‘They’re not lumps of metal, they’re part of the fam­ily’

Ver­non Mor­timer is fas­ci­nated by cars with in­ter­est­ing sto­ries. If it has a tale to tell, he’ll put it in his garage

Classic Cars (UK) - - Ss Jaguar 100 By Leonida - Words SAM DAW­SON Pho­tog­ra­phy JAMES PAR­DON

Isup­pose you could say my grand­fa­ther was re­spon­si­ble,’ laughs Ver­non Mor­timer as he sur­veys his un­usual car col­lec­tion, peek­ing out from a se­ries of garages on top of a Mendip foothill. It over­looks the car­a­van park his fam­ily has run for sev­eral gen­er­a­tions. ‘He al­ways looked after his cars, pre­serv­ing them, never treat­ing them as dis­pos­able, al­ways seek­ing to un­der­stand them, to find out what he could do to be a bet­ter owner and mo­torist.’

Mor­timer picked up on these traits in his ca­reer as a motoring jour­nal­ist. ‘I got into mag­a­zine publishing at col­lege, and then through my mem­ber­ship of car clubs,’ he ex­plains. ‘My first mag­a­zine, back in the Six­ties, was called Saab Driver. A pub­lisher called Bob Wise had a 96 V4 on or­der, and found him­self leaf­ing through the mag­a­zine while wait­ing in the show­room at Slough. One night, my door­bell rang, and Bob was there with Robert Wag­ner, deputy head­hunter for Haynes Publishing. He said he’d seen Saab Driver, liked it, and asked if I’d like to do some work for him.’ Decades of spe­cial­ist mag­a­zines ded­i­cated to sin­gle mar­ques, kit cars and grass-roots mo­tor sport fol­lowed; and with it an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the ec­cen­tric and un­usual, re­sult­ing in a unique col­lec­tion of cars.

Austin A40

‘This car was orig­i­nally owned by my grand­fa­ther, and it’s the one that started it all,’ says Ver­non of the diminu­tive aqua Austin. ‘Also, it’s tech­ni­cally red.’ How come? ‘My grand­fa­ther or­dered a red A40, but in those days ev­ery­thing was geared for ex­port, churned out spec­u­la­tively rather than to or­der. Sid­ney Oliver Kin­cott, fam­ily friend and BMC dealer, called my grand­fa­ther and said, “Fred, your car’s ar­rived, but it’s come through in Suther­land Green.” He was a su­per­sti­tious man and saw green as an un­lucky colour, but he also un­der­stood that he’d be wait­ing a long time if he still wanted a red one, so he bought it any­way.

‘It’s turned out to have been far from un­lucky. I in­her­ited it at 5098 miles and it now has 59,392. Amaz­ingly, it’s com­pletely orig­i­nal and un­re­stored to the point of still hav­ing its orig­i­nal light bulbs. It’s towed a car­a­van from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, and was my hon­ey­moon car too – I didn’t take it to the wed­ding re­cep­tion be­cause I didn’t want it cov­ered in tin cans and squirty cream, so I used my fa­ther’s Austin 1100 in­stead!

‘Grand­fa­ther lav­ished love and at­ten­tion on this car. When­ever he drove in the wet, he’d chamois it down when he got home. He’d al­ways say that these cars aren’t lumps of metal, they’re part of the fam­ily. But I was a boy racer. I did tar­mac ral­lies in it, and also used it to test out prod­ucts for Safer Motoring mag­a­zine. That’s how it got Styla rac­ing wing mir­rors, a Hop­kirk map light, Ray­dyot spot­lights and an Icel­ert – this thing came from Amer­ica, and took the road tem­per­a­ture sev­eral feet in front of the car, switch­ing an or­ange dash­board light on if its ther­mome­ter dropped be­low freez­ing. I even­tu­ally bought a Saab to give the Austin an eas­ier time, but I’ve loved it and looked after it ever since.’

VW Kombi

‘This VW was sup­plied new to Zurich Air­port from the Hanover fac­tory in 1966 as a fire ten­der – its slid­ing doors on both sides make it unique,’ says Ver­non of the grey van. ‘The fire pump was housed in­side, but the idea be­hind the slid­ing doors – and mak­ing a fire en­gine out of a VW in the first place – was so it could pull right along­side an aero­plane, un­der­neath the wings if nec­es­sary.

‘After the air­port had fin­ished with it, it went to the fire brigade of a small Swiss vil­lage, but ef­fec­tively ended up be­ing stored un­til the Nineties. Volk­swa­gen and Porsche spe­cial­ist Ritchie King found out about it and im­ported it. His en­gi­neer, Ross Gam­mie, was build­ing a Porsche 908 and wanted to turn the VW into a replica race sup­port ve­hi­cle, but upon ac­quir­ing it re­alised it’d have trou­ble get­ting up hills full of spares with a 908 hitched to the back – it was only de­signed to work on the flat! He also found out around this time that Porsche’s own vans had 911 flat-sixes!

‘It ended up in Ross’s barn in Dorset. I paid him a visit, spot­ted its rear quar­ters through the door, and it turned out he was ready to sell it to buy a new kitchen. I couldn’t walk away from it. ‘I wanted to leave it as-was and kept it out­side un­der cov­ers for two years, but it started mi­crob­lis­ter­ing so needed a full re­paint. Upon strip­down, it was per­fect apart from some rust near the rear arches the width of a fin­ger. It’s still got less than 50,000km on the clock.’

Citroën DS23 EFI Pal­las

‘This is the cul­mi­na­tion of a long quest which be­gan in Oc­to­ber 1955 when I was 11 years old,’ says Ver­non, fir­ing up his Citroën DS and eas­ing it onto the gravel drive to demon­strate its hy­drop­neu­matic fea­tures. ‘I re­mem­ber the re­ports from the Paris Mo­tor Show, say­ing how the or­gan­is­ers had to close the doors of the ex­hi­bi­tion hall in or­der to avoid a dan­ger­ous crowd crush. I saw the pic­tures and de­cided there and then I had to have one.

‘At the Good­wood Re­vival in 2012, I found one for sale in the car park, but it was white – the wrong colour for one of these. The owner said he’d bought it from Olivier at Citroën spe­cial­ist French Clas­sics on the rec­om­men­da­tion of Lord March him­self! I went up there. It was based in the next vil­lage along from Brands Hatch, and this one was parked on the edge of a bad­minton court. Full Pal­las trim, a huge sun­roof, and ev­ery evo­lu­tion imag­in­able: five­bear­ing crankshaft, elec­tronic fuel in­jec­tion be­fore any­one else, semi-au­to­matic trans­mis­sion. It had be­longed to a doc­tor in the south of France, and had only done a few hun­dred miles a year.

‘I’d wanted the ear­lier dash­board, but it was just per­fect and I had to have it. I got Olivier to change the plas­tic steer­ing wheel to the ear­lier metal type, though. With the Monte Carlo sun­roof, it’s ideal for driv­ing to Good­wood.’

Porsche 356 Speed­ster replica

All is not quite as it seems with Ver­non’s gleam­ing metal­lic ma­roon Porsche 356 Speed­ster, but it’s got a great story to tell. ‘In the Eight­ies I had a 912, and al­ways liked the way it looked like a 911, but han­dled bet­ter be­cause there was less weight at the rear,’ he ex­plains. ‘On a cross-coun­try route, a 912 is faster than a 911. How­ever, I had to part com­pany with it. It was the same old

‘The A40 is com­pletely orig­i­nal and un­re­stored to the point of still hav­ing its orig­i­nal light bulbs’

com­plaint with so many early Porsches – the dreaded tin­worm. On quiet coun­try nights you could prac­ti­cally hear it rust.

‘Soon I had with­drawal symp­toms, so I went to Roger Bray Restora­tions in Wim­pole. He had a 356 coupé in from Texas, but al­ready it was show­ing signs of cor­ro­sion. I knew in six months’ time it’d be a tip-of-the-ice­berg sce­nario. So, as I do so of­ten, I ended up at a barn in Dorset, this one be­long­ing to my friend Peter Bai­ley, who built VW Beetle-based street-rods. He sourced a restora­tion-project 356, bought in a glass­fi­bre Speed­ster replica body, and re­stored it as my dream rust-free Porsche for a frac­tion of the cost that Texan coupé would’ve been even­tu­ally. It might have a glass­fi­bre body but it’s a gen­uine 1957 356 and re­tains its orig­i­nal iden­tity with the DVLA.

‘This was 25 years ago. Peter used it to pro­mote his work and be­fore he knew it he was in the Sun­day Times motoring sup­ple­ment. He sub­se­quently set up a firm to build them com­mer­cially, based on donor VW Bee­tles as well as old 356s. That firm be­came Ch­e­sil Cars, the world’s lead­ing man­u­fac­turer of 356 repli­cas – and it all grew out of this car.’

Subaru XT

This Eight­ies Subaru sports car is prob­a­bly the rarest car in Ver­non’s col­lec­tion. ‘I’ve been a Subaru cus­tomer since 1978, when the firm was first of­fi­cially set up in the UK,’ he says. ‘Back then Subarus were of­ten sold by agri­cul­tural show­rooms be­cause they were su­perbly rugged off-road cars – even the saloons. They were per­fect for run­ning the car­a­van park and tow­ing vis­i­tors’ cars out of the mud – the field could get quite boggy.

‘On one oc­ca­sion I went into the lo­cal Subaru deal­er­ship, and be­hind the dealer prin­ci­pal’s desk was a great big poster il­lus­trat­ing ev­ery­thing Fuji Heavy In­dus­tries built. Along­side things like in­dus­trial machin­ery and mis­siles was this sleek­look­ing tur­bocharged GT car that I’d never seen be­fore. I asked if I could buy one, but he didn’t have any in. I had to go up to Birm­ing­ham to test­drive one, but it had al­ready been sold. A dealer in Lon­don had one for sale, which I went to see, but I didn’t like its au­to­matic gear­box – the au­to­matic ver­sion in­fa­mously had four-wheel drive which only came on with the wind­screen wipers, but it was fully switch­able in the man­ual.

‘I was driv­ing back from Lon­don, on the verge of giv­ing up, when I went past a lo­cal sec­ond­hand car deal­er­ship and spot­ted this one on the fore­court. It was just one year old, and had been sold by some­one whose busi­ness was in trou­ble – and it had man­ual trans­mis­sion.

‘I ran it as my daily driver to start with – in­clud­ing pulling peo­ple out of the mud with it – but as it got older I re­alised how in­cred­i­bly rare it is, and it needed pre­serv­ing. It’s now the only man­ual ver­sion left on the road in the UK. Just one other – an au­to­matic orig­i­nally owned by a baroness – has just been put back on the road after a lengthy restora­tion.

‘They were mas­sively mis­un­der­stood. They were the god­fa­ther of Subaru’s turbo rally cars, but that wasn’t the in­ten­tion. This was a so­phis­ti­cated GT with hy­drop­neu­matic sus­pen­sion, a 0.29cd drag co­ef­fi­cient and de­sign fea­tures that Mercedes copied. It should be re­garded as the Ja­panese Citroën SM.’

Mor­gan Three-wheeler

‘My wife Yvonne, who passed away sud­denly five years ago, al­ways fan­cied a Mor­gan,’ says Ver­non. ‘But for var­i­ous rea­sons she al­ways had prac­ti­cal cars and never quite got round to buy­ing one. Six months after she died, a friend of mine in Win­scombe had this, but his wife told him: “ei­ther I go or this does!” and this acted as a lever on me. Ad­mit­tedly it has fewer wheels and doors than Yvonne would’ve wanted.

‘I sold my Porsche Boxster to buy it, and dis­cov­ered the Mor­gan mys­tique! Ev­ery­thing they could have got wrong, they got wrong. The first sight of a pot­hole would throw it into the weeds. I had a long bat­tle with Mor­gan deal­ers over it – they’re lovely peo­ple, but don’t seem to get much done. Mor­gan doesn’t have a cus­tomer re­la­tions depart­ment, but thank­fully the man who runs the rac­ing divi­sion stepped in to help in­stead. It turned out that my car was a pre-pro­duc­tion model. All the mod­i­fi­ca­tions they came up with when fix­ing its foibles went onto the fu­ture pro­duc­tion three­wheel­ers. Prob­lem is, Mor­gan ex­pected me to pay £3000 for the priv­i­lege, but I did a deal with them to get it down to £800. ‘The one thing mine didn’t suf­fer from – which most of the early ones do – was crack­ing in the chas­sis. But the bump-steer was ter­ri­ble. Mor­gan also fit­ted a bet­ter fan, and rerouted the clutch ca­ble.

‘But the truth is, it’s a joy to drive and like noth­ing else. And that’s why I stuck with it.’

The Keeper

It doesn’t take Ver­non long to de­cide which car he’d keep above all oth­ers. ‘The A40,’ he says with­out hes­i­ta­tion. ‘It’s part of the fam­ily, and be­cause it was so well lookedafter by my grand­fa­ther, I see it as my duty to pass it on to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. It started my in­ter­est in cars, my ca­reer and my col­lec­tion. It’s ex­tremely im­por­tant to me.’

Grand­fa­ther’s A40 is the car that gave Ver­non his pas­sion for all things motoring

Man­ual trans­mis­sion was the clincher in buy­ing the XT; now it leads a more re­laxed life

Su­per-rare Subaru XT was used as a work­horse on Ver­non’s fam­ily’s car­a­van park

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