At the age of 31, something in my mind shifted and I’d just had enough. I was tired of working hard but never earning enough to obtain the things I’d been taught were fairly achievable – a mortgage deposit, decent furniture, a holiday away once in a while.
Despite the best of intentions and years of hard graft, I struggled to see much progress in life. It seemed my twenties had disappeared with not much to show for them and I didn’t know either how or why.
Thankfully, during this time, I’d at least managed to get round to purchasing my first car – a 1957 Standard 8, also known as Henry. At the age of 24, I’d adapted to driving 1950s style complete with the use of a choke, limited synchromesh and drum brakes.
As soon as I discovered the joy of the open road, my classic brought me much joy but, lurking in the background, grew a continuing dissatisfaction from seeing all my money disappear on household bills. There was no promotion appearing on the horizon, either. Out of nowhere, a need to establish what I really wanted from life made itself apparent.
I’d already noticed that most of my problem solving happened behind the wheel of my car, so a road trip seemed the perfect solution. I quit stacking shelves, packed a battered old suitcase and pondered where to go.
For someone who’d chosen a 26-hp classic that takes a whole minute to reach 60mph, I’m surprisingly interested in speed. I find the idea of someone taking an existing speed record, developing the necessary mechanicals and summoning the courage to go beyond it inspirational. I’ve learned of many people who achieved the Land Speed Record and seemed to gain respect, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in doing so.
With this in mind, and looking for a challenging journey to complete in my home country of the UK, it didn’t take long for me to settle on Pendine Sands – site of many a Land Speed Record in the 1920s - as my destination of choice.
As a happy coincidence, one of the vehicles that had competed on this legendary beach was about to complete some demonstration runs at Pendine around the same time as my road trip. Like a speed to be beaten, I’d found a goal – I would drive over 1200 miles to meet BABs, the land speed record car of racing driver J.G. Parry Thomas.
As I announced my intentions, several well-meaning acquaintances said that although they found the idea charming, they also thought I would likely encounter difficulties on route, perhaps not making it to Pendine at all.
The fact that my car was almost 60 years old, and that I myself have medical issues that often leave me weary and unable to drive on occasion, were the main concerns. It was pointed out that taking a 26-hp classic car onto busy motorways could be daunting and, although I never mentioned it, I knew I could barely afford the fuel for the trip.
Strangely, the more the odds stacked up against me making it to Pendine, the more motivated I became to go for it anyway. How I’d envied some of the people in the speed orientated books I’d read – how far removed their lives seemed to be from stacking shelves to pay rent and then repeat, over and over. As soon as the key turned in my Standard’s ignition, I hoped I’d never allow myself to become so bored in life ever again.
From my Scottish home, the first dot on my map was Kendal in Cumbria, where classic contacts Mike and Margaret Park had offered me a place to stopover on route to Wales. Henry’s odometer counted the miles as we began to head south. It felt a little odd but exciting to be leaving familiar places temporarily behind.
We crossed the Forth Road Bridge and made our way around the outskirts of Edinburgh before following the scenic A701 to Moffat. I then aimed for Penrith as the sun began to set, long shadows reaching out over the road as I looked for Mike and Margaret on the A6. In the distance I spotted a vintage car and realised they’d come out to meet me in their 1938 Austin 7 Ruby.
Margaret waved me down before climbing into my passenger seat while I followed Mike in the delicate-looking Austin up and over the steep stretch known as Shap Fell.
As I settled in for the night in Kendal, I felt satisfied with how well my 8 had run over the first 200 miles. It had been a good first day, even if I did briefly question what I was doing down on the outskirts of the Lake District. I’d never driven this far from home on my own before.
A book on the Standard Motor Company, which I’d found in my room, soon distracted me. The book contained black & white photographs of other Standard cars on long-distance rallies and I didn’t feel quite so odd in driving to Pendine with my 1957 saloon.
The following morning, Mike suggested we quickly check the Standard’s fluids over and, to my surprise, we found the oil level had dropped quite significantly since I’d set off from Scotland. I was a little puzzled by this but happily accepted an offer of a run into town to stock up on some 20W-50 before waving goodbye to the delightful little Austin and my Cumbrian friends as my 8 & I joined the M6 motorway.
On the outskirts of Preston, I briefly met with a fellow speed enthusiast who showed me where Donald Campbell’s hydroplane Bluebird K7 had been constructed in the grounds of Samlesbury Hall. A medieval manor house was the last thing I’d expected to be visiting in pursuit of speed record history!
After taking in Samlesbury Hall, I spent most of the afternoon counteracting the aerodynamic push and pull that resulted from numerous lorries passing my Standard and I in the slow lane of the M6. Despite the large size of their lorries, the drivers maneuvered around us rather delicately, giving plenty of space to the unusual vehicle driving amongst them. It was tiring for me behind the wheel however, and I was glad to eventually pull into Chester services for some respite.
Yet, my relief was short-lived as I spotted wisps of blue-grey smoke from the exhaust as I parked up. I checked the dipstick and oil levels were again low. My 8 was devouring oil at a worrying pace, but otherwise seemed to be running happily. Exhausted, I poured some of the oil from Kendal into the engine and decided to continue on towards Llandudno where a relative awaited my arrival.
After a good night’s sleep, I renewed all the Standard’s fluids under the shadow of the Great Orm. If we were going to catch BABs taking to the sands the next morning, I would have to drive practically the full length of Wales from north to south that day. I took comfort in knowing there was plenty of oil spare in the boot but I had my concerns about the car.
Our schedule dictated we push on and so I began a descent through the mountainous region of Snowdonia on the A470. Some twenty miles later, just as I was beginning to relax into the day’s drive, I had to halt for some roadworks. It was here that I noticed Henry’s 803cc engine now sounded uneven.
In synchro with the engine’s irregular idle, I saw puffs of yet more blue-grey engine smoke in the wing mirror. It looked like my classic was sending out Indian smoke signals. The lights that had kept us back went green. I hesitantly put my 8 into first and the workmen watched as the blue-grey trail went by.
Being on a rural stretch of road, I was unsure what to do. If I stopped, would I start again? I opted to continue onto the next town or village we found, gently taking the car up through the gears and hoping for the best. I turned off onto the A5, which seemed to be a quieter road, while vibrations passed through the cabin. There was then a peculiar clatter from the engine and my 8 cut out completely. I had just enough momentum to guide the car into a farm entrance and bring us to a halt just off the road.
I climbed out and to my horror saw streaks of brown, blue and purple running from the front of the car. Around us were fields full of sheep and distant hillsides, not the helpful forecourt of a garage that I’d been hoping for.
There was no phone signal and no one drove by as I tried a few adjustments under the bonnet. Nothing would persuade my 8 to fire. This was exactly what my friends had warned me of before I’d stubbornly set off for Pendine but I didn’t feel upset that the car had broken down. It was just a matter of working out what to do, a challenge along the way.
I knew the problem under the bonnet was beyond my mechanical knowledge and abilities, and so I would have to find someone who could offer some help. I locked the car and walked back in the direction from which we’d come, hoping to find a building that we’d passed not long ago.
Within a couple of miles, I found the pub that had passed by as a blur in the window, but disappointingly it was all boarded up. I could see fairly fresh oil spots on the road and figured these were from my Standard. I could hear a vehicle approaching as I wondered if these oil drips led all the way back to Scotland. A refuse truck appeared and I waved him down. The driver kindly offered to take me to a garage in nearby Betws-y-Coed.
Not long after I’d bid the refuse truck farewell, a mechanic from the village drove out with a trailer to fetch Henry. I was encouraged to take refreshment in a railway carriage converted into a café while they established what the problem was.
Sometime later I returned to find my Standard still on the garage’s trailer and the young mechanic confessing he wasn’t sure how to diagnose problems in a 1950s car. By now I’d started to realise I was losing my chance to see BABs in action, but I tried to push the impending disappointment away.
I suggested a compression test and offered to don my overalls, but the young mechanic said that as a member of the public I couldn’t work on my car on their premises. Instead, he offered to tow me twenty miles to another mechanic in Glan Conwy who requested the evening to see what he could do.
Stranded in North Wales that night, I felt awful. Had the 350 miles so far all been in vain and would I have an eye-watering bill awaiting the next morning? I shared my predicament on social media and one of my good friends offered to drive all the way down from Coniston to collect Henry & I.
I was touched by this kindness, but stubbornness saw me politely decline. In only three days of driving I’d found a renewed energy, a sense of adventure and had been revelling in simply having something meaningful to achieve. I wasn’t ready to give up.
The next morning I hesitantly climbed into a waiting Skoda, my Welsh taxi driver full of questions as to why a Scotswoman was journeying through northern Wales. I told him of my ‘probably foolish’ journey that had been due to total to 1200 miles to see BABs.
I told him I thought my engine was likely in pieces. I expected him to agree I’d been naïve in my plans but instead he congratulated me and said he hoped that the garage had been able to mend my Standard’s woes.
As we approached around a corner, my 8 sat outside on the street with the engine running. The taxi driver laughed with glee and wished me all the best as I climbed out. I was told there had been a number of small issues – a faulty HT lead connected to the coil tower had been replaced, as had a couple of worn spark plugs. The clutch had been adjusted and part of the fuel line had been renewed. The fuel-air mixture had also been fettled a little.
I asked if these problems were responsible for my car completely cutting out, having been convinced the engine was in difficulty. My mechanic nodded and told me one cylinder had significantly less compression than the rest, but that the engine was still strong enough to perform. He explained this was behind the significant oil consumption and the blue-grey smoke I’d seen.
‘I reckon you’ll get 1000 miles out of the engine before it goes completely’ he said, wondering where I was going now. ‘You’ll be going north now I expect?’ he asked curiously.
‘No. We’re going to Pendine. We’ve come all this way to go to Pendine, so to Pendine we’ll continue.’ I replied.
He smiled. ‘Ok, be gentle on what’s left of that engine. Let me know if you make it. Hopefully it’ll get you home too.’
‘I hope so. I’ll keep in touch.’ I said, paying the bill and climbed into the idling Henry.
Ahead lay almost the full length of Wales to complete, with BABs due to take to the sands some 140 miles south, in less than four hours. With an ailing engine, driving north would have now made sense to most people. Sat in a 1957 saloon, I watched modern cars breeze by with their ABS, power steering, parking assist and satellite navigation systems, and became aware I was not quite functioning at the same level of sensibility as most others.
In that moment, I had a goal and it had become surprisingly imperative. I felt prickly stubbornness run through all of me, right down to my hand that firmly clutched my 8’s gearstick. I selected first, the revs kicked in and our second attempt at conquering Wales began. However, fate had yet more in store for us.
Gillian's saga will continue next week.
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