My first set of wheels. Built by my big brother, it’s a pretend milk float. you can just see traces of the stencilled badging for The Birmingham Dairy Co. Ltd. I spent hours ‘delivering’ bottles of milk.
Not my Dad’s car but the model I remember from 1947 when I watched him sliding down a hill in the big freeze.
The Birmingham Dairy Co. in James Watt St. The picture was taken in 1953, the year of the Queen’s Coronation. The first powered vehicle I drove was the small Pony Electric parked on the left. Later, I was allowed to shunt around the Austin lorries.
I still have the huge driving gloves my dad bought during the winter months of 1946/7 when Britain almost came to a standstill. In the middle is the size of glove I wear today.
With my brother riding shotgun, I was so proud of this sports car. Echoes of the MG’s from the 30’s and 40’s.
Birmingham and the neighbouring cities of Coventry and Wolverhampton made up the Capitol of the British Motor Industry with several iconic manufacturers based in the region. Dad and many family friends were loyal to Austin. Dad is on the left, I’m wearing white socks and the car is a 1950 Austin A90 Atlantic – made at the giant Austin plant at Longbridge in Birmingham. It was a model that was designed for the export market, especially the US. Of the 7981 Atlantic’s’ produced, only a few made it to the States. Had the A90 Atlantic been powered with a V8, the numbers might have been different.
My imaginary ONE LAST DRIVE experience will take me to some places that were an important part of my life. Like Denstone College where 40 boys slept in each dormitory. I was in Selwyn House which is on the top floor of this picture – no partitions and very cold in the winter as, in those days, the heating system was poor. I often went to bed wearing a duffle coat and rugby socks.
Penning this article has highlighted many of the happy and positive times of my life at Denstone in the late 50’s. I’ve mind-driven my way to school, to family roots in Uttoxeter, the house full of childhood memories in Sutton Coldfield and the Studio where I began my TV career. Some of the cars I’ve owned had faded to the back of my memory bank but ONE LAST DRIVE has brought them all back to life. Happy Motoring Everyone!
So, what would be my vehicle of choice and route plan be for a nostalgic ONE LAST DRIVE in a petrol fuelled car. An imaginary journey to drive past or visit landmarks from my past.
No hesitation – I’d choose a late 70’s MGB GT with a Webasto sunroof. I had a GT at a time when I was freelancing for several ITV companies with weekly journeys from Birmingham to London, Southampton, Cardiff and other cities. With the sunroof open most of the year and the Carpenters singing away I have such happy memories of that time. The fresh air could have helped prep me for my work as a newsreader and announcer. I can still imagine my thumb on the gear shift in readiness to flick-in the overdrive.
Now in 2021, for a nostalgic one-day MGB experience (Covid restrictions allowing) I’d start off with breakfast at a fast-food outlet in Edmund Street Birmingham in sight of the offices which ATV used to rent – the start of my TV career. I’ve always enjoyed fast-food stops and fondly remember the bacon sandwiches and mugs of tea from the roadside stops before every long-distance journey took you on motorways. I get into the driving seat and head off to Sutton Coldfield and drive past three houses owned by my parents.
I’d linger for a while in Blackroot Road, scene of my pedal car days and my favourite house. Then off to visit my old school in Staffordshire. I’d stop in Lichfield for a comfort stop (I’m 76) and buy a take-away coffee just by the house where the 18th century writer Doctor Johnson was born. Back in the ‘B’ for a picturesque drive through the countryside and to my next stop – Uttoxeter – where my parents came from. It’s a fine traditional market town and, as a youngster, it was a regular destination to visit relatives and to satisfy my parent’s love of love of horse racing. The racecourse is famous and still very popular, a here lies a story.
My grandfather ran the White Hart Hotel – flash back to the days before WWI when my Dad was just old enough to collect dirty glasses. On race days the hotel would be packed with the racing community. My Dad told me about one jockey staying at the hotel who bragged that he would most likely win a race on that day. “Just watch my crop and if I’m holding it this way, I’ll definitely be the winner”. True or false? That’s what my Dad told me and he wasn’t one to exaggerate. This anecdote does resonate with the Peaky Blinders who were well known for their racecourse antics – Uttoxeter is close to Birmingham where the Peaky Blinders came from so there’s a possible family connection to a gang that’s now been featured in an internationally successful TV series.
I jump in or carefully wriggle into the MG for the short journey of a few miles from Uttoxeter to Denstone College which is a boarding school perched remotely on the top of a hill. “So God can keep a closer eye on what you sprogs are up to” ; on my first day of starting a three-year-stretch, that’s how a scary prefect described the location to me.
In this dream-trip I park the MG right by the main entrance – a place a first-year boy couldn’t even look at in the 50’s. I pad along the cloisters not wanting to make a noise or get in the way – I’m a new sprog again – and then as my imagination mixes through to reality, I note that the College smells the same. It’s not unpleasant, in fact it could be bottled as an after shave even though Denstone is now co-ed. Getting on for two centuries of school life with polished stone floors and, in my day, common rooms with old text books, the room where we kept our tuck boxes – fresh with cakes, biscuits and jams at the beginning of term but often mouldy by the end of term – the outside bogs (latrines) that were disgusting, forty boys to each dormitory and the big schoolroom where I had my first taste of show-business.
I’d been entertaining my close chums by singing a well-known song that I’d adapted with my own rude lyrics. Thirteen-year-old humour and not worthy of publishing here. Anyway, a prefect heard about it and I was ordered to sing in a senior’s common room. Instead of being punished, I was applauded. The following Saturday the whole school including masters and five or more ladies (a few masters did have wives) were assembled in the Big Hall for some boring recital; after it was over, a chant started – “We want Prince”. I knew what it was all about and with expulsion looming I launched into my very naughty song. There was great applause and shouts of encore. I was more relaxed now and saw masters and some ladies laughing. I wasn’t expelled and now I recognize that this was a defining moment that steered me to drama school in London, a TV production course run by the BBC and then my long career in the media.
Not my finest hour – I’m at the wheel (and stuck in the mud) of the car I’ve chosen for my ONE LAST DRIVE – this is the only picture I have of a car that safely zoomed me around England when I was freelancing at several of the ITV companies, Unless it was raining, I nearly always rolled back the Webasto roof. If I had a late-life crisis, would I now buy a restored MG B?
Looking back, I did enjoy many aspects of Denstone. I experienced the last years of a spartan boys-only boarding school; now I’m actually glad that I had my time there and went through the survival obstacle course of that era. Nowadays, the College is a happy, relaxed and successful school with boys and girls.
Returning to my ‘imaginary’ visit I watch some pupils in the cricket nets and enjoy that wonderful sound of leather on willow. A few of the current Denstonians watch as I slowly motor away down the long school drive. The MGB takes me homeward and driving through Rocester there’s a Morris Minor Traveller coming the other way. A lady of a similar age to myself salutes me and I salute back; two fellow travellers indulging in memories of a golden age of motoring.
This fantasy MGB GT excursion has transported me to places that shaped my life. The transport heritage we’ve witnessed and used in our lifetime is nestled away in the day-to-day experiences logged in our brains. A gateway to our memories of the 20th century.
Places, people, events, dining out, holidays, commuting, school, romantic moments and, of course, the vehicles that moved us around.