Ted Connolly revisits the 1980s kit car boom…
Back in the early 1980s, kit cars – or component cars, if you prefer – were quite the rage, although the idea of building your own vehicle was nothing new. In fact, even in the 1950s, the trend was starting to catch on.
Car production was on the increase, but rust- proofing was next to useless and, thus, there was a glut of running gear left behind. Engines from the Austin Seven and 1172cc sidevalve Fords were particularly popular and as a bonus for enthusiasts, they could build their own automobile with glass-fibre body – as good if not better than a new car – and avoid paying purchase tax. Elva, for example, produced the Courier, based on a ladder frame and either Ford or MG engines. Early Lotuses were available in kit form, too.
The craze did wane, but burgeoned once again in the aforementioned 1980s, although I’m not exactly sure why it sprung up again. Cars weren’t rusting at any great rate and purchase tax had long since been abolished. Anyhow, I was working on a car magazine at the time and in fact, was tasked with writing a feature about the kits that were available. It was, as they say in the trade, an advertorial. That is, part advertising, part editorial.
I really can’t remember all of the companies that I dealt with, but seem to recall that they included Marlin, Clan, Rochdale, Ginetta, Lomax and Arkley. Many have gone out of business, some are still trading. I particularly remember Geoff Jago and his T-Bucket, a real cool hot rod that would have looked good on Sunset Strip.
Anyhow, one of the largest kit car manufacturers was Dutton, based in Worthing, West Sussex. They made the sporting Phaeton and, around 1982, came up with the Melos, the name taken from the Greek island, I believe. It was a cute little thing and designed specifically to take the motor and gearbox from any 1100cc or 1300cc Ford which, back then, would have been the Mk1 Escort.
I popped down, did the motoring hack persuasive bit and landed a reasonable deal with the boss. The kit was picked up a week later on a trailer I towed using my editor’s car. It was an uneventful trip back home, except that I hadn’t quite got used to reversing a trailer and, as a result, caught the frame on the bumper and rear wing. The editor in question was insufferably irascible and when I pronounced, in front of the whole office on the Monday morning, that I had damaged his car, he barked: “Serious?” I replied: “I am, the car’s not.” I thought it was funny.
It took me around three months to build the car and I used a 1300 Escort, dating from around 1969, as the donor vehicle. The engine was shot, so I rebuilt it with a reground crank and new bearings, re-bored block with new pistons and a spiky camshaft (from Piper). I managed to cajole Weber into sending me a 28/36 twin- choke carb and sourced a banana exhaust manifold. In those days, eBay didn’t exist and I probably got it through a magazine ad.
The engine was sprayed blue (why, I don’t know) with VHT paint, mated to the cleaned-up gearbox and plonked on the chassis. With the body bolted on, I finished it off with a set of split-rim Compomotive wheels – alloy rims with gold centres that you had to assemble yourself – kitted out with BFGoodrich Comp T/A boots. They sure did look the business.
Sorting out the engine, brakes etc was easy. It was the trim that took the time, so the finished article was mechanically a very sound machine, but let down by a scruffily-fitted dash and instruments that didn’t quite sit right in it. Also, the hood was a poor fit. That’s the difference between a geezer who is a bit handy with spanners (me) and somebody who has a lot more patience and finesse (not me).
Nevertheless, it was a fun tool, went reasonably well (a 90mph top speed was predicted by Dutton – I kept it below 70, on the basis that I am not an expert car-builder.
I eventually sold it to a sales rep who worked for a publication I was involved with and he beat me down to quite a low price, although I wasn’t bothered. I’d had my enjoyment and needed the cash for my next project.
Coincidentally, a Dutton Melos appeared in Coronation Street a few months back, when Rovers Return landlord Steve McDonald bought one. Nice to see, but irritating that it was referred to as a Mellos (it should be Mee-Loss).
There is one part of this saga that I must mention and that is when I acquired the donor Ford Escort from a scrapyard. And I promise you, this is absolutely true. I knew the bloke who ran it and he told me to go inside the compound, wander round and pick out the car I wanted (in those days, scrapped Mk1s were plentiful). I got to the gates and was confronted with the largest and most-ferocious Alsatian I have ever seen. I was terrified and retreated rapidly. The scrappy laughed and explained that the dog had no teeth. Yes, honestly. But I bet it could have given a very nasty suck.