By the time I started big school we had moved to number 135 Widmore Road next door, rather than above KJ Motors where my father worked. The garage had been started in the 1930’s by a moderately successful racing car driver called O. Wilson-Jones and another man I knew nothing about called King: hence KJ. By the time I knew him Wilson-Jones was an immaculately dressed elderly man who drove a maroon Jaguar Mark VI. But his fame – in my eyes – was attributable to two other things: holding the under 2-litre outer banked lap record at Brooklands in an Itala, and the installation of two WW1 German Seimens diesel electric U-boat engines in the garage to generate 110 volts of electricity. Apparently KJ Motors, built on the site of a defunct farm, had been the first place in Widmore Road to be illuminated at night. When war came he was able to use the 110 volts to power American lend-lease machine tools and keep the place lit during the regular power failures immediately after the war. I remember the paradise of flourescent light in the blackness of those mid-fifties power cuts: the gleaming cars in the showrooms staring out into the night. The garage workshops were a series of brick and asbestos sheds visually held together by cream and green painted sheet metal and glass showrooms. In front of the showrooms was a forecourt selling National Benzol petrol from cream-painted pumps and Castrol oil in a green steel cabinet containing three levers to ‘pull’ the oil into the green jugs kept on a tin shelf inside the cabinet. The concrete forecourt was painted burnt umber with white lines marking the curbs and stop points for cars so the pump attendant could place the petrol nozzles into the fillers. Behind the garage was ‘the dump’, two four-wheeled high-sided steel trailers with tri-angular tow bars parked on an oil-stained concrete standing. The dump was officially out of bounds as a play area. My sister, my brother and our friends played on the dump every day. We would rummage for valuables among the discarded carbon paper, leaky shock absorbers, burnt valve springs, rusty exhausts and old Lodge spark plug boxes. Occasionally I would find a ball race but not often. They were always recycled along with other metal collectables like piston rings, camshafts and cylinder heads.

Like the whiff of baking cakes or snuffed church candles, my Proustian memory is the perfume of used engine oil. It might be silage or bonfires for farm children, or the hum of Chanel No7 for the daughters of the rich, but for me it is the odour of a garage. So when on the soaking-wet Monday morning of 21 January 2008 I stepped into the chilly workshops of Quirky Classics there it was again: that honk of carbon, oil, rubber and cellulose. I had driven through torrential rain to the village of Umberleigh via Barnstaple from Saunton Sands to catch up on the progress of my 2cv6. The A377 had been awash with coursing water and the unlovely little garage low in a gulley by a river was a pretty forlorn sight. As my steaming Shogun pulled up behind the row of rusting French cars Rob Merivale stopped sweeping his oil-blackened concrete floor and stepped towards me. We shook hands and I immediately realised that Quirky Classics was a project going wrong. Rob’s first announcement was that my 2cv did not exist. He had – he said – had to “fire his staff” because they would not build the cars to his exacting standards. From the look in his face this was an obvious lie. Looking around it was clear to me (I had run my own company for twenty years before it had eventually fallen into the hands of an administrator) that his enterprise under the dripping winter trees of north Devon was in a bad way and £5000 of my deposited money was embedded in it. Obviously he had no staff because he couldn’t pay them. He couldn’t pay them because he had no money. Without money he couldn’t continue to earn money. This vicious circle is called ‘cash flow problems’ and Quirky Classics didn’t have a flow of much of anything, or if it did they were tears.

On the previous Saturday morning my wife Sheila and I had bundled the children, Frank and Dorothy, into the leather clad warmth of the Mitsubishi Shogun and headed out of London towards the M4 for north Devon. Sheila loves organising and she had planned my first visit to Quirky Classics with military precision based around a family weekend at the Saunton Sands Hotel: a vast concrete resort built in 1934 and used as a backdrop in the famous 1946 Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death (The year the pre-war 2cv project was restarted by Citroen and the year of my birth). This was a film in which the ex-UFA studios set designer Alfred Junge portrayed heaven as a monochrome Bauhaus modernist paradise: a concrete roof with portholes through which the deities watched mankind below. In the year production of the 2cv was stopped some young architects used Junge’s vision of paradise as the inspiration for the new bus station in Walsall, perfectly capturing the weightless idea that the German émigré designer had sought. But unlike the Powell and Pressburger film, Junge’s film set, the Walsall bus garage and the 2cv, it is immediately obvious on arrival at the Saunton Sands Hotel that it was never a piece of weightless modernism: more a thudding twenties depression dream of a sunny thirties future poured onto the dunes above the beach like a cement pillbox. We pulled into the hotel’s inadequate parking lot in slashing rain at about teatime. It had poured for most of the journey and while sitting at the wheel of the Shogun I recalled similar journeys in my yellow puddle jumper when weather like that had made it almost impossible to see what was ahead or behind as the condensation inside the car developed a damp and foggy microclimate. I had fleeting second thoughts about the beauty of the 2cv’s simplicity.

A Matter of Life & Death – a porthole in the concrete heaven and David Niven on Saunton beach

The hotel was packed. At some point a complete refurbish had ditched the flapper embroidered 1930s plasterwork and ushered in an era of Vegas-style tat. Everything from the wallpaper to the food reeked of tasteless cost cutting. Beyond the double-glazed plastic framed windows gales whipped the sand and ripped at the wiry dune grass while in the roiling grey waves the windsurfers’ acid coloured sails leaped them over the spume. Yet the weekend was good fun. The rooms were disappointingly tiny: the restaurant overblown and filled with the sour odour of gravy soaked carpets. Sheila caught a cold. The children hated the wild windy beach, but the indoor spending spree was an enormous success: heated swimming pools, brightly lit one-arm bandits, a vast snooker hall…and on the Sunday a weird wedding dress convention culminating in a ghastly fashion show featuring local ‘models’ sporting nasty little tattoos and wearing mountains of satin and lace wired into stiff bondage tops over G-strings and uplift bras. My determination to prove a point and make a modest-yet-reliable recycled car that would carry a family of four on 602cc of power had got off to a carbon-indulgent start.