My wife was out “with the girls from work” the other night, so I watched Kingsman on Netflix for the third time. A great film and every time I watch it I am impressed that, from his umbrella to his plane, a Kingsman always has the right piece of equipment for the job.
It’s similar with sailmaking. Although our knee pads are not bulletproof nor are our scissors poison-tipped they are the right tools for the job. The analogy is even more striking when it comes to transport. Where Merlin flies a Bombardier Challenger 600 (check me out) to take on Valentine, we drive a long wheelbase, high roof Ford Transit to deliver or collect sails. It is the ultimate in utility. Modern and reliable, it starts every time the key is turned and is everything you would expect from a company van.
Soulless though. Modern vehicles just don’t cut it in the style stakes and fortunately, I am old enough to remember that this has not always been the case. Indeed, during my sailmaking career, we have had vehicles of such class and style that Harry, Eggsy and Merlin would have been proud to add the to the Kingsman’s fleet…..O.K. I’m over-egging the pudding, but I recently found some photographs of what I believe was the ultimate in sailmaking transport.
For the purposes of this blog entry, I need you to cast your thoughts back to 1983. It was a different world then. Not black and white, that was the 60s, but not in High Definition either.
My brother, Adam, and I were deep into our first winter of sailmaking with a challenge to find the ideal sailmaker’s vehicle which had to be long enough to transport rolled up dinghy sails without folding them whilst not being so large and fuel-hungry that it would bankrupt us or get us removed from Greta Thunberg’s Christmas card list. Not that she was even born then!
Our first attempt at a company car was an Austin Maxi 1750 HL which we found in Wareham. SMO 608M cost us £200 and with a registration number like that we had to call it “Smo”.
Smo represented a huge step forward from Adam’s old “Rolls Canardly” (Rolls down hills, can hardly get up the other side) as it had the great advantage of a tailgate for easy access and folding seats that made a large cargo space and/or sleeping platform.
Getting rolled sails in was easy but long sails required the passenger seat to be laid flat which is upsetting for the crew. Also, if it was to be used as event accommodation, then the whole car had to be emptied. We struggled on for a year but by early 1985 Adam decided that we needed an upgrade.
The new transport would ideally be something that could still carry long sails but without compromising the passenger’s seating. Also, if we could put all the paraphernalia from the boat in too, it would allow us to trail the dinghies empty, reducing the time to pack away at the end of an event and remove the risk of damaging the internal varnish work. A transit van with a built-in platform would have been ideal but sadly, even a high mileage example, was way beyond our budget.
There was a petrol station close to the sail loft in those days and on the forecourt sat a Coleman Cardinal hearse. We had driven past it many times with Adam looking wistfully in its direction. We summoned the courage to make enquiries whilst in the petrol station shop and were directed to a workshop behind. John the mechanic explained that the hearse could be for sale but had a cracked engine block which would need to be replaced. After some haggling, we agreed on £1,500 for the car including the engine repairs. We then waited an anxious couple of weeks before it was ready.
From the outset, we decided to keep it as true to its original specification as possible. This turned out to be a mixed blessing and we soon learnt many interesting lessons from driving an authentic-looking hearse. For example:
- You cannot park a hearse anywhere on a street without upsetting someone.
- You cannot go to your cousin’s wedding in a hearse without upsetting everyone!
- A hearse is too long to negotiate the tight turns in a multi-storey car park.
and most importantly,
- Don’t flash your headlights at oncoming hearses if they are “delivering”.
This final lesson is interesting because Adam had previously owned an MG Midget. It is common practice for MG drivers to flash their headlights when they encounter another of their kind on the road. Funeral directors have a similar system and soon we noticed other hearse drivers would flash their headlights at us in MG fashion. “That’s cool,” we thought and started to flash the headlights at every hearse we met. That is until one day when we were driving through Radipole. Approaching the bridge on the River Wey ( a film title if ever I heard one!) we saw an oncoming hearse. Adam made the customary flash. No response. He flashed again. Still no response. He flashed wildly just as the rest of the funeral procession drew into sight.
For promotional purposes, we had the large side windows sign written with our logos and added the strapline “Sailmaking Undertaken” to the tailgate. These customisations turned the hearse into a great advert when we were at sailing events. It was larger than most cars at the time and black which made it stand out in a sailing club car park. Everyone knew when we had arrived. Also, being based on a 3 litre v6 Ford Granada it was fast so we typically “arrived” fairly quickly. It would appear that whilst undertakers are reverent and graceful when on duty, they like to get between jobs at a pace.
Promotional value and performance were not the only advantages that the hearse had over the Austin Maxi. The practicality of the hearse design takes all the features of an estate car and exaggerates them. For instance, even the most basic hearse had built-in roof rails long before they were common on family estate cars. Originally intended for attaching flowers and wreaths, they were strong enough to carry roof racks.
We knew it would be voluminous inside but what we had not appreciated, before owning one, is that hearses are designed as double-deckers. In their intended usage, while Auntie Flo is being delivered ‘top deck’ someone else’s Uncle Willie is travelling out of site ‘below decks’. Once the first assignment has been successfully completed the undertakers drive to a secluded spot and promote Uncle Willie to the top spot ready for his final ride. This very practical arrangement saves unnecessary mileage back and forth to undertaker HQ and worked brilliantly for sailing events too. It allowed us to stow all the sails, booms, rudders and wet sailing kit below, leaving the top deck clear and dry to sleep on with no impact on the passenger seats.
We installed a mattress on the top level to allow one of us to sleep whilst the other drove. I do remember the perplexed looks on the faces of other drivers as I drove up the M6 one night with Adam asleep in the back. When he turned over, a small child in the Ford Sierra travelling alongside must have thought he had witnessed a modern-day, Lazurus style miracle. I often wonder what career that youngster chose in later life. Something religious? Exorcisms? Undertaker? Vampire slayer? I don’t suppose I will ever know I just hope it did not give him nightmares.
It did not take long for the hearse to prove itself invaluable and we loved it but it lacked a name. We have always given our cars names. Adam’s MG midget was named “Ivy” which came from the letters in the registration. I once owned a Lancia Beta Berlina called the “Italian Growl” because of the engine note. Curly the Ford Corsair was so named, not just because it alliterates beautifully but because a good friend thought I had said I had curly coarse hair! I briefly owned a Volvo 340 named Sven in reverence of its Swedish roots. We had Smo of course but, try as we might, we could not decide on a name for the hearse. Its registration number, GGM 1N, was unusual and we were told worth more than the car but it was not much of an inspiration for naming purposes. It was a Coleman Cardinal; nothing even remotely amusing there unless you think Mustard is funny.
So we drove it for a while without a name until, one evening, Adam had an epiphany in the bath. I think that is what he said! I am not exactly sure what triggered the thought process but he decided that the Surname of the 1966 England world cup winning striker Geoff Hurst sounded a bit like “hearse”. So, Geoff, it became.
The ideal sailmaker’s vehicle
Geoff really proved his worth when we suffered a trailer failure on a trip to the Scorpion European championship in Northern Ireland. Having left the main road too early the atmosphere in the car was tense. I had made a navigation error as we were leaving Dumfries and instead of being on the main A75 to Stranraer we were on a much slower, although in my defence, more picturesque, road that runs parallel. To call it a road is an exaggeration as it was little more than an unclassified track. Adam, clearly not in a sightseeing mood and being convinced that we would not be on time for the ferry, was in a huge strop.
Approximately 55 miles from the ferry terminal I glimpsed in the rearview mirror just as the boat seemed to drop slightly on one side. I pulled over and got out to look fully expecting to see a flat tyre.
“What now?” came the irritated voice from the back of Geoff. “Don’t tell me you gone got us a puncture now as well! We’ll never make the ferry at this rate!” He was grumbling away but I was not really listening as I had reached the trailer and was peering into the dark trying to establish what the problem was.
“Well, there’s some good news and some bad news,” I shouted. I have always found that oblique comments are good for getting an already fully-wound brother more annoyed. “The good news is that there is no evidence of a puncture. The bad news … no evidence of a tyre, wheel or suspension arm for that matter!”
Adam joined me as I walked back along the road in the dark and we found the whole assembly in the middle of the road. It was a good thing that I had taken the wrong road after all. I hate to think what would have happened if I had been doing 50 miles an hour on a dual carriageway!
So there we were on an unlit country road in Scotland with a Scorpion on a broken trailer and an hour and a half until the ferry sailed. After a little bit of head-scratching, we decided to make use of the hearses built-in roof rails and tied the boat complete with launching trolley on top of the car. Brilliant. Now what to do with the defunct road trailer base?
“It’s easy,” says Adam, “We’ll throw it over the wall, make note of a landmark and come back for it on the way home.”
We chose a likely looking telegraph pole and threw the trailer over the dry stone wall at the side of the road. Genius. We made the ferry just in time and got to the event without further drama.
We learned another great life lesson on the trip home. Tired after a week of sailing and drinking coke cola (it was Smithwicks really), we drove back along the same road to reclaim the trailer base. It’s funny how similar one telegraph pole is to another. We were also impressed by how fast Scottish nettles grow in the summer because in just 6 days they had completely over-grown the trailer and hidden it from sight. It took us several visits to the same spot before we found it and once we had we were faced with the challenge of how to get it four hundred miles to home. The only option was to unload the boat and trolley and reassemble the whole thing, trailer first, on Geoff’s roof. With all that weight aloft, Geoff’s handling was a bit ropey but at least the slow journey home gave us plenty of time to work out what to tell the trailer’s owner.
So, here I am in 2020 with the use of a fine Transit van and my own Picasso (France’s finest and even more practical than the Austin Maxi) but, still I find myself wondering if I could find another Geoff. Based on a Jaguar E pace perhaps. That will please Greta ;0).