Hidden in a Kent farm is a reminder that cars were once a luxury not everyone could afford
Tripping over private collections that don’t shout their presence is one of the delights of this job. I’m sure I’ve driven down this quiet Kent lane on a navigational rally, but no one would know that behind the rosy brickwork of that little farm lurks one of the forgotten byways of the motor industry. Microcars, bubblecars, three-wheelers – all the crackpot inventiveness that went into producing cheap, small, economical vehicles for a person or two, and sometimes claiming to cope with a whole family. They blossomed in two eras when money and materials were short – following the two world wars, when mobility wasn’t a given and optimistic engineers thought the world was full of eager buyers desperate for minimal transport. Hence the tripod Bonds, abundant Isettas and scampering Scootacars that for a while looked like everyman’s future.
But everyman didn’t flock to them, and most disappeared down history’s drain. So all hail the Hammond family who since the 1970s have rescued many of these unloved urchins to form one of only two microcar collections in the UK. It’s only open by appointment (call 01580 891377), but I went along on their annual open day to investigate these tiny traffic teasers. From the farm’s tree-lined campsite we crossed a rustic bridge over a stream into a grassy paddock, where visiting micros sat in leafy shade or puttered off to do driving tests. A minuscule folding caravan and a delicious faired-in Heinkel Tourist scooter with mono-wheel trailer distract me before I’m given a tour of the collection by Chris Thomas, who runs the Register of Unusual Microcars and edits its magazine. No need to read the labels as Chris has it all at his fingertips – he also maintains the microcar archive.
In this company the bubblecars look conventional and the Fiat Multipla positively grown-up alongside the crate-like Flipper (whose engine turns with the twin front wheels to provide reverse), the 49cc Bamby (plastic pyramid over one seat, three wheels), or the New Map Solyto – some flimsy steel folded around a French farmer and a kick-start motorcycle engine.
Some are almost proper cars: the Opperman Stirling, built in Boreham Wood despite the Germanic name, is an attractive 600cc coupé which BMC thought threatened its forthcoming Mini. Nearby, the Champion Kombi is a cute woodie almost like a Beetle estate – but could 450cc of Heinkel two-stroke ever drag a family around? Low production cost was everything in those post-war years, and alongside is a symmetrical ‘push-me-pull-you’ Champion saloon with interchangeable front/rear/left/right wings – 25 years before Pininfarina’s Peugette.
The cars are mostly ‘as found’ though there’s a slow restoration programme. Jean Hammond tells me how the collection began with a single Heinkel bubble car, and how she and husband Edwin used to drive all over, even to Germany in their Heinkels, Goggomobils and the Meadows Frisky, a cheeky little coupé straight from the Jetsons. That’s the same Meadows whose motors powered Lagondas and Invictas. Odd that so many firms worked at both ends of the auto spectrum: Allard – rumbling V8 tourers and the gloriously ugly plastic three-wheel Clipper; AC – Cobras and the topple-prone invalid car; Reliant – Scimitars and dodgy three-wheelers. The cuddly Scootacar, like a shrunken one-seat Isetta, was built by Hunslet the steam loco firm, and we know what Messerschmitt made apart from its racy tandem Kabinenroller…
The most bizarre thing there was the Moby. Imagine a moped with a sidecar that’s ballooned to enclose the bike – yet you drive it from the sidecar. Why?
It wasn’t all retro-reminiscing. Minimum transport is back in focus today, for different reasons, and queuing for a lamb burger with mint yoghurt and beetroot (no photos – I’m not Mr Arron) I met Simon Bailey, a researcher in ultra-light vehicles at Loughborough University who told me all about an electric tandem trike called SAM. There’s a huge tonnage of metalwork being pointlessly dragged around our city streets by petrol engines, and he reckons compact devices like this are one answer.
Of course you can still buy a new Peel 55, as made famous by J Clarkson driving one through TV Centre – but it’s 10 grand. I watched a couple skittering around the farm like noisy kiddiecars; design-wise I love the principle of a minuscule footprint – a seat and some motive power – and car designers often play with these ideas, but Renault’s Twizy is the only one you’ll see around. Then there’s the Segway – the world’s most pointless use of electronics: all that technology to keep it upright, something every human can do for themselves if you put the wheels the right way round, fore and aft. It’s called a scooter.
If you want to see some of these babies, Google the National Microcar Rally, on September 8-11 in Shropshire.
Musing on all this I went home and played with my new electric wheels for my wheelchair and thought, hmm – a seat and some motive power. All I need is a roof and I’ve cracked it.
What’s it like to be the daily driver to the fastest man in the world?
Phone call from Duncan Rabagliati: “I’ve just met Donald Campbell’s chauffeur – would you like to talk to him?”
Well, of course.
Tony Betteridge was working for a chauffeur agency when he was sent for interview with Donald Campbell, already a famous figure in the public arena. “We had a talk and then he said ‘try the Bentley’. I was used to Bentleys and Rolls-Royce so that was no problem.”
This was the sky blue 4¼ tourer Campbell used for many years.
Campbell took Tony on just after marrying Tonya Bern in 1958, and he quickly became part of the household, living in quarters attached to the house in Horsley, Surrey. “I used to drive Gina [Campbell’s daughter] to school, get the shopping, and at Christmas the kids and I exchanged presents. And everybody went to the house for the Bonfire Night fireworks.”
While not as abrasive as his father, Donald was no soft touch: “He was very direct – he’d soon tell you if you made a cock-up. But he’d praise you too.” And there were perks: “Campbell was a director of Dowty Turbocraft [which produced a small waterjet powerboat using a Ford Zephyr engine] and I was able to play with that. And he had a villa in Majorca, and I would go out there to arrange the servants etc.”
As well as making travel arrangements for the household and record team, Tony worked alongside Leo Villa, the Campbells’ long-time engineer and developer, who was a keen Triumph TR4 driver. There was also an Austin-Healey Sprite team members could use. Donald had complete faith in Leo, says Tony. “He said ‘I leave Villa to it; I’m just the driver’ .”
Campbell always felt his efforts were for the good of his country. Progress through patriotism. Says Tony: “He used to tell me ‘It’s no good sitting back, you must get on and do something or else other countries will go ahead of us’.”
Tony continues: “I was surprised Donald didn’t want to drive himself, but it was fun for me. He bought a Mini Cooper, put his DC 7 numberplate on it and said to Leo. ‘See if you can make it go any faster.’ He used to drive to the Dorchester in it. Then he bought an Aston Martin DB5, but found it too noisy after his Jaguar XK150 and E-type.”
While Campbell wasn’t interested in driving himself on the road, he enjoyed flying himself. Villa wasn’t quite so sure: “When Donald got his new Piper Commanche Leo said to me ‘You can go up first’. But he didn’t scare me.”
While Tony was only peripherally involved in the UK end of Campbell’s record projects – he drove the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited Motor Panels in Coventry where the car was being assembled – he was invited to Australia for the 1962 Lake Eyre attempts, “but in the end I was left behind. Donald gave me a Morris Minor to compensate.”
Tony had left Campbell’s employ before the record-breaker’s tragic end on Coniston Water in 1967, but attended the memorial service at St Martin in the Fields and shows me the order of service, along with other mementoes of his time including signed photos. He went on chauffeuring, and between the film industry and private employers drove some famous names: Yul Brynner, Maggie Smith, Princess Margaret, and met Nelson Mandela. But even that great statesman couldn’t claim the title of fastest man on earth.