Sorry Jack - I've set fire to Killerton

Steve Hatton

I returned to Killerton in my second yrear with a Mark III ford Zodiac. It was a lovely car, 2.5 litre straight 6, British Racing Green, automatic transmission, full bench front seat , etc.

On one occasion, whilst driving back from Portsmouth to Exeter, I noticed the engine “was not running quite right”. Nothing obvious, not actually missing but definitely not 100%.

At the time Paul Goodwin and I were regularly working on our cars. We asked permission from Jack to use the garage (under Jack’s Wing) to enable us to work on the car.

We tried all sorts of things without wanting to go in too deep, but in the end we had to take the cylinder head off.

At first glance all looked fine. All six piston crowns present and correct, all valves properly in place, cylinder head gasket looking ok, etc.

Only when we turned the engine over did we notice something strange. At first, three pistons at the top, one half down and two at the bottom - definitely an unbalanced engine.

Turning over the engine a little more, three at the top, two half way down, one at the bottom .

The third piston wasn’t moving. Hearts sank! It had to be a broken con-rod? But there had been no noise.

I leaned over and pushed the offending piston crown. It gently went down to its correct position alongside its partner. We turned the engine over. Up it came then stopped at the top.

We inserted a self-tapper in to the priston crown and managed to lift it from the cylinder.

It has broken about a quarter of an inch from the top, along the line of the oil scraper ring. The rest of the piston was happy to run up and down the cylinder doing no work at all – and, thankfully, no damage either.

This did mean however, that we had to drop the crankcase to remove the con rod and the broken piston and then replace the piston and rings.

Once reassembled she was up and running again and ready for the routine runs to Exmouth.

I’d had the car for around 18 months when I noticed that the reverse clutch was slipping. The Borg Warner automatic gear box had two clutches, one for forward gears and a second for reverse gear.

Initially this caused no major problem – so long as you remembered to park up hill, so that if somebody parked close in front of you, you could let gravity let you back out.

Once again Paul and I took up residence in the garage, this time to remove the gear box and open it up. Getting the gear box out was not a major problem, although lifting the front of the car up high enough so that it would clear the bell housing once we’d dropped the gear box was a challenge.

We took over one of the small sheds in the garage to work on the gearbox. There were cupboards of sorts in there that we covered one with lots of newspaper. On this we placed the gear box and disassembled it.

The gear box was filthy, probably the first time it had been cleaned since new. Paul and I got a tray of petrol and some old paint brushes and started cleaning the grime from the outside of the box.

Now, it should be remembered, this was the early 70’s and just about everybody smoked (I exaggerate but it’s my story). Both Paul and I smoked cigarettes, though I more usually smoked a pipe. It was de rigueur to smoke when working on the “motah!”

We were happily smoking and splashing petrol and cleaning when a couple of chaps came in to see what we were doing. We explained what the problem had been, what we had done, and what we were going to do.

At that point I took out a lighter and re-lit my pipe. I don’t recall who the visitors were but they recoiled as I lit my pipe shouting warnings, expletives, etc. Paul and I looked at one another and told them to calm down. This was not an issue. Working with petrol in these conditions was perfectly fine. I then went on to explain that the flash point of petrol was actually quite high and that the risk of fire was very low.

With complete self-confidence I then went on to explain that it was perfectly safe to plunge a lighted match into petrol as it would certainly extinguish the match before the petrol was ignited.

I should have stopped there!

I insisted on demonstrating!

That too would have been ok – if I had used a match!

I didn’t! I used my lighter – and held it just above the surface of the petrol.

I know – it was stupid! .. but I did it … and yes, the whole lot went up! Bear in mind that the paper on the bench was covered in petrol, most of the cupboard underneath was covered in petrol, as was the floor, etc!

We all ran. Fortunately we were undamaged.

We went into the house a grabbed a (water) fire extinguisher and rushed back to the shed.

We set the fire extinguisher off. I think the size of the room and the sheer volume of water at high pressure, fortunately, was sufficient to blast the flames out.

Paul and I cleared up the mess, then I made my way to Jack’s flat to explain why there was now an empty fire extinguisher by the garage and why the wing now smelt of smoke!

Jack wanted to make sure that we were both OK and that everything was once again safe. I don’t think he even admonished me. I suspect he felt that the experience had been punishment enough.

Paul and I completed the rebuild and returned the gearbox to the car. A bit of an anti climax to the event.