A coach driver's technique for holding his bus in gear reminded me of my car.
I was at the end of a Christmas tramping trip in January 1967 after crossing the Wangapeka and Heaphy Tracks in New Zealand’s South Island, and my fellow trampers and I boarded a coach at Takaka for the return home via Picton and the Cook Strait ferry to Wellington. During the gruelling climb over the Takaka Hill separating Takaka and Motueka, my thoughts turned to my car, a Hillman Husky, which on this occasion I had left behind at home.
The bus trip over that hill was the morning after the four of us had casually responded to an invitation to a new year's party in the district during a one night, post trip stop over, and our heads were in poor shape! I had carefully chosen a front seat on the bus, hoping to preserve some physical stability and was fortunately able to watch the driver. And the way he drove that bus reminded me of my car. I had owned the little Hillman for nearly a year; enough time to become more than familiar with its idiosyncrasies; the sorts of things that older cars required to keep them on the road and the ways to drive them.
As we crested the summit of that famous hill and the bus started its descent, I noticed that it slipped out of gear. The driver slammed it back into gear, then to my amazement, to stop it slipping again, he bent down and grabbed a large rubber band that was lying around the base of the gear lever, and after sliding it up to just under the knob, he stretched it out and fitted it over a hook that protruded from under the dash board! Had these bus drivers seen my car I wondered. They'd pinched my idea!
The Husky was a three door mini wagon like a cut down version of the Hillman Minx, (rare on the roads now). Mine was a 1956 model and was powered by a 1265cc side valve engine. It was my first car. It had 130 000 miles on the clock and was well used. No, I hadn't noticed the gear box problem before agreeing to buy it. The fact was that it only slipped out of third or top gear sometimes, when decelerating, particularly when descending hills, as with the Picton bound coach. I soon devised a method for holding it in third or fourth gear using an elastic band and a pair of hooks; one under the dash, the other under the driver's seat. But I was concerned about the problem and went to see an old family friend who had been a mechanic all his life. It was then that I was introduced to a common problem that was the curse of the age for many cars, and the side valve Hillman in particular.
I demonstrated the gearbox to Eric and he seemed quite unfazed. Oh yes, I could have the gearbox seen to, but it would probably be expensive, and in the meantime the car would perform okay for years without repairs to the selectors. No, the gears weren't taking Eric's attention; instead he was listening intently to the sound of the engine at idle.
`Have you got a crank handle?' he asked me. How many people these days recall crank handles I wonder? I fished it out and gave it to him. After I'd switched off, he engaged the handle at the front of the car and turned it round, slowly, just once.
`You've got a burnt valve there,' Eric pronounced. I was impressed and dismayed all at once. From the old school, was Eric; didn't need any of your fancy gear or plug in computers. He could feel the compression by simply turning the crank starting handle. He told me that the valve grind was urgent.
I lifted the cylinder head and undertook the job, but wouldn't relish reconditioning valves on side valve engines for a living. Trying to get into a suitable position to compress the springs and find the collets without dropping them into the sump, then reversing the procedure on reassembly, then finally adjusting the tappets wasn't really my preferred way of spending a weekend. But the worst was still to come. When, 10 000 miles later, another valve deteriorated, I thought I hadn't done the job properly, only to be told by a mechanic in the dealership garage that 8000 to 10 000 miles was all I might reasonably expect between valve grinds! Side valve engines and the need to undertake valve grinds are products of yesteryear, thank goodness. As well, the Hillmans were prone to overheating, leading to cracked cylinder heads and sometimes cylinder blocks.
But the little Hillman did give me some happy motoring in the two years I owned it. In fact, I liked the design so much that I bought another one! But this time a 1963 model with the newer overhead valve 1390cc motor, and what a huge difference that was; in fact no comparison! I drove it for five years. It was ten years old when I sold it, and the head had never been lifted.
During that time, my sister bought her first car, a Morris Minor 1000. After she'd had it a while, I detected a change in the tone of the engine at idle.
` Pass me your crank handle and switch off for a minute,' I asked her. I turned the handle round slowly.
`You've got a burnt valve there,' I announced with an air of smug confidence. She had the compression tested at our local garage which confirmed my diagnosis.
`Better get your brother to do valve grind,' the garage mechanic said!
At least her car had an overhead valve engine, so it was much easier to work on.