Martyn Coote: Petrol Heads – Born? or a Genetic Illness

Martyn Coote:



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 The question I have been asking myself recently is Are you born a petrol head or is it like an illness that you contract? The truth is I have yet to come up with the answer but for me I think its a little of both.

As a lad growing up, my father was a sort of car dealer come garage owner, most of his mates looked like a cross between Arthur Dailey and Mick Jagger. Now this was I guess the start for me, school holidays and weekends were spent at his workshops and one of the first tasks was to convert an old 1950s Bedford Type S into a tow truck. This was to be ready for the winter where the idea would be to make a killing recovering stranded motorists something that never happened, in fact, much of my dad’s dreams never quite happened.

It was helping my dad and hanging around his dealer mates that I became hooked on cars and bikes. Once a week would all pile into a 3ltr Capri and fly off to some auction, Alley Pally or BCA then each one would drive whatever bargain they had purchased and all race back. The weeks were punctuated with groups of shady blokes gathering in one workshop or another to play poker. I can remember seeing two grand and a power boat bet against a Jenson Interceptor and a triumph Tiger on a makeshift card table made from a 45 gallon oil drum. It didn’t matter who won or lost because the next day in the very next game those same things were back on the table again and someone else would become the proud owner

Back then as a teenager it was like a movie to me and do you know what? I loved being part of it. My dad started to let me loose on some of the cars and I soon became a reasonable spanner monkey while hanging out with guys with strange names like Dasher, Clockwork Pete, Wobbly Pete,  Mack,  Dusty  Duke and Aggo to mention but a few.

Cars like the Escort MK1 or this Mini oozed DIY tinkering appeal - Try doing it with a new Focus or BMW MINI!
Cars like the Escort MK1 or this Mini oozed DIY tinkering appeal – Try doing it with a new Focus or BMW MINI!

It was a simple time when motors were basic with no fancy electronic controls just points and plugs you could lift the bonnet and tinker. Sadly in these days you can’t tinker unless you have a laptop and means to connect it to the brain. I think youngsters these days are hooked just like us old ones on motors, but where we were properly tinkering or fettling, today, the tinkering is different – more like adding bright neon lights and a loud music system.

Anyway, I worked my way round finding out as much as I could about as many different motors as I could and as a reward for my labours my dad brought me my first competition off road bike. And so you see that’s where the fork in that road was. My weekends were now taken up with meetings and practice although I was never that good I lived for the weekends come rain or shine I would be out on my bike. Trials were my first love but motocross was a very close second. 

The German built Maico 360 - This is a 1968 "MC"
The German built Maico 360 – This is a 1968 “MC”

When I was about 14 I pestered my dad to let me have a 360cc Maico – a non-runner and he agreed that if I could get it going he would buy me a brand new bike. I think he was sure it would never run but night after night I would rush in from school, change into my grubbies and out to the garage Id go tinkering. Then one night with a noise that would have woken the dead with flames a foot long it exploded into life. I can still remember that feeling when the engine fired up for the first time because I still get the same today standing next to a bike or car with the anticipation of knowing I will be in control of it in just one kick of a pedal or flick of the key.

At some point in the 70’s the workshops closed and the Jag specialists next door gave up too but I recall them buying up perfectly good Mk 2 jags and breaking them for the scrap value the door tops were solid brass and worth a fortune. Mac and Nobby would buy two of the same cars and then drive head on into each other just for fun when the price of petrol went above 35p a gallon and people no longer wanted big motors.

A once regular sight like this would be seen on the A5 near Dunstable with Bedford testing a bus or truck chassis.
A once regular sight like this would be seen on the A5 near Dunstable with Bedford testing a bus or truck chassis.

I left school aged 16 and just before leaving, we were all sent to talk to the careers master who asked me what I wanted to do, before I could answer he said Vauxhall Motors would be a good idea ….. Next please!  I did eventually get a 5 year apprenticeship as an engineer in the health service and spent a year on workshop study learning some of the greatest skills in the world, Welding, gas cutting, milling, shaping and grinding – like riding a bike, skills you never loose or forget!

I started this by posing a question but am no nearer the answer one thing I can say is that cars and bikes are and have been a massive part of my life. I remember in the 60s and 70s seeing the technicians taking the Bedford Chassis out on test through Dunstable up to the Downs where they would stop to do their checks with the smell of burning new paint heavy in the air – Ahh Meblon!

Later I watched the same trucks – now with bodies and cabs as they loaded the ERA Mini’s from the London road factory in Dunstable. Thinking about the London road or A5 that same road had Delco at one end of the town and the Empire Rubber Company at the other opposite end of the town and both providing parts for Bedford in Dunstable and Vauxhall in nearby Luton. Today, they have so much in common namely the fact that they have all closed and been demolished.

Still we have our memories eh?


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