The Shit Car Gumball Rally

By Simon Pennycross

In 2011, painter/decorator Colin Blagthorpe had an idea that came to him while he was replacing the radiator on his 1983 Lada Riva for what seemed like the hundredth time. What had long been a cause of frustration and annoyance to him, the constant repairs required to keep his “old bird” on the road, might actually be a cause for celebration for every man out there who dedicated their evenings and weekends to keeping their vehicles road-worthy by picking up spare parts from scrapyards and consulting the pages of their well-worn Haynes manuals. For the best part of 18 months Pete reached out to fellow repair-enthusiasts through the pages of magazines like Auto Trader and his once-vague plan, “to do something for people like me” quickly attracted not only interested followers but a community of like-minded people who all wanted something done for people like themselves.

Colin had never heard of the Gumball Rally until he met Dan Cropston, an FSO owner/enthusiast who was the first person to respond to the advert he placed in the classifieds section of the great northern newspaper, The Lancashire Advertiser. They met for a pint or six just before Christmas 2011 and by the end of that boozy evening they formed the SCGR movement (although it was known as OCGR back then). “Dan knew his stuff when it came to FSOs, in fact I’ve never met anyone who knew as much about Polish cars. What he doesn’t know about the Polonez isn’t worth knowing.” Dan is equally complimentary about Colin, who he describes  as “the only man who can not only find but use a piece of scrap from a merchant and give your motor another 10,000 miles, with his eyes closed and one hand tied behind his back.” High praise indeed.

Dan introduced Colin to the Gumball Rally via his extensive and carefully organised collection of VHS recordings (dating back to 1982)  which he keeps in his shed to this very day. Colin was immediately converted and the two of them set about plans for staging their very own Rally right here in Britain. An inaugural meeting at the famous old “Slung all-old-men-in-the-pub-kilkeeHook” Pub in Runcorn brought fellow “old” car enthusiasts from all over the north of England into the fold and the turnout, no less than 18 people, was not only enough to get the ball rolling, it started a movement that was to change the lives of everyone involved forever. Colin still finds his eyes become dewy when he reminisces about that first meeting and the enthusiasm of the people, their stories and their experiences. “I must admit I shed a tear or two when Tony from Stocksbridge told us about his Hillman Imp, a car that had been passed down from his grandfather, to his father, to him and, just that very day, to his son. There was almost no part of that car that hadn’t been replaced at some point and it would still run 30-50 miles before overheating. That’s some achievement, one Tony is rightfully proud of.”

The group agreed that they needed to show people who did not repair their own cars what could be achieved with a little time, love and effort. “Everyone just throws stuff away these days, nobody repairs anything. £5000 home computer machine not working? Bin it. That’s what they do now. Not us though, we’re made of sterner stuff and we’ll keep our cars on the road until they die of death and not a moment sooner…” said Billy, the youngest member of the group at 38. Dan and Colin both knew that they didn’t just need to tell people what they did, but show them. After several weeks of brainstorming, with the group regularly sending each other letters full of ideas Colin decided there was no need to be fancy; the best ideas are the simple ideas and so at 3am one day in April 2012 he walked down to his nearest phonebox and called Dan. “I’ve got it” he said “The Old Car Gumball Rally! We’ll drive our motors from John O’Groats to Land’s End!”

“People thought it were right funny that I called him at that time in the morning” Colin told me, “but frankly that’s a trailer-load of old fuck in my opinion. When you have a good idea you don’t hang around to wait for someone else to think it up, you do something about it.” For the next ten months the gang of 18 worked tirelessly on their cars as well as planning the route they’d take in order to gain as much exposure as they could for their inaugural rally. Rather than simply stick to the motorways Dan felt the convoy should cruise through towns too, where people would see them and point. Arthur Davis, a retired mechanic known well to scrapyard owners up and down the land, contacted the group and offered to give the cars a once-over before they set off while Neville Frankson, the landlord of the “Slung Hook” contacted his brewery to see what he could rustle up by way of sponsorship. After some considerable negotiation on Neville’s part a cheque for £125 was gratefully received by the gang and that was not the only large donation that came their way.

By Christmas the route was planned and the three-day long Old Car Gumball Rally was ready to go. “We had t-shirts done and everything, hats too. We sent letters to all the newspapers we could and told them what was happening. I’d come home from work and the Mrs would tell me the new phone had been ringing off the hook; sometimes I had as many as five messages a week. People would stop me in the street and ask me how I was and I’d tell them all about it. I knew we were making history, I just didn’t know how.”

With a week to go Arthur made good on his promise and the 18 vehicles were carefully inspected. A local journalist had come along out of curiosity after being asked to follow-up on Colin’s many letters. Everything had been going so well it was inevitable there would be a hiccup or two along the way but it was unfortunate there was a member of the press on the scene when it happened. Arthur called everyone together and gave them the news, Colin recalls. “I’m sorry you lot, but most of these wrecks won’t last 3 minutes on the open road, let alone 3 days unless you’re going downhill all the way. I’ve seen some shit in my time but this lot takes the biscuit. I wouldn’t drive one of these to the local shops.” It was a body-blow for all, but rather than be discouraged the gang were motivated to prove Arthur wrong. The Local Newspaper didn’t see it that way, however, and after a particularly unkind article the “Old Car Gumball Rally” was quickly mocked and became known as the “Shit Car Gumball Rally”. Luckily, everyone saw the funny side of it. “It just stuck in the end, we all had a bit of a laugh about it” Dan remembers.

In order to give the gang the best chance of completing the race, the planned route was shortened slightly on Arthur’s advice and so the first ever Shit Car Gumball Rally eventually took place on a crisp February morning, beginning in Blackpool and ending in Hull, a cross-country jaunt the like of which Britain had never seen. Now, on the eve of the third Shit Car Gumball Rally, I’ll let Colin and Dan take up the story. This interview was conducted just a week ago with Dan, Colin, Bryan Hamper and Tony Harpherp in attendance.

Me: “So, we’re just a couple of weeks away from your third Shit Car Gumball Rally. Looking back, how different does this one seem compared to the first?”

Colin: “Well we’re a lot more professional now, for starters, but I’m not nervous about this one. We’ve taken big strides in the last couple of years.”

Dan: “That first one were a nightmare, a good nightmare like, but still. We were taking this massive step out into a much bigger world and there were responsibilities on us. If we’d got it wrong then self-taught mechanics like us would’ve been laughing stocks and it would’ve put people off doing their own repairs for life. I remember thinking that back then, what it would do if we didn’t finish the race.”

Colin: “Dan’s right, mind. We had the weight of every do-it-yourself car mechanic on us shoulders and that’s a hell of a responsibility.”

Bryan: “I was really looking forward to driving. I’d bought two tins of fruit crumbles f’journey and I had excuse to wear me driving gloves.”

Me: “Of course, yes. Did you know what you were trying to achieve the first time around, what statement you were trying to make?”

Dan: “Well it were all about raising awareness, really.”

Me: “Awareness of what exactly though?”

Colin: “What we were doing, you know.”

Dan: “We was making people aware of what we were doing, raising awareness of it.”

Me: “Yes, I understand, but was there a particular message you were trying to convey?”

Dan: “Yes, I suppose there was. We were doing it because we thought we needed to raise awareness about what we were all doing.”

Me: “On the day, you mean?”

Colin: “Partly but just generally in the main. We just wanted people to be aware that we were doing what we were doing.”

Tony: “I think the main thing was that people didn’t know what we did before the Rally so we had to do the Rally so people were aware of what we were doing and the Rally, in simple terms.”

Me: “Did you want people to join you, more people than the infamous “gang”?”

Colin: “Well awareness was the key, really, cause once we’d done that we had people talking to us about it after, asking us what it was all about and why we were doing it and they were really interested in what we had to say.”

Me: “And what did you tell your new audience?”

Colin: “Well, for people who didn’t know what we were doing we’d made them aware of it, and for those who already knew we’d just have a chat about stuff, anything really. Cricket, I had a chat about cricket with one fella, don’t even play myself, soft lad game that, but it were interesting hearing what he had to say.”

Me: “And have you raised enough awareness of what you do or is there more work to be done?”

Dan: “Well, this year we’ve got 27 cars, so that’s 9 more than first year and 8 more than last year so that shows people are more aware now than they were but we can’t stop now, we’re only just beginning to taste the rainbow, so to speak.”

Tony: “Take me, for example, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on until Dan told me about the first race. It took that to make me aware of it, so there must be hundreds of people in the country who don’t know what we do or why we do it.”

Me: “And why do you do it, Tony?”

Tony: “I do it to raise awareness of what we do for people who don’t know.”

Colin: “If I had my way nobody would be allowed to take a car to a mechanic until they’d looked at it themselves, or asked a mate to look at it, and see if they can fix it. If they can fix it, they save themselves money and they learn something. If they can’t, or they bodge it up, then yeah, take it to a professional, but not everyone has a garage on their doorstep. Imagine if everyone went straight to the supermarket every time they snapped their toothbrush and just bought a new one. It would be crazy with all the broken toothbrushes all around. No, have a fucking go on it yourself for fuck’s sake.”

Me: “And is that the message? That people should get themselves a manual and actually try to repair something themselves, to get back to a time when people made do with what they had? A Simpler time perhaps?”

Dan: “Yeah, what you just said there, that’s it, that and raising awareness about what we’re doing too.”

Me: “So this year’s going to be the biggest so far. There’s no reason to think it won’t get even more coverage through traffic reports on the radio and even on TV. Let’s suppose you make the evening news on BBC. You have one chance to tell the people of Britain what you do and why you do it – what would you say?”

Dan: “I reckon I’d give them Colin’s mobile phone number and say to ’em that if they’ve repaired a car, or they’ve got an old car and they want to drive it with us next year they can. We’re probably doing Lake District to Great Yarmouth and then Yarmouth to Portishead next year, so if they want to do that they can, or they can just follow it on the Facebook page our lad set up for us. 300 followers now, and you can comment on it and find out what we’re doing when we’re not doing the Rally. You know, make people aware of what we’re doing and letting people know they can join in with us.”

Colin: “I’d tell them to buy a Haynes manual for their car, study it, learn about their car and how to fix it, so they don’t need a professional to do it. I think that would be the message I would say to them.”

Tony: “I’d tell them it’s a laugh. I take comedy tapes with me for the journey so I’m always laughing. I’d probably tell them to buy an extra flask too as we don’t stop except at traffic lights. Peter Kay’s great on long straight roads when you’re feeling sleepy.”

Me: “Do you think people might be put off by the name? The Old Car Gumball Rally sounded quite friendly and inclusive, almost?”

Colin: “Oh no, we don’t take us selves seriously or nothing. If there were a Crufts for cars, my old banger wouldn’t win it, but it’s a classic British Car, the Rover 3500 and mine’s that dirty yellow colour that nobody makes cars in any more. Last year when we started off there were people lining our street cheering us off. You wouldn’t get that if you had a poncy fucking Mondeo even if it were same colour as ours. I’m basically fine with anyone who can do an oil change, but if you can seal a leaky radiator too, that’s a bonus.”

Me: “So this is really about showing off your cars, classic cars, to people from a generation of drivers who have never seen them, let alone driven them, or even know they exist?”

Dan: “Back in the 80’s I had a Triumph Acclaim, four years old when I got it and rusty as fuck. No matter what I did it wouldn’t stop rusting. You don’t see that anymore.”

Me: “Isn’t that a good thing?”

Dan: “Depends, not if you’re living on next to nowt and need a car to get you about, then it’s a constant battle, sanding down, filling, painting, hoping it’ll last. People don’t bother with that nowadays, it’s a throwaway world.”

Tony: “My Austin Montego, beautiful car, all mod-cons and everything. I wouldn’t have taken three Vauxhall Cavaliers for one of these. You trying telling that to a kid who has mobile porn sex on his phone at bus stops – they’ll look at you like you’re an alien. We lived it though, we knew what it meant to be a part of it, and I don’t think people are aware of that, what we were and are a part of. I’m proud to say I own a Montego. I have a Lada Riva estate too, great family car for driving in moderate temperatures.”

Bryan: “I’ve got a Nissan Bluebird. You won’t find boy racers in one of those. It’s not my only car though, and the Mrs uses it more than I do.”

Tony: “Skoda Estelle. People laughed at them but they were cheap although it was hard getting parts for ’em. Bit loud, couldn’t hear medium wave radio if you went above 40 miles per hour.”

Bryan: “Yugo 45. It’s in the garden, kids use it to play in. You don’t see that much nowadays, except in Kent.”

Me: “Amazing. So, what are your plans moving forward? Thought about taking the race international?”

Dan: “We did have a discussion about going down to London, maybe even Brighton, but frankly I wouldn’t piss on either of those places if they were on fire. Cornwall’s alright, might go there but I really don’t like driving down south; if it’s not the M25 and all the traffic jams it costs £50 to park for 10 minutes in some places; that’s Fish’n’Chips ten times at the café round the corner. Fuck that for a game of skittles.”

Colin: “I don’t really want to mess with a winning formula. This year we’re expecting people to be cheering us on more than ever. Chris Evans did a thing about us on his Radio show last year, which now looks like he was using us to get the Top Gear job and how did that work out for him, eh? Can’t say I’m bothered, although I never liked Clarkson either, stuck-up twat. And the little one, Richard Hammer or whatever, he’s like what having piles in your eyes and ears would be like if he’s on the telly. No, we’re happy to keep it away from London, far away if we can.”

Me: “But you can’t just keep doing the same thing forever? You need to spice it up a bit, maybe bring some fresh blood in, someone who can find a different angle, or a different story to tell.”

Dan: “Funny you should say that, eh Tony? Tell him, about your book.”

Me: “You’re writing a book about the Rally? That’s fantastic!”

Tony: “Well, its not so much about the race as about the people, and it’s more about their everyday lives than the cars, to be honest. I think I only mention the race once or twice. Mostly it’s about what happens behind closed doors. It’s an erotic novel about a postman and a milkman who deliver more than just letters and milk, if you get my meaning. Alan, who’s got an Austin Maestro, the one that talks, he was telling me that last year while he was racing his missus had two fellas over for a bit of a threesome. They’re getting divorced now. One of them was black, apparently. Anyways, so I did some research and I’m writing a book about what goes on round our way and one of the stories is on Gumball weekend. I’m hoping ITV might make it into a programme.”

Me: “Well, I suppose a spin-off isn’t such a crazy idea. Finally, Dan, I know you’ve been trying to convince Sky Sports and Eurosport to cover the race. Have you had any luck?”

Dan: “Problem is it’s a race in name only. We draw lots before we start and we have a strict no-overtaking rule as we don’t want to knacker us engines out. We stick to the speed limit, we don’t push it. Eurosport said they would look at perhaps covering it but only if there were teams involved, maybe some celebrity drivers, but we don’t want some reality TV twat or some poof Shakespeare actor with us. They don’t know the first thing about looking after a motor, they have servants to do that. No thank you, this is a northern, working class man’s race and we don’t take too kindly to outsiders who are used to getting driven around in luxury cars all day and night.”

Bryan: “I heard Sting used to have a Ford Granada when he was in The Police. He’s from Newcastle, right? We could ask him?”

Colin: “If he wants to join in he knows how to find us, but he can ask us, we’re not asking him.”

Me: “Well gentlemen, all the best with this year’s Rally, hopefully we can catch up again next year and see what you guys have been up to. Godspeed to you all!”

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