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In England in 1964, while my husband was still in college, we splurged some of our meagre savings and bought a 1939 Morris 8 Series E for £35.
We knew it was a bold, but likely unwise, purchase as the car already had a few undeniable faults. Wire was wrapped around one of the bumpers to prevent it from falling off, and a hole in the wooden floorboards caused water to splash over the passenger’s feet whenever we drove through a puddle.
One of the indicator lights, which opened out from the side of the car, was damaged, which meant that the driver sometimes had to bang on the side of the car to persuade the indicator to move. The car had leather bucket seats, but few desirable extras, such as a heater or radio.
We soon learned that when we heard a grinding noise coming from the rear, the axle needed to be oiled. Sometimes, without warning and usually in busy traffic, the engine would stall and my husband would have to open the bonnet and hit the fuel pump hard with his fist to persuade it to start “clicking” again.
The starter motor only worked when in the mood to do so, with the result that we would park the car on a side street that sloped down to the main road so that, if necessary, I would be able to get it rolling by getting out and pushing.
One day while we were driving around the city the rear brake jammed on, making the wheel very hot. We always carried a bottle of water for topping up the radiator, and we quickly used this to cool the wheel down – during which time the car disappeared in a cloud of steam. Fortunately, it all happened near a garage, where the mechanic told us to push the car onto the hoist so he could check it out. Once it was aloft, he proceeded to swing on the brake cable to free it, and in no time the car was returned to earth with the problem fixed.
Unfortunately, generous parents aside, cars are too expensive for young people to buy these days – and certainly too complex for the amateur mechanic to repair. As my husband had spent many hours of his teenage years working on a friend’s vintage cars, he was able to do many of the repairs to the Morris himself.
We were also fortunate not to have to worry about safety and emissions testing. When the exhaust pipe was shouting out to be replaced, he bought what was called an exhaust bandage, which cost a shilling or two, soaked it in water and wrapped it around the hole in the pipe, securing it with wire.
Due to the increasing “pinging” sounds coming from the engine, he spent one weekend stripping it down into what seemed a thousand parts, cleaning out the built-up carbon and putting it all back together, with the engine starting again almost at first pull.
On another occasion, my husband decided that the spark plugs needed to be changed. As he was leaning over the engine, the wrench fell against the battery terminal and the battery exploded, spraying acid everywhere. Two girls walking by screamed and ducked behind a nearby hedge. By some incredibly good fortune, only a spot of acid went onto my husband’s sweater, and once the battery and plugs were replaced the car was good to go.
However, it was only months later that a fire started under the bonnet, which we smothered with an old rag. We figured that battery acid had gradually rotted some of the wiring, causing a short circuit. Yet again, we were still able to drive the car as long as we managed without the use of one of the gauges.
Late one evening, while driving home, my husband realized the engine was getting very hot. He switched it off and coasted to a stop. It turned out the freeze plug in the back of the engine block had fallen out, causing all the water to drain away.
Our first thoughts were that this was likely the death knell for the car – far too expensive a repair to make any economic sense. However, on suggestions from mechanics, my husband was able to cut a hole through the metal body near the foot brake and tap in a replacement plug – at the cost of only a few pennies.
Approaching the end of my husband’s postgraduate years, we realized we needed something more reliable, and we traded in the Morris for £25 and bought a more reliable, though tinny, secondhand minivan. At the time, we were not sad to see the Morris go, although we would now dearly love to have it back.
Reflecting on our working years, we realize we were lucky to have grown up in the 1950s and ’60s with a subsidized education and job opportunities for many young people in Britain and, in our case, Canada.
Being able to own even an unreliable old car such as the Morris 8 gave us greater independence and was the start of a process that saw us move into the middle class with our work prospects, benefits and prosperity gradually increasing over the years.
This is certainly not the case for young people today – even those who go on to university have to be very creative in their search for work, and those lacking a good education face a difficult future.
To paraphrase Prime Minister Harold MacMillan: We are extremely fortunate to have had it so good.
Mary Moore lives in Kingston.