IT WAS pitched to me as a bit of fun: bring the family Austin J40 pedal car down to Hampton Court Palace to be part of the inaugural Junior Concours at this year’s Concours of Elegance, an event celebrating the most beautiful cars from road and track. In fact, it became an all-consuming effort to get the thing in shape before it was to be exhibited – and judged – in front of thousands of classic car enthisiasts.
Some 32,098 J40s were built by Austin at a specially constructed factory in Bargoed, Wales between 1948 and 1971, using steel from the main Austin car plant. It was run on a not-for-profit basis for the employment of the disabled coal miners in the area.
Our car came off the line in early 1958, though it became part of the Dron family in the mid-1980s. It was purchased as a gift for my sister and me (then aged four and six) by my mother for the princely sum of £100, which seemed like an extraordinary amount for a rather beaten up old pedal car in 1985. People thought she had lost her marbles.
After I grew out of it, it was left to rot in a garage, but over time it became clear that mum’s impulse buy turned out to be a very canny one; they are now recognised as an exceptionally good design and the introduction of the Settrington Cup race for J40s at the world-renowned Goodwood Revival race meeting has boosted their appeal considerably. A J40 in good condition can change hands for several thousand pounds.
With my children now aged four and six, my father decided it was the time to get it fixed up. Restoration isn’t cheap but it can make sense, given their current value. You don’t become rich from doing so, but that wasn’t the point – dad wanted his grandkids to get the same fun out of it that his children did, 35 years before. Rob Ransley Vehicle Renovations in Cambridgeshire was duly tasked with the job. (See the full restoration story below).
Same car pictured 34 years apart. My family Austin J40 pedal car restored by R Ransley Vehicle Renovations, thanks to my dad. Wonderful to see, esp in such beautiful nick – way better than when I could fit in it. My kids are just as thrilled as my sister and I were circa 1985. pic.twitter.com/JsoJn8gwb2
— Will Dron (@wdron) January 11, 2020
The opportunity to show off the newly-restored car at Hampton Court was an exciting one. For the Junior Concours I’d need a driver and a mechanic, and there’d be prizes for the best dressed team members as well as the best cars in each category (petrol, electric and pedal power). Lovely, I thought – I’d pop down with the car and my six-year-old daughter, the Jim Clark to my Colin Chapman.
However, no sooner had hit send on my reply, accepting the invitation, than worries starting entering my head. You know, trivial ones like repairing the rear wheel hub which I had mutilated with a hacksaw not long before, while trying to resolve a loose wheel.
I had other concerns, too. What costumes were we going to wear? How would we transport the J40 to and from the event? What if it rains? Who would protect the car from over-eager children throughout the day? What polish gets chromework really gleaming? And wait, they need a driver and mechanic… will I need to demonstrate my engineering prowess in any way?
Also, what sort of driving will my daughter have to do? Will she enjoy it or buckle under the weight of expectation? Suddenly I had visions of wheels falling off in more ways than one, and a terrified, heartbroken daughter.
“Worries starting entering my head … trivial ones like repairing the rear wheel hub which I mutilated with a hacksaw”
Fortunately I had enough time to tackle each issue one by one. Purchasing a large umbrella, a waterproof pedal car cover and two boiler suits to wear, in period race overall style, along with Austin badges to sew on was the easy bit. I also bought some black plimsolls and a flat cap for my daughter; I decided I would simply shave off my lockdown beard and slick back my hair to get the true 1950s mechanic look.
Getting the mechanical elements of the car sorted was going to be trickier. I found the answers online, of course – I joined the Austin J40 pedal car Facebook Group and found it is the place to go for experts on the subject. A brilliant retired engineer called Geoff Kirkman – who literally wrote the book on J40 restoration, while working on his own grandchildren’s cars – came to my rescue, toiling away in his home workshop.
All the bits were ready just days before the show. I reassembled the car, including new number plates in the original style – black with white lettering (DRO 11) – and, having worked out the J40 does fit into the back of a Mini Countryman (just), we went testing at Brooklands.
Yes, that Brooklands – the world’s first purpose-built race track. Within the site of the original 2¾ mile circuit is now a shopping complex, a hotel, a museum and Mercedes-Benz World, but also a little track next to a children’s playground perfect for kids to try out new bikes, scooters or ride-on toys. It is, surely, the ultimate proving ground for J40 pedal cars.
New wheel hubs including a brilliant repair of the mangled rear fixed side by J40 genius Geoff Kirkman, who also created new tooling to repair the crumbling Bakelite steering wheel, and our 1958 car is tip top! Ready for exhibiting tomorrow at @ConcoursUK. See you there? pic.twitter.com/fmFhe9G3Up
— Will Dron (@wdron) September 5, 2020
After a couple of adjustments, and the addition of a couple of split pins to hold in the pedal linkages, our little car was running better than ever (probably), and my little girl was having the time of her life. We were ready.
It was a very early start on the day of the show (last Sunday, September 6). All exhibitors for the Junior Concours were required to arrive at Hampton Court around 7am, well before paying visitors started walking through the gates at 9am. I had decided to get there promptly so that I could do some final detailing, fit the hub caps do a final check. My daughter would join me later in the day – my wife would need to rush her from a birthday party that ended just an hour before judging began, at 2.30pm.
Arriving at Hampton Court just after dawn on a sunny day, via a road that winds its way through the estate, past deer grazing on the dewy grass as the mist lifts, right up to the front of the palace, was a truly stunning experience. For a moment I imagined I was Henry VIII, returning home from a hunt. Though less inclined towards pheasant-guzzling and uxoricide.
Outside the house were the full-sized cars, and, oh my… even though many were still under covers, they were arguably just as sensational as the grounds within which they were sitting.
The 1960s Ford vs Ferrari Le Mans rivals; the Porsche 917K that won the 24-hour race in 1970; a Bugatti Type 57 Atalante with coachwork by Gangloff – perhaps the most beautiful car I have ever laid my eyes on; an exquisitely-restored Bentley 4.5-litre with rear jump seat; the first Land Rover to roll off the production line, restored but with patina maintained; a Ferrari 312 F1 car with its incredible spaghetti-like white exhaust pipes; a brace of McLaren F1 GTRs. All the real deal. All cars that made history, and ones that make your jaw drop today. Our little J40 was going to be on display alongside these cars?
— Will Dron (@wdron) September 6, 2020
I unloaded, prepped the car for a good hour, adding the Austin Flying A emblem to the bonnet as the finishing touch (early cars included these, but they were removed from later models as children tended to impale themselves on them) while the other contenders began to arrive, then hid our Countryman in the car park.
With judging after lunch, I had plenty of time to appreciate the other vehicles on display, including our Junior Concours rivals parked prominently around the main fountain. There were two other J40s, both of which were adorned with Goodwood stickers and so, I assumed, almost certainly more mechanically-honed than our car. They also had the look of racing thoroughbreds, while ours was perhaps more showroom-spec, with its gleaming chrome and buffed bodywork.
At the front of the line was a petrol-powered 1982 Porsche 936 Junior, built to celebrate Porsche’s 1981 Le Mans win. Owner Gregor Fisken, a well-known racing driver and dealer of thoroughbred cars, explained that only 80 examples had ever been made, and they were offered only to Porsche VIPs, drivers and the most exclusive customers.
Then there were several models built by private individuals in more recent years, but unlike the ride-on toys you can pick up at Argos, these were exquisitely detailed. A replica Lancia sports car caught my eye immediately. It took Adrian Donovan, a fan and owner of full-size classic Lancias, three years to design and construct from scratch. He had brought along a book documenting the build, which laid bare his attention to detail. He’d created it for himself, not his grandchildren, just to see if he could do it, though his grandson would be driving it today. Would he build any more, I asked? “No! he said. “One was enough.”
There was also a stunning home-built Bugatti Type 52 replica, complete with engine sound effects, a Triumph TR3, a Porsche 911 RSR Junior and gorgeous Ferrari 250 GTO, all constructed as one-offs by men in sheds for their children or grandchildren.
Several of these Junior @ConcoursUK entries have been lovingly built in sheds by private individuals for their children or grandchildren. This Ferrari 250 GTO replica is stunning. Built last year it has a 3kW electric motor. LOVE the interior and replica helmet. pic.twitter.com/SfCWkx2pMG
— Will Dron (@wdron) September 6, 2020
And one couldn’t help but be awestruck by a junior copy of the Le Mans-winning 917K I had seen on the way in, built around a quad bike powertrain but to perfect scale, complete with replica colours and a lift-up cockpit cowling. If the full-size cars had intimidated me, these extraordinary pint-sized creations were not putting me at ease.
My daughter arrived just in the nick of time for a swift costume change before the judges, who included journalist and Strictly Come Dancing star Kate Silverton, began circling. My six-year-old was a little nervous, despite a small amount of coaching from daddy about her favourite features of our J40, so I did much of the talking. There was a great deal of interest in the history of J40s, and the back story of our own car. The fact that my older sister and my son had also arrived, so we could demonstrate the two generations of drivers, seemed to go down well.
Then we had a short wait before the drivers were asked to parade around the fountain before the final winners were announced. The crowds were big – this seemed to be the highlight of the day, and all visitors had made their way over, fighting to watch the little machines circulate. I stayed close to our car, just in case something went wrong and a mechanic was needed.
Sadly, one of the wheels did fall off the 250 GTO, which must have been very distressing for the poor little girl driving it, as well as her doting dad. This was the exact scenario I had feared for our own car but fortunately everything held together and my daughter did a fantastic job of pedalling. She looked adorable in her white overalls and flat cap, too.
Then came the moment of truth. Best petrol car: the 911 RSR. Best electric car: the Lancia (great!). Best pedal car… our J40! I looked down at my little girl and the joy on both our faces said it all. For her, it was pride in her little car – and being awarded a packet of fudge, no doubt. For me, it was mainly relief – all that work, all that time and all the drama had been worth it. And I knew my dad would be absolutely over the moon, too. For our efforts: a half bottle of Charles Heidsieck.
We didn’t win best-dressed driver or mechanic, nor most original car. And the best in show award went to the Porsche 917K Junior – a worthy winner, and a fitting result given that the real 917K had won best in show at the main Concours of Elegance. We went away absolutely delighted, though. And in its inaugural year, the Junior Concours had proved its worth as one of the highlights of the show. No doubt it will be back in 2021 (coronavirus permitting) – it’s well worth a look.
Restoring Austin J40 chassic number 19483
R Ransley Vehicle Restorations, run by Rob Ransley and his son Ian, had done a beautiful job on dad’s Austin Seven last year. Dad described Rob Ransley as “the best bodywork man I know”, so they were the obvious choice to restore our J40. A pedal car was somewhat of a departure for the father and son team but they set about getting it sorted with the same diligence and care as they would a multi-million pound Italian thoroughbred.
They fixed the dents and rust, and correcting the bodges by previous owners (wrong headlights and tack-welding of the removable seats, for example). They blasted the steel and, after some painstaking research into the original colour, resprayed it in the colour it received in the factory: Speedwell Blue.
They also sanded and varnished the wooden dashboard, re-upholstered the seat and brought the original chrome grille back to life, then added new chrome bumpers. The original instrument panel – a little painted board framed in chrome – was left without repainting as it now has a wonderful patina that would be shame to lose. It’s characterful and hints at the car’s 62-year life.
The final car looked absolutely stunning when I picked it up from Ransley’s place in Hertfordshire – really a wonder to see in such fantastic condition after all these years.
What Ransley wasn’t tasked with, though, was sorting out the running gear, so while the car looked fabulous, after a few uses by my two children I found that some attention was still needed to the mechanical elements. The right rear hub was of particular concern but I wanted to get all four corners rotating true and freely. I thought I’d have a crack at it myself. I mean, how hard could that be?
For three of the wheels, not so hard, as it turns out. All four corners needed new bearings, and I found that due to the renewed interest in J40s, parts are not too hard to come by right now. A company called Burlen recently acquired the best-known J40 parts business and has expanded the operation, launching an excellent online shop. I found that you can buy sealed bearing units, and other owners online said these make the cars roll even better than the original loose bearings ever did.
But while I managed to take part the front and left rear hubs, the right rear, which is fixed to the axle and provides the propulsion from the pedal linkages (the left rear is free to rotate, acting as a sort of differential), had been welded to the axle by some buffoon in years gone by. To fix the wobble, though, I’d have to remove it somehow, and after much drilling I realised the only thing to do would be to get at it with the hacksaw. That worked, but of course, it left the car in no fit state to be entered into a concours event.
I posted pictures of my hack job on the Austin J40 pedal car Facebook group, and asked what could be done. Within minutes, someone had suggested finding metal tubing just the right size to go over the axle, which could then be slotted through the hub and welded on. Holes could then be drilled through the tubing to match the axle holes. Buy some bolts and Bob’s your uncle. Genius.
But I couldn’t do that. Who could do that?
Then I remembered a member called Geoff Kirkman. Geoff, a retired mechanical engineer, literally wrote the book on J40 restoration – he hand drew exploded diagrams of all the mechanical parts while restoring three J40s for his grandchildren, after noticing other restorers were crying out for accurate repair guides. He sold me a copy of the manual while I was tinkering, and it proved invaluable. What did he think about my problem, I wondered.
The reply over email arrived.
“I’ll find the tubing. You post your hub to me. I’ll preliminary bend true the stud ears as and if needed, run a ¼ bsf die down the threads to clean up as needed. Lathe machine bore as needed the original hub and face as needed the sides. Fit to jig with new tube(s), mig weld. Fit to 5/8 mandrel and finally true up the ears as needed.”
Much of that I’ll confess, I didn’t understand, but who doesn’t want true ears?
“The end result will be a repaired hub, closely following the original build, threaded studs running concentric and true.”
Aha – that I did understand, and I knew Geoff was the man for the job. He also quoted me what I thought sounded like a ridiculously small amount of money for the work, meaning we could deliver the axle and hub to him and collect it without breaking the bank. Sorted.
Then I looked at the steering wheel. The J40 wheel is a ring of steel covered in Bakelite (wasn’t everything in the 1940s and ‘50s?) with three sets of metal spokes running to the centre ring, which on my car was cracked and beginning to show signs that it could fail. To have that happen would at Hampton Court, in front of the crowds, would be catastrophic. Would Geoff have a look at that, too?
“Hmm, that’s a brain teaser. The material of the centre is a form of Mazak – Dinky toy metal – you can’t solder it, can’t weld it, can’t braze it – it’s throw away time usually.”
I didn’t want to throw away my original wheel, so Geoff put on his thinking cap and set to work.
It was all ready to collect just five days before the show. The hub has been repaired beautifully, and he had enjoyed sorting the steering wheel. He had made his own tooling and pressed a “mushroom profile cap” from 3mm steel, then scraped all the body filler from the centre of the wheel (someone had tried to repair it in the past). He had then made a locator jig and clamp, and fitted the mushroom, fitted M5 studding with threadlock, so that it could all be attached to the steering column, polished it all smooth and primed it.
If I were a more jingoistic type, I’d say Geoff is what makes Britain great. To know that there are Geoffs out there, with such incredible skill and problem-solving nous – and prepare to do it all without ripping you off – fills me with utter joy.