1970. A new decade was just beginning but the Beatles were still going strong. Motown and the Supremes were out. Bobby Orr – a defenceman with the Boston Bruins – won the National Hockey League scoring title. The price of gasoline reached $0.29 per gallon (that’s 3.8 cents per litre). Bread was $.20 per loaf. A starting teacher’s salary was about $8500 providing you went to a College of Education first. London Life was paying $4000 per year for university grads – were they nuts? No one even thought about inflation in those days as it hovered around 2%. (But in just two short years it would be over 14% and everyone was concerned then). A heady time, and cars were still just about the most important part of your life.
I lived in the country on the rural outskirts of London Ontario. In 1970, I needed a car to commute back and forth to school from our home. I also really needed my own car because my friends all had their own. Paul Davidson had a Volkswagen Beetle with a gas heater, but even that redeeming feature was not enough to put VW in a good light with my buddies. The Beetle looked stupid. It was noisy and cramped, and you froze in it in winter, with or without a gas heater.
My good friend Rick had his own car. It was a Ford Galaxy 500 with a huge V8 engine. He loved it but it was just not my style. Too big. And it had automatic transmission. (One day in the early spring Rick showed me how his custom installed cruise control worked. When he pressed the activation button, the car suddenly began to accelerate rather than holding the speed the way it was supposed to. By his own admission, Rick was an excellent driver, and he responded with bravado to this challenge, braking hard and then sliding perilously around the corners in the streets near his home. Fun at first, I began to lose my composure as we mounted curbs, drove across a sidewalk, and narrowly missed a young kid on a bicycle. With the engine roaring and tires squealing, Rick finally just turned off the key. Almost immediately we heard a loud “bang” and saw thick black smoke billow out from under the hood. Poor Rick, he had to junk his beloved Galaxy soon thereafter. I was gravely disappointed when he replaced it with a new Ford Capri – a beautiful car, but one that only a guy with a full time A&W job could afford). Rick really needed a car with standard transmission, one that people felt comfortable riding in, one that emanated “style”.
My friend Keith had found the crème de la crème of cars. English of course. He had a Morris Oxford with leather seats, real rosewood paneling, direction indicator lights that came out from the side of the roof, a boot with its own (metric) tool kit, and even a crank under the front bumper in case the battery didn’t work. Way too cool.
For those on a budget in 1970 you could buy a brand new AMC Gremlin – ugliest car I had ever seen – for about $2000. I had a thousand bucks. It really was no contest as to what I would buy. No Ford, no Gremlin for me (even though I couldn’t afford it anyway). Everyone admired the English cars with their plush interiors and quirky add-ons – even Rick. (But he didn’t like their “sewing machine” engines). My Aunt, the sage of all things business, had advised me to look for a good used Chrysler at McManus Motors. I said I would follow her advice, but I knew that McManus was also one of the few car dealers in London that carried English cars. “Mention my name and ask for a good deal”, she said. Imagine how I felt when I found a brand new Sunbeam Imp on the lot! Not British racing green, but definitely an English car.
No doubt the McManus salesman thought he had died and gone to heaven when he met me. “Last new English car that we have”, he said. What he didn’t say was that McManus Motors would never again order in those junky English cars. White with an aqua blue vinyl interior. 875cc motor. Excellent gas mileage. Four speed manual transmission. I was sold before I asked the price. The seats weren’t leather, but the vinyl smelled new and looked good. Because my Aunt was a good customer, the salesman parted with it for $990 – half the price of a new Gremlin I might add.
I drove my Imp everywhere. It even had a hatch back so I could store all kinds of stuff in the back. It cost me next to nothing to drive. The four on the floor let me accelerate quickly in the city but on the highway it took its time before (eventually) reaching the speed limit. Hills were challenging but fortunately there weren’t too many around. I never drove my friends on the highway in my Imp.
Winter hangs on for a long time in the London area. Every night coming home from school I had to drive my Imp down the road behind the airport. It was about a 30 minute drive to the Ski Hi road and my house. One nasty night in early March, the snow had been falling all day and the wind was howling. In the city I didn’t realize how bad the wind was blowing until I got beyond the airport. That’s where I realized those strong winds were whipping up some mean snow drifts. As I drove along, from time to time I would hit these walls of snow. They were invisible to see as it was difficult to judge depth. Sometimes the drifts were as high as my hood. You couldn’t see them until it was too late. Every time this happened, the Imp would wince and sputter. Its engine was low and in the rear, the generator and coil close to the road, and they quickly got wet. Dampness was unfortunately not the Imp’s strong suit.
With few people out travelling in this bad weather, it was hard to know where the road actually was. You simply tried to keep equidistant from the farmhouses and go by memory. Suddenly I hit a huge drift. The car stopped but I could see nothing out the front window. Then I heard the engine die. Try as I might, I could not get it to go again.
I got out of the car and realized that the drift I hit was higher than the car. Most of the car was buried in snow. I looked around and saw no other vehicles. Across the road was a mailbox and I could see the outline of a farmer’s lane to his house. It seemed to take me an eternity to trudge through the deep snow and reach the house. Surprised but typically welcoming, the farmer donned some winter gear and motioned me toward the barn where he had a snow mobile. He put me on the back and we scooted down the lane. We drove around for several minutes where we thought the concession road was, but with the blowing snow we could not see the road or my car. The weather seemed to be getting worse by the minute so he drove me on his snowmobile to my house, several miles away. Thankfully he made it back safely (I had asked him to call when he arrived).
The next day, the roads were closed. It was too miserable to endanger the plows. As I look back, It has always been a little unsettling for me to recount my experiences with winter’s adverse weather. When roads are closed or impassable, you feel there is no “escape”. To this day I remain leery of living in the country. Anyway, at that time I just sat in our living room, anxiously watching and waiting for the plows to open up our road. My thoughts were of course focused on what had happened to my Imp. When the plow finally got through, Rick came out to pick me up in his Galaxy so that we could search for the Imp. “Nothing holds this beast back”, he said. (On reflection, perhaps this comment, which he proclaimed quite often with considerable gusto, was a sad premonition of his Galaxy’s eventual last stand at the hands of its cruise control.) Rick and I drove to the road near the house of the farmer who had rescued me. We drove back and forth on that country road many times. All the while the sun shone brightly across the fields, the countryside giving off some sort of idyllic sparkling glow. Meanwhile, all I could envision was my car found in the ditch months later when the snow had melted. It would be upside down, rusting, cut in half by the blades of a powerful snow plow.
And then Rick saw a small spot of blue. Just a speck, mind you. The aqua blue vinyl contrasted well with the glaring white of the freshly plowed snow. We scrambled to the spot, shoveling the snow with our hands to find the Imp still sitting upright, on the road, and happily in one piece. How had it been spared from damage by the foraging plow? I went again to the farmer who had rescued me and asked him if he had a tractor that could pull the Imp out. Sure enough he did and with some effort the Imp was freed. It would not start, of course. The Imp was temperamental at the best of times. The engine compartment was filled with snow and it was now very cold. Rick and I chained it to the big Galaxy and towed it back to my house. It sat in the garage with a heat lamp shining into its engine compartment for two days. It eventually started, but not reliably until the weather had warmed up in the spring.
The Imp stalled regularly in puddles and it developed some unique means of telling me about its discomfort with wet conditions. One day it emitted a massive blue spark that lit up the rain-soaked parking lot of Rick’s A&W drive in restaurant when we tried to jump start Keith’s stalled Morris Oxford (the crank had not worked). That was dangerous! 17,000 volts of electricity passed through that blue light someone told me later. This car was not really made for Canadian weather. I can’t imagine how it could survive in Britain. (If Keith were here today, I am sure he would say the same about his Morris Oxford). In the short time I had the car, I replaced the battery (a cell had gone), the generator, the spark plugs and I had several tune ups. The Imp became very expensive to maintain. There was always some problem that kept it from going. It just would not start in cold or wet weather, and it spent more time sitting in the garage than on the road.
I sold my Imp to a fellow graduate student originally from Britain in the early summer of 1971. He said that he had owned an Imp in England and he had a sentimental attachment to it. I happily took his $700 cash and wished him well. I left feeling very lucky to have ditched it. I can’t remember, though, ever seeing my British friend again. I do remember the big smile on his face as he drove the Imp away from the license bureau – a smile from a man reliving happy memories of a former splendid day.
A few days later, Keith’s brother offered to sell me his MGB as he was going to work in the Philippines for a few years. My god! Such a beautiful red English sports car! How could I resist? Another thousand dollar expenditure, the MG turned out to be just as hopeless as the Imp in Canada, particularly in the winter when the wind howled through its many air leaks and the heater did not work on cold days. But driving in the summer with the top down, is there a greater feeling than driving an MG? Those magnificent English cars!
I sold the MG shortly after I got married in 1972. Too small a car for a family man but most importantly, my wife could never master the standard transmission. Never again did I own a British car. We bought a dependable Dodge Dart to replace it – but that is another story.