Cars What I Have Known No. 1: 1960 Ford Popular 100E

Thus far in my blog writing, I’ve not touched upon my other great passion from films and TV. This, as any who know me will be aware, is cars. Mostly very very old cars. It’s a subject on which I could bore for my country, so I suggest those of you who are baffled by the existence of words like “trunnion” should maybe skip this one…

Still here? Good. I thought it might be nice to do a few things about some of the more interesting of the forty-odd vehicles I have known, and I’m starting with Pop, the 1960 Ford Popular I managed to own twice over in the mid-90s.

First off, the history bit. Concentrate…

The 100E version of Ford’s cheapo Popular model was introduced in 1953 to replace the 1930s styled device you might be familiar with from Monty Python’s “Mr and Mrs Brian Norris’s Ford Popular” sketch. Actually, the old one was sold alongside the new for six years, and the 100E was badged initially as an Anglia. Then when Ford introduced its dazzlingly modern “New Anglia” in 1959 (now known as “the Harry Potter car(TM)”, the Popular name was passed on to the 100E.

Styled to resemble a smaller version of the company’s big Zephyr saloon, the Pop probably looked very modern in the heady days of the 50s. Unfortunately, this impression was instantly dispelled when you opened the bonnet, and saw the familiar sight of Ford’s wheezy 1172cc sidevalve engine, a powerhouse designed in the days of Moses. This incredible gizmo managed to turn out an amazing 36 bhp, enough to propel you to speeds of, ooh, 60mph or so, providing you had enough road in which to achieve this. In fact, despite its sharp suit, the 100E’s mechanical bits were nearly all ancient, coming straight off the previous model. The exception was the now-familiar MacPherson strut front suspension, new then but now no stranger to welders everywhere.

So how did I come to own one? Well, I’d been driving for a few years, and much to my gearhead friends’ bafflement, had always preferred really old cars. Of course, they probably should have guessed that this had something to do with Jon Pertwee driving around in a vintage car in Doctor Who. I found the Pop looking lonely and forlorn in a neighbourhood car park, and was immediately besotted with it. The “Will you sell me this car?” note I left on the windscreen elicited a phone call from the owner, who, it transpired, was prepared to part with it for the meagre sum of £300. A bit of scrimping and saving later, and the Pop was mine! I climbed into it and drove proudly away. Backwards.

It should be pointed out to those used to driving sensible modern cars that they did things differently in the old days. One of the things they did differently, as I had just discovered, was gearboxes. True, the 100E did have four gears. It’s just that only three of them were for going forwards. The error made by me, and indeed everyone who ever tried driving the thing including a would-be thief, was to assume that first was where I was used to it being. How very, very wrong. That was reverse, with none of the push-it-down or lift-it-up safeguards against accidentally shifting into it.

Having worked out how to go forwards, I soon discovered the other foibles of this antique gearbox. Mainly, this had to do with the gear ratios. In a modern car, gear ratios are chosen thoughtfully, with consideration for things like engine power and modern roads. The engineers responsible for the Pop, however, appeared to have chosen ratios by throwing darts at a maths book.

You pulled away from a standstill in first, just as you might expect. What you probably didn’t expect was that first was so low-geared that it was necessary to change up as soon as you reached, say, 2mph. Then, in second, it was necessary to accelerate until the engine was shrieking for mercy before shifting up to third, at which point the engine dropped to something around idle speed. Thus, once on the move, you effectively only had two gears to choose from, and the traffic was always going at the wrong speed for either of them.

I soon discovered that while my contemporaries were searching desperately for extra power and speed from their Nissan Cherry 1100s, I had in fact purchased the slowest car in the world. Just how slow was something I never found out, because the speedo didn’t work and I never bothered trying to fix it. It must have been pretty slow though, judging by the impatient queues of cars visible in the rearview mirror whenever I drove it.

Driving the Pop was an experience. It never failed to start, even in the cold weather – unless you made the mistake of touching the throttle in the starting process, thereby flooding the carb so catastrophically that it wouldn’t go for hours. It tottered round corners dangerously on its skinny, somewhat perished crossply tyres, while you slid off its PVC economy seats, unanchored by the luxury option of seatbelts, which the original owner never specified. Friends enthused by its aged eccentricity loved this two-finger salute to the safety Nazis, though sad to say no copper ever stopped us to enquire why we weren’t wearing belts.

In the cold weather, only the rusty tin box between the seats, laughingly described as a “heater”, would prevent your breath from freezing into pretty crystalline patterns on the inside of the windscreen. But the weirdest thing of all was the wiper system. You see, on Fords of this era, the windscreen wipers were powered not by an electrical motor but by vacuum depression fed from the engine’s inlet manifold. Now, as you accelerate, this vacuum is diverted towards the cylinders as more air and fuel are sucked into the combustion chamber. The practical upshot of this is that, as you accelerate, the wipers slow to a crawl and then stop. In the unlikely event that you ever get a 100E going fast enough to overtake something in the rain, this is a point well worth remembering as the backwash from an artic pours over your stationary wiper blades.

Stories of the Pop are many and legendary (among certain people in Banbury at least). There was the time its exhaust fell in half while driving, the times it was used to jumpstart more modern, less reliable cars, the time someone tried to nick it only to reverse it into a wall… It was so good, in fact, that I owned it twice.

At the end of my first go at owning it, my then manager at Tesco’s, a young rake called Alfie Giannaula, bought it for his girlfriend, convinced she would be utterly charmed by its chubby, chrome-laden cuteness. She, perhaps sensibly, declared that she wasn’t going anywhere in this dangerous relic, while Alfie quite happily drove it around himself for a few months. Then its MOT ran out, and he parked it on his drive and just let it sit there.

Seeing the old thing once again forlorn and abandoned, I found I wanted it back. So a deal was struck with Alfie involving fifty quid and an old video recorder, and once again the Pop was mine.

Amazingly, it went through an MOT test with no failures, though I’ll refrain from mentioning which Banbury garage failed to notice its dangerously cracked crossply tyres. Happy together again, the Pop and I shared many adventures, like driving very slowly to London and back, over the next year or so.

Eventually, though, my car mania was getting out of control. By this point I also owned a Triumph Spitfire and a Ford Capri, and something had to go. Sad to say, it was the Pop. I advertised the old dear in Practical Classics, and a feller came round and bought it the very next week for £400, £100 more than I paid for it in the first place. As I sadly waved the old thing goodbye, I was amused to see its new owner immediately try to pull away in reverse…