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Car ownership plain sailing for shipmate and me

PUBLISHED: 13:50 11 November 2017 | UPDATED: 13:06 14 November 2017

Grant Whillance bought his first car, a black P2 1938 Rover 16 Sports Saloon, with a shipmate. Picture: Grant Whillance

Grant Whillance bought his first car, a black P2 1938 Rover 16 Sports Saloon, with a shipmate. Picture: Grant Whillance

Grant Whillance

Grant Whillance’s first car was shared with a shipmate and kept in a garage near the docks so it was available when home on leave.

My, or rather our, first car was a black P2 1938 Rover 16 Sports Saloon, a rather classical, solidly built British car – the doors closed with the precision of older style train doors.

The impressively long bonnet and large chrome headlights gave it a somewhat imperious appearance. Running boards, typical on larger pre-war cars, and fit-for-purpose bumpers were standard. The 16hp output gave it a top speed of 75mph, but with a kerb weight more than 1,200kg it wasn’t a sprinter. It was very comfortable with a heater but no radio.

It had a ‘crash box’ – no synchromesh hence double declutching required – and non hydraulic brakes on all four wheels which needed some muscle.

An unusual feature of Rover cars was a ‘freewheel’ mechanism for better economy which you could switch in and out. There was drive when accelerating but coasting when you took your foot off – the disturbing bit was no downhill engine braking.

The registration, which has always stayed in the memory, was ELW 362. Being already nearly 20 years old, it cost £165 in 1957. The price sounds ridiculous 60 years on but it was slightly more than my annual payment as a 19-year-old final-year deck apprentice indentured to P&O, a major British shipping force. Another comparison, a bottle of gin on board was four shillings (20p) and petrol was two shillings and a penny (just over 10p) a gallon.

The logic for joint ownership was that David Sims, an Australian radio officer, and I had previously palled up on the Coromandel, a 7,000-ton general cargo ship plying Europe and the Indian sub continent. Given long absences at sea, and sporadic leave periods, it didn’t make economic sense to have a car but the desire for wheels was very strong. Given the paucity of my income, and my lack of a full driving licence, sharing was a good compromise.

We didn’t sail together again but remain friends by email. It turned out to be an excellent team as David was very practical technically, while I was volunteered to keep it in ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’. We rented a garage near the docks so whoever was on leave had access to immediate transport on returning to London, the home port. The car never failed to start even after not being used for long periods – a Far East round trip took four months and Australia typically five.

During rare coincidental leave periods we trotted off together to various places over a couple of years including the South-West and East Anglia.

Following the 1956 Suez Crisis, petrol was rationed in the UK for a few months. The Ministry of Transport relaxed some rules which allowed learners to drive unaccompanied, apparently to minimise a backlog of those aspiring to a full driving licence. This was of huge help to me when ashore for some months studying for the second mate’s Foreign Going Certificate of Competency in summer 1957. Having been ‘solo’ for some time it took only one lesson from a professional instructor for the final preparation.

It was fairly normal for me to drive between home on Tyneside and east London or Tilbury to join or leave a ship – this normally took more than eight hours as 30mph average was good going.

Cities near water often suffered from pea-soup ‘smog’, a mixture of fog and polluted air. One evening, leaving London for the docks, it was so dense we resorted to taking turns driving, with the other walking in front. Large multi-road junctions provided ample opportunity for going off track – at one point we inadvertently ended up in the driveway of a private house. On reaching the Royal Docks in East Ham entry was barred because of the danger of going over a quay wall.

In 1958, we upgraded to a modern P4 Rover 75, KAU 1... but that’s another story.

Tell us about the adventures you had in your first car – email your memories with a picture of the car to or post it to Andy Russell, Archant motoring editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE.

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