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How the Commer Came to a Full Stop

In an earlier story Gerry Ashmore recalled his adventures with a Leyland bus transporting his Lotus 18 to races in the 1960s.Here he talks about His first serious transporter bought for the 1959 season.

In 1959 we had another transporter, a Commer Avenger Luxury Coach. This vehicle was equipped with a 6 cylinder petrol engine and was built in 1947 for the two English airlines, British Overseas Airways Corporation and British European Airways. They were used for taking passengers from the terminal in Knightsbridge, London to Northolt Airport.

I don’t know which of the airlines previously owned our coach but they were identical except for the colours and logos.

Mine had been converted into a racing transporter by Max Trimble who was a BRDC member. He had a very serious accident at Spa driving an ex-Ecurie Ecosse D type Jaguar and almost lost both legs but was able to walk again albeit with a stick.

After his accident the bus was left lying in a yard and the local children smashed every piece of glass in it. I knew Max from school as a boy, so I bought it from him for £25, drove it back to our garage and fitted all new glass.

Then I took it it to a carpenter, an old man in Oldbury, West Midlands, who had a little workshop where I had him take the front seats out and build me a complete caravan. This was wonderful since my wife Yvonne and I then had a folding double bed that became a seat during the day. There was a sink but no running water, although we did have a proper cooking stove, and many times Yvonne cooked an evening meal in a lay by on our way to some race, since we could only start off for a race meeting after I had closed the garage at 8pm.

The body of the bus was built to suit the airlines’ needs and half way along, the roof was raised to allow for a large luggage area with the passengers sitting on the raised deck with its own windscreen. I altered this so that it could carry two cars one above the other or one with enough room for 4 people to sleep. Yvonne made curtains for all the top windows. It was a great vehicle but had already covered about a million miles and the engine, being a side valve job, had a tendency of blowing its head gasket which I learned to change in a matter of minutes if needed.

When Martin Pfunder of the Austrian Motor Club asked me to come to Zeltweg and Innsbruck I thought I’d better fit a big rack on the lower roof to carry petrol cans.

You must remember my dad never gave me any money unless I had earned it. Also, being newly married in 1957, I did not have much money with a mortgage to pay and a wife who wanted 3 meals a day. I could not afford a new radio to put into the bus so went to a breakers yard and paid £5 for an HMV push button set from a smashed car. I never really got it to work and was resigned to simply switching it on and singing or whistling to myself pretending that it did work.

The day we left for Austria I stood around talking to a friend, who was coming along to drive Yvonne and the bus back in case the worst happened when my dad drove up in his Bentley with a mean look on his face. Getting out he stretched out his hand and said “give me back the £151 loaned you” knowing perfectly well we were going on a 1000 mile continental trip in an old vehicle.

I only had £20 and my Midland Bank cheque book, which the manager said I could only use if there was enough money in the bank. Of course there wasn’t any, so after giving my father his money I had a fiver left.

I was so upset by his behaviour I stopped filling up the cans and told everyone we would leave immediately. Off we went to meet Jim Twixt at his place near London because he and his mechanic would follow us to Austria.

After we met up we passed a Chicken Inn restaurant near Leicester Square and Yvonne said “I’m hungry let’s eat”, so I ordered 3 half chickens. As we were about to drive off again Yvonne said ” need to go to the toilet again” so I accompanied her and found a fiver on the floor, which meant we had eaten and still had  more than we started with.

We arrived at Dover and drove into a petrol station right there at the entrance. The office was a wooden shack with an old man in it who was fast asleep. I woke him up and told him to fill up the coach and then the Cooper racing car, after which we filled all the cans. Petrol was 2/6 (12.5 pence) per gallon and the old man made marks on the front of the pump for every 10 gallons as the pump switched off at that amount.. He added up the marks produced a bill and I pulled out my cheque book knowing it wasn’t covered but thinking to sort it out once we got back. At first he did not want to accept a cheque, so I said he could milk the petrol back out or write down our names written on the side of the bus and to trust us since we also were in the garage business.

The next problem was paying for the ferry, so I parked the bus in the darkest corner and walked in. In those days vehicles had to have a triptique (Permit to take a vehicle abroad)  so I walked up to a fellow and said: “hello mate, remember me from a few months back?” looking at me he said he thought so, so I said “I’m here with same coach and 3 people and need two temporary export licences return to and from Dunkirk.” So he asked me the length of the coach and I say ‘same as last time 27 feet’, whereas in actual fact it was 30 feet, landing it in the next category up and almost doubling the cost. I thought I got away with it but he said he needed to measure it, so he walked to the end of the bus with a tape measure and me holding the other end. As he reaches the end in the dark I pass my end from one hand to another stretching my arms making it a good 3 feet shorter and he calls yes it’s 27 feet. So I write another cheque and he says I can’t take that and I say but you did last time and it didn’t bounce right? “No” he says so off we go onto the ferry.

We made good time until we got to the mountains and by the time we reached the top we had used almost all the fuel including what we had drained out of the Cooper, so I was wondering if there was anything I could sell to buy petrol. Then I saw a British Sunbeam Talbot towing a trailer. I said to Chris to hang out the window and stop him which he did.

It was John Campbell-Jones, who also drove a Cooper and I had driven against him at Dunboyne, Ireland.  I told him if he would loan me some money I would pay him back from my starting money, so he gave me a 100 Krone note having just come down from Scandinavia. Off to the next petrol station where the attendant goes ballistic after filling us up and had to call his boss to figure out the exchange rates.

Near Zeltweg we passed the village of Knittelfeld which had a motel and some transporters parked then continued to the Zeltweg circuit not realising it is an Austrian airforce base and  a soldier with a submachine gun at the ready turned us away telling us to come back in the morning. So we went back to the motel car park and parked behind the Cooper truck on the very last drop of petrol.

The next morning we are woken up by loud banging and we told the Cooper chap we were out of petrol so he let me have two gallons and off we went to the circuit.  At scrutineering I took the Cooper to the BP pump I was assigned to and filled up. I then took the car back to the transporter and put the fuel into the transporter. I then went back again to the BP pump with the now empty Cooper and refuelled it. After a few times the man at the pump said: “Vat are you doing, Herr Ashmore ? I said “trying out different gear ratios”Ah, I see” he said and filled it up again.

The race was good – I finished 9th.

We had made friends with a local Porsche dealer who suggested we stay in his parking lot and use the toilets etc. We had taken food for the three of us but Jim Twixt had fallen out with his mechanic, Jason, who came to ask if we could take his wife back with us and he would walk back to England !  We said we’d look after both of them but now the food went very quickly and on the night before heading off to Innsbruck Yvonne said she was hungry. Down the road was a small café with a one armed bandit so I asked everyone to empty their pockets which gave us a total of 2 schillings, and off we went to the café where I knew he owner.

I ordered 5 beers, kissed the schilling, covered the screen of the bandit with my left hand and pulled the handle and won. I ordered 5 wiener schnitzels and did it again, won again ordered ice cream for all and a packet of cigarettes, paid the owner and walked out still having my money in my pocket.

We arrived at Innsbruck airport circuit and stayed in the car park and were allowed to use the hotel showers and toilets and space for the car in a hangar. Then we ran into David Piper who some time before had also had Jason as a mechanic and had also sacked him. David joined us for dinner at the restaurant and the next we know Jason got  up and punched David full in the face. They started fighting with me trying to stop them.

I never found out what that was all about.

As it turned out it was one of my best races as I finished third to Hans Herrmann in the Formula 2 Porsche 718 and Wolfgang von Trips in a Cooper T43 which guaranteed that not only did we have enough money to get back to England but we even had enough to eat decent meals along the way.

Motor racing in the late 1950s and early 1960s was very much an adventure and always fraught with financial problems but I doubt if it could have been more fun for the private entrant of modest means. As for the Commer, well, it we eventually managed to sell it.

Gerry Ashmore