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A Spartan Tale

January 2007
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Any feedback or comments on my tale welcome at Brian Wall [brian@oliver4.fsnet.co.uk].

I find myself in a quandary.  To enlighten you I must take you back some 27 years to the summer of 1979.  I was then youngish (compared to now) and becoming totally fed up over the years with trying to stop the dreaded rust appearing on whichever car I was driving at the time.  If my memory serves me that summer it was a Hillman Hunter GT that my wife’s cousin had re-spayed red.  I also had a 1959 Ford Anglia 1200cc side-valve (pre-sloping rear window) with the vague notion in mind to beef it up with a big engine and fancy paint (boys will be boys).

I had been looking for some time in Kit Car, Car Mechanics and various other magazines at kit cars and came up with a list of potential options within my budget.

  1. RMB Gentry
  2. Mini Marcos
  3. Dutton Phaeton
  4. Magenta
  5. Spartan

The Gentry had basically a space frame body with aluminium panels pop riveted on it.  It certainly looked okay but you had to obtain an MG Magnette or Riley grill to finish it off and these were becoming hard to obtain.
The Mini Marcos had an all fibreglass body which I guessed at the time would be subject to rigidity problems, door fitting and crazing of the panels which would certainly be very unsightly.

The Dutton Phaeton was tempting and seemed to be relatively easy to do however it was utilitarian with bags of power and little else.

I thought that the Magenta wasn’t sure what it was.  Oh well each to his own.

So late that autumn my wife and I set off to Pinxton to check out the Spartan kit car.  The car fit the bill very well.  I was particularly impressed with the cast alloy rear quarters, windscreen pillars, grill and anti-roll bar.  The anti-roll bar was really there to give rigidity, (it did give peace of mind although I can’t imagine anyone ever turning the Spartan over).

Anyway, convinced that this was the way to go, I placed an order for a Spartan 2+2 Triumph based kit.  At the time I remember preferring the Triumph base car as I thought that the Ford Kit had an ugly boot, a view that I still hold.

The cost was £1,072.90 plus a grille badge for £6.90 which included vat at 15%.

A friend of mine had previously owned a Herald Coupe which suffered from rusted away side members that was a real problem with the Herald.  I was not going to leave myself open to that problem so I opted for a new box section chassis which I needed for the 2+2 anyway.  Delivery of 6 weeks (or collection) was set for late December of 1979.  After posting the deposit I was sent a set of instructions and drawings of how to proceed. My next task after consoling my wife for spending the money was to find a donor car.

I came across a suitable Triumph in the local paper that had failed the MOT.  I paid out £40.00 for the car a 1966 Vitesse 1600cc straight six with the aforementioned terminally rusted chassis, hence the failed test.  A bonus was the fact that a new steering rack had been fitted some three months earlier.

Then the fun started.

We lived at the time in a semi-detached house with a standard size attached garage thankfully with lights and power.  I towed the car back home, backed it into the empty garage and wondered where to start.  It became obvious pretty quickly that one 100 watt bulb was just not going to be any use so three fluorescent lights were installed to give me a chance.  Over the next month or so the bodywork was systematically removed remembering to save all nuts, bolts, chrome screws, door handles etc.  The garage seemed to be getting smaller.  All the bodywork and rusted chassis ended up in the local scrap yard where I eventually became a fully paid up member.

At last the big day came.  On 22nd Dec I borrowed my company Transit Van and together with a work colleague set off to Pinxton to collect the Kit.  I particularly remember struggling and stopping on the way because the transit was running like a pig, no disrespect to a pig, it just had no grunt.  We ended up resetting the points and my colleague drove the rest of the way.  Funny, the transit did the rest of trip beautifully with my mate driving.  Such is life.

I was a little apprehensive that the kit would not fit in the van but it was okay, we drove home with the rear doors open, remember this was in December and it was freezing.

Arriving home all the parts were laid out on the front lawn.  Fitting the kit in the garage looked to be a problem until I hit on the idea of suspending the space frame body from the garage roof.  Task accomplished.
Christmas came and went.  I don’t remember working on the car during the festive season but I probably did, anyway back to the plot.

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The box section chassis had been supplied painted with red oxide but I decided that it would do no harm with a little bit more protection so I purchased a gallon of Waxoyl together with an application gun and plastic tubing to penetrate into all the box sections.  All the open box section ends were subsequently sealed off with pop riveted blanking plates.  The outside of the chassis was painted with special black paint that I was assured was used to paint North Sea Oil Rigs.  Yeah okay.  It looked good anyway.

The front suspension units were fully stripped down and painted with blue hammerite.  New rubber bushes and ball joints were fitted all round.  The threads on the bottom of the steering vertical links were found to be virtually non existent so both had to be replaced.  Older Spartaneers will no doubt remember seeing Triumphs, Morris Minors and other Leyland examples with collapsed front wheels and suspension.  My local Leyland Unipart stockist proved to be very helpful even to the point of supplying parts at trade prices.  If you don’t ask you won’t get.

Following the instructions suggested by Spartan I decided to obtain weaker front coil springs from a Herald rather than use the Vitesse units that I had.  This led to a very dangerous and stupid incident. My local scrap yard again with Herald located.  I removed the bottom bolt from the shock absorber and proceeded to remove it from the car by levering it free.  Unfortunately I had also removed the lock nut and top nut from the damper.  As most of you are aware the coil spring is under compression and if work is being attempted then spring restraining straps should be used.
I didn’t.
With a final pull the damper came free and the top spring retaining plate flew out leaving me with a gash over my eyebrow.  Feeling rather stupid but determined I removed the other damper leaving the lock nuts in place.  I followed the scrap yard owner’s advice and called at the hospital on the way home managing to pick up two stitches.  My wife was not amused.  Valuable lesson learned.

suspension
suspension

 

 

 

I later obtained a rear leaf spring and front anti-roll bar from a Spitfire Mk IV.

The fitting of the front suspension towers to the chassis complete with wishbone arms gave no trouble at all, likewise the differential, rear trunnions and radius arms.  The extended steering rack also fitted perfectly.  At last I now had a rolling chassis.

The engine of the Vitesse had sounded distinctly rough when I originally backed it into the garage (from the old MOT certificate it had completed 73,000 miles) so I had a choice of reconditioning that or obtaining a replacement.  Off I went to the scrap yard and returned with a 2,000cc straight six and £30.00 lighter.  I cleaned and stripped the engine down opting to re-bore the block and re-grind the crank.  This was carried out by Trax Engineering in my home town for the princely sum of £130 and this included a full engine gasket set.  I dread to think what the cost today would be even if I could find someone to do it.

The front brake discs were obviously 1600cc Vitesse so these together with the callipers were changed for second-hand 2000cc ones.  The discs were worn so I had them skimmed at an engineering company I was friendly with in the course of my paid day job.  I also picked up a rear differential from a 2000cc Vitesse which had a lower ratio than the 1600cc model.

diff
diff

 

 

 

Checking back on the date of the bills, which I still have, I was by that time up to May 1980.

On its return the engine was painted with heat resistant paint and re-assembled.  A new rocker shaft assembly, new valve springs and timing chain were fitted.  I think a new oil pump was also fitted.

The gearbox was then fitted to the engine.

I was now at the point of fitting the engine/gearbox to the chassis.  The two triangular brackets supplied by Spartan seemed to fit quite well together with a length of steel angle for the gearbox support.  Okay so far.
Thank goodness I was now ready to lower the body from the garage roof onto the chassis.  I was getting a little bit tired of banging my head on it.  The engine is obviously a lot longer than the 1200cc unit so I was apprehensive as to how the body would fit.

My forbearing wife Margaret, not for the first time, was called on to help.  (At the time she was actually laying 2’ x 2’ concrete paving slabs in the back garden for a patio.). As we lowered the space frame onto the chassis it became clear that my fears were groundless as the body fitted reasonably well.  Later when I fitted the two Stromberg Carburetters I did have to make two new triangular brackets to allow me to offset the engine slightly.

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It was around August of 1980 that I decided to take a well earned day off in Southport with Margaret and my daughter Catherine.  We were driving along Lord Street (main street) when a “kind” lady in a Mini ignored the traffic lights and took an instant dislike to the rear of the Hunter which I was driving.  Nowhere to go I waited for the impact which duly happened.  Its strange how this always seems to take a long time isn’t it.  The rear of the car was completely crumpled.
That was the end of the day out and we managed to limp home.

The insurance company wrote the car off giving me £300 and I took it to the scrap yard getting another £30.  It made a refreshing change actually selling him something.

I now had a real problem.

Margaret was quite happily driving around in the old Anglia to her work and the Spartan was nowhere near finished so I had to get some transport for the interim period. I bought a 4 year old Honda 200cc motorcycle.  I had owned a bike 12 years previously but had never bothered to take a test so I was limited then to a max of 250cc.  How things had changed.  The gear lever was on the left instead of the right which was a little embarrassing at first.  At least I never fell off this one.

Anyway I digress so back to the car.

I thought the wheels on the Spartan pictured in the brochure were superb.  I am pretty sure they were made by a company called “Wolfrace” but they were expensive.  The rusted old Vitesse ones wouldn’t do so I kept checking the local Exchange & Mart.  I came across five new Spitfire wheels complete with new tyres that had been bought for a kit car but were no longer needed.  I made the trip and did the deal.  The seller was in fact building Spartan but he thought the diameter of the wheels were too small so he wanted larger ones.  I wonder if he ever finished his car.

The exhaust was sorted by having a stainless one made by a company in Stockport from a sketch that I supplied and using an Astra silencer fitted on the end.  I hoped that it would not be too noisy.

The gear lever proved to be problematical.  After a lot of thought and head scratching I cut a 3” length out of the 1” square box section that supports the transmission tunnel and fitted in to the box a piece of round bar with a slot cut in it.  The gear lever was passed through the slot and fixed to the round bar.  This in effect gave me a universal joint at the lever.  A length of round steel bar was fixed to the end of the lever and attached to the linkage of the gearbox with a small flexible joint.  It is confusing to explain but I will gladly supply a sketch if anyone is interested.

For the cooling system, as suggested by Spartan, an Austin Maxi 1800cc radiator was used but rather than modifying the position of the bottom outlet I used some large bore copper pipe to transfer the position to the right hand side connecting it with rubber hose.

The gap for the belt driven cooling fan was far too tight so I bought a Kenlowe thermostatic cooling fan.  This was mounted in front of the radiator but I forgot to paint the support brackets black so it stands out like a sore thumb behind the grill.

In my old papers I came across a report originally sent to me by Kenlowe.  This is an extract from the Daily Mail in May 1979.

Quote “If you think petrol is expensive at around £1 a gallon there is a shattering prediction from Swiss economists.  They forecast a 35% rise in oil prices this year to about £1.25 a gallon for 4 star petrol by Christmas”.

I wonder what the Swiss economists forecast now.

The three ply supplied was used for the dashboard with all the instruments from the original car.  I also managed to pick up a few extra rocker switches from a Hillman Hunter.  The speedometer was registering some 70,000 miles which didn’t seem quite right so I thought why not and took the back off resetting it to zero.

dash
dash

 

 

 

The original Vitesse heater was used and an eyeball vent from a Ford Anglia was fitted on the top left of the scuttle.  Due to space limits behind the dash I used a partially flattened piece of tubing for the right hand side.  The heater controls came from a Spitfire.  The same Triumph Spitfire gave up its steering column (with ignition switch and lock) and chrome petrol filler cap.

I was by this time busy putting extra “pop” rivets in all the body panels.  Spartan had only riveted the panels for position.  I used countersunk rivets to try to get a cleaner line.  I also bought a 12ft length of Aluminium lip moulding (the same moulding as used on the boot panels) to run along the top of the doors and the engine bay.  This worked quite well and certainly finished it off.

The top anti-roll bar castings were a bad fit both to the body and the steel box section cross connecting piece.  One reason being that the tops of the cast alloy quarter panels were also not square or flat.  I ended up using a dreadnought file for hours on end to square things up.

The same dreadnought file was used extensively for the fit of the windscreen pillars.
The front wings were fitted next with no real drama although I did fit the two steel bonnet stays from the original Vitesse to give the wings a bit of support.  These had a left and right hand thread at each end of the centre boss so adjustment was easy.  (I never threw anything away.).

Christmas 1981 come and gone.

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The rear wings were more of a problem.  To make them stand out square from the quarter panels would leave a gap from the inside of the wings to the boot side panels.  I compromised but think that I never did get it quite right.
The running boards were sorted by bolting a length of wood to the chassis on each side and screwing the shaped aluminium panels in place.  These were later covered by the rubber matting supplied.

When I was young (very young) I had a model of an MG TF which flavoured my thinking towards the Spartan in the first place.  With this in mind I bought two chrome plated side lights which I fitted on top of the wings.  The rear lights were Morris Minor replacements.  The indicators front and rear were from a Hillman Imp although I think they tend to look a little too big for the front.  Maybe I should have gone for the Morris Minor type.

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The location of the battery was a teaser until I decided to box it into the foot well on the passenger side.
After checking all the electrics the fateful day arrived.  It was well overdue to see if the beast would start.  I switched on the ignition and turned the engine over but it stubbornly refused to play.  I checked the points and plugs and they were okay with a healthy spark.  I disconnected the fuel line and spun the engine to make sure petrol was coming through which was okay.  At this point I had a word with my wife’s cousin, who was pretty good with cars and he suggested timing.  Off came the rocker box cover and the distributor cap.  On checking this I discovered that the engine timing was exactly 180 degrees out.  Obviously this was from when I fitted the cam and timing chain.  The easiest way round this was to change the plug leads round.

Try again.  I took the precaution of opening the rear door as well as the main garage door luckily.  The engine fired up straight away filling the garage with smoke which thankfully soon passed.  I thought that the exhaust system noise was surprisingly muted.

This wasn’t the first engine that I had reconditioned but it was the most satisfactory.  I even drove it up and down the short drive checking the gears.

What a superb feeling.  The six cylinder Triumph engine was really smooth.

June 1981 and the Honda Motorcycle sold off, not before taking and passing the road test.

I had acquired an ex-company Ford Cortina 2000E which Margaret was happily driving while I was relegated to the faithful Ford Anglia.  We had the last laugh though. I received a call one day from Margaret that the Cortina had broken down.  When I arrived and checked the Cortina it was clear that the cam belt had given up and snapped.  There was only one thing to do.  It was a beautiful sight, the Anglia towing the Cortina (15 years it’s junior) back home.

Time for paint.  I wanted to paint it two tone blue but Margaret who has far more taste than me thought it would be better in an older style of two tone green.  So we settled on her choice, she is usually right.  The paint was obtained from an ICI stockist (Brown Brothers) where I was lucky enough to get a discount.  I had collected a monthly series of articles from Car Mechanics (late 1977) written by a gentleman called Clive Miles which proved to be invaluable.  The staff at Brown Brothers were also extremely helpful in making sure that I didn’t forget anything.  I find that people are only to willing to help especially as it was painfully obvious that I did not know what I was doing.

Part 2 of A Spartan Tale