My First Car: Betsy the Morris Minor stranded by high tide
Victor Bennett tells how Betsy the Morris Minor’s engine was flooded, along with the interior, by the high tide which also left it with a slight smell of salty fish.
As a young man, with a four-year-old boy, I was excited to go to the local garage, and car dealer, to choose my first car.
As this was ‘uncharted waters’ for a 26-year-old, I took along my father – ex regimental sergeant major Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), 8th Army Desert Rat and now special constable – for support.
The dealer skipped around the row of shiny cars, opening doors and boots. I was in heaven as I was shown big meaty cars with white-wall tyres and engines that sounded very angry and loud.
My dad allowed me time to play, what he would call ‘silly beggars’, with the salesman before the long arm of the law was held up and we both stopped talking. He gestured with his head and the salesman walked over to him with the best look of innocence his face could produce. My dad had bought up 12 kids and I knew, from experience, when he was ready to talk the wisest thing was to listen.
He shook the man’s hand, and covered the handshake with his left hand, as he made eye contact. The demeanour of the salesman changed as he replied with a low voice “How can I help you brother”.
“My name is Constable Bennett, this is my son, Vic. He needs a car for around £1,000 financed, over three years, and, as he has a young family, it needs to be economical and safe to carry my grandson in. Can you do that Graham or shall we go to the guy just down the Hertford road?”
“This way Mr Bennett, I think I have just the car for him.”
As we turned the corner a car was being polished by a large man in blue overalls.
I knew this was for me, it almost looked like it was smiling at me.
The Morris Minor 1000, made in Cowley, Oxfordshire, boasted a 948cc engine and, as the banner across the windscreen stated, had a ‘fitted radio’. The 1963 model had been modernised the year before. The split windscreen was now a single screen. The dated ‘pop-out’ semaphore trafficators had been replaced by the latest flashing indicators.
Soon pen was put to paper and handshakes all round – a single hand for me, a double one from my dad – and we were off to Enfield Lock to drop dad off, and show mum.
Then it was full speed, 75mph, to Enfield Highway to show off to my neighbours and take my wife and little boy out for a drive. The milometer showed one mile when I bought it – when I asked about this, the dealer told me it had a new engine fitted. It is worth noting when I traded it in, three years later, it still had one mile on the clock.
We called her Betsy. She was small and tough. That summer we took her on her first holiday to the coast.
At Weymouth they had an elephant walking on the beach and sideways persistent rain. On the board it said ferry to the Channel Islands.
The problem was finding a place within walking distance to park. Touring the side streets I found a railway bridge with a box van parked beneath. Opposite the van was a gap for two cars – my lucky day. Soon we were bobbing across the sea for a week of sun.
When we returned the van had gone and Betsy was parked all alone. The van had been hiding a sign that said ‘Motorists are warned not to park beneath the bridge as high tide reaches this mark’.
Looking at the stranded Betsy, she had a green line right round the bodywork just below the door handles. Water flooded out as I opened my door. With the help of an early-morning trawlerman, and a pile of old potato sacks to sit on, we towed it up and down the jetty until it spluttered into life. Unable, and certainly unwilling, to turn the engine off, the trawlerman untied the rope as Betsy crept coughing and spluttering down the road toward London.
The first 10 miles were at walking pace. If you tried to go fast, Betsy would start coughing and misfiring. After the engine block had dried out, we could pick up to 15 or 20mph. Holding our nerve, and our bladders, we slowly got back to Enfield.
After a complete clean up of the carburetor jets and new gaskets all round, Betsy was back, with just an, ever so slight, smell of salty fish.
Tell us about your first set of wheels – email your memories with a picture to email@example.com or post it to Andy Russell, Archant motoring editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE.