‘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
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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.’
‘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.’
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