A couple of months later my new iPhone chirrups.  It is Darren from Frome 2cv.  He’s had a bit of trouble.  It’s not his fault, but the “bloody company” has gone bust “my friend”.  This time the information is more perfunctory: less emotional, but no less unrealistic.  He tells me that he can still build the car: that he has the parts, the body and the tools.  I know he doesn’t.  His creditors have the parts, the bodies and the tools.  When my company went voluntarily into the hands of the administrators everything was, in effect, impounded – the computers, the desks, the archive, the editing equipment, the cameras the people – the lot.  But the real value was in my head: no one could take my real value away.  My knowledge is mine.  Forty years of working in television has given me a formidable store of valuable knowledge.  My father always said, what you know is who you are.  On that basis I am a practical trader, albeit dependent on the larger survival of the media business.  But writing this I also remember the day the door was shut in my father’s face – not because his business had gone bust, or because he forgot what he was.  He missed death by inches in a car crash.  He was drunk. 

 

 I was in the gallery of TC6, one of the eight BBC studios at the doughnut-shaped Television Centre working as ‘editor of the week’ on Tomorrow’s World.  Just about halfway through that evening’s rehearsal my mother called to say that my father was in hospital suffering from minor cuts and bruises.  But that wasn’t all.  He’d been pulled from his wrecked Triumph Dolomite by the police and breath-tested.  He was positive.  Obviously someone like my father, who regarded anyone in uniform as aligned to the dark forces he had battled against to save England during the war, denied it all.  To him his right to drive a car ‘plastered’ was enshrined in his understanding of liberty and upheld during the war by the knowledge that Spitfire pilots set off after a quick ‘snifter’, or the scotch quaffing officers and beer sodden squaddies who were sent into battle to fight Germans who were led by a control-freak teetotal vegan dictator.  But the ‘Nazis’ from the local police station nailed him and eventually he was banned from driving.  Then the dominos of his life fell in rapid succession.  His position as managing director of Loxley’s (a subsidiary of KJ Motors) was lost: he was summarily fired for damaging company property (the car) and with that he also lost his house that was mortgaged through the company.  Overnight – almost literally – he went from boss to beggar.  Suddenly what I owed him came roaring to the front of my mind.  Standing there, the phone in my hand: the TV monitors flickering; the script under my arm; Raymond Baxter rehearsing his lines; the BBC clock ticking towards transmission; the studio lights glaring, I was transported back – a flashback to another world where my dad was my dad.  A car was a car and I was his boy.

That’s an Austin.  And that’s a Bedford.  That’s a Riley.  I’m six.  It’s 1952 and the road from Bromley to Chislehurst is suddenly empty of cars in both directions.  Silence.  Pigeons rustle somewhere.  There is a smell of creosote.  I sit with my back to the fence on the low white Sandtex’d wall outside the three storey Victorian house where my father rents the big first floor flat in which we live and I name every car that motors by.  “Patrick can recognise cars by their engine sound”, says my rather baffled mother to her even more bemused friends when we are out shopping and I interrupt her conversations to point out a Ford V8 Pilot or a Jowett Javelin.  But today on the wall it is Saturday – half day – and I know my father will walk home about fifty yards down on the same side of the road at one o’clock.  It’s hot: ants in the cracks between the paving stones.  I poke them with a matchstick.  Single deck number 227 buses are boiling their radiators coming up the tree-canopied hill from Widmore Green.  The road shimmers if I crouch low.  It makes the bus swirl like a ghost as it crests the rise.  The ants walk on my fingers.  The garage men, some carrying green tin lunch boxes ‘knock off’ and cross the road to catch the chuckling bus.  Even from where I sit I can hear the ‘ping-ping’ of the bell as the conductor sounds the off.  I memorise my favourite seat; it’s the one over the rear wheel arch that protrudes into the passenger space under a sheet of curved checkerplate.  It transmits the axle whine through my feet if I stand on it.  I like that because I can feel the moment just before the driver changes gear as he touches the pre-selector and the gearbox clutches slacken.  It seems odd to me why men who fuss and toil over glamorous Jags and Vanguards still take the bus.  I’d have a car.  Their rank is clearly visible to me.  Apprentices wear brown overalls.  Mechanics wear blue overalls.  Foremen wear starched white coats and removable cloth covered metal buttons.  Managers wear two-piece suits during the week and double-breasted blue blazers, regimental ties and twill trousers on Saturdays.  My father walks towards me, blazer over his arm.  I run towards him.  Swarfega, petrol, bay rum and his cedar pencil fill the air.  He ruffles my hair and asks what mum has cooked for lunch.  I remember stuffed, braised ox hearts and think of that statue at school of Christ bearing a red heart with flames coming out of it.  Dad doesn’t have a watch, just cufflinks.  He always has shirts with removable collars that never seem to clean properly.  I notice how his neck rolls over the collar when he lifts me.  His moustache tickles.  His hair is greasy black like the ants.  If I’m lucky he will take me back into the garage to lock up.  He slides me to the ground and I notice the ants again.  They are flowing like pepper from under a dandelion against the wall.  Perhaps they’ll fly later.  He always says that the ant that flies the highest gets to be the queen.  I think of my mother.  We walk to the garage.  Imagine a vast breezeblock shed with a lumpy cement floor.  Imagine cream and green paint on everything.  Imagine the Castrol, Jet, Ferodo and Dunlop enamel signs too hot to touch.  KJ Motors in the summer.  My universe of imagined futures is in here.  The workday is over and the Saturday afternoon mugginess hovers on the rippled concrete forecourt.  As we pass the metal-framed windows I can see the daylight shafting through yellowing corrugated plastic skylights that alternate with asbestos corrugated sheets to make up the roof.  The garage was built in three phases before, during and after the Second World War and the joins show.  With the skill of habit he twirls the padlock open and squeezes past the gap in the green-painted concertina door.  I notice cigarette ends jammed in the rail that the door runs in.  The riveted metal label says Jaycee Metal Doors of Coventry.  I follow him.  Inside it smells warm, oily and metallic.  The yellow daylight dapples the part dismantled Standards, Triumphs and Daimlers some jacked up with engines splayed before them like, I imagine, dead men’s guts.  I remember how Chalky our cat killed a rat like that.  A compressor natters some way off in a dark corner then stops: the steady hiss and then the tick-tick of shrinking metal.  His office is made from tall, cream steel sheets with frosted and reeded glass in metal frames filling the top fifth.  The office is really just a screened off space without a roof – I know it is some kind of kit of parts made by a company somewhere.  I think it is modern.  He has a grey metal-topped desk with steel drawers.  They are locked.  He has an ashtray made from an aircraft piston cut in half.  I covet it.  On the wall behind his chair buff cards fill slots in a rack.  Each one is a customer’s record.  Surname, address, then the magic details – Vanguard Shooting Brake, KTN 885, Sold August 1950, steering toe-in adjust, weld chrome and refit damaged O/S rear bumper.  Wash.  Inspect.  Test.  I know my father will do the last two things himself.  Sometimes he will bring a troublesome car home and we’ll drive it around.  I’ll sit in front.  He will stop every so often and make notes and one of the men in brown overalls who call him Sir will adjust it.  I like the funny things he says about cars, like, “This goes round corners like Grandma on gin”.  I like Rovers best because they’ve got toolkits in velvet lined drawers under the dashboard and a light inside the glove box that goes out when I close it.  The seats are usually grey or maroon leather with arm rests that fold out to leave a secret compartment deep inside the seat that no one else knows about.  Some have rear window blinds operated from the front by cords.  Rovers and Daimlers smell of shoes inside, Vauxhalls smell of lipstick and if I put my head in the cupboard under the sink it smells like a Standard because they have wooden bits in them which get damp.  In the sunshine the chrome and rubber gets warm.  Sometimes the bodywork gets so hot that ants die if I put them on it.  My father tells me the story of how he used to fry eggs on lorries when he was in the desert.  I love cars.  I love my father.  The air in the garage is still.  We walk towards the back where the new cars stand with cardboard tied to their doors with hairy string and grease papered hubcaps locked inside the boots.  I notice his brown leather brogues – he only wears them on Saturdays.  It’s a squeeze to get between the waxy cars.  They smell of silicon grease and acetone.  Wax pencil is scrawled in yellow on the windscreens.  “KJ/Bromley” says the scribble – my dad’s place.  And now we are heading for my favourite corner.  We have no need to go there, but my father knows I want to see them.  He holds my hand.  I can see his cufflinks; smell the Swarfega.  In the gloom are two huge sooty metal lumps.  They are the submarine engines – diesel/electric.  Started with compressed air they feed power to the tools installed as part of the war effort in 1940.  He shows me the German labels on the engines and reads out the legend – Siemens.  At school this knowledge is gold dust, “My dad’s got two U-Boat engines”.  By 1962 they will have been sold for scrap but until then, during the regular winter power cuts of the fifties, the garage showrooms will be awash with fluorescent light, the two engines throbbing deep inside what my father always calls “the works”.  The rest of Widmore Road is as black as coal, but the works are as bright as paradise.  I am six.  There goes a Vauxhall.  That was my father… 

 

 The road he’d been driving was the A233 from Bromley through Biggin Hill towards his house near Westerham.  He had known the road since the war.  For a short time after he was demobbed he and my mother had lived a few miles away in Cudham with my grandmother and grandfather.  Later I would often stay there.  Even by the 1970s the roads in the area hadn’t changed, but the traffic and more importantly the design of cars had.  The Triumph Dolomite Sprint: a short, sporty, overpowered saloon that would influence the power-to-weight ratio of many better cars to come was a handful to drive.  It arrived at the dawn of the fast executive saloon: a sector opened up by the Ford Cortina 1600E and the Rover 2000TC, quickly followed by the all-conquering BMW 2000. 

 

 

The Dolomite was always in a state of ‘development’, endlessly being ‘fixed’ by British Leyland that was building it after absorbing the Standard Triumph brand.  The Dolomite, like so many British vehicles, never settled into a state of improved refinement.  It merely struggled to remain viable suffering from the chronic underinvestment and dizzying array of meaningless badges that native British motorcars struggled with until Leyland eventually crashed-out and overseas companies moved in. 

 

 The Citroen 2cv was very different.  It had been a long time in gestation before being launched.  From the outset the little car was designed to be light, radical, low-priced and rugged, enabling two peasants to drive 100kg of farm goods to market at 37mph and if necessary across muddy tracks.  In the 1930’s France still had a widespread and very large rural population and, due to the cost, few of them had a car or even a farm truck.  Most used horses.  The French automotive industry’s unifying body had run a competition to design a simple car for the masses: a people’s car.  The specification for the original 2cv stipulated it should use no more than three litres of low-grade petrol to travel one-hundred kilometres: that’s an astonishing 95-miles on a gallon.  It didn’t emerge until after the war in 1949.  Despite it’s unconventional design the 2cv was a huge commercial success.  In the months after going on sale it had a three-year waiting list of potential owners.  By1950 Citroen was bashing out four-hundred 2cv cars and vans a day.  In 1960 as production finally caught up with demand and the market stabilised the original 2cv was updated: slightly refined in token areas like upholstery and brakes, but generally it remained – like the American Jeep – an icon, some might say a dead-end, of automotive pragmatism.  What had worked so well in Paris after the war was continued until the last one swayed out of that factory in Portugal.  All very different to my dad’s ill-fated Triumph built from a bin of ever-changing parts, condemned to various drive configurations and lumbered with extras that showed-up its weaknesses rather than enhancing them. 

 

 Two aspects of his accident can be drawn from this.  First, if he’d been driving a slower 2cv with its limpet-like road holding it probably would not have left the road.  Second, if it had crashed he’d have doubtless been killed.  The Dolomite might have been tricky to drive but it was a tough steel box and despite a scaffold pole smashing through the windscreen and clipping his right ear the body shell  did not deform as it rolled down the embankment.  All four doors could be opened with a click.  I remember him meeting me for the first time after he’d lost his job his driving license and his pride.  He cheerfully said, “If your number’s on it, your number is on it”.  Oddly, it’s exactly what Frank Williams would say to me when I interviewed him in 1987 for a Channel Four film I made called Toys for the Boys, just two and a half years after he’d been condemned to a wheelchair after smashing a rented Ford Sierra into a ditch in Provence.

 

And so back to project to build a 2cv.  The weather is grey and cold for late August.  Drizzle sweeps across the Shogun’s windscreen.  The wipers smear a greasy slick towards the edges where it runs along the A-pillars in black rivulets.  The traffic is heavy, nervy: erratic.  It takes over an hour.  I arrive.  Climb out onto the slimy concrete.  A call from Jamie Piggott has brought me to his muddy ex-farmyard outside Barnet.  Here, under cover of a wooden cow shed is my 2cv, or rather its bits.  It is my second visit to inspect the slowly growing assembly of mostly black components that have replaced the rusting junk discovered under the rotting body of the donor car.  The brand new chassis – the original French design, not one of the stiff galvanised chassis that everyone seems to fit – has sprouted suspension, a fuel tank and some pipe-work. 

 

But it is obvious the whole thing is a sideshow to the much bigger more complicated work going on around it: gutted Citroen DSs and IDs jacked-up on hydraulic lifts being fixed for clients, or under tarpaulins awaiting parts.  My 2cv is a mere walk-on, something for Jamie and his team to do when they haven’t got anything else planned.  Paul, his second in command, seems confident the chassis will rejoin the body at the panel beaters quite soon.  “They need to put the body onto the chassis to keep everything true”, he claims.  I’m sure he’s right.  Nothing on the 2cv is rigid, particularly the rusty body of the car dragged up from Devon: everything moves around and nothing fits perfectly.  It is supposed to be this way.  In fact, that is why galvanised chassis are not acceptable, and in Germany a car fitted with one cannot pass its TUV test (Germany’s MOT), and why the French will not insure them.  The stiff steel girders, while looking like a better bet in that they are thicker and heavier, prevent the 2cv chassis from behaving like a real 2cv chassis: flexing on the corners to aid that legendary agility and road holding.  Throwing a 2cv into a bend with confidence is what makes them quick.  The trick: avoid braking on the approach so the momentum is maintained.  The body roll is alarming, but the result is totally neutral with just a hint of front-drive over-steer if the power is fed in on the exit.  We discuss this at length standing in the lee of the barn cradling steaming mugs of tea as the drizzle drifts over the Essex countryside.  I shoulder my Pentax and grab some pictures.  It’s not a pretty sight.  Not, that is, unless you understand the sophisticated beauty of the 2cv.

 

A fortnight later an email pops up.  Attached: a photograph taken by Paul of the new chassis with engine, wheels, steering wheel, everything mechanical assembled and ready to roll off to the body builders.  After so long and so many stops-starts, twists and turns it seems that things are –finally, literally – rolling.  But then it stalls.  The body shop turns out to contain a decaying Citroen H Van.  It had gone in as a quick body fix, but closer inspection revealed terminal rot.  The entire, vast corrugated thing needs to be reconstructed from scratch.  I’m sidelined again…