by Chris Cowland –
Rod Stewart crooned to Maggie May that he would “steal my daddy’s cue and make a living out of playing pool.” When I was 10, I stole my dad’s tools because I wanted to be a mechanic. I’m glad that both Rod and I stuck with our day jobs. When I compare the work done by today’s restoration shops to some of the bodges I perpetrated in my youth, I hang my head in shame … .
Dad did not have many tools, but his truly priceless piece was an adjustable spanner (wrench). In my early days, this one item enabled me to completely disassemble a bicycle, and as I got older I joined a group of kids who loved working on old cars and motorbikes. Gary had a set of screwdrivers, Kenny had a socket set, and my passport to this exclusive club was my spanner, always referred to as “The Justable.” Every weekend we would work on a project in Kenny’s shed, and I still remember the cups of tea that his mother would bring out, especially on the cold winter days.
Kenny later became a bricklayer, and his pride and joy was his 1959 Mini. Cars up to the early 1950s were typically built on a solid metal chassis, and the bodywork would be attached by nuts and bolts. Later in the decade, “monocoque construction” was introduced, whereby the car’s bodywork became an integral part of the load bearing structure, and there were subframes instead of a chassis.
In England at that time, if your car was over 10 years old, you had to take it for its annual Ministry of Transport testing, known as the dreaded “MOT.” You would take it to a licensed garage, they would put it up on a lift, and check the brakes, suspension, steering, lights, and most importantly, they would check for rust. Every winter, the roads would be salted, so thin structural steel such as the sills on a Mini could rapidly rust through. To fail the MOT meant that the car would have to be fully repaired, or taken off the road.
Kenny’s MOT deadline was looming. We jacked up his car in his driveway, and to our horror, found we could push a screwdriver through several places in the sills – a certain fail. This is when we quickly learned how to craft exquisite bodywork. The starting point was stuffing newspaper into the hollow bodywork sections, but then we needed body filler to properly complete the job. Kenny looked thoughtful, marched off into his shed, and soon returned with a half bag of Portland cement, which we carefully mixed and then poured into the rotten sills. After a few days of drying, we sprayed the whole sill with a tarry substance called underseal, and then Ken set off for the local garage.
Up onto the car lift went the Mini. We had already fixed the mechanical and electrical systems, but we all held our breath as the mechanic pulled out a screwdriver and started poking it into the bodywork underneath the car. “Wow,” he said. “These Minis usually rot out in the sills, but yours are really good.” Kenny could not hold himself back.
“Yes,” he nodded with a grin, “they’re solid as a rock.”