Magnificent men in their fantasy machines

Andrew Roberts explores our long and dubious relationship with vehicle accessories

A Vauxhall Corsa with chameleonic paint and five exhaust stubs is parked in a Southampton side-street; it could have strayed here from a documentary on the continuing chav menace. But at least it’s reassuring to know that another generation of motorists is maintaining the great tradition of delusional modifications – ones that add virtually nothing to a car’s performance or value.

For almost 60 years, accessories have fallen into two distinct categories: aspirational and functional. The first chiefly appeal to (male) drivers of the Billy Liar school of car ownership. They knew deep down that fitting a moon roof to their Triumph Dolomite 1500HL would result in a gaping, uneven hole, just as a CB radio and high-rise jacking kit on a Morris Ital 1700 HLS would not make you the next Burt Reynolds. But what did this matter when you were optimistically envisaging a new world of endless sunshine and virtually unlimited sexual allure?

This particular breed of advert was virtually unknown in the British motoring press before the late Fifties, for early post-war drivers tended to brighten their day with a nodding dog for the rear parcel shelf. In an England of Sundays where virtually everything came to a halt, not to mention half-day closing on a Wednesday, the Morway car kettle was almost essential for those roadside picnics of hard-boiled eggs, wasps, spam, ginger beer and more wasps, preferably accompanied by a Pypro solid fuel cooker – also the choice of field equipment for the British Army, and Kenyan and Malayan police.

This is not to say Fifties motoring was entirely devoid of fun – who could not fail to enjoy eating tinned Irish Stew cooked on a military-grade stove while sat in a Force Eight gale on the side of the A31? – but the overwhelming emphasis was on practical hobbies. Aside from the occasional Rank starlet beaming at the tartan seat covers in a Vauxhall Wyvern, frivolity was then deeply frowned upon.

The introduction of the Mini in 1959 heralded a whole new array of car accessories from basket weave door panels to a roof-mounted tent that also became a brilliant way to test a Mini Minor’s overall body strength. Meanwhile, social climbers of limited overdraft considered adding fibreglass tailfins to their Renault Dauphine as an excellent method of convincing the neighbours that you had abandoned the world of office stationery supply for a new career in rock and roll.

This was also an era when the very word “motorway” still conveyed the tinge of romance and glamour. People would actually make their neighbours envious by sending them colour picture postcards of service stations. And what better way to stay safe than a Kangol Motorway Cap? For 10/6d, this thickly lined cap was (allegedly) a real bonus to road safety, and make you look like Terry-Thomas into the bargain.

So, as the decade progressed, each year brought a new way for suburban motorists to become a combination of 007 and Jim Clark, especially if you wore the latter’s “super-sensitive driving gloves”, finished in the finest kangaroo leather, together with a bottle green Les Leston Rallymaster jacket. Next, ask your friendly Vauxhall dealer to fit your Viva HB with “Brabham” stripes without actually altering the engine and then wait for women with Julie Christie hairstyles to leap into the passenger seat as you speed off to the accompaniment of Maserati air horns.

As the Seventies approached, small adverts in Motor or Autocar would typically suggest that fitting window slats and Colonel Bogey horns to a Hillman Avenger Super, or tinting the windows of a Ford Escort Popular, would encourage bikini clad ladies to dance on your driveway. Alternatively, last of the line models would be fit to burst with every official accessory in order to clear the showroom.

However, alongside the patent Mini Cooper badge bars was another form of accessory, one more redolent of DIY repairs in badly-lit workshops. This was an England where almost every motorist needed the Notek fog lamps with patent blue-spot lenses, and the Bluemel anti-mist rear screen in order to see through the smog, plus a radiator blind and a grille muff for the winter and, in a more innocent age, a King Dick tool kit for all occasions.

Of course, there was a long tradition of British motorists being taught to modify their vehicles via the cunning supply of under-developed cars. The Speedwell camber compensator, for instance, would counteract the swing-axled terror of driving a Triumph Herald or Spitfire. The level of equipment on small British family cars was of a fairly low standard, so kits for Smith’s fresh air heaters and Tudor windscreen washers were available well into the Sixties, as were trafficator conversions.

There were also aftermarket fittings that must have seemed fairly dubious even by the standards of the day, best of which was the amazing Cig-O-Matic. The must-have accessory for 1961 and costing only 14/6d, the Cig-O-Matic would literally fire lit cigarettes onto the carpet and, if you were lucky, into your trouser leg. Fortunately, the Pyrene fire extinguisher was only 69/6d.

The truth about many accessories, is that they would devalue your car, quite possibly cause it to fall apart en route to Fine Fare, and generally make you into an object of suburban derision. But that completely ignores their raison d’etre – to pander to male fantasies for a very reasonable outlay. The fact that our Southampton-based Corsa driver had to twice change gear in 100 yards and that his car is destined for a salvage yard within three years is beside the point. Just as his grandad driving a polished Dauphine with fibreglass tailfins falling off and a stream of lit cigarettes burning holes in his winkle pickers, Mr Corsa is living the dream. Even if he has neglected to remove the badge on the boot stating “1.0 Merit”.

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