In which I explore just how bad a decision this P5 was

On the weekend that has most recently passed, my mission was to find out exactly how bad or good Penny the P5 is. The good news is that everything is very good and really solid, despite the scruffy appearance. South Africa was very kind to Penny. There's only one little bit that looks a bit sketchy on one of the front inner wings and where it joins to the sill.

Also, there's almost nothing missing. Those bits that are missing might be a pain to find, but none of them would stop me getting it running. (I was immediately 250 quid poorer from buying three of those bits on Saturday. It's only money...)

What is not missing is this. Behold, 3 litres, 6 cylinders and 115 horsepower of IOE Rover FURY:

If you look at the far bottom right you can see a glass washer bottle! I was last-Saturday-years-old when I learned that was a thing.

I do wonder how necessary that gigantic airbox is. I also wonder if it could be replaced with a tiny K&N or Mishimoto cone filter. Or maybe a Range Rover airbox, since that's what I know to be sensibly-sized and what I know to have very little intake noise. Or maybe it can wait till I pull off my next terrible idea!

So, back to what I should be doing, which is to get the engine started. I said there's nothing that would stop me getting it running. But it's clear that all the wiring is not in a great state.

The wires exist and have not set on fire yet. It will almost certainly work to whatever extent it can, until it sets on fire. I can certainly foresee a situation in which I am going to replace some substantial part of the wiring just to get the engine started...and if I'm going to do that, then I might as well go all the way...

...which is to say I have decided to rewire the entire car, and do so for negative earth & an alternator, before I even attempt to get the engine running. This might be a bit of a brave move given that my knowledge of electrical circuits is limited to basic knowledge of how DC circuits work. Oh well, as a wise man said one time, the best way of getting started with something you don't know how to do is by starting to do it. Fortunately, you can buy entire wiring harnesses off the shelf from Autosparks, which should be about £512.40 if you add in the optional wiring for an alternator, electric fan, and radio feed (I don't intend to fit a radio to it, but I don't want to rule it out). Yep, it's only money...

As I knew before I bought it, the interior is totally shot:

It's not just the cover that is torn; whatever previously resembled foam on the seats has turned into something that is not at all like foam. It has the texture of compressed sand, in that it crumbles into dust when you squeeze it in your fingers. Also, almost every piece of woodwork has delaminated, and those bits of wood that are covered in other materials have had their coverings disintegrate. I think I might be able to learn enough woodwork by myself to fix some of those bits. The upholstery almost certainly needs to be done by someone else.

So, this isn't going to be an easy recommisioning - not that I thought it would be, even before I introduced this new complication. And definitely not cheap, though I knew that would not be the case either. I can afford it, but I will say that I will definitely be eating a lot of instant noodles over the next few months...

...and these are the God-tier mother of all instant noodles. Something, almost certainly, for a future review on the very website you are reading now.


Introducing Project Penny

I've been thinking about a backup car for Amy, my Mazda 323 GTX, for quite a while now. Not because I don't like her. She rules. She also doesn't work all the time. I've been wanting to take her off the road and get her indoors for a while now. I'd like to modernise & rationalise the turbo setup and the engine management. I'd also like to get her bodywork sorted once and for all, rather than the remedial work that I am doing now.

And also...a tiny, ridiculously rare turbocharged hatchback with poverty-spec features (wind-down windows, no air conditioning, no safety features at all) isn't exactly what I need in a daily. I'd actually like to make it to destinations, and get there in comfort, without spending three million pounds on fuel.

So. I needed something cheap, economical, sensible, modern, reliable, easy to find parts for, and with at least a few modern creature comforts as well. And that is why I bought

a three-litre Rover P5 from 1964, which might work, because Lewis Logic fucking rules. Say hello to Penny the P5!

(The car purchase is real, but the narrative may or may not be. All I'll say, is that when I first started writing this the narrative hook was along the lines of "I realised I could not officially be an old man unless I was driving a Rover". It's up to you to decide whether I was completely making shit up.)

This car spent most of its life in South Africa. The chap that owned her brought it over here about four years ago, then got ill, and died. Penny made her way to a dealer, who then advertised it on Car and Classic. Car and Classic's Chris Pollitt did a "Project Profile" feature piece, which was a great article that you should definitely read for more background on the P5 in general and the 3 Litre in particular.

I saw the article, and I immediately knew I had to have that car. I've had a bit of a soft spot for the P5 since I saw one at the end of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but I do not think I have ever been emotionally affected by one. I don't think any car ever has affected me as much emotionally as this one did via mere pictures on the Internet.

I sat on those "I need this car" thoughts for an entire work day. When I clocked off, I called the chap and provisionally reserved it. Exactly one week later, it was delivered to my driveway. And she is every bit as beautiful as she was in the photos.

So what's the plan?

My immediate plan, as in tomorrow lunchtime and this weekend, is to make everything watertight. Brand new door seals are included with the car, but not fitted. I'd also like to make the boot latch work (it does not work), and the bonnet to close (even better if I can open it again).

Next up, of course, I want to make it solid underneath. Because the car spent most of its life in South Africa, I am hoping that I will not have too much to do. South African weather is much kinder to cars than our own climate is. But the car is 57 years old, so no doubt I will be able to poke some holes in it.

In the meantime, I will have to go through some paperwork and some small amount of arse to get it registered in the UK. The guy who imported it never did. I am hoping this will not be too difficult. While this happens, I will not make any modifications to it - and by that, I mean not even replacing any parts with functionally identical modern ones. My reading of the rules for getting an age-related plate when "naturalising" a car is that every component must be original. My reading might be unreasonably strict, but I'm erring on the safe side because I do not want to end up with a Q plate.

After that, will be the slow process of recommissioning; replacing every consumable part, checking every safety-critical part, getting the engine working (it may or may not work, though it does turn over by hand), source the very few bits that didn't come with the car, and eventually getting it to a state in which I can MOT it. (I'm quite aware that at its age I don't have to MOT it, but with the amount of money this will cost me it would seem foolish to not spend an extra few dozen quid for an extra set of eyes to ensure that I have not done something stupid). My hilariously-over-optimistic timeline for this is to have this done before the end of Summer.

After that, let's talk about what I will not do. I want to do nothing that will change the car's character. It was designed to be a big, boaty cruiser for important people, and it will continue to be a big, boaty cruiser for some idiot from Norfolk. It is a silent straight 6, so it will stay a silent straight 6. (And if I was going to do a 3.5 litre V8 swap I've got one kicking around which is much more interesting to me than a Rover one.)

I also don't want to change the car's history. There are dents and scars on the body, and those are part of the car's past. I don't think I should attempt to do much with them. I probably will stabilise those scars where they are showing surface rust, so they don't turn into something worse. And even though the metallic paint is almost certainly not its original colour, that too is part of the car's history and not something I want to change. Plus, I love that colour.

What I will do are some tiny modernising touches. I'll definitely convert it to use an alternator & to have negative earth electrics, and replace any invisible electronic components with modern solid-state ones. It will definitely get seatbelts at some point, because I do not want the tiniest low-speed shunt to cause a brief, very exciting trip through the windscreen. I might do something about the distributor having points, and about the fact that viscous fans are wank...and probably a lot else, but you get the idea. Tiny modernising touches, as I said, that will make her a more viable daily.

That's all for now. Onwards!

Strange things happen when you put your stuff on Wikimedia Commons

You just saw a photograph of a freight train. It is not very interesting to almost anyone. But maybe a story about it would be!

A few years ago I was at Downham Market station. I don't recall why I was there. It might have been because I was broke at the time and had nothing better to do; most likely I had enough money to pay for a train ticket and doing nothing in particular in Downham was more fun than doing nothing in particular where I was. And I had an Olympus Trip 35 film camera loaded with Ilford XP2 black-and-white film in a pocket. A freight train passed through the station. I thought it was interesting and the light felt nice, and so I took a bad photo of a freight train heading through Downham Market, and later uploaded it to a site called the Wikimedia Commons.

I suspect the kind of person who reads my blog would be the kind of person to know what the Wikimedia Commons is, but I shall explain for those in the cheap seats: it is a website wherein anyone can upload their own stuff on the condition that it can be used by anyone, for absolutely any purpose, with or without modification. This means that your stuff gets used in really fun and unexpected ways. I know photos of mine that are not this freight train have showed up in books from serious academic publishers, scientific papers, and PowerPoint presentations.

The fact that photos of mine were used in PowerPoint presentations might make me worry whether my putting photos out there for anyone to use might have a net-negative impact on the world. But because of the "everyone can use this without needing to ask first" nature of the Commons, and bloggers needing photos they can use for decoration, various blogging services have invented ways for authors to find photos from the Commons to use in their posts. Which means my photos have been used in about a trillion blog posts! And probably a trillion more blog posts which I will never see.

Back to that photo of a freight train. This was one of hundreds I chucked onto the Commons over the years. I thought someone else might find it interesting, some time in the future. Or it could just sit there and do nothing but take up 1.81 megabytes of disk space! Which it did, for years. Then, someone wrote a short murder-mystery set at Downham Market station.

An Australian author called Liam Saville thought that photo was the right photo as the intro pic for his work. You must go and read the story. I loved it, and as a local I appreciate that he did a bunch of very small details very correctly. All of that while hanging upside-down! (This is how Australia works. I don't know how they do it.)

But (Arlo Guthrie voice) that's not what I came to talk about today. Some time later, I had cause to visit Downham Market again, and in particular, to use the bogs at Downham Market station. And while I was in there, I noticed the walls being covered in giant prints of various trains, and in particular noticed that one of the cubicles was covered in a black-and-white photo of a Class 66 locomotive passing through Downham Market...

...and it took me more than a moment to realise I was looking at my own photo covering an entire wall of a bog at the same station I photographed it 10 years before. I think that takes the "unexpected use of my photos" crown.

There's not a moral to the story here, because life is messy and stories with a moral are rarely true stories. Instead, I'll just say that free culture is beautiful, both for the people who choose to contribute their work and for all the people that use it. The folks doing a makeover of a station found the right picture to use to cover an entire wall of a bog. An Australian author found the right picture for his short story for free, without needing to ask me first.

In a different world, wherein I was protective about whatever privileges copyright law gives me, this would have been a boring snapshot of a train that nobody would have seen, rather than a boring photo of a train that probably thousands have, which now has has its own life outside of my control. And that, makes me happy. :)

Self-archaeology and the Internet Movie Car Database

This was my mum's Mercedes 220. It was glorious.

She bought LRO 468L for £500 in either 1989 or 1990, because back then it was merely an old car (though cars aged much quicker 30 years ago). It was beautiful, silent, luxurious, and very wafty. I loved it, and everyone else did. She sold it a few months later for slightly more than she paid for it, because it needed welding work on the floorpan. A very young Me did not talk to her for a day after that.

It was last MOT'ed in 1990, so we can probably conclude it does not exist anymore (or, to avoid offending those of you who believe in the laws of thermodynamics, exists in an entirely different form). A W114 or W115 is still on my bucket list of cars to own. It might even be the next project I build, if my next project starts before the prices of these go through the roof.

Fast-forward just a few years. Recently, someone pointed out that if you search for a registration plate on Google Images, there's a good chance that it will find a photo of that car, because Google indexes any text it finds within an image, and may notice the text on the numberplate. Like ANPR, but for everything.

It worked on my car. Among others, it found a photo taken at the late Rockingham Motor Speedway, which my brother (the previous owner) took in 2007 back when "camera phone" still meant "thing with a dialpad", and posted on a forum in 2008.

It worked when I entered the registration of this Mercedes, too. I know the registration off by heart, because my memory is weird. I remember a Windows 95 product key that I last used in anger in 1997, and the registration of my mum's car from 31 years ago, and sometimes draw a blank when I have to enter my PIN into a cash machine.

The first result was the picture you saw at the top of this article. I uploaded that photo to Wikimedia Commons over 15 years ago, and things often spread to weird and unexpected places when you do that. (I'll tell you the story about the wall art in the bogs at Downham Market station some other time...)

The second and third images were the offspring of obsessive categorisation at scale. I would hope any petrolhead would know about the Internet Movie Car Database, wherein a (presumably vast) number of very dedicated people are aiming to identify every car in every film & television program. If your car appeared in the background of, e.g., an episode of The Bill in December 1984, then there's a good chance someone has captured and categorised it.

Well how about that!

But wait: It's brown! Or at least looks brown. Did it get a respray before my mum owned it? Or did a worn 80s VHS tape not reproduce the glorious red that it was? I won't ever know the answer to that, and I am okay with that.

The cars we knew in our youth are, or will be, almost all lost to time and entropy; only a very few are lucky enough to be recommissioned or restored. But this Mercedes was lucky to have its few seconds of fame on the small screen, and was immortalised, to some very tiny extent and entirely accidentally, by some extraordinarily committed people on the Internet. That's more than most cars will get, and that, is good enough for me.

One more job from the giant pile of necessary jobs

Mazda Amy has a new windscreen. This could have happened several months earlier. More about that in a moment.

My windscreen was not broken. It was, however, severely fogged in the corners, where water had made its way into the laminates and had started to separate them.

This is not an MOT failure right now, though it may have become one in the future as the fogging spreaded. It may have weakened the glass in the corners, though for many other reasons I'd be so completely doomed in an accident with the modern artillery tractors 4x4s half the country drives these days that I don't think it'd make any practical difference in an accident. I was not convinced that it was watertight. It definitely looked terrible, and was for some time on my list of things to fix.

The used market for vehicle glass is tricky. Whenever I've stripped a car for parts, the glass has always been nearly impossible to sell (and for windscreens, that can only happen if one manages to get the glass out intact, which only ever happens on non-bonded windscreens from very old vehicles). There's usually only a small time window available; you generally try to get rid of the glass at the very end, right before you send the shell off for scrap. That means when you're looking for glass you'll almost certainly not find it.

Not that I really wanted a used windscreen, but going used is often the only option for very old and/or rare cars. I certainly did not think that one of the mainstream glassmongers would be able to obtain one, so I did not try. It was as a last resort that I thought to try Autoglass, whose site claimed they were able to do a replacement. It seemed implausible to me at the time, but I rolled with it.

I originally booked this replacement in October. I heard nothing back for a couple of months. When I poked them last month the very nice lady on the phone explained that it entered their system, and then nothing happened, for unclear reasons.

Not to worry. Autoglass Lady quickly made things right, and Autoglass went about sourcing a new windscreen. When they got back to me, the same Autoglass Lady (or at least sounded the same) used the definite article ("the windscreen") in quite a precise fashion; a fashion that implied the windscreen they had sourced was the only one they could find in the country. So if you've come here from a search engine because you're trying to source a windscreen for your BF 323 in the UK: I probably took the last one. I'm sorry.

The windscreen has a blue tinted sunstrip, which the original did not. My car is blue, and will be staying blue even after I get it into a bodyshop, so I am okay with that. Even if I wasn't okay with that, I'd have to deal with it, because it is the windscreen and I will take whatever I can get.

I can't even remember whether I have windscreen cover on my insurance, and I do not care to look right now. But even if this was eligible for an insurance replacement, which is unclear, claiming for it would have felt fraudulent as I knew about this problem long before I insured the car. So, I paid for this out of my pocket. The cost was a mildly eye-watering £431. That included fitting, of course, as this is definitely not a job I would consider doing myself, but still...

I won't fault Autoglass for this, because this is an exceptionally rare car (even in non-turbo, non-4x4 form) and I would expect the price of the windscreen to be priced accordingly. I'm actually very happy with them, because once the disappearing-booking mistake was rectified their service was outstanding, and because they managed to source the windscreen, which is something I never expected.

So that's one more pile of cash in the furnace, and one more job out the way. This also means I can tidy up the trims that normally cover the very visible gap you can see and get those fitted, too.