Police encounters

In seven decades of road testing it was inevitable that WB would meet the odd policeman – professionally…

Considering the big mileages I drove, it is not surprising that I had a few encounters with the police. One was when a Panda car arrived with a summons, instead of a postman, which seemed odd. I asked the young officer in and opened the letter. I was accused of parking on double yellow lines. But on the day quoted I was at an important meeting at the Montagu Motor Museum which I showed the officer in my diary. “If I am prosecuted,” I said, “I happened to be sitting between Lord Montagu and racing driver Graham Hill, who would be impressive witnesses.” I heard nothing more.

On a happier note, I was driving a fast Alfa Romeo at the start of that splendid straight road from Stow-on-the-Wold to Gloucester and about to enjoy 100mph (no open-road speed limits until 1965) and on a slight bend had crossed a single white line in overtaking a slow vehicle. I then noticed in the mirror a police car coming up fast. I was stopped because I had crossed that line, which I didn’t know was an offence. While looking at my licence the officer noticed a Motor Sport sticker on the Alfa’s screen. “Do you read that magazine?” he queried, adding “so does my son.” I replied that I not only read it, I edited it. “Well,” the officer said, “don’t drive over white lines again,” and that was that. He then preceded me at 45mph. I thought it better not to overtake him…

Then in the Morgan 4/4 I met a pothole on London’s Embankment opposite Scotland Yard, which produced severe steering shimmy, a feature of the car, cured by accelerating out of it. But not in the rush-hour traffic that surrounded it. Two motorcycle policemen somehow contrived to reach me. “You are driving a dangerous car,” one told me. “I suppose you made it yourself,” as he towered over me – you sit low in a Morgan. “No,” I shouted. “It is brand-new, made by Morgan of Malvern Link.” He was unimpressed – I was told to follow the police to the nearest garage and leave the thing there to be repaired. They signalled to the garage and pulled away. I then drove the long distance home to Wales, avoiding any potholes…

Another amusing incident occurred when I was accused of illegal parking with a car I didn’t own. BMC used to offer some of us ex-road test cars at very tempting prices. They must have been kept in good order for loans to Press testers. So I invested in such a Mini-Cooper as a present for a daughter and her husband as a wedding present. The parking summons was again brought by a local police officer, though I had not by the date of the alleged crime even seen the Mini. I think BMC must have re-registered it but left the owner’s details blank until it had a customer. So many parking crimes had accrued that I heard that there was an urgency in bringing the offenders to court. Someone must have flicked through the forms until my name appeared, ignoring the date…

Incidentally, I wonder whether I am the only commoner permitted to drive on the public roads without number plates on my car? My wife and I were going to a Prescott hillclimb and on arrival she told me the front number plate was missing. A passer-by called out that he thought only royalty was allowed the privilege of driving without number plates. I then found that the rear plate had also vanished. Someone, for a joke or grudge, must have removed them the previous night. (Not stolen, as I later found out.) I had to get to Hereford the next day, so I put my problem to the local police. They said okay, and if I was stopped to tell the other police to ring them. Out and back I passed a Panda car in a lay-by but my car was not noticed. But I wondered, if the plates really had been stolen and had been used by a criminal on another car and he was arrested, would I also be arrested, as apparently part of the affair?

In the days when I began motoring you did not go to a post office or the DVLA to obtain a licence. In a Welsh town a few miles away there was a separate building staffed by a friendly man where this was done. With my several ancient cars I was a frequent caller and I asked whether, if my collection ever reached museum status, I would qualify for trade plates. The next time I called I was told that the plates were there. Surprised, I paid, to depart with a pair of ‘general’ ones, which covered motorcycles, to Jenks’ delight.

Finance for a museum was offered and I might have been lent better exhibits but the idea was abandoned – approach lanes too narrow, and did I really want viewing visitors arriving, enthusiasts though they might be? Instead we let motorcycle scrambles use the grounds on specified days, until too many spectators came, uncontrollable by the single ‘bobby’.
But those plates were useful when I rescued a just-pre-WWII Armstrong-Siddeley for £5, a potential ‘exhibit’, therefore legal. Then the first police car I had ever seen on our local fast road, which ran straight for a long distance and which was a favourite with bikers, overtook the scruffy A-S. The young policeman saw I had no tax disc and demanded my name. I told him I was driving on trade plates and he disappeared to look.

“But I need to see your chit,” he said. “Not on ‘generals’,” I told him, and he eventually let us proceed, a puzzled young man.

In the time when insurance was made compulsory you might be stopped but all they wanted to see was your certificate; tyres with the inner tube almost showing and a partly opaque screen would often be ignored, as on my Austin 7s, Gwynne 8s and perhaps my Clyno. But while the speed limit was lifted from open roads in 1930, a 30mph limit was imposed in towns from 1935, and being caught for this offence was common. (Today’s 70mph limit was first imposed in 1965.)

In my defence I offered photographs of warning signs fallen down or obscured by tree branches, to no avail, but a pay clerk did tell me that magistrates preferred a court appearance rather than a postal defence and might adjust the fine accordingly. The most unusual case was when a group of press testers were starting out in convoy,
I think in the first post-Beetle VW, at the 40-30 mode and I was stopped, though why or how timed was never known. I was told the officer involved would soon appear to confirm my crime. After which a young policewoman tapped on the car’s near-side window. “But I am not the driver,” said my astonished passenger. The policeman’s arm then directed her round to me. Asked for my driving licence I remembered that you need not hand it over so I held it out of the window. “I can’t read your writing.” “It isn’t mine, the Post Office wrote it.” “Well, read it to me,” I was requested, although not legally obliged to.

When this came to court I decided to defend myself. When the girl was called I asked her about these unusual episodes of hers. To each of my questions she answered “I don’t remember.” I gave up and was fined another £7. A barrister later told me I gave up too soon. I should have asked if the girl remembered her name and address and if so why not my other questions. In the end the magistrates would have tired and dismissed the hearing.

Then there was the night I was driving home from London to Wales and came upon a lightless old van being most dangerously driven. I had to wait until it swerved left, when using all the Ford Sierra’s acceleration, I got past it. Then, tired and hungry, a quarter-mile from my house, two policemen stopped me. In view of the van I said, “Shall I park on the verge behind your car?” “No,” I was told, “stay where you are,” as the van went swerving past. They took no notice but asked for my licence and insurance certificate. Instead of a certificate I had a letter from the Ford Motor Co saying the car was fully insured for anyone to drive – a ploy against a press tester losing the official certificate. The policemen refused to accept this, saying I would be reported for driving uninsured.

They shone torches on the tyres to see their condition, and finally asked me my age. This was the last straw, so I said I had forgotten it, which made them as angry as me. I told them they had ample proof that I was old enough to be licensed to drive a car but if they needed my exact age Somerset House in London should know… I was then allowed to go but would
be reported. Next day, however, the local policeman accepted Ford’s letter, adding “the young officers are sometimes over-zealous”.

Then there was the Edwardian sporting Delage which we towed home from a distant breaker’s yard, helping it up a hill with our Austin 7 Ruby. I applied for registration and on another very wet evening a policeman arrived to say I had a stolen car; the Delage was registered as a similar-aged Singer. I had to go with him to the barn where the Delage was and its radiator badge apparently satisfied the drenched copper, as I heard nothing more. War stopped attention to this interesting car, which Pete Hampton eventually made presentable. We had bought and paid for a second Delage of the same type for spares but never collected it, war intervening.

Petrol rationing brought another bobby calling to tell me I would be reported for illegal use of petrol after I was stopped in my 12/50 Alvis for a noisy exhaust. This bobby returned to tell me the records showed no petrol coupons allocated to me and I would very likely soon be in prison. But there were two coupon lists, one for farmers, one for the press, the latter providing entertainment for the Forces, which we were told applied to Motor Sport. The officious policeman had consulted the wrong list!

These are just memories from long ago and in no way a denigration of our police forces, whose bravery and dedication I have always admired. As a car-keen child I was told if I got lost, which was never allowed, to find a policeman and I have never forgotten such meaningful advice.