North By Continental
This is the story of BC4FM, its recent acquisition, and the journey to Brisbane from Melbourne.
BC4FM is a late S1 Park ward 2 door Continental. The first owner was the Chairman of Dunlop Rubber Co, George (later Sir) Beharrell, who took delivery in 1958. His father had preceded him in this role.
Like all BCs, it is unique in some respects. It has a 2 tone colour scheme, as many did, with Mason’s blue above the swage line, and black below. Although produced after the one piece lens of the common garden variety steel saloon were more or less standard, it has the earlier “stacked” 3 piece taillights which were fitted to earlier cars.
Internally, it has as standard West of England cloth instead of leather. The only leather appears on the adjustable door handles/arm rests. This was before cloth upholstery became fashionable. It only has facility for key locking on the passengers side, as it was a chauffeur driven car and the chauffeur would open the passenger door to allow the chairman to enter, and after tilting the seat forward to allow entry to the rear, would then enter and slide across what we would today describe as the split bench to the driver’s side. The head lining is quite thick above the front seats, but is at least 1 inch higher in the rear to allow hats to be worn.
Mechanically, the car appears standard, but has a special cylinder head. Apart from the multiple ports, it also has the high 8:1 compression, 2″valves and 2 inch HD8 carburettors, but it also has, according to Robert McDermott, who serviced the car for many years, a special casting with different combustion chamber shapes, and inclined valves. The high compression seems verifiable by the car’s preparedness to ping on 98 octane BP Ultimate with a lead substitute additive mixed in. By 1958, all cars were fitted with the 4 speed GM auto box, which appears to have lock up 3rd and 4th gears. Naturally, it has the high final drive ratio, which in top gives 30mph per 1000 revs. It also has – and this may well be standard – remote solenoid release of the fuel cap cover.
The history for present purposes commences in 1970, when the car was acquired, in London, by the vendor to me, Maggie Fitzgibbon. She was a famous actress from Victoria, and the sister of the jazz musician, “Smaka” Fitzgibbon. She lived in London for about 30 years before returning to Australia with the car in 1978. She appeared in TV series such as “Dangerman”, had her own show on the BBC, and was in movies such as “The Boys From Syracuse”. She, and the car, have lived near Rutherglen since her return to Australia.
Earlier this year, she decided to sell the car, and advertised it through an intermediary in February. This coincided with a work trip to Sydney, and so I was able to get a cheap internet fare to Albury which I took one afternoon, allowing me to spend 3 hours there. Maggie drove the car the 50kms and met me at the airport. The car looked tired, with the bubbling in the paint that only an alloy body can provide. However, unlike steel which will invariably have varying degrees of rust beneath the bubble, all that seems to have been beneath the bubbles is… primer. However, the gaps around the boot were perfectly uniform, and the massive doors had not dropped on their hinges. And the car is as straight as a die.
It drove magnificently, with the exception of some jerk on the upshifts of the auto box. Fortunately, the car – described by one of my friends as a “Menzies Era Patrician Barge” (MEPB) – has power steering, which although light, has very good feel.
After a long but cordial negotiation, we agreed a price, and last week, Maggie drove the car down to Melbourne for delivery. I was staying at the Hyatt for work reasons, had arranged for the car to be kept on the covered forecourt, at no charge, rather than be parked beneath (for money). Maggie was spending the night at her club, and drove to the Hyatt the next morning. Although 76 years of age, Melbourne traffic and long drives hold no fear for her. The car was covered in Rutherglen dust, but still had that majestic profile and presence that only an MEPB can possess.
We duly completed the transaction, and I visited a few places to get quotes for various things. A vintner acquaintance I had recently made suggested I ring a friend of his who was into Bentleys, and I did so the night before. He told me that on the same morning I was getting the car, he was accompanying another friend of his to collect a Mulliner fastback S1 Continental. One wonders about the odds of 2 S1 BCs changing hands, independently, on the same morning in Melbourne.
My wife arrived in Melbourne the next day, for the purpose of accompanying me back on the drive planned for the Anzac weekend. She is Argentinian, a race not known for concealing their feelings, and she said with the irreverence only a true non-believer can muster, “It looks AWFUL. And it is VERY BIG.” I instantly leapt to the car’s (my?) defence, and explained to her about the special cylinder head, and the HD8s, and how much better they were than HD6s, but curiously, she remained firm in her views, formed by a not-so-close examination of the cracking paintwork. As regards size, if I can murder a Churchillian expression, never before in the history of cars have so many feet of car (17’6.5″) been devoted to so few doors. She remained unconvinced. That said, she displays a remarkable degree of amused tolerance of and on some occasions even a liking for the toys.
We had dinner the night before departure with some friends, who on seeing the car, expressed amazement that we could be considering a 1000 mile drive in such a device. Their verdict – fuelled by copious amounts of neck oil – was that we would never get out of Victoria in the thing. They were even seeking to make wagers to this effect but I declined to dignify such a suggestion by accepting it. They as it transpired almost could have become rich.
In any event, we embarked on the drive to Brisbane on a cold, wet Friday afternoon. I had some apprehensiveness about such a long journey but Maggie’s blind faith in the car, and its full service history, persuaded me they were groundless. However, there was still the niggling doubt caused by the comments of the night before.
The car ran well up to Benalla, where we stopped at a “driver reviver” during a break in the rain. On this trip, I was able to form some impressions Firstly, it seemed to have tremendous grunt around 60 – 70 mph. Secondly, the direct drive of the automatic in third and 4th allayed to some extend my lack of respect for slushboxes. Thirdly, it was good to feel the mechanical servo and the lining/shoe interface effortlessly wiping kinetic energy off such a large lump. The suspension is interesting. There is remarkably little roll in corners, and the dampers work well. It is such a big heavy car, despite the power assisted everything, that when it irons out bumps at high speed, you find yourself wondering if the wheel has moved up or the bump has been flattened.
But back to the driver reviver stop. As I got coffee in the drizzle, my bride was speaking with a couple admiring the car. She said, darling, they are wondering why the smoke is coming out. I looked up and saw large amounts of water vapour escaping around the bonnet. Bear in mind it is 4pm, nearly dark, wet and cold, and we are with the worthies of the local rotary club. I lifted the bonnet rapidly and saw that the vacuum control for the demister had experienced a yielding in its diaphragm and was thoughtfully depositing large quantities of coolant onto exhaust pipes, hence the steam. Hmm. We were still a long way from the border. Anyway, we zoomed back into Benalla and found a wrecker open on the outskirts. He found some copper pipe and a bolt and I was able to bypass the control and seal off the “summer” fluid line as well.
Back onto the highway and just up to 110kph when suddenly, additional dashboard illumination appears. What’s that dear, asked someone looking at a red light marked “GEN”. I said, dearie me, or words to that effect. It was beginning to look as if our friends were going to be right. Into a roadhouse where some locals referred me to a well known auto electrician in Wangaratta. I spoke with him and he stayed open for us until we got there at 6pm. A quick diagnosis, it was not the regulator or cutout but a dead generator. He could not help as he did not have the parts, but he knew someone in Albury who could overhaul it for us on the Saturday morning, as they had all the old parts needed. He rang them and arranged. We stayed in a motel in “Wang”, as it is known, and were able to get the MEPB going after a few lurches of the starter in the morning.
On to Albury, and being told there was no mechanic working at that branch, go to another. There we met “John”, a man who was not interested in tackling the job, for a range of reasons, the most important being he wanted to be away by 11.30. Other reasons given included he didn’t know where the spares were, it hadn’t been booked in with him personally, and the boss was not contactable, even though John was the manager of the branch. We explained our plight, and that some friends would laugh gleefully if we had to abort the journey there. He promised to have a look, declined offers of assistance, and said he would ensure we got on our way. We disappeared and left the mobile number with him. He rang back after an hour and a half said, I have good and bad news, I said what might that be, he said come back and I will tell you. The bad news was that the generator was not working, the cutout was fine. (This diagnosis took 1.5 hours where the previous night, the older fellow in Wang had put some leads on the generator while spinning, and gave the same diagnosis in a few seconds.) The good news was that he could sell us a spare battery for $150, and he gave us some free advice, ie buy a battery charger, use it at night, and don’t drive at night.
Having no option, we bought the battery and soldiered on, with me wondering secretly when the third event – they always come in 3s – would strike. We stopped in Goulburn and bought a charger and a 25metre lead. That night we got to Bowral, and stayed in a guesthouse. We almost didn’t make it as it was dark and with the lights on the battery was getting very low – so low that it started missing when the lights were on. There was not enough left after stopping to even engage the starter solenoid. The manager allowed us to run a cord from the lounge and so the old battery was charged all night. Attempt to start in the morning – nothing. Oh dear, I said again. Swap batteries over, and still nothing. Hmmm. I then thought, maybe it’s the solenoid along with the low beam circuit that had disappeared the previous evening. Solenoid was mounted on the chassis rail and it would have received a good dose of coolant the previous evening as well. Large shifter applied across the terminals and the device sprang into life, and somewhat alarmingly began to proceed backwards. It turned out that I had been trying to start it in reverse, which is also “park”, which has a solenoid cutout. One of the quirks of the breed.
Anyway, we were able to proceed from then on with no drama. The car ran faultlessly, using very little oil, and returning about 20mpg, which I found difficult to believe. A lot of the trip was at velocities that were legal if the speedo had been reading in kilometres, as I assumed it was.
It was able to keep up with modern 6 cylinder vehicles both up hills and around corners, which surprised me. It likes lifting skirts and it is possible to discern that the natural cruising gait must be in the 80 – 90 mph range. At 80 it is doing 2500 rpm. And the bump absorption is uncanny. You have absolutely no idea of what the rear end is doing except that it is doing it well and unobtrusively. It is impossible to tell if it is a live rear end – which it is – or IRS.
The next night we spent at Armidale, before proceeding to Inverell where the chosen body restorer resides, and who was able to have a look at the car. We got home on Monday evening, with very little lighting available, but in all, some 1700 kms.
I then revealed to my wife I had been waiting for the third event, but she pointed out to me that I had omitted to count from the beginning. This was a call from the Hyatt concierge at midnight after the dinner, asking if I could come down, as someone had hit my car. Past a lot of anxious uniformed faces, who had been astonished at the attention the car had garnered in 3 days on the forecourt. I was introduced to a swarthy gentleman with a black Holden ute who ran security at the nightclub. He had backed into the MEPB and scratched the bumper. It matched a number of the other scratches on the bumper. He had done serious damage to the unprotected rear of his new ute. It, somewhat alarmingly, was registered in the name of Hades P/L. His mobile number ends with “666”. He comes from a land far away where they cleanse people. He works, as mentioned previously, in the security business, in Melbourne. They kill cricketers, and themselves. I want him to be my friend. I will not be contacting him. I am glad he made the generator the third, rather than the second, mishap. We like and respect the scratch.
BC4FM will soon be off to Inverell to have a new suit. On return I am trying to decide whether to register it OLG 490 – a significant number to the cognoscenti – or NOR 400, resembling closely the name of my spouse. Suggestions welcomed.
The Journey Home was a few years ago and my wife does now like it and repeatedly remarks that it might be a good idea if I were to lose the fantasy about doing so much of the work on it myself.
Like most masochists, I am quite promiscuous and am prepared to receive pain from more than one source. Those sources are 4 old British bikes (2 Inters, and 2 SS100s), and a number of Jags (XK 140 dhc, Mk 1 2.4/3.8, E 4.2 s1 rdstr, and a 1935 Dodge utility) plus a modern XJR6. The point of this apart from showing off is to say that each is demanding as is my work and so attention is metered out on a needs basis.
Therefore the only update I can provide on the S1 is that it is now registered with the same registration number as it wore in England (56 EAC) and that I now display the correct number but unlawfully as the original plates are not reflectorised. The under bonnet work that took a month included removing the exhaust manifolds (which are cast iron, as is the block to which they were bolted in 1958, and apart from the blow past had pretty much welded themselves together). Who says rust has no tensile strength? Anyway, they were then machined flat, I made new gaskets and they don’t leak any more. I used some Toyota Corolla collapsible flange sealers of the same diameter as when each collapsed a different amount (the manifolds no longer being the same thickness) we now have a perfect seal.
While off, I tackled the exhaust tappets (which lurk behind plates attached to the side of the block underneath the exhaust), I had to make up the special tool so that setting was relatively easy. However, the exhaust stems and inlet pushrods are lubricated by little baths that fill with oil which then flows down a hole to the stem guide. There were filled to the brim with a kind of sludge I have never before encountered and which were removed like a latex mould – they literally peeled out. Cleared the feedholes and all is now as it should be. Whoever had set up the carbs had no idea and they are now as they should be. I also made up various gaskets from nitrile rubber for the engine bay, such as for the central lube Reservoir. The original had been dissolved by oil over the previous 56 years and spread over about a square foot before solidifying again with the paint perfect underneath. All the black bits I painted with expensive enamel from spray cans, which cures with heat and won’t dissolve with fuel.
I did all the other standard things like removed the oil pressure relief valves and lapped them in again, made a new block drain pipe (from copper) and actually got water to flow through it. Even after removing the tap from the block it was all bone dry. Coat hangers bent and manipulated produced all manner of crud. Inlet tappets too, new gaskets from the best rubberised cork and it is now oil tight.
The engine bay now looks like it is 5 years old and not 50. But more important is the increase in power – I estimate up 30%. It will now chirp the tyres on a full throttle up shift from first to second. (Which probably means bands need adjusting). The power from tappets, allowing valve stems to move freely, ignition timing and carburettors.
But lack of use and age brings incontinence with fluids escaping at unacceptable levels from the steering box and ns brakes. So no further action until I get some time.
I do like and admire it a lot. It is surprisingly quick off the line such that a number of times people in moderns have wound down windows to so advise.
I don’t like driving things, which are not spot on mechanically, and so have a few chores to attend to on it before it will be out again. I am very wary of using big name firms for work, as it is never done as you do yourself.
The article on the Hydra-matic transmission I downloaded from the site is the best I have found anywhere – and I search all the time.