Bradford Blues

This extract is taken from my book “Petrolhead – The Life and Times of a Classic Car Buff, published by Motor Racing Publications.

In the early sixties Dad began to think of ways of supplementing his income. As chance would have it Mr Cooley, who lived at number forty-seven, up the road, became the proud possessor of a smart Bradford van. No, I’m wrong, not a van but a utility; there was a difference. The van version was an unashamed utilitarian, commercial load carrier. The utility was an altogether more up market proposition. While it was possible to turn it to the carriage of goods it was also possible to use it as a perfectly acceptable passenger vehicle. It had seats in the back, side windows and a chromium plated front bumper. The piece de resistance was its chromium plated grill assembly. This latter item I think, moved it even further up the ladder into the deluxe category. Somehow we leant that Cooley had given a princely £85 for his treasure. All this in itself was unremarkable and of no significance until my dad came across a Bradford van in a dealer’s yard, a van and not a utility mind. He took me down to see it in great excitement. The plan he outlined was elegant in its simplicity; buy it, do it up, flog it. Hopefully, for eighty-five quid or thereabouts. He had the vision of the Cooley equipage firmly in mind. When I saw it I was less enthusiastic. To my innocent, schoolboy mind if, on some arcane scale, Cooley’s motor rated a ten then the van, at a push, was a generous one and a quarter. There was no way this particular sow’s van could be converted into the silk utility of father’s imagination but he was determined to give it a go. He paid £10, which included delivery.

I’ll pause the tale for a quick historical note. Jowett, with the development of the Bradford, got into the immediate post war, low cost market very successfully. The Bradford was essentially a product of its time; “minimalist” sums it up quite nicely. It had most of the bits required to make it go and stop but, it seemed, only just enough of each for it to happen.

The project played havoc with our relationship. It came at the wrong time when as a spotty adolescent I was more interested in girls than motors and certainly bored to distraction with the grubby, little Bradford van. Father worked like a Trojan (pardon the pun) and at the same time became more and more exasperated with my lack of enthusiasm and what he saw as idleness, (he was of course absolutely right). About this time we moved from the flat we had rented in Forest Hill to our own house in Sydenham. The logistics of towing the van and its associated clutter from behind the flat to its new lodgings were somehow overcome. Dad hired a lock up garage in a derelict yard not far from where we lived and spent most of his spare time slaving over the contraption. The yard was owned by a charming fellow who had run a business there for many years. When he retired he shut the place down and let off bits to eccentric people playing with ancient and decrepit motors. We fitted in rather well.

I’d get dragged along and spend weekends in futile attempts at undoing rusted bolts and freeing off seized fasteners of one kind or another. Dad and I got scratchier with each other by the week. The deal was that I would be let off around five o’clock on Saturdays so I could get home to watch the Lone Ranger on TV. On the occasions that I had been particularly dilatory and useless he was inclined not to let me go. This caused all kinds of family friction and mother usually took my side so I suppose he felt isolated and fed-up.

Father battled manfully to convert the derelict commercial into something desirable. He un-seized the engine, repaired the gearbox and fettled the ancillaries, cleaning and scrubbing and generally getting things going again. When it came to putting in rear windows he ran up against Customs and Excise who demanded £9 duty for the change of use. He paid up like a lamb. After several months of solid effort his handiwork was ready for painting. Mr Cooley, who was indirectly responsible for the whole thing, no longer lived up the road so we couldn’t just go and have a look. Anyway we didn’t need to; we could both recall his utility well enough. I remembered that it had been painted a sort of vibrant beige, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. The precise colour was Mushroom we were told. In any event, father’s and my memory of the exact shade must have been at variance because when he returned from the paint shop he’d brought back what I described as light pink. We had a small argument but it was his van and so on went two quarts of pink Valspar Lacquer. When I mentioned that I thought hand painting might let down the finished product I was assured that Rolls-Royces had been painted that way for years. Actually, all things considered, he made a jolly good job of it. We finished up with a pink (or mushroom depending on how you see colours) body and black wings. Mechanically it got to the point where it would cold start on the handle after a little coaxing. Sometimes but rarely, if had been thoroughly warmed, it would go on the starter which most of the time refused to turn at all.

And so to the first advertisement in the Exchange & Mart, I think father put it in at £80. There were no responses. Re-advertised, we had a few desultory calls at £70 and someone came to look at it for £60 but didn’t buy. It wasn’t put in again for a few weeks while father reviewed his options. It must have been purgatory for him with mum and me insisting that we’d told him so (mother had now joined me in the sceptic’s camp).

It finally went back into the magazine, this time for a trifling £50. Again, not a sausage. Then several weeks after we’d given up a hope, a man rang to ask if my dad would care to swap it for a telly. Now the subject of TVs was a sore point in our household. My father wasn’t a fan and only grudgingly allowed the nine-inch set we’d got for nothing from granddad. Of course even in those days it was an antique, a curtains pulled, watch in the dark set that only picked up the BBC. So there was no Popeye, Wagon Train or Sunday Night at the London Palladium, I was seriously culturally deprived. I suppose we hounded a reluctant father into the deal, which included delivering, the vehicle to the chap’s flat in Plaistow East London. He didn’t have transport, he told us and couldn’t come to see it. Looking back it seems a rather bizarre set of circumstances but that’s how it happened.

We must have set off with the intention of doing the deal but we made no arrangements for getting back with a television set. We dragged the Bradford from its den on the appointed Sunday morning and managed to get it started. Two of the tyres were flat but it was hardly the time to start investigations so we took it in turns with the foot pump until they were up enough to get it to a garage forecourt. We had our hearts in our mouths the entire journey. It was probably the first time the thing had run under its own steam in five years or more. Going up Sydenham Hill father double de-clutched into first and we made it by the skin our teeth. Most alarming was the oil pressure, which sank to zero as we neared the crest with the engine churning furiously. Mercifully, the roads were clear and we had a fairly uninterrupted run. I think I said a quiet prayer as we chugged through the Blackwall tunnel but we finally made it and thankfully pulled up outside the address we had been given. Father switched off the engine that wheezed and clanked and gave us the definite impression it had no intention of ever going again. We got out cautiously and headed for the garden gate. On impulse we both turned and gazed at the Bradford sitting in the gutter. Notwithstanding dad’s months of work it looked a total heap. We quickly turned away and went in. The man with the TV came down and walked round the vehicle a few times. The thing I relished least in the world was the prospect of trying to make it back home in that damned van.

He didn’t even ask to hear it go. “It got here so it must be OK,” was his only comment. We went up to see the television. It was lovely. A fourteen-inch Sobel that looked as modern as you’d like, certainly a lot prettier than the van. We were cannier than our friend and gave the set a thorough road test, it worked fine. And so to the exchange. The man seemed very relaxed about the whole thing. Dad and I manhandled the TV down the stairs and left it in the hall while we went off to sort out the logistics of the journey home. It was only then that he told me we’d probably have to get back to Sydenham on the bus. We had walked half way around the block when we came on a chap washing his Morris Traveller in the road.

“Interested in earning ten shillings?” father asked him.

“What have you got in mind,” he replied and the transaction was arranged. We popped back for the telly and by the time we reached the corner with it, we noticed that the tyres on the van had gone down again. What the two of us must have looked like shuffling along a residential street on a Sunday morning with a telly between us goodness only knows. We were almost back to the Traveller when we heard rapid footsteps behind us. Our hearts sank into our boots. It was the van’s new owner.

“Here,” he shouted after us. I was tempted to drop the telly and run. “You ain’t left no keys.” Dad explained that the economy minded Jowett Company had not provided an ignition lock on this austerity model, just a switch on the steering column. He went off happily enough. We almost ran the rest of the way and were driven home in what seemed like sumptuous luxury.

That’s not quite the end of the tale for although we never heard from the man with the van again, the television conked out on its second evening. Dad played around with it for a bit and discovered that overheating seemed to be the problem. He affected a temporary repair by propping a fan heater behind it, naturally without the heater bit on. Provided you didn’t mind a bit of whirring with your viewing it worked perfectly satisfactorily. Dad said he’d get it fixed properly but it was five years later when the set finally gave up the ghost that we were able rescue the heater for its rightful purpose.

And that was the end of the Bradford episode that over time passed into our family’s folklore.

All aboard for Dingley Dell. Standard Eight drop head coupe

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The very basic Bradford Van

The Bradford Utility, windows, rear  seats and various bits of chrome

Our Bradford lorry as we first found her

Your viewing pleasure - 1960s Sobel TV

Our Bradford as she finally departed in 2021