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A Shout From The Attic: The Esmé Years - 7

...Bessie was perfect apart from a little carpet rot, and waterlogged floor panels, which was par for the course in a car of her vintage. She was younger than me by one year but had not worn as well. But she went, and that was all that was important to us...

Ronnie Bray acquires his first car which brings him fun and headaches in equal measure.

We drove up to the Upper George at Scammonden in the interesting old Ford car we brought from the Sovereign Garage at Shepley for twenty pounds: a month’s wages for Esmé who worked as a bookkeeper for Otto Tilscher, rug maker at Shore Head in Huddersfield. We had an appointment to meet my Dad, George Frederick Bray, who was in the company of Sam, one of his brothers and, therefore, one of my uncles. Sam seemed like a nice man. But let me tell you about the car.

Sovereign Garage at Shelley advertised inexpensive cars in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner. They started at £20 0s 0d and went up well beyond our means. Esmé and I were not rich by any stretch of the imagination in the summer of 1957, but with the reckless enthusiasm of youth, we felt that we could sacrifice Esmé’s monthly salary and enter the £20 0s 0d car market. The following Saturday, we took the Barnsley bus out to Gill’s on the outskirts of Huddersfield, and looked over their cheap stock. We found one that started, and paid our cash and drove home in Bessie, a small black Ford 1936 four-door saloon of ancient vintage and thought ourselves royalty.

Bessie was perfect apart from a little carpet rot, and waterlogged floor panels, which was par for the course in a car of her vintage. She was younger than me by one year but had not worn as well. But she went, and that was all that was important to us.

At least, so we thought until we discovered a couple of little idiosyncrasies. I stress little because I wouldn’t want to give the impression that there was anything seriously wrong with Bessie, and she looked really nice standing in the cobbled yard behind our home at Woodthorpe Terrace, Longroyd Bridge, where we rented a two roomed flat in a massive house that belonged to Mr Weaving, who was then the owner of Newtown Laundry at Honley.

So, she wasn’t perfect. So what! If everything were perfect we wouldn’t dare touch anything or enjoy anything in case we spoilt it, and that would make us miserable. The best things are well worn and comfortable and she was both of those, as long as you didn’t sit in the back. She wasn’t expensive either, but she seemed expensive because Esmé and I were reasonably poor. Esmé worked in the office of Otto Tilscher’s rug factory above Aspley Basin at Shore Head, Huddersfield, and she earned twenty pounds a month. I was working as a salesman for Handy Angle Ltd, trying to sell their slotted steel angle.

I had heard it said that “You get what you pay for,” and we got our twenty pounds worth of car. What we didn’t know was that this was no ordinary car. It had some hidden ‘extras’ that would reveal themselves to us in course of time. It would be nice to be able to say that we had bought Chitty Chitty Bang Bang unbeknown, but it was not so. What we had was a car with sufficient strength of character not to disappoint us in one fell swoop. Instead, she doled out her dismal revelations piecemeal, doubtless so that she would be forgiven one peccadillo before she presented us with the next one.

The most important thing about Bessie was that she started when you pressed her button, and, most of the time, she kept going. Another significant thing about her was that, apart from the teeniest drops of drizzle getting through the decayed seal of the sunroof, she kept the rain and snow from wetting us through.

It was almost by accident that I noticed her dipstick appeared to be shrinking! I had topped up her engine oil to the ‘full’ mark, but checking again after a few miles I found that the level astonishingly low. Soon afterwards, the reason for this became sickeningly apparent when we parked on a hill facing down. When we returned to Bessie, there was a stream of engine oil running down the road between the cracks of the cobblestones. Inspection showed that the oil was running unhindered through the degraded front oil seal of Bessie’s crankshaft.

Enquiries brought the intelligence that it would require a major engine rebuild to replace a part costing a few coppers, and our hearts sink. We had bought a lemon. However, “Bessie” still ran and got us from place to place adequately. Our strategy to keep her running was to purchase three or four bottles of viscose green liquid every time we put petrol into her tank, and keep pouring gloopy green gold into her engine, every time we had descended a hill or driven more than a few miles. It is fortunate that in our penurious state, both petrol and oil were cheap.

We had not had Bessie very long when we gave Jeff and Barbara Cogan a lift from the meetinghouse to Moldgreen. When Jeff got out, he complained about his back, saying that our precious car had injured him. We asked him how that could be and he said that when we hit a bump or a hole in the road, the back of the car sat down and the sides bulged outwards and that the rear seat had gone down with such force at one time as to ground the suspension and hurt his back. Sitting in the front seats, Esmé and I were blissfully unaware of this until Jeff’s misfortune.

Inspection revealed that Bessie’s rear chassis was eroded all the way through at one point on her right side, and she had a terminal condition on her left side with but an inch of solid metal holding midships and aft together. When I lifted her by the back bumper her frame bent through a substantial arc. I tried to drill holes in the chassis with a wood drill so that I could brace the right side with a short piece of Handy Angle, but the drill turned blue, then red, then almost white, and it ended up with a blob instead of a point. That project abandoned, we drove with more care, and did not give lifts unless the victims were duly warned and had signed twenty-three-page waivers!

This was not the full extent of Bessie’s talents. She had one more surprise in store for us. Occasionally her engine stopped for no apparent reason. It just cut out and would not restart. There was petrol in the tank and power in the battery, at least for the first of our attempts to get it going again. Yet, after the battery had been flattened, I took out the rusty starting handle, and with a few deft turns, the engine roared, well, coughed, well spluttered, into life.

Once, as Esmé and I were driving through Huddersfield to go down Chapel Hill, intending to turn on St Thomas’s Road toward Longroyd Bridge and home, the car stopped just outside the Co-op. I flattened the battery trying to start the engine. A group of students from Huddersfield Technical College were walking along Buxton Road, and I asked them if they would mind giving us a push to the top of Chapel Hill. They cheerfully obliged and part way down Chapel Hill, Bessie roared into life.

When safely home, calling on my skills as a vehicle mechanic, learned when I soldiered in the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, I lifted the bonnet and peered inside to make some basic checks. The carburettor float chamber was dry, but the float needle valve was in the open position. There was petrol in the tank, as our impromptu dipstick – a twelve-inch rule, pressed into service – showed, so the cause had to be elsewhere. I was stuck!

Later, whilst contemplating the problem, something I had seen when trying to fix the lacework chassis with my sample length of Handy Angle came to mind. The petrol pipe that ran from the tank to the petrol pump was red. Curiously I removed the rear seat, traced the course of the petrol pipe, and noted that the standard copper pipe had been replaced between the tank outlet and a point forward of the rear chassis member by a length of rubber gas pipe. I went to the back of Bessie and pushed down on her bumper. Her rear sat well down. Too well down to be proper. I discovered that when the back sat down, it came down on the gas pipe and squashed it flat where it passed under the rear chassis cross-member and cut off the fuel supply making Bessie dribble to a halt.

I figured that swinging the starting handle caused the body to sit it up enough to allow the pump to draw fuel to the engine. Thereafter, when Bessie stopped, I got out, lifted her rear end, got back in and hit the starter button, then after a couple of seconds, when the petrol was flowing free again, Bessie coughed a couple of times, started, and purred happily once more into the sunset.

Bessie got us where we wanted to go, until she couldn’t go any more and then she was fit only to be dismantled and melted down into scrap to be fashioned into cheap tin trays of something equally dismal.

Bessie was fun. My education in second hand car buying was not completed because I have bought a steady stream of cars that had some challenges. But that is the lot of those without unlimited financial resources. Jeff Cogan swears that riding in the rear gave him a bad back, and it might have done. I learned more about putting cars right than I would have otherwise, and it is always useful to have a common enemy when you are newly married and struggling to make it work.

Most of us demand our cars to be more faultless than Bessie, and complain loudly when they let us down. But we were grateful that we had a car at all and so we smiled at her quirks and counted our blessings. What a wonderful world it would be if we would be kinder to the idiosyncrasies of others and counted their positive gifts as blessings. As Jesus said, “Love one another,” even if, like Bessie, they are not perfect.

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