Chris Nelson

Surfer, director, travel writer and critically acclaimed author. He has previously written about the face of cold water surfing.

@LonSurfFilmFest

coldwatersouls.com

Published

November 10th, 2015

It’s a damp Autumnal evening in 1977. Emlyn Hughes’ high-pitched voice rings out over the Anfield turf as the Champions of Europe play a mid week fixture under blazing floodlights.

In the terraced streets nearby the neon flicker of TV screens is visible through net curtains as a nation tunes in to see Carter and Regan rag a Ford Granada GT through empty streets, The Sweeney hot on the tail of a battle-scarred MK2 Jag driven by badly dressed henchmen with suspect facial hair. Outside, somewhere in the distance there’s a growing howl, followed by a screech of brakes and the smash of glass. It is the sound of two worlds colliding – a finely honed Italian supercar, dreamt into existence by a team of achingly stylish, espresso-addicted northern Italians, meeting the corner of a soot stained wall, fired by the blazing kilns of Stoke and layered in perfect order by Liverpool’s finest Victorian stonemasons. It is a clash of cultures in the truest sense and there could be only one winner.

CHASING RUMOURS

It is now thirty years later. I pull up outside a red brick building in the heart of Liverpool docks, the litter-strewn working end, not the tourist area with dazzle ships and Liverbirds. I look up at the towering square two-storey bunker, firmly planted in this post-millenial, post-industrial landscape, the smell of oil and salty mist hanging in the air. I had driven six hours from Cornwall on a chance, a phone call out of the blue mentioning a glimpse of something, a familiar line squared away in the darkest corner of a cavernous place.

There’s a special thrill… the opportunity to take on the role of automotive archaeologist, raider of the lost cars.

Every classic car owner dreams of unearthing a hidden gem, answering a ‘for sale’ advert only to find something more exciting lost at the back of a workshop covered in cobwebs. These ‘barn finds’ have long been central to automotive folklore, equal parts Ahab’s white whale and Homer’s Odyssey. The dream is stumbling into a lock-up and throwing back the shroud on a mummified treasure, preserved under a fine layer of dust. The scenario played out in the imagination of petrol heads … “That’s just dad’s old car. It’s been here for years – yeah, make me an offer.” It’s about passion, about unearthing a forgotten treasure, bringing something back from the dead. With every day the number of classic cars diminishes – lost to the endless onslaught of meteorology and chemistry as rust literally eats away at our motoring heritage.  There’s a special thrill in the prospect of redressing the balance – even in a tiny way, the opportunity to take on the role of automotive archeologist, raider of the lost cars.

 

Walking in the dock – Beverley Goodwin

REPO MAN

A man waited outside the building, as tall and solid as the structure itself. He was smartly dressed with a long, dark, wool jacket and close cropped hair, a look that screamed business in this dockland environment. He shook my hand and ushered me inside. It was dark and our breath plumed as we made small talk. A brand new Bentley Continental lurked by the rusty metal doors; it had bright wheels and blacked out windows. ‘I do a bit of repossession work as a sideline,’ he explained in his low Mancunian drawl as we paused by the squat coupe. ‘This one belongs to a well-known Liverpool mobster… well. belonged,’ he smiled. I swallowed, nodding, as I imagined how that scene had played out.

Outside, a skip was filling up with car parts and engines. ‘It’s mostly Jaguar stuff,’ he shrugged, ‘My father is retiring and we need to clear the place.’ I watched as sixties era engines were tossed down from the gaping maw in the second storey. Mk2 or E-type I wondered. ‘Couldn’t you sell them?’ I asked. ‘There’s just too much, decades of the stuff – would take too long. Easier just to scrap it.’ I nodded tightly and thought of the grown men I knew who would be crying at the scene unfolding before my eyes. Cars and parts were stacked up in every inch of space between iron girders and rough concrete. I wondered at their fates, but I needed to keep my mind and feeble wallet focused on the task.

 I nodded tightly and thought of the grown men I knew who would be crying at the scene unfolding before my eyes.

The garage echoed as we made our way to the far corner and there, under a filthy mezzanine I could see those telltale contours highlighted in a bright orange hue visible even beneath the layers of dust: an Alfa Romeo Montreal in right hand drive, one of only fifty such cars hand built in Italy. The dashboard looked like it had been excavated from Pompeii, sharp late 60’s features softened with fine soot. The raked windscreen was opaque with nearly thirty years of accumulated grey particles. I flipped open the glove box to find a faded cigarette box from a long dead brand and smiled as I looked at this time capsule. It rattled as I picked it up, tipping into my hand the contents – half a dozen 22 calibre bullets. Recoiling I shoved them back into the box and slammed the glove box shut. Some time capsules are not meant to be opened, I thought. The car had a broken headlamp and a few scratches. It was tucked away to be fixed and never came out again. I found out from a guy who owned an Alfa who’d seen it in the corner when he visited the lock-up – he knew I had one and told me he’d seen this one hidden away in the dark.

Left to the dust – Author’s image

SOMEWHERE IN PORTUGAL

In the seventies this was an expensive car. You could buy two E-Type Jaguars for the price of one Montreal and still have change – what a fall from grace to have been discarded, here, in the docks, in Liverpool. There are myriad reasons for cars to be forgotten – abandoned in the back of garages and barns: complex mechanical problems, an ageing driver reluctant to let a youthful passion slip away, financial problems – even revolutions. In April 1975 the people of Portugal rose up against a repressive military dictatorship in what became known as the Carnation Revolution. For the monied classes ostentatious displays of wealth were suddenly out of vogue. Driving around in high end cars was best avoided and over night Ferraris, Maseratis, Alfa Romeos, Lancias and Mercedes were surplus to requirements. Some were hidden, others sold off or given away. One car enthusiast Antonio Ferreira de Almeida bought everything he was approached about. They were locked in a huge barn and soon he had accumulated over 300 of the most sought after cars on the planet. When a few images of this stash came to light in 2007 the world went insane over this ultimate barn-find.

While my discovery had been much more modest, I was no less jubilant. Careful negotiations ensued, we settled on a price and shook on it.

All cleaned up – The Alfa Romeo Montreal (Author’s images)

KEEGAN OR HUGHES?

It’s a damp Autumnal evening in 1977.

An Alfa Romeo Montreal is lighting up the grey streets of Liverpool, gleaming through the salt laden mizzle. Beneath the bonnet sits a 2.6 litre alloy V8 engine descended from the legendary Le Mans winning Tipo 33 bloodline. The race-bred engine lets out a raucous howl as the owner blips the throttle, accelerating away from the traffic lights. Times had been tough for Alfa Romeo – the fuel crisis had hit just as this showpiece car – designed by Marcello Gandini of Lamborgini Miura fame – and built by world renowned Bertone – was launched to much fanfare at the Montreal World Expo. This was a rare beast in Milan – in Merseyside this was a unicorn. Two streets away a group of kids argue over who is Emlyn Hughes and who is Kevin Keegan. The ball screams past the keeper and into the main road – the driver sees the movement from the corner of his eye and swerves, a screech of brakes accompanies the collision – red brick strafed with autumnal hues of arancione paintwork.

This was a rare beast in Milan – in Merseyside, this was a unicorn.

Christmas passes and the car is wheeled into the back of the owners engineering workshop, awaiting repair. A few years pass, a lathe is installed in front of the alcove where the car rests and becomes lost under a blanket of dust, engineering oil and apathy, waiting through the decades for someone to utter the immortal words “That’s just Dad’s old car… make me an offer.”

So I did.

By Chris Nelson

Featured image: BITurbo228

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