This is the story of Chris Owen and his 1937 Austin Ten Cambridge, known as Harriet, told in Chris’s own words.
“My first car was a 1937 Austin Ten Cambridge (reg. EP6915) that I bought from its first owner who lived at Maesmawr, outside Welshpool in Mid Wales, in 1966. Even in those days, Mrs. Harriet Lloyd-Jones lived simply in her house which had no electricity or running water. I don’t think she had used the car for quite some time and it was kept in an old stable block (a bird dropping on the bonnet of the car had eaten through the paintwork to the bare metal below many years earlier!). Mrs. Lloyd-Jones had been a Justice of the Peace and she had used the car mainly for those short journeys into Welshpool, about 7 miles away.
That she loved her car was undoubted but it was her ‘workhorse’ (even today the remains of her Hanson cab can just be seen in the undergrowth in her garden). Over the years since she had bought the car new in 1937, manure on the country lanes had eaten through the front wings of the car for two or three feet above the running boards. The rot on both front wings had been patched up with aluminium sheets riveted to the wings. In time those aluminium sheets too had rotted, but it was after the War and there would have been a scarcity of new parts. The rotted aluminium patches were still on the car when I bought it from Mrs Lloyd-Jones in 1966 – for £5. That probably seems remarkably cheap today but in those days it was common for many a ‘runner’ to be bought for between £5 – £30.
I promised Mrs Lloyd-Jones that I would look after her car and give it a good home. She had given me instructions about looking after it – at the end of each journey she would drain the radiator, and before her next ‘outing’ she would pump up water from the well, heat it and then refill the radiator. She used to keep hot water bottles on the seats during the Winter months to keep them aired! With two dear friends, Jim Sayce (Leighton) & Mike Roberts (Trelydan), we prepared the car for starting. The two original 6v batteries (under the front seats) were flat so we had to use a 12v battery standing on the running board and tow the car down the lanes before she would start.
Over the following thirteen years, I used the car almost every day and ‘the old lady’ proved to be a most comfortable and reliable car – and she was great fun to drive! The large sliding sunroof was open most of the time and the windscreen wound wide open. Even in the 60s in Mid Wales it was not uncommon to encounter thick fog in the Winter months, but with the windscreen wide open I could see and hear much better – even if any passenger with me was not quite so appreciative!
I covered thousands of miles over those years with trips up to Scotland and on to the Isles. In all that time the most serious breakdown was when the crankshaft broke going up a steep hill (the other side of Wrexham), and twice when driving the car too fast – the valve pins shot out! I remember taking two bank colleagues up to Durham university for a course; three of us travelling in the car with all our luggage for the week and the speedometer clocking 72 mph on the A1 going North! Wonderful fun!
Driving the car soon became as easy as driving a ‘modern’ car in those days although with the Austin’s weight and a 10hp side-valve engine, acceleration was a bit slower, but in other respects the car was very nippy. She was fitted with Girling rod brakes which were extremely efficient; by tweaking the adjuster on each wheel every two or three weeks, her braking power was kept in tip top condition.
The car was very well looked after and I was able to have the front wings replaced with brand new ones that I obtained from Christleton Motors in Chester (sadly now long gone). With driving the car every day I very quickly became fully attuned to every sound from the engine. Any new noise under the chassis or from the engine compartment would get immediate attention, but it was just a sheer delight listening to the engine working well. I checked the tyre pressures regularly of course, but I became so much a ‘part’ of the car myself I could tell immediately if one tyre was even just a lb. down in pressure.
Sometime in the early 1970s, after I was transferred to Chester, Lloyds bank sent me to Liverpool to its then Overseas Branch for several weeks’ experience. Although my father had worked in Liverpool in marine insurance, I didn’t know the city at all; nor did I know any of the staff in the bank there. One day I was talking to a colleague working there, Bill Osborne, about some overseas work we used to do for a corporate customer in Welshpool. Bill was surprised that I had worked in Welshpool and then he told me he had been evacuated there during the War with his two brothers – but they had stayed in a tiny place outside Welshpool called Maesmawr. I just looked at him in surprise and told him that’s where my old Austin had come from. “EP6915?” he asked me!! I almost fell off my high stool in shock. The brothers stayed with Mrs. Lloyd-Jones for 4½ years and the three young lads shared a big double bed. The car was still quite new in those days and every year, by saving up her petrol coupons, Mrs Lloyd-Jones could take the boys out for the day to Aberystwyth and then stopping at Borth for a swim. Bill told me that coming back over Plinlimon at night, it was cold and the three boys shared a brown rug to put over their knees. All these years later and that same brown rug is still with the car!
In the late 70s, I could see banking was changing and my own life was changing too. I had heard about Operation Drake, the two-year, around-the-world expedition – and eventually I was offered a place on the directing staff for the Indonesian phase. The bank exceptionally gave me unpaid leave of absence. I needed to fund my place on the expedition so I sold my home and bought a smaller property that would need renovating on my return. My much-loved Austin went to a friend in North Wales who intended to do some work on it.
By the time I returned from Indonesia and had done some work in the Old War Office where the expedition had its headquarters, I had decided not to resume my old career. My working life changed and I was involved for two years in setting up a registered conservation charity covering Cheshire. After my two-year contract expired, I had a long spell in local government – controlling departmental budgets but mainly doing rural and urban trees & hedgerows conservation work. Probably I would have been better off financially staying in banking but my new work was much more satisfying!
Eventually, I was thrilled to hear that the Austin was coming back to me. However, although I knew that my friend had had the car standing outside in the open for more than five years, I was not prepared for the shock when she arrived back in Chester on a trailer. Not only had he had almost completely stripped the car down but rot had accelerated throughout the car. It was an heartbreaking sight and I had tears in my eyes when I saw her. We managed to push the car into a lock-up garage where she would have to stay for several years. I could see from her sorry state that she would require a full major restoration – work far beyond anything I was capable of doing – even if I had a workshop. My hopes of being able to run her again in the foreseeable future were well and truly dashed.
After I retired, early in 2014 I finally bit the bullet and the old Austin went to a wonderful firm of restorers – Trevor Farrington and his team outside Knutsford in Cheshire. Trevor has a wonderful reputation and a very skilled workforce. Even they were shocked at the state of the car when they started work on its restoration and I was told later it had only just been restorable. My heart sank.
Shortly before the car went off for restoration, I had written to Jay Leno and sent him a copy of the Austin’s history thinking he might be interested in reading about the ‘old girl’. Time went by and I think I had even forgotten that I had written to him. Late one morning I popped out for a few minutes to a local store. When I returned, the telephone light was flashing – it was a very kind and most supportive message from Jay Leno who phoned me from California! He didn’t leave a phone number and sadly I haven’t been able to make contact with him since. A shame, because he doesn’t know that the car’s restoration was subsequently started, and I am sure he would be most interested to learn about another remarkable coincidence with the car – a connection with California!
The Austin’s chassis was in remarkably good condition and needed very little doing to it. The same could not be said of the bodywork. The team set to and many, many hours of work went into replacing rusted parts and Trevor’s men made a remarkable job of restoring the body shell. When it was finally painted, the transformation was simply incredible – and the paintwork today is probably even better than when Mrs Lloyd-Jones collected the car from Longbridge in early June, 1937. Sadly, by then I had spent some £30k, all my capital, on the restoration and the work has had to stop. My family almost had me certified and it was a long, long time before they spoke to me again!
One day in the Summer of 2015, while the Austin was still at Trevor’s workshops, Trevor telephoned me to say that he had received an e-mail for me and could he send it on to me? It seemed odd. Apparently, the writer had read a ‘blog’ about Harriet’s story that had been published by my ‘modern’ car’s breakdown company, StartRescue (never having even seen a ‘blog’, I had almost immediately put it out of my mind!). The writer was a chap called Bernie Griffiths who has lived and worked in California for close on 40 years now . . . . and who turns out to be the great-nephew of the car’s original owner in Mid-Wales, Mrs. Harriet Lloyd-Jones! I was completely in shock at that news!
Subsequently, I was able to meet Bernie when he came over with his son to see his very elderly father (who died a few months later). Bernie’s father was well enough then to travel by car from the Midlands, so I arranged to meet Bernie, his father and some of the family for a light lunch one day before going on to Trevor Farrington’s to view the newly painted body shell. The old man hadn’t seen his aunt’s car since the early 1960s!
My family think I am completely ‘nuts’ for spending all my money on an ‘old car’ that probably will never be worth a fraction of the restoration costs, but then they have never experienced the joys and thrills of driving a pre-war car on the open road. Such an experience, to me, is absolutely priceless and in my eyes my much-loved, humble Austin is as precious to me as any fine Bugatti or handsome 1920s Bentley!
Unable now to complete Harriet’s restoration, and as I am creeping towards 75, I can feel my dream of being able to use her once more as my everyday car, is slipping away. It might well cost another £20-£30k to have the ‘old girl’ finally restored, but after all her extraordinary history I could not bear to part with her now. For the time being Harriet slumbers on inside a warm and secure shippon just a few miles outside Chester.”
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