*This is a great story sent in by Niamh Smith about the best worst car she's ever owned! You can check her old car shenanigans out on Instagram, here: @RACEWAYHUSSY You can also read more on her blog: RACEWAYHUSSYBLOG , there is some great stuff there!!
This is a story about an Austin. That’s right, a British Motor Corporation hunk of tin from one of the wettest isles on the planet. A dreary, dull, British car that fell into the hands of two twenty-something British hot rodders who weren’t keen on British cars.
The story starts, like all good tales, on Facebook marketplace. My partner, Jake, and I had not long been in our first house, and as first-time homeowners we found ourselves in the alien situation that we had our own driveway which was looking rather empty to us, and suspiciously lacking oil stains.
This wouldn’t stand. With a little bit of money in our pockets, we’d both stumbled across a 1957 Austin A55 Cambridge on Facebook marketplace. It was painted the dullest flat shade of grey and black, probably with a yard brush and household emulsion. It had no trim whatsoever, save for the flying A on the bonnet and other essentials like door handles. The interior was minimal, with some hideous grey leather modern BMW seats, and no back seat to speak of whatsoever. It sat on black Triumph TR6 ‘Pepperpot’ steel wheels; a selling point as they were rather hard to find.
The most endearing, and intriguing, quality however, was the bonnet latches, which were in fact a pair of sliding gate bolts on either front corner of the bonnet. This is something we’d have never put on ourselves, but we loved how much it must’ve pissed off the purists, and it was so ridiculous we sort of loved it.
Before we knew it we were off to view it. It sat beside a house in the damp grass, and after hearing it run and moving back and forward we decided we’d take it for the grand sum of £1,500. All we needed to know was that it started, ran and stopped. She was dubbed, by myself, as Minnie the Moocher, for no particular reason other than it seemed to suit her.
When we got home, we started taking it out on drives, and soon discovered a few ‘quirks’ that would need addressing. The first was that the gear stick would come out in your hand whilst you were driving. Not very practical I think you’ll agree, so one day I took it to bits and found that the mechanism had fallen apart but luckily the parts were floating around in the shifter boot, so that was an easy fix. In fact, I can’t even remember if it had a shifter boot; the trans tunnel was half of a Calor gas bottle welded to the floor, as the car would’ve originally been column shift.
The next issue was one that persisted for a while before we could work out what it was. It had a nasty habit of cutting out whilst we were driving it. We soon worked out it was something to do with the fuel pump, so our solution to this was to carry around a screwdriver to coast to a stop, hop out and use the broom stick handle to prop the bonnet up, and whack the fuel pump til we heard it jump back to life and begin ticking away again.
It became almost a game of how many times Minnie would stop every time we went out. It wasn’t all fun and games though.
One time I travelled up to Leeds to collect a midcentury table I’d bought for a steal online, and for some reason I decided to take the Austin. I think my daily at the time was too small, so the logical thing to me was to take the 60 year old car to a place I’d never been to, with a mobile phone that was almost dead. It stopped a few times on my way up, and as I tried to leave the table-seller’s driveway, it refused to start for long enough to limp me much further than a mile down the road.
At this point my phone was completely dead, and I was stranded on the side of the road. I don’t think I’d even told Jake where I was, so I was getting to the point that I’d have to go into the nearest house to borrow the phone and hope that I didn’t get kidnapped.
At that exact moment that I was contemplating what on earth was wrong with me, and also my options, a friend of ours who is an avid Austin enthusiast drove past me in his recovery truck. I saw him slow down, turn around and head back towards me. ‘Paul, you’re my hero!’ I gushed as he replaced the fuel pump and followed me back down the motorway to my junction.
We got fed up of having to clean out the fuel filter and bash the fuel pump, so we ended up ordering a bunch of cheap filters and pumps on eBay so when it got clogged up with rust we could simply swap them out at the side of the road. We eventually realized, however, that the fuel tank was just full of loose rust, and that was the source of our misery. Jake had a spare fuel cell from his Dodge Dart Superstocker, and we fitted that in the boot (trunk). After that, we never had a single issue with the car. She was… perfect!
After buying her in October, we decided to give her a bit of an overhaul over winter. We got to sanding… and sanding, and sanding and sanding. Soon the years of different liveries came away on the floor of the workshop. The ‘yellow taxi cab’ paint, the army green with shark teeth, even down to the metallic purple.
As we got down, we realized what was hiding under all those layers of paint. The sills were practically non existent. A previous owner had taken box section, bashed it into shape in the location of where the sills SHOULD have been and had rotted away after years in the English damp. There were patches of steel just pop riveted to the body work, which we left as is for character. We later learnt that most of the previous owners were banger racers, and that our Austin was too rough to banger race. I didn’t even know that was possible… what an achievement!
We decided on old English white with gloss black, and went for an old school circuit racing style livery. We chose a racing spot with the number ‘57’ and other related decals. At least it looked fast even if it didn’t GO fast. We also did away with the gate bolts, replacing them for more appropriate spring-loaded bonnet latches.
After being in the unit for a month or so, throughout the freezing winter, we pushed her into the snow, and she started up first time. I used it to go to work in for a week or so throughout the snow while my daily was out of order, and it performed perfectly in the adverse weather.
This became the bench mark for the Austin, and we soon discovered it to be a car that we could drive to the ends of the earth if we wanted it to. We told everyone that we imagined if we ever took the engine apart, we were certain we’d be shocked at the fact it was still running. If it ever had an oil change during the time we owned it, it was secondhand oil drained out of the Dodge. But then again, she didn’t ask for much.
The slightly larger, later engine that had been fitted motored on, and took every inch of abuse we could throw at her like a little bitch. We really did treat her like shit. We’d make that four-speed scream, and on the motorway on the 200-mile journey to my parents she sat at 60, with the rain coming through the wind screen and my feet numb in the foot well.
We even took it on a private track day organized by some friends. We were voted the coolest car to attend, despite being by far the slowest. Jake was determined to roll it, and every time he threw the little Austin round the corner the back tyres scrubbed in the arches as she sat up onto 3 wheels.
We took her everywhere, car shows, cruises around the Peak District, to the NSRA Hot Rod Supernationals, and it somehow got more attention than the it’s family stablemates; Jake’s ‘63 Dodge Dart, his dad’s ‘65 Plymouth Valiant and his Grandad’s series 1 Chevy truck. Probably because it got a lot of attention from old men; either telling us that they learnt to drive in one, or that they were horrified at its appearance.
After a year of fooling around in our silly little Austin, we decided we were missing a V8 to cruise around with in our lives. Jake’s Dart had become too much to street drive, and after a costly repair when he knocked a lobe off the cam titting about doing burnouts out of a car show, we wanted another Yank in our lives. Regrettably, the Austin went up for sale.
When we saw the 1962 Ford Fairlane come up for sale, it was too cheap to pass up on. For a week or so we had them both at the same time, and I was convinced we could keep them both. We were having our garage built at the time, and it did seem impractical if I was being honest with myself. Money wise, I knew we’d have been fine, but Jake put his foot down and said the Austin needed to go.
Eventually, like all of our cars, the Fairlane ended up being turned into a racecar as well, and I got my first go at drag racing. Since then, I’ve owned 3 more English cars. I like to joke that for an American car girl, I have owned a lot more English classics than I have American. My first car when I was 17 was a crusty Morris Minor, and I currently have my Austin Devon gasser and my grandad’s Alvis 12/50.
Since we sold the Austin Cambridge, we have had the option to buy it back a few times. Jake has said we should buy it back, but I maintain that it’ll never be the same. We know a lot of people who have bought their old car back after selling it, and who say it doesn’t have the same spark the second time around, and I just know it’d be the same with Minnie the Moocher. Despite this, we always talk about her fondly, and say how that rough old Austin was the best worst car we’ve ever owned.