It Came Upon a New Years Day
An Early Start
New Years Day, 1977. I had been scheduled to travel from Bristol to Manchester the previous evening in my supervisor’s car as was the custom in those days. We were on standby to provide an OB microwave link midpoint for Match of the Day should the main match be cancelled due to a frozen pitch. Our instructions were to rendezvous in New BH Manchester at 10am, and then travel to the midpoint.
We had only been informed of this on the morning of New Years Eve, and my supervisor had planned to attend a party that night so decided to ignore the instruction to travel that afternoon, but instead to set off early on New Years Day. It did occur to me that there may have been some pecuniary advantage to this arrangement owing to the Allowances situation. The gamble, however, was that it would be a Saturday with very light traffic on the motorways. The country was in a recession at the time following the IMF debacle the previous year and this meant significantly fewer lorries on the roads than in normal times. This was, however, a serious breach of regulations, and if we had arrived late or not at all, disciplinary action would have followed.
So it was that at 5am I turned up at Bill’s house in a suburb of Bristol and we quietly set off for the North on the M5. As we passed through the Almondsbury interchange I asked whether we would be speeding up at all. ‘I have my foot hard down’, was the reply. Over the next five minutes the car engine slowly petered out and we came to a halt on the hard shoulder in the pitch darkness. ‘Give me the torch’, I volunteered, ‘and I will have a look under the bonnet’.
‘I don’t have one’, says Bill. ‘Any spanners?’ ‘I don’t carry any’.
I thought that it was still worth opening the bonnet up, you never know what you may find. I fumbled around feeling for the plug leads, distributor cap etc, burning my hands on the manifold in the process. Nothing seemed untoward.
‘Might as well try the engine again’, I yelled. It roared into life immediately and so keen was Bill to get going that he nearly left me on the hard shoulder. A good few miles went by until just before Worcester the same thing happened again.
‘Should we call the AA?’ I suggested as we sat on the hard shoulder. ‘I don’t waste money on them’ he replied.
Dawn was just about appearing and this encouraged me to have another look under the bonnet without burning my fingers. Again all seemed in order.
‘Try once again’ I shouted, and again the engine responded immediately.
This episode was repeated once more on the M6 before Bill refuelled and we made it to BH on time, puzzled and nerve-wracked but otherwise fine. After receiving our orders we travelled to the midpoint and met our rigger-driver with the van and two diesel generators.
The genes were connected up and we started the first one. Unfortunately it only wanted to run at 49Hz, and that would have produced a travelling hum bar on pictures which our friends down in Television Centre would get quite upset about. So we turned our attention to the other gene.
It would not start. No matter what we did. Even squirting a canister of ether into the intake did not help.
‘Give me your Daily Telegraph’, demanded Ken, our rigger-driver. ‘But I haven’t read it yet’, I pleaded.
‘Look, things are bad. I’ll replace it with the Sun later on’.
This struck me as a reasonable deal, as I could spend quite some time studying the news on Page 3. Also I had found that it only took 2 days to complete the Quick Crossword as long as I didn’t go to bed too early.
Ken took the Telegraph, screwed it up, poured a small amount of diesel on it, stuffed it under the gene, and took out his cigarette lighter.
Now there were two things I admired about Ken. First, he had driven a large lorry on the Mulberry Harbour on DDay. Second, every woman who came into contact with him seemed to go all funny at the knees, colour up around the cheeks, and talk funny. I was hoping to learn the secret of this some time.
‘That’s a bit drastic, isn’t it, Ken?’ My eyes were welling up with tears. ‘I’ve become quite fond of PG49. It’s followed me all over the country, hooked on to my Land Rover. I’ve even cleaned the grime off its injector when it’s a bit down, and it gives me lovely roars when I fill its tank. And think of how many hours of Pulse and Bar it has allowed us on drafty hilltops’.
‘Shut up, you silly bugger. I’m just going to warm it up.’ He lit the bonfire, and black smoke and flames erupted from under the gene.
After a couple of minutes Ken extinguished the bonfire and cranked the starting handle like a madman. There were a few half-hearted thumps and PG49 sprang grudgingly into life.
‘Now let’s have a look at PG38’, he said. ‘The throttle is wound flat out but there isn’t enough fuel going to the injector. You can adjust that by that small clamp on the throttle bar.’ We loosened the clamp slightly and moved it a centimetre or two. The gene went beserk. Like all good diesels, if you give it more fuel it will simply speed up and up. As the revs increased we began to get concerned. It started bouncing around and screaming its head off. We couldn’t budge the clamp.
‘Run!’ I shouted as I couldn’t take the whine any more and wondered whether the Wise Men were about to see a new star in the North. Just at that point Ken whacked the clamp with his spanner and shattered the mechanism. Starved of fuel, the gene spluttered to a halt.
At 1pm we heard the result of the pitch inspection – the Manchester match would go ahead so we could pack up and go home. After a slightly leisurely lunch we joined the M6 heading south.
Suddenly my attention was drawn to lorries coming towards us on the northbound carriageway. They had a coating of snow all down their front as though they had just driven through a snowdrift. As we progressed southward the amount of snow on lorries and cars increased dramatically, and then the first snowflakes started.
Then a thought struck me. ‘How’s the engine, Bill?’ ‘Not bad, but not quite right. And I’ve used a load of petrol.’ ‘Have you a summer and winter setting on your carburettor?’ ‘No idea, never read the book. It’s in the glove compartment if you want to have a look.’
I thumbed through the pages. Sure enough Bill’s Mazda had a frying pan air filter with a spout that could be rotated such that it drew air off the manifold in winter or straight in through the grill in summer. ‘Stop the car, Bill!’
The spout was in the summer position, so one quick twist and we were on our way, problem solved. Obviously the carburettor had been icing up, and when we stopped it only took a couple of minutes for the engine to thaw it.
The snow was now falling thick and fast and the M6 was down to one lane. In 1977 on a New Years Saturday with sparse traffic they didn’t bother to do any gritting. We approached Stoke doing 40mph in single file. Suddenly Bill swung over and down the slip road into virgin snow. ‘Where the hell are we going?’, I said.
‘I had a Christmas card from some people I haven’t seen since the Second World War’, he says. ‘So I thought as they live near Stoke we could drop in and see them.’
We had reached the roundabout at the bottom of the slip road, and became stuck in snow.
‘Give us a push’, said Bill. We visited his friends for an hour or so then made our way home, thankfully without further ado, arriving at about 9pm.
Goodwill to All Men? Well, almost all. Happy New Year? Bah,humbug.