but it did have a crash gearbox.
But that's another book in itself.