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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

On the road. And off it



It was all going so well. I was spinning along through the glorious Gloucestershire countryside in a classic sports car. The sun was warm, I was surrounded by fields of grey-green wheat rippling in the breeze, birds like black flashes darting in and out of hedgerows, church towers emerging distantly from the folds in the landscape. My car, a 1971 TVR Vixen 2500, was built for sinuous A roads like this; exhaust woofling, tappets tappetting, wheels wooshing on smooth tarmac.

Until all of a sudden, it coughed, died and drifted to a stop. It was Bank Holiday Monday and I was stuck.


Until that morning and for about the past decade my TVR was sitting in a garage in Somerset. Cars really don't like just sitting and about a year ago I decided I had to Do Something About It. It took some work to get an MOT. Like four new tyres, some welding, a carburettor overhaul, work on the brakes, a new screen washer pump, new front trunnions, and those are the most interesting bits so I will leave it there.


Suffice to say after a few weekends grazing my knuckles and getting oil under my fingernails my TVR got an MOT. My pride and joy, the car I bought around twenty years ago, was finally back on the road.

Well, it was legal anyway, but it became clear that just because it was allowed on the road, didn't mean it was really driveable. When hot, the clutch and the brakes became distinctly apathetic about their duties. The hydraulics in both needed rebuilding with new seals. So over the course of several grimy weekends I did all this and eventually rented a garage space in London, to finally give my parents back the use of their own garage, and let me get my car closer to home. May Bank holiday weekend was to be D-day. I would do the last little bit of work, rebuilding the brake master cylinder and overhauling the servo on the Saturday, before driving off to London victoriously on the Sunday. So here's how that went...


Day 1.
Pickup the car from Adrian, who I went to school with and now owns the Finishing Touch Bodyshop. He'd resprayed the car beautifully fifteen years ago, and this time he'd done minor repairs to the sills and sprayed them black with the original 2500 logo. He'd also dealt patiently with the brake fluid dripping all over the floor of his body shop. Sorry Adrian.


And it is driving from his paint shop where the first of the weekend's unexpected delights happens. There is a terrific "BANG", which is the sound of the top layer of the sunroof making a bid for freedom by letting go of the clips which hold it together at the front, and flipping over like the page of a book, into the back window.


I discover that two tiny screws that hold the thing together at the front are missing, so it's a race back into Weston-Super-Mare to the Nut and Bolt shop ten minutes before they close for the weekend.

Thankfully they had replacements. Back again to Winscombe and I start repairing the sunroof, fitting the screws and replacing a rivet which had popped out in all the excitement. By mid afternoon I'd finished that job and was ready to start on what I was supposed to be doing: overhauling the brake master cylinder. Step one: remove it. Easy! Step two take it apart. Easy! Um, in theory, if you have the right tool, a half inch Allen key. Which I hadn't got and I couldn't make a bolt head work. So hurray for the internet which reveals a place in Bristol has one. But it's closed.


Day 2
This was the day I was going to drive back to London. Except the car now has no brakes so that isn't going to happen. My long-suffering father goes to Bristol to get the allen key while I work on getting the brake servo off. Its only secured by four nuts, but they are behind the pedals in the driver's footwell and they haven't been removed, probably ever. Getting to them requires the combined skills of a circus contortionist and an avid potholer.

With my head buried in the footwell and my hand wedged up behind the pedals, spanner balanced in my fingertips I manage to remove three rusted-on nuts in about an hour, with only minor shouting. The last one though is particularly inaccessible and takes another two hours of painful, infuriating spanner jiggling before it finally plunks onto the floor mat and I begin to think that perhaps I won't sell the b*%$£y car after all. Out comes the servo, full of old brake fluid that had leaked in from the brake master cylinder. Hmm, that's where it all went... My father returns with the correct tool and I quickly and satisfyingly disassemble the master cylinder to reveal ragged bits of ancient rubber carefully allowing brake fluid to go, pretty much wherever it wants.

I reassemble with new seals, refit and hurray! All we need to do now is bleed the brakes. This couldn't be easier could it? Attach the tube to the bleed nipple and pump the air bubbles out. Then set out on a triumphant test drive! During which the brake pedal goes almost to the floor and the brakes apply themselves to the brake disks with the full force of a small child picking up a grape.

There follows another frustrating hour of brake bleeding in which every push of the pedal brings more bubbles. Where the heck are they coming from?! The Internet suggests it is air trapped in the master cylinder, so off it comes again, for a poke and a prod during which it squirts brake fluid in my eye. Thanks. Back together and it's now getting dark....lets try it again tomorrow. At least we managed to clean up and repaint the servo and master cylinder; so while they may not actually work, they do look nice.


Day 3
OK up early and today, by trying a variety of brake-bleeding techniques including simply pumping the pedal to flush bubbles out of the master cylinder and into the reservoir, there are brakes!. The test drive this time reveals I now have the ability to slow down and even stop. Always useful in a car. I check over everything for a final time and wave goodbye to my patient parents who have cooked for me, commiserated with me, gone on endless errands to tool shops and spares places and generally been incredibly supportive.

I am off to London. Because this will be the first journey of more than about five miles the car has done in a decade, I am avoiding the motorway. I am pretty sure something will break and when it does I don't want to be dodging juggernauts on the hard shoulder of the M4. So this will be a long journey of rural loveliness taking in Somerset, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and finally, the urban splendour of North London.


And for about an hour or so this really is a great drive. The car has never performed better, cruising happily and staying cool. But then there was the sputtering and the stopping and the standing by the roadside scratching my head.

And actually like every breakdown I have ever had, this was also where the magic began.



To start with, the car chose its moment well; on a quiet bit of A road, where I could freewheel onto a tiny little byway and then push it for a few meters into a layby under a tree. Although we were deep in the countryside there was just enough data signal for me to get on the internet and find the nearest garage, the nearest village and the nearest mechanic.

I rang the mechanic who was a mile away and worked from home. Yes, if I couldn't repair it he would have a look tomorrow and I could leave it with him. So that's the back-up plan. First though, I needed to work out what had happened. Trying the starter turned the engine over but it wouldn't run and eventually backfired spectacularly through the carbs, with a bang, a wheeze and a waft of smoke.

OK, so at least the battery works. I took the top off the fuel pump and it had fuel but the level in the filter seemed low and I know the gauge doesn't work so I called the garage:  "We are open until 6 and yes we have a fuel container". I walked two miles to the garage, bought a fuel container and filled it. I was having a drink in the sunshine ready for the walk back, when a young woman who had stopped for a fill-up came over. "Have you got far to go with that?" she asked, eying the fuel container. "A couple of miles" I said, sweatily. "Come on, I'll give you a lift". It turned out she was hankering for a classic car as a project, though I wasn't perhaps the greatest role model in that regard...

She dropped me off at the layby "Ooh lovely TVR" and as there was little more she could do, she left with a wave. I poured the petrol into the tank, turned the key and "wirr wirr wirr BANG!" Smoke drifted over the engine bay. Nothing had changed. A chap in a 4x4 pulled up and asked if I needed help. "Only with the diagnosis" I said. We chatted about the symptoms and he shook his head ruefully, adding that he would be driving back that way later and to let him know if I needed anything. Once again I was left with the sound of birdsong, my car sitting inscrutably by the side of the road.


When I first got it as a callow thirty-something, untroubled with almost any mechanical expertise whatsoever, I drove it home for the first time and it suddenly stopped. The coil was dead. Years later, driving a newly purchased 1967 Corvette Stingray through Ohio, that too suddenly stopped without warning. The coil was dead.  On that basis, the likely diagnosis of my TVR's ailment seemed to be something major and electrical and given that the coil was very old and very hot, I was suspicious.

Clearly though, I was going no-where today. The next village had a pub with rooms so I booked one. I called my parents who had been on a victory tour of Somerset tea rooms to mark the reclaiming of their garage. My Dad, who's patience was to be tested just a little longer, volunteered to drive up the next morning via Moss, the specialist Triumph place, where he would pick up a coil for me. My wife, who I think had never really believed I was going to be home at the weekend, or even this week, made more childcare arrangements and said brightly that she would see me "at some point".  So, I was going to leave the car on its own for the night.

I pulled out my travel bag, which conveniently turns into a backpack, and walked the mile and a half to the King's Arms at Didmarton. There, after intensive searching of the internet for any clues as to what was ailing my car,  I succumbed to some heart-stoppingly good roast pork belly, a large glass of Chardonnay and the sleep of the dead.


Early the next morning I called Enginuity, the specialist Triumph garage where I spent a lot of my time and money as a new TVR owner in the 90s. Jerry answered the phone.

"Hi" I said, "I don't know if you will remember me, but I used to bring my old TVR to you many years ago and..."
"Richard!" said Jerry, and it was just like old times.

He too thought the coil seemed to be a likely suspect. So I rang Moss and got one lined up for my Dad to pick up (which he did) and half an hour later he picked me up from the pub, where I was sitting-off the impact of the largest breakfast ever consumed by man.

We drove over to the TVR, popped the coil in and...." wirr wirr wirr" Nothing.

OK. I was Not Going To Be Beaten on this. I had already checked all the other visible electrical bits but I went through it all again and this time, when I took off the distributor cap I noticed that the central electrode in the cap was missing.

The bit in the middle is an "inny" when it should be an "outy"
The rotor arm was also slightly loose and it looked like it may have broken the electrode off. Bingo. I called Moss, yes they had a distributor cap on the shelf, so we drove the half hour back to Bristol and fifteen quid later, we left with a new cap and rotor arm. Back in my little corner of Gloucester with the sun shining and the birds tweetling, I fitted both in about ten minutes.

After this, I was out of ideas. Nervously I turned the key and....instantly, the car started.


It was such a relief. I could feel the stress draining away as the car ticked over, my Dad and I both beaming. He drove with me to the garage where I filled up again (there was actually plenty of petrol in it), and we said our goodbyes. Once again, he had helped get me going.

It struck me very clearly how fatherhood really is a lifetime commitment, and I can only hope I am able to be there for my son, as my father has been for me. Thank you for everything.


Apart from torrential rain on the way home, the rest of the journey was uneventful. The car hummed along and I discovered that some of the windscreen rubber was actually quite waterproof... Some of it.


I reflected on all the good luck I had in getting to this point: breaking down near a layby, with a phone signal, not far from a garage and a comfortable place to stay (with great food). I was also within striking distance of a specialist parts supplier. Everyone was so friendly and did their best to help - from the young woman who drove me from the petrol station and those who pulled up asking if they could help, to Jerry's patient advice on the phone. Not to mention the miles and hours driven by my dad to come to my rescue.

Still it was lovely to pull up outside our house where Philippa was waiting with a big smile. She put her head in and said the old car smell took her straight back to the holidays we'd had together in it. It's comforting to know too that the next time I need to do something to my little car, it is tucked up in its new garage just down the road. Ready for another adventure.