Driving: the wheels keep coming off

Lighter to the tune of £1,600, I got the car back from Dave one Saturday lunchtime. The following Monday was my first day at work with the Spitfire as transport. It got me there fine, but when I travelled to an evening job after work the engine stopped at traffic lights.

Ready to roll
Ready to roll

A most excellent AA breakdown man called Bill Shore arrived within minutes of being called and found a loose screw on a clip holding a hose at the base of the radiator. All the coolant had drained out and the engine had seized up because of the heat. Two turns of a screwdriver and a few litres of water and all was well. Good old Bill – an enthusiast who had restored a Morris Minor in his spare time. I saw it later when I spent a day with him to write a feature for the paper I was then working on. Beautiful job in pale cream. (The Morris Minor, not the paper.)

disaster struck

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday passed untroubled, but on Friday disaster struck. I wanted to drive to the small Surrey town of Addlestone to visit a police contact (a Spitfire and MG owner) and very nearly went by motorway. Mercifully I decided to take the town route. Driving through Weybridge there was a sound like someone kicking a filing cabinet and the car started pulling to the left. I spent a couple of hundred yards looking for somewhere to pull up (it wasn’t the best of roads to be stuck at the side of) and went around a roundabout. Almost immediately afterwards the passenger side reared up and then dropped, and I was swerving onto the pavement with no brakes and – as I discovered by looking in my mirror – only three wheels

The front passenger wheel was in the road behind me and I was left sitting like a prat outside a pub called the Grotto as the landlady erupted from the door, took in the situation in a glance, and said “I had one of those that did that”. I became well acquainted with that pub over the next few hours as I tried to plan my next moves. I can recommend its restaurant – excellent Thai food.

Eventually the AA carried the car to a DIY centre carpark nearby and a mate of Dave’s with a transporter took it back to the Classic Sports Car Workshop the next morning. It seemed a wheel bearing had seized, or broken, or whatever. Another £150 gone, but at least I was safe. Many thanks to Surrey Police, who kept an eye out for the car overnight while patrolling, and to the force’s former Addlestone Division press officer Jane Lewry (now at Elmbridge Borough Council) for tea, sympathy, and a train fare home when I eventually arrived on foot for our meeting bearing my tale of woe.

After that, there was a short period of calm during which the Spitfire was relatively trouble free. The reverse lights failed, but Bill Shore fixed one during a quiet moment in our day out together referred to earlier, and I did a bodge job on the other one later based on his earlier work. The 500 mile tune-up that followed the major overhaul was fairly painless, although it cost me £50. And then the wheel came off again.

This time I was sat at the front of a traffic queue during morning rush hour, at a busy junction just along the Thames from Hampton Court. There was a sudden lurch, the front corner dropped, and I thought “Not again.” It was the vertical link gone this time, snapped off above the trunnion, but at least the car wasn’t moving at the time. A passing vanload of Twickenham police coned it off and about three hours later a flatbed came to load it up and dump it in Lisa’s father’s drive.

broken part

There it sat for some months as we (me, Lisa, and her father) gradually taught ourselves how to replace the broken part. Most of the nuts didn’t seem to have been touched since the car was built 22 years previously and some had to be hacksawed off. Eventually, with much advice and several parts from Six Spares, in Heath Road, Twickenham (020 8892 0141) the job was done. The rejuvenated Spit entered a carefree period, reaching the heady heights of 80mph on one glorious occasion, and making two runs deep into Sussex when I was taking part in an archeological dig at Bignor Roman Villa.

Eventually, however, the MOT could not be avoided, and in September 1999 it duly failed – the underside was dangerously rusted, just where the seatbelts take the strain. It took over a year to save up the £2,800 need to have the floor cut out and replaced, and several other jobs done. By then I’d grown tired of the slogs over to Southgate whenever something fell off, and looked for somewhere closer to home to have the work done. I settled on Chiswick Car Craft (337-339 Acton Lane, Acton, 020 8992 3174) and can unhesitatingly recommend their work.

Since then I’ve had a reliable, if somewhat battered, Spitfire that will work nine times out of ten if the demands made upon it are not too severe. It played a starring role in my general election campaign and is driven regularly. When it only took £1,200 to get through the MOT at the beginning of 2002 I felt I’d got away quite lightly. 2003 hit a bit harder, but it was still within reasonable limits.

There’s still plenty of work I want to get done on it of course, but which classic car owner can’t say that..?