The Collector: ‘Mr Barn Find’

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by Sam Dawson |

Harold Wilson was a pioneer of the classic car movement and still rescues cars and memorabilia wherever he finds them. Meet ‘Mr Barn Find’

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      ‘I suspect you’re wondering how this all started?’ asks Harold Wilson as he hauls open the iron doors of the old warehouse and lock-up that conceals his sprawling collection in an otherwise unremarkable Port Talbot back street. ‘Well, when you’re a roofing contractor you see what people keep in their back gardens. That’s how I found a lot of them.’

Captivatingly, he recalls a long-lost world before the term ‘classic car’ even existed, and the mistake that set him down his lifelong path. ‘I was a Scoutmaster in the Sixties and I was emerging from a church parade when I saw a rusty old car under a canvas sheet. It was owned by Tony, another Scoutmaster. He told me I could have it for 10 shillings [50p] because a halfshaft had broken. I roped in some Scouts to push it to my house but there was a minor riot when my wife saw it, so I took it down to the docks to store.

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Wilson knows a lot about old cars but admits that he’s no mechanic ©Charlie Magee

‘A few days later it had gone, I assumed for scrap. But ten years later, when the tide receded, I saw the chassis poking out of the mud, so I dragged it out and sold it to a chap in Bristol for £250. The oil and mud had protected it – it really was like new underneath. Its ‘KV’ registration plate stuck in my mind, so I started researching it. Turns out that in the war Singer’s three factory Le Mans racers were sent to Wales to escape the bombing in Coventry. All were registered with KV plates. The whereabouts of two was known, but one had been sold on because it had a broken halfshaft…

‘It was then that I realised how important it is to preserve history and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I collect everything to do with transport, from the horse to the aeroplane. One day I hope to open a proper working museum.’

1929 Hillman 14

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The quality of his Hillman 14 prompted Wilson to vow he’d never buy a new car ©Charlie Magee

‘In the Sixties there were only a few of us who liked old cars – no clubs or shows,’ Wilson says. ‘We’d meet at The Bear in Cowbridge and one day I said, “I’m fed up with my car – anyone know of any others?” Someone said there was a Hillman in Llanelli, so I went to look at this lovely old saloon. I bought it and drove it for years.’

Today the enormous Hillman hides under a tarpaulin in the corner of the lock-up, looking like a stereotypical barn-find. ‘It’s never been restored,’ says Wilson. ‘I haven’t driven it for 20 years, but I turn the engine regularly to make sure it doesn’t seize.

‘This was the car that made me vow I’d never buy a new car. I mean, just look at the quality,’ enthuses Wilson, opening the rear-hinged back door and gesturing at the wood and leather interior. ‘I suppose I bought them at the right time, in that they were cheap. But I don’t see them as investments – they’re pieces of history.’

1934 MG PA

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After filling with snow in 1976 this 1934 MG PA is undergoing its second rebuild ©Charlie Magee

Nearly all Wilson’s cars are undergoing restoration work, but his distinctive blue MG has seen the most intense activity recently because he’s rebuilding it for the second time. ‘I first encountered it in a garage in the Sixties – it was in for a decoke and repairs to a front wing, but the student who owned it couldn’t afford to pay, so the garage wouldn’t let him have it back.

‘I went to see him and bought the car for £20 then went back to the garage and asked for a decoke, the valve clearances setting, the wing straightening and a respray. That came to £50, so for £70 I owned an MG.

‘I restored it first in the Seventies, but one winter’s day in 1976 I left it outside and some kids accidentally kicked a football through the hood. People remember that year’s heatwave, but in the winter we were hit by incredible snows. I had no idea there was a hole in the roof, so when the snow thawed the interior was soggy and rotting.

I put the car away and didn’t do anything with it. I’m restoring it now with my son. I was about to sell it, but he said he’d always loved this car and stopped me.’

1934 Rolls-Royce 20/25 Barker Continental Tourer

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Barker-clad 1934 Rolls-Royce 20/25 is rust-free thanks to its aluminium construction ©Charlie Magee

‘You could have bought Rolls-Royces for £10 each post-war – the horsepower tax cost more than the car,’ says Wilson. ‘This one was ordered by diamond merchants Oppenheimer and stored in an underground garage off Harley Street in London. The area was blitzed in 1939 and the entrance was blocked. It wasn’t uncovered until 1955, when Bill Medcalf of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club pulled it out and took it to the south of France. He used it until 1963, when I bought it.’

The 20/25 is also undergoing complete restoration, although Wilson reckons it’s in better condition than its flaking paint suggests. ‘It’s all aluminium – no steel – so there’s no rust.

‘Barker’s Continental Tourer is a rare and, I think, beautiful design, with a neater tail,

a spare wheel each side and an extended bonnet to accommodate three toolkits. When I was pulling the interior apart I found spent machine-gun shells dating from 1934. Diamond merchants, eh?’ he smiles.

Daimler Conquest Roadsters

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Wilson owns five of the 65 Conquest Roadsters built by Daimler, including works racer ORW 655 ©Charlie Magee

Wilson has become a leading authority on Daimler’s unusual sports car – he owns five of them and has traced the histories of all but a tiny handful of the 65 built in order to co-author the definitive book on the model.

The sole factory racer, ORW 655, originally driven by Ken Wharton, is the most notable example. ‘Lady Docker, one

of Daimler’s owners in the pre-Jaguar era, saw how successful Jaguar’s XK sports cars had become and thought it was crazy that Daimler had nothing similar, so she ordered her engineers to build something for the 1953 London Motor Show, which was just six weeks away. They fashioned a body out of solid wood and used it as a buck to build this car around. It still has some blocks of wood lodged in the rear wings.’

1929 Morris Cowley

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1929 Morris Cowley cost Wilson £20 plus £5 for a box of chocolates ©Charlie Magee

This car has lived an unusual life. ‘In 1972 I took my coachbuilt Cowley saloon for a cylinder rebore and the mechanic remarked that he hadn’t seen an engine like this since he worked on “the chimney-sweep’s car”.

I asked him who he meant and he directed me to a David John Davis of Maiden Street. I knocked on the door and asked the man there if he was the chimney sweep. He demanded, “Who told you that?” and slammed the door in my face.

‘I went back to the mechanic and he said, “You shouldn’t have gone there all dressed up – he’ll think you’re the taxman!” It turned out he was working cash-in-hand.

‘I went back, explained who I was, and we went to his garage. At the back was this Cowley tourer, full of coal. I offered £20, a lot of money for a car like that then, but he wanted more. I only had another fiver on me, so I offered him that too and said, “And this is for chocolates for your wife.” She was there and he accepted the offer.

‘It had only 5754 miles on the clock and when I renovated the car I found the cooling fan had been fitted the wrong way – and he’d laid it up because it kept overheating. He’d been in the Home Guard during the war and as a prank they all dressed in black and went parading round town in the Cowley, pretending to be Hitler. They were arrested as German spies and spent a night in the cells – he didn’t use it much after that.

‘Bizarrely, I found a coupon for a free 6000-mile service at Baud’s Garage, which still existed. When I turned up the guy behind the counter said, “I don’t know who could service it – they’re all bloody dead!”’

The car found fame in Eighties TV series The District Nurse after the producers asked Wilson to source a car for star Nerys Hughes to drive. ‘It was “damaged” in one episode, so they used glassfibre wings and a smashed headlight. I’ve still got them.’

1951 Bentley Mark VI 4½-litre Mulliner ‘Long Tail’ saloon

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1951 Bentley Mark VI stirs poignant memories for Harold Wilson of his late wife ©Charlie Magee

This car is close to Wilson’s heart. ‘My wife was diagnosed with cancer in 1991 and didn’t want to be sitting around at shows in some draughty old tourer, so I decided we needed a refined saloon. I rang Harry Griffiths at Beaulieu and he told me about this Bentley, originally owned by the director of Yale Keys in America – who specified a raised rear roof for his top hats – and then by a doctor who used to go to the Proms in it.

‘The doctors gave my wife only a few months to live, but she lived for another three years and in that time we went touring all over Britain and Europe in this car.’

1978 Atwell-Morgan

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Ken Atwell designed and built this high-tech Morgan for his daughter ©Charlie Magee

This Morgan-based roadster is Wilson’s weekend fun-car and is unique. ‘Ken Vivian Atwell – one of the men behind the Ford GT40 and creator of the KVA continuation GT40s – wanted to build a GT40 for his daughter, but she said she preferred a Morgan. Atwell visited Morgan’s factory and ordered all the components of a 4/4 to be sent to the KVA factory in Swansea so he could build it to his specifications.

‘The wooden body frame was replaced by an aluminium spaceframe chassis, the traditional Morgan sliding pillars went in favour of Triumph TR4 suspension, the track is wider – more like a Plus 8’s, with wire wheels imported from America – and it’s got a Lotus-Cortina engine.

‘Ken’s proud to be a Welsh car manufacturer, so when the DVLA asked him whether he wanted to register it as a kit car he growled through gritted teeth, “It is not a special”. As a result it’s officially an Atwell-Morgan – the only one.’

Wilson is good friends with Atwell, who still lives locally. He digs out drawings for a minimalist roadster Atwell penned in 1978. Featuring a Rover V8 in a car weighing just 750kg, it predates the similar Westfield SEight by more than a decade. Sadly, it never made production.

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Among car parts, horse brasses and a model of RMS Titanic, Wilson has artwork for a stillborn roadster penned by Ken Atwell ©Charlie Magee

To order a copy of Harold Wilson’s book Daimler Conquest Roadster And New Drop Head Coupé – co-authored with Dennis Mynard – for £25, email haroldwilson1940@hotmail.co.uk.

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