Every person who takes up a profession takes their first steps into it, often unconsciously, acquiring the first nugget of information that will likely last a lifetime… “Two sugars in mine and one in his. Now watch that carpet disnae catch fire.” So went my first (almost) professional moments at Regent Motors, Linlithgow. But the real stuff started a week into my career as an apprentice with the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (WMPTE), at Hall Green Technical College (HGTC) to the south of Birmingham.
In September 1980, HGTC had a reasonably well-equipped workshop department, as I remember and in it were a number of recently superannuated vehicles, acquired from various organisations. Lorries included a rather rare, former Cadbury, ergonomic cabbed, Leyland tractor unit, fitted with a pneumocyclic semi-automatic gearbox. Just how rare this was I’m not certain, but I’ve never seen another such combination and it was perhaps its specification that saw it being worked upon by greasy teenaged oiks, rather than distributing chocolately goodness around the country.
Continuing down the commercial line-up, there was a late, Morris badged, 2-axle tipper, on a 1965 ‘C’ suffix plate, a 1967 Bedford TK tractor unit and amongst others, a pre-reg’ suffix Bedford TJ. Apprentices were split up into groups of three or so and were given responsibility for a vehicle. This latter Bedford was allocated to me and a couple of chums. Our lecturers set a competition between the groups of apprentices; come the end of term, the group with the best presented vehicle would each win a prize.
We set about that rotten old TJ, making it look like the truck equivalent of Barbara Cartland, all tyre paint, red straps and polished nuts. I found the chintzy finish repugnant and indeed to this day I prefer an unrestored vehicle, but our efforts won us first prize. Each of us received a cheap, 3/8” drive socket set. Cheap it may have been, but some of it still exists in my home workshop today.
The college’s cars would make certain folks drool, nowadays. Mostly ex-military use, there were a couple of Hillman Minx (Arrow series) saloons, plus an estate version. A pair of rust-free, sliding window Mk2 Minis, taught me that working without a vehicle lift could be a back straining exercise and a Vauxhall Victor FE relayed the information of how heavy a gearbox could feel, on outstretched arms, while struggling unsuccessfully (for a while) to fit it into the car. A Wolseley-badged land crab showed to me the lengths to which a company will go when it truly believes that it has reinvented the wheel (BMC’s mid-Issigonis phase).
Us apprentices had to obtain the correct specialist tools for the jobs from the stores, with ordinary tools kept on a silhouetted board within the workshop; there was no going home without the full complement of tools being returned to their respective places, but there was something slightly odd going on here, because we didn’t really actually need most of the tools, the spanners, sockets and screwdrivers, because everything on these vehicles was finger tight.
To have driven any of them out of the workshop would have been to court disaster, as they would have fallen to pieces as surely as a clown’s car would. ‘Leave everything loose’ we were instructed and so, once thrust into the real world of work, at WMPTE’s Sutton Coldfield bus garage, for October half term, I was to find out exactly how tight certain fixings and applications should be in a hard-learned lesson.
The operator’s Daimler Fleetline buses’ throttles were operated hydraulically, via a ‘Mini’ clutch-like master and slave cylinder set-up. Bleeding this system after rectification was tricky, without the use of a high-pressure bleed kit.
Having listened to instructions, I filled the bleed apparatus with brake fluid and charged it with compressed air. I then fitted the cap to the accelerator fluid reservoir in the 1967 Daimler’s cab and, when given the command, turned the tap to the ‘on’ position.
What ensued could only be described as a cascade, as my ‘just nipped’ cap allowed brake fluid to spray all over the first quarter of the bus’ interior. I then had to rush and find heaps of rags with which to mop up the mess.
Of course, the paint and sign-written information on the internal panels began to blister and peel and though I didn’t get into real trouble for it, a strong lesson was learned. Indeed the bus, fleet number 6114, seemed to work nearly every service I caught, from then until its demise a couple of months later, goading me with its peeling red interior, aroma of brake fluid and the useful legal information “-eats 77”.
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