Driving history is a TV delight

WAITING FOR BUYERS: the St John’s Motors showroom in Regent Road, Great Yarmouth, on its opening day

WAITING FOR BUYERS: the St John’s Motors showroom in Regent Road, Great Yarmouth, on its opening day in 1911. The Regent Bowl ten-pin alleys have occupied the site since 1963.Picture: COLIN TOOKE COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

RICHARD Meldrew, that acknowledged king of the curmudgeons, could not have put it better with his catch-phrase: “I don’t believe it!” For that perfectly summed up my reaction when I saw it on the television screen in front of me, although in my case it was an expression of delight and not peevish frustration.

FROM NORTH WALSHAM TO DOWNTON ABBEY: the 1927 Austin Windsor EX1938 photographed in the Norfolk town

FROM NORTH WALSHAM TO DOWNTON ABBEY: the 1927 Austin Windsor EX1938 photographed in the Norfolk town’s centre years ago, long before it was seen by millions of TV viewers in Downton Abbey this Christmas.Picture: FREDERICK MACE. - Credit: Archant

And I thought: “Who said that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place?”

This was on the evening of Christmas Day when Mrs Peggotty and I were enjoying the special episode of Downton Abbey unfolding before us on ITV, with its on-going upstairs and downstairs entanglements and the Earl of Grantham and his family decamping to another stately home for the grouse shooting season.

It was at the so-called “Brancaster Castle in Northumberland” that I saw it. There on screen, parked near some brick pillars and a side door at the stately pile, was an Austin car. Orange-frocked Lady Edith (I think) was saying farewell to a dapper young gentleman as he climbed into the driver’s seat and drove off out of shot.

That car bore those familiar index letters EX on its number plate, Great Yarmouth’s exclusive registration prefix from the introduction of the national vehicle licensing system in 1903 until the Seventies. So when it first left the dealership which sold it from new, that car had eased on to our streets here in Yarmouth! The full number is EX1938.

READY FOR ACTION...the Austin back in its garage in Lancashire. Picture: SUBMITTED

READY FOR ACTION...the Austin back in its garage in Lancashire. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

The car’s appearance was brief, the mechanised equivalent of a walk-on role or bit part, in marked contrast to another historic car with an EX index plate which enjoyed a significant appearance and brought about a major plot-line change in Downton Abbey two years earlier.

That autumn 1912 story featuring EX1945 prompted me to track down the Yarmouth provenance of the AC Six open tourer in which leading character Matthew Crawley was killed in a collision with a lorry as he joyfully sped to the hospital to see his new-born baby son and Downton heir.

Most Read

So, what about the Christmas 2014 Downton Abbey appearance of EX1938?

On-line search engine Google revealed that EX1938 had participated in a classic car rally arranged by the Rotary Club in Hebden Bridge in the Pennines, helping me to trace the vehicle’s owner, 62-year-old funeral director Dennis Wilcock, of Leigh, in Greater Manchester.

He possesses “quite a few” lovingly preserved and maintained old cars, including other Austins and some MGs, and he told me that the Downton Abbey vehicle is a vintage 1927 Austin 12/4 Windsor saloon he acquired about eight years ago. During his ownership the bodywork, which had become shabby, had been restored to its original colours – black from the waist up, with a dark blue midriff and black wings. The interior upholstery is blue.

His vehicles are not new to our screens. For example, EX1938 was in last year’s BBC drama series Our Zoo, its six episodes relating the true story of the Mottershead family founding Chester Zoo in the Thirties. Had I known that a former Yarmouth car would be on our screens, I would certainly have tuned in.

EX1938 was also seen in Danger: UXB, a television stories about bomb disposal Sappers.

Although the identity of the original owner is not known when he sat in the driver’s seat and gingerly moved off for the first time as it embarked on its long life, there is no question about where that happened because the plaque of the dealer who supplied it is still attached to one of its doors.

That plate reads: “St John’s (Yarmouth) Motors Ltd, motor and electrical engineers, 96-102 Regent Road, Great Yarmouth.”

The business was established there in 1907, later moving to premises on Southtown Road that were demolished in 1990.

“It had perhaps only three owners before me,” Mr Wilcock says. “I bought it from a Stuart Phillips, of Swansea, who sent me a letter from the brother-in-law of the late former owner, John Golden, of Northrepps, Cromer. Apparently he was a very well-known character.”

From my decade working in North Norfolk in the Sixties, I remember a John Golden often visiting our newspaper office in Cromer, a prominent and chatty Northrepps resident and businessman.

Unfortunately, I doubt if we will ever know who the Austin Windsor’s first owner was, but it was almost certainly a Norfolk business or professional man.

With the AC Six open tourer (EX1945) purportedly written off in the Christmas 2012 Downton Abbey drama, its current owner - Alec Jacobs, a collector resident in the West Country – had all the documentation, confirming that it was bought new.

Its original owner was Violet Beazor, spinster daughter of prosperous fish curer Robert Beazor and his wife, of Queen’s Road, Yarmouth.

Other performance cars – a Jowett Javelin, for example - and motor-cycles followed for the adventurous Violet, but later in life she resorted to a cycle to ride from her Caister Road home to her nearby allotment where she spent long hours.

There are television viewers who derive great satisfaction from spotting anachronisms in programmes, and Downton Abbey has been an occasional victim – a TV aerial on the chimney of a house, for instance, and double-yellow lines beside a road.

So I am surprised that I have not seen Dennis Wilcock’s Austin Windsor being picked on, for it is a 1927 car...and the Christmas 2014 Downton Abbey was set in 1924! But the outward changes in the 1927 model were only minor and appear to have escaped their scrutiny.

Both the Austin Windsor and Miss Beazor’s AC Six are comparative new kids on the block, for probably the oldest EX car still taking to the road occasionally is EX10, a Daimler owned from new in 1900 by an Edward Proctor and later by Yarmouth garage proprietor Frank Bately.

Decades later, under different ownership, it has become a regular entrant in the annual London to Brighton veteran car rally.