I have always loved engines and engineering for as long as I can remember. It probably started when I was quite small with the succession of motor cycles that my father owned. I vaguely remember the ‘Indian’ with its twin ‘vee’ cylinders, the long gear-change handle above the maroon petrol tank. Was there a round black knob on top of the gear-stick? I am sure there was an Indian Chief’s head painted on the side of the petrol tank; in profile with a full feather head-dress falling back down his neck and a proud roman nose.

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We had sidecars for many years before the first family car – a Standard 8 (HML 106?). Some of them Dad built himself, indoors in the back room of our two up, two down plus scullery (not called a kitchen in those days) and outside toilet in Summerhill Road, Tottenham, North London. One year the toilet was ‘modernised’ by replacing the wooden seat with the latest addition to 1950’s architecture – the plastic seat and cover. All very well in the summer, but too cold in winter, so the wooden one was put back on. In my teenage years, Mum let me re-decorate it as I wished, so it was resplendent in canary yellows, greens, reds, blues and purples. Uncle Harry pinned up a notice there after his first visit:

‘Sit in here – the smallest room,
Give up thoughts of woe and gloom.
Look at Michael’s colour scheme,
Don’t you think the things a dream?’


The sidecars started out with a wooden framework and the bodywork was cut from plywood and pinned and glued to the frame. The curved parts at the front were screwed on for extra strength. Then a thin tinplate covering was added; cut out carefully with a pair of tinsnips, pinned on to the bodywork and finally secured by lengths of half round beading around the edges. I helped with drilling the holes in the beading and countersinking them to ensure the screws fitted flush. It was a laborious job but finished the sidecar nicely I thought. The windows were made from thin, flexible Perspex sheet and they were also held onto the frame with beading and I was given the job of drilling and countersinking. Dad said I was good at it, but even then, at a tender age, I began to think there was an ulterior motive, and maybe he did not think the drilling was that exciting.
The worst bit of the windows was getting the beading to curve round as Dad had designed shapely windows rather than plain square ones. Cutting away ‘vee’ shapes on the inside usually did the trick, although too much would cause the beading to break when it was curved. This would cause my mother to call out ‘Fred’ very sharply accompanied by a glare. She was a good church-woman. For a long time afterwards I would call out ‘Fred’ every time I broke something, thinking it was what you had to do. The top of the sidecar was always finished with a fabric cover, which could be un-buttoned and rolled back in the summer. Mum liked to have it back when she was on holiday to get all the fresh air and smells of the Devon countryside. 

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The last one Dad built had to go out of the window, as it was just too wide for the front door. Mum went out – probably shopping or to the Church – and Bill and Tony, Dad’s friends from work, turned up to help.  The teapot was put to work first of all and then the job in hand was discussed and planned. Before the sidecar could go through the window, however, that had to be dismantled and the two sliding sash frames with the window glass taken out. These could only be released after the covering boards and architrave had been prised loose and pulled away – along with strips of the wallpaper that had been stuck to the edge of the architrave and a fair amount of plaster!   Just after the sidecar had been lifted out of the window and placed on its chassis, Mum arrived home and surveyed the remnants of the window frame and torn wallpaper. “Hello Nell”, said Dad, a bit sheepishly I thought. “How about that tea now Bill”, asked Dad, in a very cheery tone of voice. “ Er, no thanks” said Bill, “I’d better be going”. “What about you, Tony?” “Thanks all the same, Fred, but I’ve got to go back to take Carol shopping.” I thought this strange as only a few minutes before, Bill had told Dad how he could “murder a cuppa” as soon as the job was done. Their rapid departure was due, no doubt to the very frosty atmosphere that had descended upon the house after my mother’s arrival home. I was sent ‘out to play’ whilst my mother ‘spoke’ to my father. Following a childish instinct I followed in Bill and Tony’s footsteps and decided the local Park was the best place to be for the next 3 or 4 hours, although I was most careful not to stay out too late.

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No more sidecars were built inside after that, although Dad made a very good job of repairing the window and wall and the newly decorated front room looked really nice.
After the ‘Indian’ came the BSAs, the M20 and the M21. Ex MOD both, the M20 had a 500cc engine and a rigid frame, whilst the M21 was 600 cc, but had telescopic front forks as I recall. The M20 did a good job for several years and took the three of us on several holidays down to Sandy Bay, near Exmouth, Devon.

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First of all there were camping holidays, then hiring a caravan as times got better. Fully loaded with all the bags, baggage and necessities for a week or two at the seaside, the old M20 struggled the best it could, huffing and puffing, pulling the sidecar and all of us up the Devon hills – something alien to its normal experience in London, which is fairly flat. The M21, when it arrived was a great improvement. ”Only another 100 ccs, son, but a lot more power”, I was assured. In the M20 days, some of the hills would be just too much and the whole expedition ground to a halt, until Mum and I got out and walked to the top of the hill. Not that Mum minded walking; she loved the hills and the countryside and she could have a good look round on the way up. It was rather a bother, however, unpacking her from the front seat, surrounded as she was with all the last minute parcels and necessary provisions for the journey itself and then re-packing her in afterwards; often only to repeat the process a mile further on. The extra engine power that came with the M21 put all the walking behind us.

Honiton was a place to be feared by all accounts. We had to get through Honiton before the traffic built up – otherwise there were interminable delays and traffic jams, very uncomfortable on a hot Saturday afternoon. In order to ‘get through Honiton’ we left London as near to 4 a.m. as we could. Passing the Gasometer in Wood Green on the North Circular in the early hours really meant we were off on holiday. Dawn was usually breaking and it was cold and sharp – especially when on the pillion - as we drove by Heathrow and I craned my neck back and forth to watch the aeroplanes parked by the perimeter fence. Huge silver machines, their enormous tailfins with red, blue green or multicoloured markings soaring skywards, waiting for their passengers going on their holidays, were parked there for me to see. Their long wings carried large, round, piston engines with multitudes of cylinders, each with a four-bladed propeller, as I went on my way to my holiday, on one small cylinder.

There were stops in lay-bys for tea from a Thermos flask and buns and sandwiches and each cup of tea took us further from London into the West Country. We rode past Stonehenge and I could see the standing stones from the road then and the army cap badges cut into the chalk in the hillsides were another, treasured, familiar landmark.

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Honiton By-Pass  Devon 1955

Eventually Honiton would be reached and we would wind our way through its streets – with or without delays, depending on how many others had left home at 4 a.m. – and on into the Devon roads and thence to Sandy Bay itself. Journey time was anywhere from 8 hours to 14 hours depending on traffic, number of hills walked, number of cups of tea drunk, rain or shine, Honiton horrors and how often we would break down or get dirt in the petrol and have to clean the carburettor.
Recently I did the journey again and it took just over 4 hours with one stop for a ‘cuppa’. Mind you, Honiton was by-passed.
Just after the war in the 1950s and early 1960s, Sandy Bay was quite primitive by modern standards. It started out as a working farm and offered space for camping. I think our first two or three trips there were for camping holidays. I’ve a very vague memory of a round tent and then we had a standard shaped one. Almost certainly they would have been ex-MOD as they were both green/khaki.

The site itself was really lovely. The farm was on fields, which swept down to the cliff tops. There was a steep track in two parts, which turned back on itself, leading down to the beach which was soft sand, although plagued by seaweed some years.

The bay was wide with a gentle slope to the sea, so it was safe to play in, as one had to go out quite a distance before getting out of one’s depth. At the northern end was a promontory, about 50 feet high and over 500 yards long. This was used, on occasions, both day and night, by the Royal Marines as a firing range. I would sometimes, be woken up by Mum or Dad, to watch the red or white tracer bullets fly down the range during night firing exercises. It was an illusion, but they seemed to travel slowly at first then speed up at the end.

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Mum & Dad at Sandy Bay

Along the base of this rocky outcrop were a great jumble of rocks and pools, fantastic for scrambling and paddling, fishing and crab catching (I once saw a boy bring out a huge spider crab. He was holding it by the shell and its legs were waving about. It must have measured 18 ins. to two feet across). Further out, after quite a scramble, and a walk along a fairly narrow ledge, was a small bay in the promontory about 30 feet across, and the reward for getting out that far was the wreck of an old landing craft. Twisted, barnacled steel lay everywhere.
The other side of the range was another bay, which led to Budleigh Salterton. In contrast to the soft sands of Sandy Bay, this one was all pebbles and stones, not a fine shingle, but quite large ones - not really suitable for a beach day. We did, however, often walk over the cliffs and fields to Budleigh for a ‘tea’ and either walk back when I was older or catch a bus when I was younger. On one occasion Dad persuaded Mum to scramble down the cliffs to the beach just the other side of the firing range. It was quite a difficult descent and much had to be done sledging on one’s bottom. Given the red soil, there was much dusting down when we finally arrived on the beach. Having no towels we couldn’t rinse off, so had to make our red-stained way to Budleigh along the stones.

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Old Postcard - Budleigh Salterton

These were very uncomfortable to walk on as our feet kept twisting as the stones moved and slipped. At last we all limped into Budleigh from where we caught the first bus straight back with no tea. Mum flatly refused to be seen in public in her state for more time than was necessary and her feet and ankles were in ‘quite a state’. I think this adventure was rated about the same level as the sidecar and window episode and was never repeated.
In the other direction to Budliegh Salterton, the bay went round the corner to other bays and eventually to Exmouth beach. It was quite possible to walk right round to Exmouth along the beach, which we often did. There was always something to look at; rock pools, jellyfish on the beach, occasional starfish to be found, shells of all sorts to be collected.

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Post-War scene at Exmouth Beach

Once in Exmouth after tea or ice cream or shopping or various combinations of two or three, we came home by bus or walked back over the cliff tops. All in all it was a splendid place for a holiday and to top it all, some of the best sunsets over the sea and cliffs I can remember. It is no surprise the place grew and grew and people would come back year after year; often making up parties with friends.

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Mum & Mike - Sandy Bay

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Dad- taking it easy !

The tents were soon replaced with caravans and there were facilities installed to cope with the growing numbers of visitors. The first toilet blocks were rows of green, wooden cabins with wooden seats and large Elsan buckets, smelling strongly of creosote, emptied every day and always to remember to take your own ‘paper’ (invariably Izal Medicated in our case). The shops were arranged around three sides of a square in the centre of the camp. For some reason they were raised off the ground on platforms. All built of wood, once again painted green, with verandas and railings and wooden steps up and down at the ends of each block. There were butchers, bakers, grocers, greengrocers, newsagents and booksellers as well as the ever popular (with the kids) bucket and spade shops with fishing nets (which always fell out of the end of the bamboo cane as soon as anything other than a single shrimp was in it) entirely useless fishing rods made from bamboo, (although there were some expensive ones for the wealthier holidaymakers), postcards, hats, swimwear and for the adventurous, curious about what lay under the sea surface, goggles, snorkels and flippers. The all important Fish and Chip shop was down on the cliff top. A very wise place to put it as everyone on the beach had to pass it going up or down and who can resist the smell? Was it 4d and 6d for a bag of chips, salted and vinegared to taste? Year by year the camp grew, but it was always an enchanting place for a child and adult to take a holiday in.

On a sunny, cloudless day, there could be no better place. The sun beat down from a bright blue sky onto a tranquil, blue sea, which sparkled and shimmered as if covered with a multitude of fine diamonds. The yellow sand was burning hot under bare feet and the unwary were soon sun-burned and covered in pink ‘Calomine’ lotion. The high, deep red Devon cliffs soaked up the sun and then radiated the heat back onto the beach, so much so, it was impossible to sit close to them. The sea seemed icy cold as it first swept over hot skin, but after a while the water offered a welcome refuge from the heat until cold, numb shoulders told meant it was time to go back to the presence of the relentless sun god and submit oneself once more to his unremitting scrutiny.

On the cliff tops the green meadow grass was cool to walk on, treading between the wild flowers bathing in the sunshine, which they had been doing long before any beach visitor had ever set foot there. Cattle lazily chewed at the grass, half-heartedly swishing their tails or wandering off to the edge of the field seeking shade from a tree. The copses offered welcome shelter from the sun, cool and shady to rest in and full of bushes and brambles laden with plump blackberries to pick and eat. The sun still made its presence felt, though; the overall temperatures were high enough to make even black-berrying an effort at times and shafts of sunlight broke through the foliage and flashed and twinkled among the treetops.

As the sun fell lower the faint, early evening breezes helped drive away the torpor of the midday heat. Time for tea and then for a walk on the beach, by this time a cool and pleasant place, comfortable to be on for a laze or late swim or just to walk along, idly beachcombing. The sunsets could be magnificent, completely filling the sky with colour; hues of red, yellow, gold, and mauve, whilst the sea and sky competed to be the deepest blue and the cliffs glowed red ochre. When the kaleidoscope of colour had faded and both sky and sea were one deep blue/black, then the stars would appear to fill the sky. Trudging home, weary but content what better than a stop at the chip shop and ‘six penneth’ of hot chips shaken with salt and vinegar, to eat on the way back to the caravan, looking out for the warm, comforting, yellow glow from the caravan windows, yawning, rubbing tired eyes and ready for bed. Wrapped up in sheets and blankets it was easy to drift off to sleep lulled by the gentle hiss of the gas lamps.

The last Friday was cleaning day. Come rain or shine the caravan was cleaned from top to bottom. “Always leave a place as you would like to find it” was my mother’s dictum. Something I remembered when moving around myself and finally when selling the family house in London. She would not leave until it was spotless. Depending on the size of the caravan, Dad and I would be turfed out in the morning or afternoon and not allowed to return until late. We would only be ‘in the way’. We used to go to the beach or do some shopping or have a day trip on the motor bike if Mum did not want it left for ‘packing’. Sometimes we went rock scrambling and tried to reach the wreck site bay in the promontory if the tide was out. Maybe some fishing was tried or a boat trip from Exmouth. No matter what it was – it had to be out of the way.

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Cleaning materials from the 1950's including

Vim & Brillo Pads

Meanwhile, Mum was clearing out the cupboards under the beds, making sure no sand had got into them and packing away blankets and so forth. Shelves were cleaned and wiped down, gas lamps dusted, the floor washed at least twice and so she gradually worked her way back to the kitchen area. Food cupboard shelves were cleaned (no fridges that I could remember in those days) and the oven attacked vigorously with several types of cleaner, including ‘Vim’ and ‘Brillo’ pads until it was cleaner than the day it was made.
Mum was very particular about the ovens and when taking over a caravan it was the first thing she went for. Woe-betide the owner if the cooker was dirty. Once I saw her get into a real paddy and slam the door shut flatly refusing to enter a caravan as the cooker was, as she told the owner, ‘filthy!’ She told him she was not going to start her holiday with a massive cleaning job, and he could get it cleaned himself whilst we went for tea after our journey or give us another caravan. To give him credit, he went to look for himself and came out full of apologies. The cleaning certainly had not been done, he said and he gave us another caravan straight away – which was one berth larger for the same price. Later, back home we received a letter both apologising once again and thanking Mum for the excellent condition of the caravan we had used.

Early evening we were allowed back in with shoes and socks off so no sand or dirt was brought in. Only the kettle could be used, so it was out to the Fish and Chip restaurant for dinner. Much of the packing had been done with only enough left out for the journey home, although it was never left out in the sidecar for fear of it being stolen. Saturday morning it was tea and sandwiches (prepared the day before) or bread and jam for breakfast, then afterwards the last remnants of luggage were packed. Mum was always the last one out, doing the final cleaning and backing towards the door with the broom and dustpan and brush before the door was duly locked. Then it was Dad’s turn and whist Mum settled herself in the sidecar Dad packed the luggage. This had to be strapped on the panniers or fitted into the sidecar; behind, at the side of, in front of, or on top of Mum and finally we were off to hand in the keys at the site office and start our homeward journey to London.

Due to all the cleaning and packing, we never left much before 9 or 10 a.m. so the journey would often be in heavy traffic. True, there was Stonehenge to look at and the cap badges, but it wasn’t the same as the journey down and it always seemed an endless drive until we reached Heathrow again and the North Circular, Wood Green, then Tottenham in the late evening.

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Family holidays stopped when I was a teenager so it would be many years, over thirty, before I returned just at the beginning of the new Millennium. The farming had stopped many years before but was remembered by means of an ‘Olde Tyme Farming Museum’ (admission 2.50) and the family had sold out to one of the big holiday companies. They had crammed as many caravans and chalets as possible together into field after field, stretching away on either side of the entrance arch spanning the approach road. The arch carried a large’ Welcome’ sign and another one underneath, pointing out the place was only for paid up guests and those paying exorbitant ‘day parking’ charges. No walking in from elsewhere. There was a very complex one way road system which favoured those with cars fitted with satellite navigation, numerous bars and clubs, all associated with the smuggling trade as far as I could see and most of the paths and walks had been paved over, floodlit and re-named ‘Smugglers Walk’. Eventually I found my way to the cliff top car park. The bay itself seemed unchanged. Still there were the firing range and the sweep of soft sands encouraging people to smuggle themselves in from Exmouth. Many of the woods and walks were gone, the wild flowers and open fields had disappeared. I didn’t stay long enough to see if the sunsets were just as striking – I couldn’t afford the parking charges.

I used to help Dad with the motor bikes and eventually he would leave me to do jobs on my own. He must have forgiven me for the episode with the bicycle, which occurred when I was quite small, only 9 or 10 years old probably. I had watched him take his bicycle to bits many times and had often helped him with the repairs, so I had a pretty good idea of what to do

It was an old Raleigh, very dark green with handlebars that went out, up and back, a sprung leather saddle and with a rack over the rear mudguard, which was used for carrying a multitude of things. Dad, however, never managed to get as much on as the Africans in Uganda. Typically a family of four or five would slowly make their precarious way along the roads, with the father pedalling, mother sitting on the crossbar with baby on her back;

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Old 'Raleigh' Cycle

one child on the luggage rack and another on the handlebars. Once I saw a man with a two-seater settee strapped across the back of his ancient bicycle and he was getting honked by the multitude of cars having to swerve out into the other carriageway to miss him. He just pedalled on regardless, slow and steady.

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One day I found a large tin of bright green paint in Dad’s shed along with his bicycle. It was a Saturday and Dad was at work, so having nothing else to do I suddenly had the bright idea of painting his bicycle for him, as it would be a nice surprise. I decided to do it properly and take all the bits and pieces off that did not require a new coat of paint. Out came the handlebar stem complete with handlebars, after a bit of a struggle releasing the brake-rods. The saddle was removed and the saddle stem twisted out after undoing the locking bolt. Off with the pedals although the cotter pins needed a wallop with a hammer and then the wheels were removed, before finally taking off the mudguards. It only took an hour or so to paint the frame and apart from a few runs, drips and blobs it looked resplendent in its new livery. I couldn’t wait to tell Dad and show him my handiwork. First of all, however, it was back down the garden to clean up. Mum was very surprised to see the state I was in and enquired in a strong tone of voice as to what I had been up to. With great enthusiasm I took her down to the shed to show her the new look bicycle and described my achievements with growing pride. She surveyed the scene in silence and after a while said we had better wait for father to come home and meanwhile a good wash and clean up was required. She wasn’t as pleased as I thought she ought to be but there was a sort of a smile.

Adults can be very difficult at times when you are a child and they can be very fickle and contrary. After spending so much time showing me how the bicycle worked and went together and so on and so forth I did not understand why there was so much shouting just because I had shown some initiative and made some distinct improvements to the colour scheme. I was quite put out and quite upset that Dad did not seem to appreciate just how hard I had worked. My promises that I would put it all back together again when the paint was dry, just as he had showed me how to, did not seem to help either. Mum took my side and said Dad wasn’t to take on so as the boy was only trying to help and to look on the bright side – clearly I had aptitude for this sort of thing. I did keep my promise and it all went back again a couple of days later - apart from the final adjustment of the Sturmey-Archer gears, which I never ever did get the hang of adjusting, without them slipping occasionally under load.

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Park Cottages- 45 to 51 Summerhill Road

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The Standard 8 - HMC 106

Which was to replace the motorbike and sidecar. Hard to believe it was once possible to get  a  handbuilt sidecar through those small windows.

Dad must have been the only one who did not appreciate the efforts I had made. My Uncle Harry came round specially to see it. “Now then young Flannigan”, he said, ”where’s this wonderful bicycle I have heard so much about?” Some of Dad’s friends from work went up to the shed to see it and all of them seemed to come away smiling and told Dad what a good job ‘the lad’ had done, so it must have been a good one. I was disappointed, though, that Dad never seemed to ride it much after all my efforts.  

Eventually it disappeared from the shed; Dad said he had sold it. I felt sure he would have got a really good price, with the new paintwork and all.

Mike Diprose - March 2007

Former resident -No 51 Summerhill Road

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