The Horseless Carriage
When I was a kid we had a black Ford Prefect.
This was something quite special as most homes didn’t have a car. They were generally considered to be an expensive luxury and people relied on buses, bikes or their own two feet.
There were two things I remembered that car for – holidays and Sunday Drives. A drive on Sunday was nearly always part of the week’s routine, in Summer anyway. We would discuss where we wanted to go (though actually I had little say in the matter). We would head off and end up somewhere and have a picnic at some lake or river. I loved those Sunday drives.
Being an engineer my father loved tinkering with the car. The two jobs he seemed fascinated with were adjusting his tappets and greasing his nipples. Sometimes I would be allowed to go around the car with the grease gun. The nipples were mostly on the suspension and my job was to place the gun firmly on a nipple and then press the plunger. That would force grease through into the joints to prevent wear.
Cars in those days were pretty elementary. Ventilation was achieved by winding a large butterfly-nut on the dashboard which moved the whole windscreen out on hinges. There were no flashing indicator lights. You warned other drivers of your intentions by using hand signals or in the case of our car by flicking a little switch on the steering column which flicked out little orange semaphore flags on the sige of the car. Those flags were always getting replaced as some smart bastard on the pavement would snap them off as we passed, just for the laugh.
Another regular job was starting the car by cranking. If the battery was low in charge my mother would sit behind the wheel while my father would retrieve the crank handle from the boot, insert it through the hole in the front bumper and then crank like mad until the engine started.
My father had had a tow bar fitted to the car, so several summers we would hire a caravan and head West. One summer we were holidaying in Donegal when a lorry ran into the front of the car. It was badly damaged but my father carefully drove back to the caravan, removed the wing and the front bumper and sat, battering the pieces of steel with a rock until they were back in shape. Cars in those days were strictly DIY!
They don’t make ’em like that any more.
A side valve engined Ford Prefect was my first car in the UK in 1967. After learning to drive on an Army Land rover, which had 4 forward gears, I found the 3 forward gears of the Prefect a bit strange at first. The biggest problem I had with it was the starter motor kept jamming when trying to start the car. What I couldn't't work out was why the windscreen wipers would slow down whenever I went up a hill. Swapped it for a Renault 4 and never looked back.
I can't give any technical details as I was looking at it from the point of view of a 5 or 6 year old [it was the early fifties]. The two noticeable features in my memory where the flat boot [the Anglia looked much the same but the boot looked a bit pregnant] and the headlamps on stalks on the front wings. Later models had the headlights incorporated in the wings. It also had quite a few grease nipples…….
Yes, I had the very similar Ford Popular as my first car. Wipers were driven by the engine vacuum so the more you pressed the accelerator the slower they went, getting up hills in the rain was an interesting experience. The transverse springs made cornering interesting too when you had a few passengers, on bendy roads it was best if everyone leaned into the curves like motor cyclists. I eventually graduated to a Morris Minor convertable, which was great except it had suffered from bodged welding. If more than two people got in it their weight distorted the car and the doors wouldn't fit and close, It could cope with two people, then you closed the doors, any extra passengers had to climb in over the boot.
The wipers were driven by a smaller version of a condensing steam engine except instead of steam it used the suction, vacuum, developed in the car engine air inlet pipework, manifold, to let the outside air atmospheric pressure push a piston back and forward. The manifold connected to wiper motor by rubber tubing.
Proof that early car designers were steam buffs. Did not trust that electrickery. Reason that Joseph Lucas was known as the Prince of Darkness.
Fine when you are whizzing along on the flat, but as the engine slowed the suction got less. Slower wipers.
In my early childhood, my dad had a 1933 Morris 8, already more than 20 years old – the semaphore indicators had died many years earlier so hand-signals only, no heater (obviously no radio), wooden floorboards with gaps for flood-water to enter at will, 6v electrics, one candle-power headlights, a single wiper and virtually no brakes. He always parked it on a slope so he could bump-start it as the battery wasn't up to that, or out with the starting-handle. Despite all that, I never remember it breaking down or failing to get us home. It had that old-car smell which you still get in vintage cars, that evocative blend of oil, petrol, leather and clutch-plate. Happy days.
I met an old mechanic in Dublin about twenty years ago who said he was giving up because modern cars were deliberately built to exclude maintenance by traditional mechanics. He would have been delighted to have had a Ford Prefect above his inspection pit.
Not my old next door neighbour by any chance?
The vacuum in a petrol cars inlet manifold is inversely proportional to the throttle opening. Wide open (i.e. foot to the floor) and there is virtually no restriction to the airflow, and consequently virtually no vacuum. Take your foot right off the throttle, and the engine becomes a large vacuum pump, since it is trying to suck in air past an almost closed throttle plate. That's why the Ford Pop's wipers ran fast while sitting at the traffic lights, and then slowed to a crawl as you pulled away. Ironically, vacuum servo assisted brakes aren't a problem, as you normally won't be braking when you also have the throttle wide open – although Rally drivers may disagree…
Who could have predicted that a drop of reminiscence about old cars could turn into a discussion on pneumatics?!
Well the vacuum wipers were a regular talking point with the Ford Pop! At least the Mk1 Mini I started out in had electric ones – but only single speed, and (IIRC) they didn't park automatically. The screen wash was a simple push button, and it (like the wiper switch) couldn't be reached if you had the non-inertia reel seat belt done up properly, One of the accessory companies made some plastic extensions you could push over the originals. The headlight dip switch was another button – this time, on the floor near the clutch pedal! The indicators were controlled by a column mounted stalk, but once again, they didn't self cancel, and with the general racket inside a small tin box just a foot away from the engine, it was easy to drive for miles with the damn things blinking away.
Oh, and "Greasing Nipples & Adjusting Tappets" was still obligatory in those days – none of the new fangled "Sealed For Life" ball joints and hydraulic valve lifters we take for granted now. I very much doubt the average modern car thief would be able to start a 50-60's vintage car if the engine was cold – you need to pull the choke out when there's no computers running the engine. He (or she) wouldn't know about brake fade either – I sure as hell found out the first time I tried stopping from 80 with drum brakes all round…
Aha! Keep reading this site. There's a small piece about Minis coming up.