Vintage Restorations in the Sudan

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Grant Fear

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(At one time the vintage was very insular and we didn’t know much about old cars outside England. The war changed all that and today the interest is World-wide. But conditions in, say, the Sudan, differ materially from those experienced by vintage car restorers at home, as this article by Grant Fear, of Aweil, emphasises.—ED.)

Not so many people have opportunities of playing with vintage cars in “undeveloped countries,” or of experiencing the odd encounters which duty and leave journeys bring, in the course of service in the remoter places.

Not long after I returned to Khartoum in 1955 I began to hear rumours of a vintage Vauxhall. During previous visits I had seen a few model-T and model-A Fords, and a post-vintage Rolls-Royce in private ownership, but the Vauxhall sounded much more like my cup of tea, especially as several people assured me that it was a 30/98. Eventually I ran it to earth beneath piles of scrap in the yard of one, El Hag Ahmed, in Khartoum’s Light Industrial Area, and saw at once that it was not one of the great Edwardians, but a 1928 20/60, one of the first G.M.C. products from Luton.

I cannot guarantee that the history of this car, as I have pieced it together, is accurate, but the accounts I have had from assorted Inglizi and Sudani add up to the following: The car was said to have been bought new and shipped to Port Sudan by the Army, and railed to Khartoum. In 1931 it seems to have been sold, passing, during the next 20 years or so, through the hands of a succession of Army Officers temporarily stationed in the Sudan. During this time it was supposed to have been “driven to London and back.” This probably means that it was driven north, alongside the railway, to Wadi Halfa, and thence taken by steamer and rail into Egypt: from there it could be shipped to Greece or (more probably, especially in those days, as pre-war Monte Carlo Rallyists from Athens would agree) to Italy; or driven westwards along the North African coast and shipped across to Spain. One would not pretend that regular streams of traffic cover these itineraries, but quite a number of people have made such journeys.

Sometime in the early ’50s the Vauxhall was bought by a maths. tutor at Khartoum Technical Institute, who is said to have made a long journey southwards, some say to East Africa, others that it was all the way to South Africa. On the return journey, it seems, a big-end was knocked out near Juba, in the Southern Sudan, and the car was brought back to Khartoum by river steamer. There it was found that No. 6 crankshaft journal was badly worn, and it was decided simply to discard No. 6 piston, con.-rod and push-rods, “because five cylinders is quite enough for tooling round Khartoum.” This bit I did not learn until after I had bought the car!

After the scrap had been pulled aside, she was revealed as a bath-tub 5-seater tourer, in silver-grey enamel and not too bad a state of preservation. The biggest blow, at that stage, was to find that the original wheels were gone, replaced, when tyres of the original size were difficult to obtain, by Humber staff-car rims welded on to three-eights-of-an-inch steel plate, with stud-holes drilled in more-or-less the right places and of more-or-less the right diameter.

Ninety pounds, El Hag said he wanted for her (one pound Sudanese is worth a pound and sixpence sterling). I made the expected protestations that this was too much, as a Sudan Government Official I couldn’t afford it, and the most the thing was worth was ten pounds; then I went away. Over the next three weeks I dropped in on El Hag whenever duty or inclination took me his way, drank about ten gallons of his coffee, and eventually paid him £30. In those days, towing of “dead” vehicles was only permitted by carro-carts. A carro-cart is a chance collection of timbers, lashed together with nails, bits of grass rope and cottonbale hoop, and perched on four wheels, the I.D. of the hubs not being less than 2 in. greater than the diameter of the axles; the whole concoction being dragged miserably along by a horse apparently bred as a model for an R.S.P.C.A. poster. Hardening my heart towards both horse and driver, I paid the equivalent of ten bob to have the Vauxhall towed a couple of miles to my house, and began the first stages of “The Restoration of Vintage and Thoroughbred Cars,” the reduction to major assemblies.

The wheels had already shaken my good intentions: finding the condition of the crankshaft, and that the piston and rod were missing, really upset things. However, I wrote to all my friends in the U.K. and advertised in the appropriate journal, and got precisely nowhere. Matters being already desperate, I decided I had nothing to lose by trying to build up the crankshaft a blob at a time (I hadn’t then discovered that there was a metal-spray plant in the country and nobody told me of it), but, like a fool, instead of doing the job myself (With an arc, of course) I entrusted it to a so-called expert. He fully understood my instructions, but, as soon as my back was turned he loosed a huge gas-jet on the poor old shaft and bang went all hope of anything being in-line. We did try putting it in a press (I having vivid memories of watching VR 180(a) tractor pinion-shafts having almost 0.5-in. of bow bumped out of them, after heat treatment of the pinions), and bang went more than hope.

Abandoning all plans for restoration-as-new, I began a hunt for another engine. For several weeks (I suppose I ought to remind you that all this was done in the intervals of earning my living, and most of the work done during afternoons in a small garage, temperatures of 100º F. and more, and considerable trepidation at shattering my neighbours’ siestas) nothing more positive presented itself than a friend’s suggestion that I buy a “boarded” Ford V8 fire-engine from El Obeid, about 350 miles from Khartoum—he would ride back with me, to ring the bell. Then further rumours led to a Perkins P6 diesel engine from a Sudanese-owned lorry (the owner was converting back to petrol because his driver kept breaking transmissions with the diesel—I would have changed drivers, myself). This was mated to the Vauxhall gearbox via a slab of flame-cut boiler plate, and the drive-shafts mated by spigoting and sleeving, all being milled and turned to press-fits. Front springs were supplemented with heavy coils, to support the extra weight of the diesel; front brakes were restored (how many readers have battled with this exercise in the application of the Inclined Plane?); and three 2-in. copper pipe bends were brought back, on leave, to conduct heat and noise safely past the passenger-seat (there was no nonsense about obligatory silencers until recently).

So much vandalism having been thrust upon me, I gave in to criticisms of the body-shape, and carved off everything aft of the front seat, replacing the bath with a beetle-back using a VW front lid, and thereby astonishing several VW owners, confronted with what seemed to be one of their own cars going faster in reverse than they could in top. Painted dark grey and shod with 7.50 x 16s, fast this lot certainly was, within the limits of local conditions. With second gear and the clutch both safely engaged, and Mr. Frank P. bellowing away on his very handsome torque curve, nothing then in the Sudan could hold us on acceleration, especially after a sack of sand was put into the boot to balance the heavier engine. Fuel consumption was just over 40 m.p.g., to the amazement of a pump attendant, who asked why I did not buy all my “gazoil” from him, as, in fact, I was doing; and, as diesel fuel is just under half the price of petrol in Khartoum (1s. 10.5d. : 4s.), a pleasant economy was achieved. [I do not condone this sort of vandalism but under the circumstances it was clearly permissible. The idea of building a diesel-engined “special” is attractive, although the power/weight ratio of such power units would preclude any very high performance. But perhaps some enterprising club will include a class in sprint events to encourage such hybrids—it could be more rewarding than the class for gas-turbine vehicles which the Hants & Berks M.C. instituted at the Great Auclum Hill-Climb year and year—and which year after year Rover ignored!—Ed.]

This hybrid was a lot of fun and widely recognised as a landmark (“I don’t know where his house is—you get there early and we’ll look for your car”). I’ve since regretted that a change of job led to my selling it to a Greek engineer, who used the engine to drive a welding generator, and who still further perverted the body into a kind of safari-wagon, but still has not found another engine. I felt particularly badly about this car because, during the three months after I was committed to the change of engines, there were several advertisements, in the appropriate journal, of spares for this model.

Ownership of my next car arose from a purely chance encounter with a French devoté of les voitures de la Belle Epoque. She was one of the last K6 Hispano-Suizas, with the most beautiful sports saloon body I have ever seen, a pillarless Van Vooren. In fact, the only closed/partially closed/drophead body I know of which is more impressively beautiful is the sedanca on Le Patron’s own Royale. This car was kept in France for a while, but eventually imported into England and sold.

I have never known a car with such a wide of petrol consumption: driving hard, alone, on Continental mountain or second-class roads, could get through a gallon every eight miles of exhilaration; silking along with nervous passengers, a gallon would eke itself out to eighteen miles of contented pride. The Hispano was not beyond criticism, principally in being short of one gear in the box. I expect three were plenty in the days when the remnants of the aristocracy pointed that wonderful great bonnet at the South, and went like the wind to the Cote d’Azure; but modern traffic and the high bottom gear are rather hard on the clutch, in spite of the smooth 5.3-litre engine with two of everything. In Lord Cottenham’s forecast of Rover publicity, “Sicilian Circuit,” he comments that a Hispano was never a car for a child to drive, but mine was certainly a delight to one who would claim only to be a competent adult. With its wonderful steering and, perhaps above all, the gearbox-driven mechanical servo brakes (which Rolls-Royce pinched, remember), the only time one was ever conscious that this car was well over two tons in weight was when winding really hard through a tight bend—not that the rail-steady rush was ever worrying, hut the gentle declining reading of the adhesiometer in the seat-of-the-pants was just perceptible.

Returning to the Sudan, I stumbled upon one of the cooking-sherry Alfa Romeos, lying derelict at the side of one of the residential roads in Khartoum. It is a 2.3B, with a quite pleasant pillar-less saloon by Touring. As far as I can discover, she came into the Sudan via Ethiopia, and may be the sole survivor of three. When I found her, all tyres, instruments, upholstery, and the many rubber-bushes in the suspensions and transmission, were scrap. A good friend presented me with most of a complete spare engine and gearbox, and a complete set of instruments. I couldn’t get anything out of Alfas, and “T. & T.’s” storekeeper was able to find me only a couple of rubber bump-stops for the front suspension (which is Alfa’s trailing-link, coil-and-oil damper layout) of the few items for which I asked him. Before I had again come home on leave in order to be able to visit Cobham, however, I had contrived to find or to fabricate pretty well all that I needed.

Mercedes lorries use big rubber bushes of the type required for the rear torsion bars, and Commers use bushes I could adapt for the propellor-shaft couplings. After some hesitation I scrapped the original brake fluid reservoir in favour of one with a glass bowl, so that I could readily see any contamination, because dust is terribly pervasive in this country.

All the upholstery had been renewed, the wooden fillets re-polished, and the exterior resprayed black (but not polished) when the time came to move some hundreds of miles south of Khartoum. Here, lack of electricity and excess of bugs prevent night work, and since last May I have been able to make time to do very little more, but soon I shall be able to replace the drive chain to the water pump, and to get the engine going. Then there will remain only re-fitting of the re-glazed and re-plated windscreen, a complete re-wire, and the making of new carpets and tail-lamps. Twin sidelamps have been fitted, in case the Alfa is ever taken to Europe, one set yellow, one white, so connected that whichever set is in use for purposes of illumination the other set will act as direction flashers. Similarly, the headlamps can be readily commuted to comply with any lighting regulations. New Michelin “X”s have been fitted, and the whole frame, engine and transmission cleaned, scraped and polished or painted, as appropriate. Some of the original flimsy chrome frippery from the front end of the bodywork has been discarded, with an improvement in the dignity of the appearance. The only serious remaining shortage is in the rubber internals of the front suspension. These I have faked up from other proprietary components, having been unable to locate genuine replacements. If anyone knows where to find them I would be very glad of advice.

I hope, when next on leave, to be toying with an 8-litre Bentley, chassis number YR 5086, but this, like the Hispano, I would never dream of taking to the Sudan. Meanwhile I content myself as best I can with Wheatley and Morgan’s book, “W. O.’s” reminiscences, Sammy Davis’ autobiography, the Bulletin, the Review, and with every word printed in the appropriate journal; and I keep in practice by driving my personal Land-Rover, 3- or 5-ton Commers, and, when nty chaps will let me, one of our Caterpillar D8Hs.

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