Cambridge Underground 1996 pp 69-72

The Battlewagon - An Obituary

Part I : by Mark McLean

It was a cold and foggy night. I pulled out the choke, turned the key and pumped the accelerator. With a soon to be familiar rattle and roar the engine came to life and began pumping out clouds of smoke. Very seriously Neil told me that the handling became unstable at about sixty miles an hour, and handed me the Haines manual. Some money changed hands and, with several lurching jerks and a few stalls I backed out of the drive and chugged round the corner to my father's home. Princess, V reg, £380 with a year's MOT and 75,000 miles on the clock.

Next evening I drove back to Cambridge, sixty miles an hour felt quite fast enough as I got used to the car's curious handling. It had a sort of detached feeling about it, like the car was feeling kinda mellow and didn't want to do anything rash. The steering response was similar to an electric cooker, where you turn a ring off and the saucepan goes on boiling for another thirty seconds.

Its first outing was, rather ominously, to a fellow student's funeral. However, despite a few dodgy tight bends, everyone who was alive at the start of the day made it to the end. We trundled home pondering how they'd managed to get a 6'4" comp-sci into a 5' wooden box.

A weekend meet to Mendip proved its gear capacity as we got five people and gear into the car and strapped 100' of ladder and 200m. of rope to the roof. I was also getting used to the handling and got it up to over eighty miles an hour down a hill. The poor beast was suffering by the time we got home, so I spent the following week dismantling the camshaft and sorting out the timing. This was in the good old days when I lived in 33B Churchill and kept my car outside the room in the road. I then hopped in and out of the window with tools and greasy bits of car. I fixed an oil leak and reset the timing which made a massive improvement to its performance. We took it out for a zoom down the M11 and managed ninety before I got scared.

By this time I'd put several other people on the insurance and when I stayed in Cambridge for the Caving Club Annual Dinner, Churchill College Mountaineering Club borrowed it to go to Southern Sandstone. They came back enthused with the size of the beast and the volume of the boot. "Your car's a tank Mark, we brought half the crag home in the boot!" And so it got its name - The Battlewagon. I stuck on the black and red stripe across the bonnet soon after getting the car, but it wasn't until exam time in June that we became bored enough to write its name across the boot and draw various logos on the doors.

Meanwhile the poor wagon was flogged up and down Britain. Every weekend it would make a 500 mile trip to Yorkshire or the Lake District, and I took it to Skye at Easter. Although it never let me down, it frequently developed problems during the weekend that took me most of the following week to fix. The brake pads wore out in Bradford so I had to drive back using just the handbrake. Luckily A1 roundabouts are clearly signposted. The handling nearly caught me out as I tried to overtake on a narrow Snowdonian road. I swung out too abruptly and had to correct and counter-correct repeatedly as the Wagon rattled too and fro between a shiny BMW and a dry stone wall.

That summer Alistair and I took it first to the Alps and then to Austria. We took out the back seats and jammed them behind the front seat headrests, and filled the resulting void with gear. The boot was stuffed and on the roof went fourteen 3m aerial poles. In case of disaster we packed a spare carburettor, alternator, water pump, petrol pump and bump stops. The suspension settled so low that the exhaust pipe was 2" off the ground. As we were leaving Churchill a bystander asked "Going far mate?". The reply "Only to Austria" seemed to amuse him. We survived the French and made it to Dauphiné with only a few minor incidents such as trying to do a three point turn on a dual carriageway, or when, whilst asleep in the passenger seat, I dreamed that we were about to crash and woke up pulling on the handbrake. Fortunately all the gear piled in the back had settled onto the handbrake cable and stopped it working too well. Surviving the Italians was harder, particularly when we found ourselves on the wrong side of a ten lane motorway as it approached a toll barrier, and had to drive straight across it, weaving between lorries.

When we got to Austria, repairs were in order. We rang up some other cavers who hadn't left the UK yet and got them to bring out a set of brake shoes with them. Because of the way we had piled the gear in, the handbrake had been more or less on all the way from Cambridge to the Dauphiné. The new shoes, however, seemed too big, and it took several hours of belting the brakedrum with a hammer before they could be fitted. Then the wheels wouldn't go round until Alistair got into the boot to get some more weight over them. We drove around for a bit with smoke pouring from the bearings.

On the way home we were very glad we'd fixed the handbrake when the foot brake boiled while descending a long pass. I blamed Julian's driving.

Remarkably it was not until nearly a year after I'd acquired the wagon that it was stopped by the plod. The first such incident was in Keswick at 2am after driving up from Cambridge. Admittedly I was doing fifty in a thirty zone and I did have one illegal tyre, but they were nice friendly policemen and merely told me to buy a new tyre "today". Naturally I only buy tyres from cheap and nasty part worn tyre places of which there is none in the Lakes, so I left the car at the campsite over the weekend and drove back via Honister Pass to avoid being stopped again by the same policeman.

A luckier escape still came when driving from home back to Cambridge. As I passed a roundabout I noticed a police car parked by the road pull out a few cars behind me. Not wishing to remain in close proximity to said vehicle, and it being a nice zoomy bit of A1, I put my foot down. The Wagon went chuggety-roar an we were soon doing a comfortable 90mph, skipping gaily sideways on the corners and overtaking everything in sight. It was by now getting dark, so it took me some time to recognise the large white car behind me for what it was. Naturally I then slowed down and behaved myself, but at the first layby the blue flashing lights came on and we had to stop for a chat. However, the nice policeman seemed totally oblivious to the speed I'd been doing and merely wanted to know where my tax disc was. As it was simply lying on the dashboard where it had fallen off the windscreen, this was not a big problem.

Getting the car through its MOT was a bit of a joke. We took it to about three places in the end, each of which produced a list of about ten failure points, almost all of them different from those chosen by the other establishments. We naturally picked the one with the easiest list to fix, and managed to do nothing about an obviously worn steering rack whilst replacing a perfectly good pair of wheel bearings. That said, it did take a lot of hard work, on the part of several friends as well as myself, and the getting the MOT certificate gave me a lot more satisfaction than getting my degree did.

Having got a shiny new MoT certificate, I decided it was time to do something about the beast's increasing inefficiency. I took off the cylinder head, cleaned all the muck out of the works, replaced the valve springs and valve seals, reground the valve seats and set all the valve clearances. After a weekend of "running in", I determined the next weekend to find out how fast it would go. Unfortunately, for reasons over which I shall draw the veil of charity, I had put a certain Wol on the insurance for the weekend, and she thought she would test her new driving licence and see how fast she could go. The car was full, not at all stable, and Wol was unused to its ways. As the speedo reached 95mph we came to a gentle bend and the car began to oscillate. The more she tried to correct the worse the oscillation got (Survival Tip : If this happens to you, point the front wheels straight ahead and hold the steering wheel as rigidly as possible. Do Not Brake). I tried to help from the passenger seat but it was too late. Pretty soon we were zig-zagging between having one wheel on the verge to nearly hitting the central reservation crash barrier. And then we spun. When we stopped spinning there were clouds of smoke everywhere. For a moment, I thought we'd stopped completely, but we were still moving, very fast and backwards. Looking behind me I managed to steer a zig-zag course that largely stayed on the road, until we bounced onto the verge, narrowly avoided a ditch and landed up in a layby. We were of course still pointing the wrong way, but the car and its occupants were unharmed.

Not long after this the Wagon went off the Alps without me, while I reluctantly settled down to a spot of (poorly) paid work. It only just survived the journey, making the final leg from Dover to Churchill on the back of a National Breakdown truck. This was, for once, no fault of the Wagon's - most cars stop working if you drive them over large enough rocks.

By the end of the summer holidays it became clear to me that the Wagon was costing too much to run and, as I had to work on Saturdays, I wasn't getting enough use out of it. Not only that, but the front wheel bearings had had it, and the tax disc was about to break. So I palmed it off on Pete. I even managed to get a pint of beer out of him in exchange.

Part II : by Pete Lord

When I came up to Cambridge, I really was a "fresher so neat". I had just completed a year's work placement with an electronics company, bought my first suit and was going to work hard and get a good degree. About 37 seconds into my first lecture I gave up - it was clearly going to be too hard - and so spent my first term drinking instead. About 1 second into my first Cambridge pint I realised that I was going to have to do this somewhere else. And so I joined the Churchill College mountaineers.

My initiation was a weekend in the Lakes with MarkM, Juliette, Mary and Ali. Now this was something different - women who squatted by the roadside, bald and bearded senior undergraduates, trudging miles to find a pub that would let us in - and then there was the car. It was a fairly average - looking old Princess (in its pre-gear taping days - younger readers may like to consult the old lags at this point), but once inside, it was clear that this was no ordinary vehicle. I don't think the handling was helped by the fact that I'd brought spare clothes, a towel, washing kit and toothbrush - disaster would have been inevitable if I hadn't left my teddy bear in Cambridge.

The first time I drove the wagon was in the Peak, after we'd been festering in the Lover's Leap greasy spoon caff. Alan and I were both new recruits to the insurance document, and I had first go by dint of shouting more loudly. Now, I've always enjoyed driving, riding motorcycles and pushbikes, and reckon to have done a fair bit of all of them, so it was with confidence that I settled into the driver's seat, dismissing the feeling that my backside was lower than the surrounding road as the car settled onto its ageing suspension. Mark's half remembered instructions faded entirely as I did what came naturally. Start the engine, foot on the floor, drop the clutch, off we go. Not very much later, I eased off, and I crawled into Chesterfield, somewhat surprised by the bizarre handling. It felt something like driving a half set jelly on castors, only less stable. Except here the jelly weighed one and a half tons. No wonder everyone else on the road left it when they saw us coming.

I've lived through a number of wagon disasters and epics since then, Markie having detailed the most memorable. I even had a close brush with ownership after the protracted MoT fettling session last year, but was fortunately prevented due to lack of money. I was not always to be so lucky...

It was a cold, foggy October night in York as I stood at the railway station waiting for Mark to come and pick me up. After I'd recovered from lugging my 150lb luggage (honest - I weighed it) to the roadside I sat and stared into the darkness. From amongst the murmur of the passing traffic I caught a familiar rattle and roar - and soon, Mark and the wagon bounced to a halt beside me, the wagon greeting me with roars amplified by a completely unattached exhaust pipe, reminder of its trip to the Alps. Mark and I have been mates for a long time and, as we wobbled onto the A1 for what felt like the thousandth time, he popped the question, "Do you want the wagon, Pete?" And so began a beautiful friendship. Princess, V reg, for a pint of beer with 8 month's MoT and 102,000 miles on the clock.

I'd spent many hours fettling with Mark (and listening with Mother), so I was aware of the fundamentals of wagon maintenance. However, driving it was a harder experience for me than it ever had been for Mark; I seemed to spend most of my time being apprehended by the long arm of the law. Whether, as Mark claimed, it was due to my appearance (obviously a threat to all right-thinking citizens), or just to the increasing crapness of the car I don't know, but I've been stopped many times up and down the country, always being let off after an inspection of tyres, tax disc, MoT certificate and gear tape.

The past few months have brought their share of disasters, too. The usual spate of reversing errors culminated in a good smash in a supermarket carpark in Fife that put a hole in the boot and reduced its gear capacity by half a toolbox. Not content with this, I decided that it was time for a proper crash. One cold and foggy Friday night, I was driving from Chesterfield to Birchover, musing on the ales to be supped at the Red Lion into the small hours. We were on a somewhat windy road, and the 1 in 5 hill announced by the sign struck me as a good opportunity to go nice and fast. Soon, however, I realised that the hill was not only 1 in 5, but had some right angle bends and narrowed to what coincidentally turned out to be exactly one wagon length, as I was about to prove. I took advantage of the wagon's predictable handling characteristics to lock all four wheels and spin the steering wheel to slide away from the dry stone wall guarding a vertiginous drop, meanwhile taking the racing line and doing all my useless brake pedal pumping and apex cornering technique to bring us back onto line. Fortunately, the first part of this technique worked; unfortunately, the second didn't. The manoeuvre left us spinning around in a road that was clearly too small, and also going in a different direction. After a bit more useless pedal stamping, steering into the skid and so on, I gave up and we mortgaged and childrened (sorry, careered) into a conveniently placed earth bank. So I started the car again and zoomed off down the road to get away from any irate land owners before inspecting the damage. Hmm - one ten foot tree stuck out of the bumper, no indicator/side light, head lights pointing at the ground, bonnet filled with mud. It was a caving weekend, so I fixed the head light adjustor by jamming a bit of the unfortunate tree into it, threw the rest over a nearby wall, excavated the bonnet and off we went. Another wagon disaster survived - although my passengers were squeaking on corners for a while afterwards. MTS gets points for agreeing that it was a "jolly good crash" almost immediately after the event!

As the wagon approaches its end in the Rampton scrappies (or the Head Porter's front garden if I can find out where he lives), there are numerous faults that are getting steadily worse. Right hand bend clonk - clonk - clonk; starter motor grind; exhaust roar; top end rattle - the list is endless. But one particular fault mystified me for some time. Recently, the wagon has been coughing and spluttering and dying uphill and on epic overtaking manoeuvres. This required attention after one particularly epic journey back to Cambridge, in the coarse of which a wheel fell off on the M1 and we were almost driven off the road by a somnambulistic Czech - but that's another story. The eventual solution was to put more oil in the engine, as the oil pressure switch has a safety cut out to the fuel pump. So I disconnected the sender; result - one perfectly good car, capable of well over ninety on the flat when loaded to the roof.

But all good things come to an end, and the wagon has at last suffered terminal MoT failure - unless there are any further willing cavers to keep the great tradition alive.

P.S. : In a drunken fit one evening, four months after the wagon had last been used, we went for a drive around Churchill college grounds. The car started first time!

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