There are many social trends which cause me concern – pretty much all of them really, but right up there at the top of my list is the decline of pub culture. Once upon a time, workers would pour out of the cotton mills and coal mines at the end of their shift and drink away the exhaustion at the nearest bar before heading off to kip down in their hovels and doing it all again the following day. Yes, there may have been rampant cholera, black lung and stinging poverty that clung like barbed wire, but at least they had a good choice of pubs. For a combination of reasons I’ll summarise as creeping social engineering and a perfect storm of land values and business rates, the old days of a pub on every street corner are long gone. According to the Campaign for Real Ale, an average of fourteen establishments close across the UK every week, and some of them might even be good ones. Of particular concern is the loss of pubs in rural locations where closure is often the canary in the coalmine for the decline of the community itself. The good news is that the classic car movement can make its own small contribution to keeping these places alive.
A classic car gathering at a good pub on a sunny evening is a Venn diagram of all that’s good in life. We could have chosen any number but recently dropped in on the monthly car night at the Bluebell Inn at Farnah Green, Derbyshire. The Bluebell is a popular venue and the classic car evenings attract enough attendees to fill the car park and spill over onto the grass. There’s a good selection of ale and freshly made burgers are on offer too, so you won’t go hungry and miss your dinner. But enough of that, this isn’t an advertorial for the Bluebell as they’re obviously perfectly capable of promoting themselves, but we will give them a deserved nod of recognition for what comes next. Fill up your glass and let’s look at some cars.
For a local evening gathering, the variety at the Bluebell is always impressive and the May event didn’t disappoint. Let’s start with the 1962 Triumph TR4 simply for the fact that it looks so good on steel wheels with hubcaps. All too often owners subscribe to the received wisdom that British sports cars must always have wire wheels, although that certainly wasn’t the case in period. A technological anachronism by the 1960s, wires have their place but this TR4 really stood out for daring to be different. Though if ploughing your own furrow is really your thing, of course you wouldn’t pick a popular sports car in the first place. Something like a Jowett Javelin would normally guarantee exclusivity – except when two of them turn up.
The Javelin proved to be the last hurrah for Bradford based Jowett, who were victims of stretching their ambition too far just when external factors conspired against them. Entering production in 1947, the Javelin was an advanced design with a lightweight aerodynamic body, construction of which was outsourced to Briggs Motor Bodies at Doncaster. Under the skin lay a twin carburettor 1496cc flat-four producing 50bhp, mounted low in the chassis with the radiator unusually located behind the engine. The car was brisk and nimble enough for some notable success in motorsport, winning its class at the 1949 Monte Carlo Rally and Spa 24-hour race while also taking overall honours at the 1953 International Tulip Rally. However, throughout 1952 demand for all new cars had collapsed as a reduction in purchase tax was widely expected, so potential customers were reluctant to put money down if they might make a saving by delaying their purchase. The tax reduction came in April 1953 and Jowett had new models in development to meet the expected surge of demand, but the strategy to outsource bodies would be their downfall. Briggs Motor Bodies were acquired by Ford in 1953 in order to secure Briggs’ Dagenham facility, with the Doncaster plant being quickly sold to Fisher & Ludlow who subsequently became part of BMC. These changes of ownership interrupted body supply for Jowett at exactly the wrong time. Jowett were unable to capitalise on the rising demand curve and ran out of money in 1954, sadly consigning the innovative firm to the history books.
Few Jowett customers would have predicted the current ubiquity of German brands on the roads, but one such niche brand to make an early impression was BMW. A small number of cars started to reach UK shores in the mid-1930s under the wing of UK importer Archie Frazer-Nash. Having made his name with raw and exciting chain driven sports cars, AFN’s business took a leap forward from the association with Munich and one of those early cars was present at the Bluebell evening. Debuting in 1934, the BMW 315/319 was a high-tech piece of performance engineering and came to AFN’s attention by beating a chain drive Frazer-Nash to class honours on the 1934 Alpine Trial. It boasted a lightweight tubular chassis, independent front suspension and even rack and pinion steering. Six-cylinder engines were available in 1.5-litre (315) or 1.9-litre (319) capacities and transmitted drive through a synchromesh gearbox. The model range would subsequently form the basis of the better known pre-war 328. The 319 present at the Bluebell has period competition history and is clearly no garage queen, in the best possible way. When pondering it’s features I couldn’t help but think that I wish my BMW had rack and pinion steering – and mine was built nearly 40 years later!
Talking of attractive Germans, I was drawn to the Opel Manta A, looking purposeful in bright red with a contrasting black bonnet. Early Mantas are rarely seen so it’s good to get reacquainted with the muscle car influenced styling, only at 8/10ths the scale of a full sized American. Similarly notable these days are early Ford Sierras; too many examples of the three-door XR4i ended up being butchered to make rubbish Cosworth replicas instead of being appreciated for what they were. The tide has now changed and the 2.8 V6 models are desired in their own right, their bi-plane spoilers and two-part rear windows rightly recognised as prime 1980s styling.
In a world of high prices the classic car scene can seem inaccessible to younger enthusiasts, but good entry level cars still exist as proven by our next pairing. As covered in previous lectures, I’m not a particular fan of Volkswagen Beetles, but this one seemed a good honest car with the emphasis on adding metal to the body and keeping it running well. That might seem like the basics but it’s not always the case these days in the VW scene… It was being kept company by a smart Mk2 Ford Fiesta, lightly modified but still looking reassuringly period. The Fiesta’s owner remarked that many trim items and even wiper arms are getting harder to find now but he prefers to drive an older car nonetheless. The number of young people applying for a driving licence continues to decline and the ubiquity of leasing rules out tinkering and modifying for many, so it’s pleasing to see interest is still alive in some quarters.
In the context of a small car gathering on a mid-week evening, the variety at the Bluebell was (and always is) remarkable. It just goes to show that you shouldn’t underestimate pub nights as they can turn up stuff you’d be lucky to find at the big national shows. This summer, why not get out and support your local pub meet? You can have a pint, see some cars, and contribute to keeping our social heritage in business all in one evening. That’s got to be a good thing. Cheers.