The car-loving vicar tempted by Delilah

There was a time, pre-sat nav, when traffic jams were unheard of and the congestion charge wasn't even a twinkle in the London mayor's eye.

Steven Russell

There was a time, pre-sat nav, when traffic jams were unheard of and the congestion charge wasn't even a twinkle in the London mayor's eye. A classic car enthusiast remembers those days and takes Steven Russell for a spin down memory lane

WHEN a man of the cloth confesses “She was called Delilah because she tempted me”, you pin back your ears in expectation. But Delilah wasn't the devil in disguise - a scarlet woman trying to seduce the righteous away from the straight and narrow. She was, in fact, a little Austin 7 box saloon: a lady born in 1933, admittedly, but with enough panache to turn the head of a classic car enthusiast who spotted her during a wet country sports day.

“There was a 'for sale' notice on her and my daughter said 'Come on Dad, it's not a Dinky toy! And, anyway, you're too fat to get in!'” chuckles Tom Tyler. “When daughters say things like that it's a challenge, and I'm rather ashamed to tell you I bought her for £1,000 from somebody who was desperate to sell her because he'd been posted to the Middle East, and I sold her two years later for £2,800.”

You may also want to watch:

Although the Tyler had great fun driving the car, the writing was on the wall when Tom found himself being overtaken by an entire funeral procession. “It was at that point that my wife made an almost unheard of remark from wives: 'I think we shall have to get a car that goes a bit faster!'”

Delilah's sprung to mind because a model of her - or, rather, an Austin 7 very much like her - is parked on Tom's mantelpiece. She's with half-a-dozen or so other vehicles that chart Tom's love of characterful cars over the years.

Most Read

There's Polly - a green, 1957, Austin A35 that was rescued from a farmyard in 1988 and used by wife Tricia during her time as a district nurse in Sussex and Suffolk. So Polly was out in all weathers. “She eventually rusted so much that there was nothing left to weld on to!” Happily, someone in Northampton was able to give her a further lease of life.

Sally was the family's first Land Rover and Grey Goose a Hillman Minx that Tom drove when he came to Ipswich in the late 1950s. Coming back from the cinema one night at about 10pm, he had to swerve to avoid a car without lights and collided with a motorcyclist at the top of Bishop's Hill.

The red model represents Tess, a Sunbeam-Talbot bought in 1989. Then there's Roddy, “a tremendous little car. She was the one I had in the army. I was posted to Pembroke Dock, Tricia was here in Ipswich, so it meant long-distance courting, and Roddy was the means of doing it.

“All of them, I'm afraid, had names; it's a peculiarity. My son named one of them, because he had a model Land Rover that he called Nan Car. Quite why, we never discovered. So the real one, a beautiful diesel Land Rover, was called Nan.”

Where did the other names come from for his cars down the years?

Well, Phyllis was a shepherdess from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Iolanthe. Sally and Judy were previous girlfriends. “Grace was named after my mother. The present car” - a modern estate - “is called Veela (a race of semi-human, semi-magical creatures) because we're great Harry Potter fans.”

Finally, on this mantelpiece car-lot, is Alberta. “She represents two of these Riley 1.5-litres, which were known as The Doctor's Car, which we restored. In fact, it was one of them that started me off on the business of restoring old cars, because we bought it by accident in a garage yard in the middle of Wales, when we were on holiday, as the first car for my son, who was 16 at the time.

“He restored it and was his huge pride and joy until we sold it earlier this year. Sadly, it reached the point where it needed such a lot of work doing to it, and my son has got such a demanding job that he just couldn't take it on. So very reluctantly we had to part with Victoria, which was a shame.”

All this enthusiasm for vintage four-wheelers and the open road shows it was no trial for Tom to write When Motoring Was Fun. His new book looks at the early days of car transport, weaving personal anecdotes with a wider look at driving. Stories and reminiscences, along with oodles of historic photographs, recall the days when motoring was both a challenge and adventure.

Those behind the wheel were pioneers, exploring unknown territories in unreliable machines and often-unsuitable roads. But it was also a time before traffic lights, speed cameras and wheel-clampers.

The author keeps alive the spirit of a bygone age thanks to regular spins in the real Tess, housed in the garage of his house on the edge of Ipswich and his pride and joy. The 1946 car was christened by Tom's oldest son, who resprayed her after she arrived in 200 pieces and was put back together. He named her after Tess of the d'Urbervilles - one of his favourite heroines.

She was white when they got her, though the manufacturers had originally offered black, gunmetal blue, steel grey, “or a horrible purple/violet colour called carnadine. We didn't like any of them, but we discovered that for an extra £1, 17 shillings and sixpence, when your car was new, you could have had it sprayed any colour you wanted. So we decided on MG Red. Obviously Dinky Toys thought that was a good colour, too, because they produced the model there” - he points to the mantelpiece - “before the war in a bright red colour”.

Tom, born in the summer before war broke out, suspects his fascination with moving contraptions goes back to childhood. He was one of nine children and the family's Devon home had eight of gardens. The house was on side of a hill, with a steep bank outside.

“We used to push the old perambulator down the bank and see how far it would go along the lawn at the bottom, with various members of the family on board. There were frequent accidents, frequent catastrophes. The old pram we used was in fact called High Calamity and my obsession with wheels and transport I think dates from that time.

“On one occasion my mother, who was a great Girl Guide person, was having a large Girl Guide rally and we built High Calamity I think as a double-decker bus - tying things on. This particular Guider, who must have been a very sporting lass, was persuaded to go down the bank. We pushed and stood clear.

“High Calamity did the usual thing: gently . . . and then wham down there! And then completely collapsed at the bottom. It took about eight Guides to get her out of the wreckage. She wasn't hurt, but everybody was laughing so much they were incapable of helping her a great deal.”

At 13 he had his first taste of driving off-road. The family had its first Land Rover in 1952 “and I think my mother wasn't watching me carefully enough up on Dartmoor and I got my hands on it and drove a little way down a track.

“My interest in vehicles was also fuelled by older brothers who arrived in improbable cars and on motorcycles. I had a pact with my parents that I wouldn't have a motorbike - they were very agin motorbikes because of the safety factor - and they would help me buy a car when I was 17. It was a little Morris 8 tourer and I got my licence during the first long school holidays after I was 17. I failed my first test at the beginning of August” - failing to look in the mirrors enough times - “and just had time to take a second test in September before going back to school.”

Lucy, the car, was about 20 years old when he got her, bought for £75 from someone in the village and well looked after. Tom had it until he came to work in Ipswich in 1957. By that time his father had died and his mother found herself with two cars that she didn't need, so he took the Land Rover.

He lodged in Levington Road, where the vehicle would only just fit in a gap between houses. “You couldn't open the doors to get out! I had to climb over into the back, having unlaced the canvas tilt, climb out the back, and then lace it up again!”

National service came, and then Tom decided on ordination. After theological college in Wells he had a curacy in the Guildford diocese, then went to Solomon Islands in the western Pacific as a missionary and teacher. Tricia worked as a nurse.

Back in England, there were parishes in Sussex. Then in 1992 they decided to move to Suffolk, partly because his widowed mother-in-law was keen to move. The couple bought the bungalow for £85,000, funding the purchase by selling

Tom's collection of old Dinky toys and trains.

Dinky toys had been an absolute passion, though he didn't buy his first new one until the age of eight. “Up 'til then I'd existed on hand-downs from elder brothers which were, to use the modern expression, 'playworn'. And I received their Meccano and their clockwork Hornby trains. They were very kind and generous brothers, and they shared them with me, but it wasn't the same as having your own.”

Returning from the Solomon Islands in 1970, he discovered to his delight that little cornershops across England were selling odds and ends for a song, “including my beloved childhood toys! A Hornby 00 locomotive that I paid 84 shillings for in 1950 could be bought for a pound. They said 'No-one wants these now. They're obsolete. I brought eight brand new sets for £36 from a shop in St Leonards-on-Sea, I remember. I've still got one of those sets.

“By 1990 I'd got a collection of 600 Dinky toys, many of them either pre-war or early post-war, and about 200 locomotives. I'd always told my wife they'd become useful on a rainy day, so when the rainy day came and we needed to buy somewhere to live - because we'd been in a tied house - I had to sell them at Christie's and it raised enough money to buy the bungalow.”

Tricia worked as a district nurse in the Woodbridge area while Tom formed his own business, called Jack of All Trades. “I was told I was too old to be employed or be of use to anybody,” he smiles. “Gardening, decorating, carpentry . . . you name it, I did it.”

He was also asked to write a book on jigsaw puzzles, another obsession, which led to two jobs with jigsaw companies - choosing pictures and working on the designs of puzzles.

That's how he came to know East Anglian artist Malcolm Root, and how he came to be asked to write the text for three books celebrating Malcolm's transport paintings. And that, in turn, led to an invitation to pen this new book, all of his own.

Tom also gives talks on his hobbies. “I developed one called When Motoring was Fun and I've been boring audiences all around East Anglia, in certainly a 40- if not a 50-mile radius of here. And having enormous fun. A lot of the gorgeous stories in my book have come from people I've been talking to.”

So what's then thrill of motoring and classic cars?

“Well, first of all it's a marvellous feeling that if you can drive, and if you've got a vehicle, the whole world is at your feet. We've just been to Australia, New Zealand and the Solomon Islands” - a six-week trip” - “and hired a total of four different cars, and drove 5-6,000 kilometres, exploring.

“This country, of course, is gorgeous, because the network of roads and lanes and even tracks is endless. If you're on a main road and fed-up with it, you can just take the first turning on the left and meander away into the countryside. And often you see the most lovely old places: gorgeous old houses and churches. You can drive 50 miles and the whole countryside changes around you.

“In the '20s and '30s, when more ordinary families could afford a car, it opened up a vista for them, an adventure for them, that was absolutely staggering.

“The joy of the classic car is that to drive it well is actually quite a challenge.”

Tom confesses to “a stupid thing” in the summer. Wearing sandals that were really too wide for the pedals, he had to double declutch from third to second gear coming up a hill and his foot jammed under the brake pedal, pushing down the accelerator.

“I was in neutral, but I over-revved the engine so badly that I spun the fan off the front of the engine and into the radiator, and Tess immediately became very incontinent. My wife had to go and retrieve the fan from the ditch.

“It was purely bad driving. To drive a classic car well - to get your gear changes smooth; to be able to approach a junction, putting out your trafficator (the old signalling arm that pops up), double-declutching into a lower gear, applying the brakes slightly and giving a hand-signal, and still holding on to the steering-wheel, you actually need about four hands! It gives you a great sense of satisfaction, however.

“And the old cars, for people of my age, have a very nostalgic feel to them. They take you back. And you think 'Yes! This is what motoring was like when motoring was fun.'”

The enjoyment started to pale towards the end of the 1960s, he feels, when the number of cars on the road rose hugely, “and, dare I say it, people's manners deteriorated”.

What's the most he's paid for a classic model?

“Well, Tess cost me £2,500, so in terms of vintage cars, yes, Tess was the tops. Victoria, who started us off, was £800. Delilah was £1,000. Alberta I think was about £1,500.”

Delilah was bought with profits made from trading old puzzles, Dinky toys and trains. “My wife and I had a pact that I would not spend the housekeeping on old cars. I sold Delilah for roughly three times what I paid for her. I bought Alberta.

“Having done her up we sold Alberta quite advantageously despite her drink problem - she did about 11 miles to the gallon - and I found myself with quite a lot of money sitting in my building society account and no car. It was then that we noted Tess for sale.”

Her owner had already carried out a lot of renovation work - chassis, brakes, wheels, steering, engine and transmission, but not the body. The Tylers spent another £1,000 restoring her to tip-top condition. “I don't know what she's worth now. When vintage cars were fetching good prices five years ago, she would certainly have fetched about £7,000.

“She's been such fun. She doesn't pay any tax, she sailed through her MoT just last week, she costs a very modest amount to insure, so she's very cheap motoring. I only do about 500 miles a year at the most in her, but just trickling around the lanes or taking part in the Ipswich-Felixstowe (vintage vehicle) run is enormous fun.”

Yes, driving older cars has been hugely enjoyable, though not without its challenges and frustrations. Punctures on wet days or water-pump bearings giving up the ghost, while Tom was driving American tourists around the country, certainly add colour to life.

He remembers how he and car Roddy had to eek out a 5.5-gallon tank of fuel over the 132-mile journey from Gloucester to the Army barracks at Pembroke Docks. “It's because, in Wales on a Sunday night, they would not serve you a drop of petrol anywhere! Something to do with religion, or they were all in the pub or singing in the choir, or whatever.

“Roddy, if she was feeling frisky, would do about 24 miles to the gallon with four of us on board. The answer was that when you got to the top of a Welsh hill you used to switch your engine off to coast down. You could do it those days, because you didn't lose your steering and you didn't lose your brakes. Though you did lose most of the light from your headlamps and it was hard to spot the sheep that stubbornly insisted on sleeping in the middle of the roads.

“We never ran out of fuel; and if you work that sum out, it's not a very comfortable one. Sometimes I think we used to arrive with not much more than a mug of fuel left.”

Over the years Tom has taken care of much of the routine maintenance work in his vehicles, and he has an expert restorer not many miles away to deal with more extensive projects. “There's no substitute for crawling under your own car and draining the sump, or replacing the starter-motor or whatever, but you really do need a ramp for major work.”

So, time for a couple of tales from the book - both local stories.

“Well, in the old days, when you had a policeman on duty at the Cornhill in Ipswich, standing there directing traffic, he hears this enormous noise coming up Tavern Street and knows immediately what it is. So when the car in question comes up to him, up goes his hand and he stops it.

“He walks over and has a word with the driver. 'Excuse me, sir. I'm sorry to stop you, but you've obviously lost your exhaust system.' And the driver says 'Thank you officer. It's kind of you to point it out but I've not lost it.'

“The policeman thinks 'We've got a right one here,' so he leans his elbow on the roof of the car and says 'Well, I've been in the force 40 years, I've been on traffic duty for 30 of those years; I've learned a good deal, sir, and if I tell you that your car is making a noise that indicates it's lost its exhaust system, then, sir, you have lost your exhaust system.'

“And the driver says 'Officer, I've not lost my exhaust system; it's on the back seat . . .'

“I don't know how true that story is. The other story is true, and it concerns a family doctor who was known to my wife's family and who had the experience of driving out round Ipswich, visiting patients in the days when doctors did such a thing and accepting considerable numbers of cups of tea when you really couldn't avoid it.

“He was driving back, down Tavern Street, and was desperate for the loo. When he got to the Cornhill, he thought 'Nearly home now!' And then up went the policeman's arm. He was first in line and knew there were going to be three other streams of traffic going through, and he didn't know what to do.

“He glanced down and on the passenger seat there was a funnel and a length of rubber tubing, which had been destined for a patient but not used. So he looked frantically around and down in the floor was a little inspection hatch, which you used to look at the brake fluid reservoir. So he pulled it across, got out the tube, got out the funnel, rigged it up, and the relief was tremendous.

“He'd just finished when the policeman got round to his stream of traffic and waved him on. He was singing with joy when he drove forward, and then up went the policeman's hand. The policeman came round to the driver's window and said 'I'm sorry to stop you, sir, but are you aware that your radiator is leaking badly?' And the doctor said 'Yes, officer; it always does that . . .' and drove frantically home.”

There are serious notes, too - such as the sad tale from 1906 about the chauffeur driving a new Peugeot from Coventry to London, and “testing it out a bit”. He came to the Hertfordshire village of Markyate.

“The old carter had been leading his horse and cart around since goodness knows when and did what he always did: he simply came out of a side road between two houses and walked straight out into the main road - which was where the Peugeot hit him. The horse was killed outright, the cart was turned over, the passenger in the cart was killed; the carter, shielded by his horse, had both his legs broken.

“It emphasises the meeting of these two worlds: the old world of the horse - a leisurely world where things were done in much the same way for centuries - and the new world of the motor-car, which was a completely unknown quantity.

“There are things like that in the book that make you realise what a change was brought about by the introduction of all forms of passenger transport.”

When Motoring Was Fun is published by Halsgrove at £19.99 and is being stocked by Waterstones in Ipswich.

CLASSIC cars might offer bags of personality, but their 21st Century counterparts also have their place.

“I have to admit, reluctantly, that the modern car - my estate there - has many advantages,” accepts Tom Tyler. “It is warm, it is comfortable. Since I've had cancer, I've had back problems and the driving seat is very comfortable. I drove not long ago from here to Glasgow with no problems at all. It will carry an enormous amount of stuff and, because it's a diesel, it does more than 50 to the gallon. So, yes, I couldn't be without a modern car, because we still do quite a lot of long-distance journeys.

“But, having said that . . . 44,000 miles on the clock and the other day the flywheel disintegrated and all sorts of metal filings were sucked into the starter motor, which then began to pack up as well. Why? Well, because they've invented a new flywheel.

“On my old car, the flywheel is just a lump of metal with teeth round it, and the starter motor engages it to start the engine, but otherwise it just spins round, freely. On Tess it's probably been doing that for about 300,000 miles. On the Ford Cortina I had, I know I did about a quarter of a million miles. No trouble with the flywheel.

“But they've invented this new, clever one, and it's not man enough to do the job. It's supposed to give you 'smoother driving'. It's to cater for those people who can't actually use a clutch! Apparently, many modern cars are fitted with dual-mass flywheels, and the chances are that a significant number of them will fall to pieces fairly early on in the life of the car.

“That is what annoys me about modern cars; it's the unnecessarily complicated nature of their design. One doesn't need it all. As far as I'm concerned, the simpler the better.

“I live with the modern car, but it's no coincidence my book ends in the early 1960s, because I consider that since then cars have basically been so boring that I wouldn't want to write a book about them!

“My son has a pretty expensive car and the other day he couldn't get into it. Eventually, after much fiddling, he got into it. He had great difficulty in starting it, so he thought he'd go straight to the dealer. They had difficulty in stopping it.

“They then plugged in their computer, and told him they'd never ever had a car that was indicating so many faults as his. In fact, it was of course the (car's) computer that had had a fit, or whatever computers do. There was in fact nothing physically wrong with the car whatsover. That again, to me, is utterly ridiculous.”

Tess - a petrol-powered pensioner

Make: Sunbeam-Talbot

Produced: 1946

Her type was produced for only a short time, after the war

Pre-war models have wire wheels; she has big hubcabs that need lots of polishing

Engine: About 1,000cc, 10-horsepower

Snappy? “It gives her 0-30, doing downhill, in about an hour and a quarter - if you're lucky”

Performance: Will cruise happily at 50-55mph, though “working fairly hard”

Thirsty? Owner Tom Tyler doesn't do many long trips in her, so it's a bit unfair to gauge

“Normal pottering around is probably about 23/24mpg. A long run might get something just over 30”

Much of her is aluminium, which doesn't rust

The rest of her structure is thick steel

Picking up the pieces

TOM Tyler's been taken by jigsaws since he was a boy. Nowadays he's got “many hundreds”. The oldest is a Pilgrim's Progress scene from 1790 - made not long after jigsaws were invented in 1762.

He's the founder of the Benevolent Confraternity of Dissectologists, “which was all thought up at a rather convivial supper party. I still can't spell most of it . . .” Launched in 1985, it has 400 members from across the globe. Fellow enthusiasts have ranged from a life-long lorry driver for Fords of Dagenham to Lord Kenneth Baker, the former Education Secretary.

Tom's collection includes a sectional view of the Queen Mary - puzzles were traditionally sold as souvenirs on ocean-going liners - and he knows of only one other copy.

He also reckons he has the best collection of Chad Valley advertising puzzles in the world, including some lovely road transport examples. Lots were made for the Great Western Railway, the Cunard steamship line, Dunlop, Pan-Am and so on - in pretty presentation boxes with a ribbon tie.

Puzzles are stacked virtually to the ceiling in one room. In another lie some spares that could at some stage be sold or swapped. “My wife cheers every time she sees one go out the front door!” smiles the Suffolk dissectologist.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter