My First Car: Customising craze the Rootes of all evil

David Morton customised his 1959 Humber Hawk... and soon regretted it.

David Morton customised his 1959 Humber Hawk... and soon regretted it. - Credit: supplied

A young and impressionable Dave Morton ruined a beautiful, original Humber Hawk in the era of crazy customising, and still rues it to this day.

It's strange how we take influence from others, particularly family, in all sorts of areas in life.

As a child I noted my father's aspiration towards 'a better quality of car' – a Rover 60, 75, 100 and 110 came and went before he defected to Rootes in the form of Humber Hawks, Super Snipes and eventually Imperials. 'If they're good enough for Montgomery and Churchill...' he would say.

Majestic motoring of the day indeed, at least it was for a middle-class family lad like me.

Some years later, after the usual first car thing with an Austin A40 Farina, I had the chance of my own Humber – a 1959 Hawk in excellent, one-owner condition. Dark blue exterior with grey leather seats and grey carpets, column shift manual transmission and walnut dash, door caps and optional rear folding picnic tables.

It came with full history, new MOT, nine months tax and an unused spare tyre for the princely sum of £200. I knew that Father would approve.

It should be stated here that it was 1970, I was young and impressionable, and customising your car was the new big thing – something I gather we have to blame the Americans for. They started it after the war and, of course, we had to copy. For that I apologise in advance for the next part of this story, both to the reader and especially to myself.

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A week's problem-free touring around Cornwall in the car swiftly followed purchase but, spying various others en route in modified Vauxhall PA Crestas, Ford Anglia 105Es, Jags, Ford Zodiacs, vans etc, set my imagination going on the journey home.

The decision to improve the car's performance was easy. With only 83bhp on tap from the standard engine, a phone call to a Brentwood scrapyard secured a decent Daimler 2.5-litre V8 engine and automatic gearbox from a crashed car, complete with three-month warranty.

Amazingly, the unit dropped straight in with only minor mounting and propshaft modifications needed. A distinct power hike over the standard engine and lots of lovely exhaust noises were evident on the after-build test drive.

Father wasn't overly impressed but I had at least swapped British for British so he quietly accepted the change with no comment. For a while at least I was top boy on the block.

Engineering progress and natural evolution eventually saw my power and speed advantage dwindle, even to much smaller-engined cars. I felt it was time for another rethink on the power side of thing.

Reading Hot Rod, Custom Car and other magazines of the day, plus trips to Santa Pod and Blackbush raceways, inspired the move towards an American powerplant. Hence my choice of a Chevrolet 302 cubic inch small block unit complete with Turbo 400 transmission.

With the unit rebored, lightened and gas-flowed, plus tuning part changes in the form of Holley Double Pumper carburettor, half race lifter kit and Edelbrock manifolds saw a distinct hike in power to 420bhp. This, linked to a rebuilt transmission through B&M Holeshot torque converter, meant the power hit the wheels big time. Much traffic light hilarity followed but I still had to make the car visually complete.

A bonnet scoop, rear wing and wheel arch extensions were fabricated and added before a complete metal flake respray. And 40% uprated and lowered suspension, and a set of American Racing Equipment alloy wheels, saw the look that I wanted.

Returning home after the work had been done drew lots of dropped jaw looks from others but, when Father saw my sacrilege arrive on the drive, I sensed his distinct disapproval. 'You'll regret that one day,' he said.

Never a truer word was spoken and he was proved right all too quickly. The oil crisis and subsequent petrol price increases came with much discomfort for all – not least me. And the insurance man would rub his hands together when I called to discuss premiums for the coming year. Spare parts being slow and difficult to acquire all added to the later sale of the car for a song.

By far the biggest regret to this day came from my own conscience. Having probably ruined a beautiful original car, I later sought classic car solace with a Vauxhall Ventora, Rover P5B and Singer Gazelle, each in superb condition, among various others and culminating in a Ferrari 246GT.

Now, with old Hondas to occupy my attention, I still reminisce occasionally about that old Humber, and how I would love to have it today in its original condition.

You were right all along Dad, and curse those Americans – lesson learned!

Whether it was a much-loved classic, old banger or a modern motor tell us about your first car. The adventures, highs and lows and what made it so memorable. Email your story with a picture of the car to or post it to Andy Russell, motoring editor, Archant, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE.

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