Yes, I thought you'd say that, but it wasn't that stupid
During the first few months of working at the Speedwell Street Telephone Exchange in Oxford, I travelled daily to and fro from Sutton Courtenay on my Norton motorcycle. This was satisfactory until the weather turned in the Autumn but then I had a series of minor accidents. First, the bike slipped away from underneath me when travelling at about 5 mph through the centre of Croydon when attending a training course. The surface consisted of rubber blocks identical to the ones which had been used in the centre of Oxford, and it was in pouring rain. I wasn't hurt but being in quite heavy traffic, that was seriously embarrassing to say the least. Then when in Sutton Courtenay, without any warning, a boy on a bicycle rode out from a house directly into me as I was passing on the bike. Again it was a slow speed accident and neither of us were hurt and the Norton only a little damaged. The third incident was when the bike slipped on loose gravel at a right angle turn near Sutton. Thus I grew somewhat disenchanted with motorcycling and even more so when the frosts started.
In those days a motorcycle licence allowed one to drive a "three wheeled vehicle not equipped with the means of reversing", so this was the logical and easy way to acquire a more stable and enclosed method of transport. There were a variety of little three wheel cars available, but the opportunity to make the change came up out of the blue, when a chance meeting with an old school classmate occurred. He worked as a clerk in King's motorcycle shop in Park End street, and a colleague there had an AC Petite for private sale. This was ideal because he was in some way able to take the Norton in part exchange but on King's behalf. I knew nothing at all about these little cars but after a short demonstration test drive with the owner during which the virtues of the little bus were explained, there followed a cursory inspection of the engine compartment and the transaction was agreed.
I collected the car on a Saturday and its previous owner accompanied me as I undertook a trial drive. I was impressed by the vehicle's unexpected lively bottom gear acceleration, good braking and very tight turning circle. The column mounted gear change was a little tricky and the interior noise level high, but I expected that I would get used to both. Then I drove it home and the first thing I had to do was to fix a blanking plate to block off access to the reverse gear notch.
The AC Petite was manufactured by a famous maker of sports cars. As a profitable parallel business they also made invalid cars and The Petite was very much nearer related to those than to their sports cars! It was equipped with a rear mounted single cylinder 350cc twostroke fan cooled industrial Villiers engine. It had car-type 12v electrics including a starter motor. Hydraulic brakes were provided on the rear wheels only and independent rear suspension was by means of swinging arms. The bright blue body panels were of aluminium and the doors were sensibly wide. It was a two & a half seater with a single bench seat and the roof was equipped with a canvas covered "sun roof" aperture. Cruising speed (if one could bear the noise) was 50 mph and top speed only a little more. Thus it could keep up with the traffic of the times but was incapable of safe overtaking. Petroil consumption turned out to be about 55mpg, the same as my Norton had given. For me it was pretty much an ideal transitional vehicle to a proper car, and I could commute in the dry. But not in warmth as it had no heater, but heaters were considered a luxury anyway and were an optional extra in the cheaper conventional cars at that time.
The transmission was somewhat unusual as the engine drove the gear box (via a clutch of course) by three narrow V belts in parallel, the belt pulleys having three grooves and being about four inches in diameter. At the fully exposed mid-air mounted clutch the belt pulley was part of a much larger round cast plate on the periphery of which were the teeth of the starter ring. The squarish aluminium box adjacent to the clutch was the gearbox and its output shaft had a four inch diameter cog. An open chain connected the drive down to a car type differential, and the two were separated by a three eighth adustable length tensioner strut. The petrol tank was also to be found in the engine compartment.
By and large I found the vehicle very satisfactory for my purpose, but it did have its inherent defects. In reality the gear change was truly dreadful : the initial selection of first was OK but finding either of the other two was always a bit of a lottery. It was a question of stirring around with the column mounted gear lever and then seeing which gear one found oneself in, and if it was the wrong one, trying again. The sparking plug was prone to "whiskering" and I soon became adept at swiftly correcting this at the roadside. When I purchased a replacement plug it was of the four times as expensive platinum tipped variety, whereupon the problem was totally resolved. I removed the cylinder head to see if a decoke was necessary and discovered that the combustion chamber was conical, entirely different from the usual motorcycle hemispherical type. The car had no front "boot" for luggage, but quite a large suitcase could be stowed inside on the sturdy engine cover behind the bench seat.
Looking to the future I embarked on a course of driving lessons (in an Austin A35) and when I duly passed the driving test I was then able to use the reverse gear in the Petite legally, but in the meantime I had made sure that the blanking plate screws were loose and at various times when the narrow turning circle did not provide a solution , I did in fact use reverse. When people scoffed at my little car, I would invite the scoffer into the passenger seat whereupon I would reverse fast on full lock. The car pivoted on the inside wheel and the scoffer would be duly impressed. On one occasion the car carried two colleagues and myself to the top of Shotover hill without any problem. A head-out-of-the-window ride home one freezing foggy evening in November caused me to fit an electric demister for the windscreen and also a foglight. On an occasion of driving in rutted snow I found that if the single front wheel engaged in a deep rut it was impossible to steer out of it : forcing the steering wheel caused the back end of the car to slew at a right-angle across the road. Reversing was the only way to regain control.
The Summer came and with it the holiday season. Peter Roberts had extolled the delights of Woolacombe and one Saturday I set out for my tour of the West Country. All went well and I found that I could easily keep up with the holiday traffic. However disaster struck when attempting a short steep hill on arrival at Woolacombe. Suddenly there was a loud clattering and my upward progress ceased. I rolled back down the hill in neutral but the clattering continued. I soon discovered that the final chain drive tensioner had snapped and the chain was slipping on the cogs. But God was smiling upon me and he had an ideally suitable block of wood awaiting me on the grass verge. When jammed between the gearbox and the diff it provided the exact tension needed. I was then able to ascend the hill to an area of boarding houses where I chose one at random. After the evening meal I lashed my block of wood firmly into its position and considered my "repair" was done well enough to allow me to continue my tour.
The next day I drove to Land's End and on to Marazion where I found my next lodgings. It must have been the following morning when I attempted to start the car that there was a loud graunching noise. This time I found that all the webs in the round plate carrying the starter ring had fractured! At first I thought that this was a terminal problem but soon realised that if I removed the debris then all that was needed to resume my journey was a push start. I decided that I needed to get back home to allow time to obtain replacement parts before having to return to my employment. Fortunately the car had always been a good starter and a couple of passing youths who happened to make ignorant comments about the vehicle, laughingly provided the required push.
All went well until I reached the centre of Dartmoor. A young policeman who was munching a chocolate bar stopped me and explained that there was a prisoner on the loose. He insisted that I should turn off the engine while he inspected the interior, notwithstanding that I pointed out that there was nowhere inside in which to conceal a body, live or dead. So he was then rather obliged to give the necessary push for the restart. Somewhere in Somerset I needed to refuel and foolishly chose a busy garage. The solitary petrol pump attendent was not free to give the push, so I raised the engine lid to indicate that I had a problem and flagged down a passing motorcyclist who cheerfully obliged. After that I travelled non-stop to Sutton. The following morning I was not too surprised to discover two large chocolate coloured palm prints on the rear of the car.
Needing a quick repair I entrusted the job to the village garage. They were able to weld the chain tensioner and obtained the starter ring plate within a couple of days. This was of pressed steel, so presuably the fracture of the webs on the old thin casting was a known fault.
In the following Autumn(of 1960) I traded in the Petite for a second hand 800ccs Morris Minor at Layton's of Headington and I might well tell you the fun I had with that at a future date.
Petite owner Ian Danaford has contacted (July 2017) and said that he believes only about twenty Petites still exist. He has provided this link which shows his partially restored car having a short road test. Ta muchly Ian!
All text © 2007 D.C.Adams