Everyone knows I’m an old car buff and have been since I was a spotty teenager, I’ve had many over the years. I know that every classic car is held dear to the heart of its owner. Like we do with our children, we each think of our cars as the most beautiful, the most precious and the most loved in the world. Forgive me, then, if I regale as a proud parent the story of “Heidi”, my beloved 1954 R Type Bentley, the pinnacle of my car-owning adventure.
Forgive me, then, if I regale as a proud parent the story of “Heidi”, my beloved 1954 R Type Bentley
I suppose if I’m honest that there is nothing that special about Heidi. First registered in Pembrokeshire in the summer of 1954 we believe she was owned from new by Mr Harold Hood of Hastings, and then by a Mr Peterkin, owner of St James’ Garage in Sutton, Surry. She is a standard steel-bodied saloon that has lived a perfectly unremarkable but nevertheless hardworking life.
My uncle, Dr Kevin Flintan, bought the car in the mid ‘60s for £600.00 with 50k recorded miles. He was at that time a young GP in Carshalton with a small budget, a large and growing family, and the urgent need for spacious and robust everyday transport. He was lured onto the forecourt of St James’ garage by Mr Peterkin’s personal car gleaming in the summer sunlight. Every other vehicle on display seemed shabby in comparison, and Kevin always maintained that he fell in love with Heidi at first sight. Although she wasn’t for sale and against his better judgement, he persuaded Peterkin to let him buy her at a price way above his budget, and he drove her home there and then to face the music with Joanna, his wife. He never regretted the impulse and used her for many years on his rounds until his retirement in the late ‘70s – there are many in the area to this day with fond memories of the doctor arriving in his grand limousine. His children also recall their many happy family holidays with Kevin, Joanna, four kids, Granny Flintan and her best friend, two Cairn terriers and all the camping equipment crammed into and on top of the groaning four-seater for overnight journeys to Wales every summer.
Heidi was used very little for many years after Kevin’s retirement, slumbering gently in the modest lean-to garage by his house. He maintained her with meticulous care, under the auspices of Royce Motors in Betchworth. We have a full record of all MOTs, services and repair bills, he never cut corners or skimped on jobs done. In 1994, for example, nearly £10,000 was spent on her steering and suspension alone (a small fortune in those days).
There are many in the area to this day with fond memories of the doctor arriving in his grand limousine.
But although she remained his pride and joy and despite his efforts, time took its toll on Heidi. Occasional outings, even more occasional family weddings (including my own in 1976), and the annual MOT trip to Betchworth accounted for little more than a couple of hundred miles a year. The damp English winters gently attacked her ageing body, perished her seals, dulled her shining woodwork, and pitted her once-gleaming chrome. Time, as is its nature, also worked its evil on Kevin, and eventually he admitted that he could no longer care properly for the dear old lady waiting patiently in the sunless garage for his increasingly infrequent attention.
After some fairly half-hearted negotiations over price – how can you value a member of the family? – I assumed responsibility for her in 2002 with some quite rigorous covenants. Suffice it to say, my own children need to budget for Heidi once I’m gone. It was therefore both a sad and a proud day when I and my friend Paul Cook collected her and drove her away from Carshalton and back to my home in Cambridgeshire. For the first time possibly ever, she joined a motorway and clouds of smoke followed us around the M25. For the first time in years, she encountered rain and the water came tumbling into the cabin. She left her oily, personal mark on the concrete at the petrol pumps, bits rattled and some even fell off. But even with the creaking bones and aching muscles of the proud old lady she was, I could sense her feelings of joy on the open road and the sense of excitement of the young girl she had once been. The sun warmed her body and the wind blew refreshingly through her intimate parts. I swear she was looking all around at the unfamiliar sights and sounds and laughing. It felt like a first date and I was desperate for her to like and approve of me.
But there was no doubt she needed some tender, loving care. On a limited budget and with not much spare time on my hands I did my best. But there is only so much one can achieve with limited engineering knowledge, a set of box spanners and a tub of T-Cut and so we had to accept that the much-needed cosmetic and reconstructive surgery Heidi evidently needed would have to wait. But I knew how much she loved to get out, and there followed a couple of summers when we travelled far and wide but carefully and slowly. Tattered seats were hidden with bright blankets, loose bearings were helped with generous dollops of thick grease, the automatic gearbox worked sympathetically to ensure that her slack pistons never over-revved. Unmarked bodywork was buffed to perfection while blemishes, scratches and rust were touched up with black boot polish.
But even with the creaking bones and aching muscles of the proud old lady she was, I could sense her feelings of joy on the open road and the sense of excitement of the young girl she had once been.
These were happy days for Heidi, and we became firm friends. Her character developed as we got to know each other better. She was patient, unruffled, and unfailingly polite to other road users. She became a full member of the family; as I said, she was my wedding car in 1976 and this tradition carried on when in 2004 she was my eldest daughter Madeleine’s wedding car. That same year she carried my parents to their 60th Wedding Anniversary celebration, and less than 12 months later took my mother to my father’s funeral. No-one cared that she was wrinkled and rusting, she was just one of us.
But she had a sharp tongue too. On one occasion I unwittingly attempted to overtake a large van. The kick-down produced only an increase in engine noise but no discernible increase in speed, I abandoned the reckless and doomed manoeuvre almost immediately, and I swear the next time I tried to start Heidi was the first and only time she absolutely refused to fire up – the old lady clearly disapproved of my roughness with her. On another occasion, my daughter Grace-Marie was sitting in the rear seat waiting for me as I popped into a friend’s house. A VW Golf went roaring past at great speed through the narrow village street, rocking the old car on her springs. Gracie was giggling with laughter. She swears to this day she heard Heidi mutter under her breath “I don’t know, kids today, always rushing about…”
Heidi has embarked on several grand adventures including across France, Switzerland and Spain, over the Alps, over the Pyrenees and across Ireland. There are family picnics and (of course) numerous weddings when she raises money for a variety of charities.
I have been restoring Heidi bit by bit since she came under my protection. Her heart (engine) was overhauled in 2005. In September 2008 she went to Kings Lynn and underwent a full restoration of her body and interior by Lance Bowyer-Lowe (a renowned Bentley restorer). When she returned home on 1 August 2009 she looked like she was when she was delivered from new.
Kevin died two months before her restoration was complete, and I regret enormously that he never saw her in her renewed state. But since her restoration, Heidi has enjoyed a new lease of life. She has paraded before the Duke of Edinburgh in Windsor Castle to celebrate his 90th Birthday and gone to Italy on the car-train. She even got a new friend – an Airstream caravan that she pulled with gusto around Europe but rest easy, dear readers, she doesn’t have to do that anymore. Sons and daughters have ridden in her to their weddings, as have friends and family, including Kevin’s own children and grandchildren. We all hope for many more happy years with Heidi.
Best of all, on 22 September 2012 Heidi took my new wife and me away from our marriage ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Tourists thought we were famous…
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Thank you for reading my blogs. I’m getting quite old now, and hopefully I’m a little wiser than I once was. I have enjoyed a fascinating career full of fascinating people, and made many great friendships. I’ve made huge errors in my lifetime, and enjoyed great success too – it’s been the ultimate game of snakes and ladders - up and down, round and round. It is my privilege to share some of my stories with you, and describe some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope that it may both save you from falling into the same holes, and help you in your careers and lives. Good luck and good fortune.