I need to put things into perspective here. The Austin/Morris Mini was introduced to the amazed British public in August 1959. In general terms it was considered a technological marvel. It was described as being a two box design, having a steel box for the mechanical bits and another steel box for the passengers. It was remarkably roomy and supposedly brought motoring within the reach of everyone.
The basic mini had an engine capacity of 850cc (less than a litre) and its’ power output was about 30PS (in todays’ numbers). The car boasted a suspension system that essentially consisted of rubber blocks being sat between the body and the wheels.
The car had sliding windows with plastic locks for security. Door handles on the outside were rudimentary and there were no handles on the inside; the door was opened by pulling on a wire that was screwed onto the door at one end and attached to the sliding lock at the other. The trim on the inside of the door simply slotted against the single skin of the door but one advantage of the car was the bucket sized storage compartment at the bottom of each door and underneath the rear windows.
Looking at the dashboard, there was a single circular instrument housing that was home to the speedometer: the car was capable of about 70 miles an hour with assistance from helpful wind and road inclination. Also within this housing was the fuel gauge and two warning lights, one to tell you the battery was being charged, the other to show there was enough oil pressure to avoid catastrophic engine failure. At this stage there was no engine temperature gauge.
The headlights were activated with a simple rocker switch with a simple ignition switch placed between it and the windscreen wiper switch. There was no choice of wiper speed and there was no steering lock! If you wished to dip the headlights, which were about as powerful as a candle in the wind, the dip switch was a foot operated device attached to the floor. The direction indicator switch was on the steering column and looked very much like a fairy wand with a green plastic cap on the end that flashed when it was activated.
The floor covering was a thin rubber mat sitting directly on the steel floor, seats were very basic without any additional support or head restraints and of course no seat belts. There were no windscreen washers and there was no heater and no reversing lights!
The ultimate reward for the lucky new owner was the likelihood of the car breaking down the first time it was driven in the rain. Although rain is a popular subject for discussion amongst the British population, it obviously did not feature for the design team since the car was not prepared for it. Rather quickly, a modification that involved attaching a board to the inside of the front grille to deflect the rain followed by the factory fitting of a rubber glove to fit over the ignition system.
So for all this, the price at the time was around £480.00! And with petrol about 22p per gallon, motoring sounds cheap! Yes? NO!
At the time an average worker would be earning around £500.00 per year. So it would take him/her about a year to earn enough to buy a car. Around 40 gallons of petrol could be bought with the weeks wage. Today the average wage would buy around 90 gallons and the modern car would travel about 50% further than the older equivalent!
The average annual salary today of around £25 000 would buy a Mini John Cooper Works Coupe. This car would take you that further 50% per gallon of fuel, and having about six times as much power would be capable of twice the top speed. It is filled with all the modern safety devices such as air bags, anti skid devices along with braking and steering systems that do not compare with the 1959 version. The standard of comfort is also incomparable with proper thick carpets, leather seats that are shaped to the human frame and glass designed to reduce glare. Windows are electrically operated but you do not need to open them to cool down since a sophisticated climate control system is installed. The Hi Fi system is about as good as you can get. I could go on ad infinitum but it is obvious there is a world of difference. Of course, you could buy a Ford Fiesta with many of the listed features and put about £10 000 in the bank!
Back to work! For some time, I was drafted by the foreman, Roddy, to assist him personally. He would busy himself in between organising the other mechanics with work requirements and answering the telephone by addressing what he would call snag jobs. The average age of the mechanics in the car department was probably around twenty. Most of them were still apprentices since apprenticeships lasted five years from the age of 16, so you were ‘out of your time’ on your 21st birthday. The result of this was that there was a lack of in-depth experience so while most tasks were carried out without problem, some developed into ‘snags’. Roddy was a very experience individual who was not afraid to get stuck in.
This helped me to gain experience dealing with complexities under the expert guidance of Roddy. One such job we were working on was an influential customer who was also an acquaintance of Mr Dapper Geniality which entailed both general manager and customer breathing down our necks while the job was in progress. The troublesome component was the carburettor and I was mainly involved in passing the required tools (I was beginning to recognise the terminology) to Roddy but I was asking questions about the job as I was doing it. Although he did not say anything at all to me at the time, Mr Dapper Geniality obviously noticed my interest as he made reference to it later to Roddy. His suggestion was that I should be nurtured in the mysterious workings of the carburettor as a future specialism. It turned out that Mr Dapper Geniality had himself been a carburettor specialist in the long, distant past.
Another thing that started happening was working on ‘Guvvie’ jobs. I found myself being involved in all sorts of different kinds of jobs for which there were no job cards. Now job cards were the pieces of paper that were a record of time spent on the job along with parts and consumables the customer was expected to pay for.
I think the definition of a ‘guvvie’ job is one which is ‘tax free’. In other words jobs that the government has no knowledge of! Roddy had numerous friends and acquaintances who had cars that gave trouble at times. Roddy and I, or me under directions from Roddy would repair or service these cars and I would not be given a job card. If consumables were needed, either Roddy would produce them like magic or I would be given a card belonging to a different vehicle. I think this must have been a lucrative element to the foremans’ job. No-one would question his integrity, especially not me, but he would make his own arrangements for charging the ‘customer’. I never got a share of the proceeds, of course, and that would furnish him with another layer of secrecy as I could never be accused of being involved in anything.
I was given the instructions at times that if anyone asks whose vehicle it was, I was to refer them to Roddy. He was always prepared!
I was obviously to find later there was something of a culture of ‘Guvvies’ not only here but everywhere in the industry. Many mechanics use the ‘Guvvie’ system as the basic foundation to build a legitimate business. Many have been very successful!
Sometimes, the work being done was very questionable. Cars suffered very severe rust problems. Yes they did have a ‘proper’ chassis made of comparatively thick steel but they did not have effective rust prevention either on the chassis or the rest of the body. Water finds its’ way easily into cavities. What with engineering tolerances and sealing materials being relatively primitive compared with modern vehicles, rust was definitely a major issue. Vehicle testing by the government did not enter the equation until 1960 and then it was for ten-year old cars. This was reduced to seven-year old cars in 1962 and later reduced to five before finishing at the current level of three years.
There was quite a bit of leeway in the standard required and as long as the vehicle was not falling apart, it passed the test.
Roddy was involved in getting his ‘customers’ through the test. I remember being involved in a repair where there was a hole the size of a football at the junction of the rear wheel arch and the sill. As we tried to find metal suitable for welding, the hole had become bigger and bigger! Finally, having given up the search, Roddy decided to fill the hole with newspaper, cover the paper with a layer of cardboard and paint it with underseal (a bituminous material used for protecting metal from the elements).
Underseal was applied in minimal quantities in some key areas of the vehicle body. Customers who wanted to give their car some protection that might keep rust at bay for more than a couple of years could pay for it to be undersealed at the point of sale, once it had been on the road it was largely a waste of time. As explained above, the underseal was a bitumen based rubberised material that could be applied by brush. The youngest apprentices were chosen for the task as they were less likely to turn down the ten shilling (50p) ‘reward’ that was paid for each car completed. Ten shillings was just about a days’ pay so I for one could not afford to turn it down. Two days pay for one days work seemed fair enough to me! There was a big but though! It was a very dirty job. laid on your back trying to get a brush full of slippery rubber paint into all the nooks and crevices on those cars was difficult to say the least and impossible in many places. Fortunately, the work was unlikely to be inspected, especially by the new owner. So, much was missed!
Getting cleaned up afterwards was a nightmare. Rubber, silicon or neoprene gloves were a thing of the future. It would be up your sleeves, in your hair all over your face and some of it would set quite hard before you had a chance of removing it. To remove it you had the choice of washing in paraffin or petrol before the final scrub with the sandy soap skin remover. Without referring to the fire risk, smoking was allowed anywhere in the workshop, Imagine the response from the Health and Safety Executive nowadays.
The ten shillings extra pay was referred to as ‘muck money’. It could just as easily be called danger money! Ironically, it was just about a waste of time. It was applied in such a haphazard manner that water crept under it and it peeled off in big lumps eventually leaving rotten metal further exposed to the elements!