My dad once owned a Triumph Herald estate. This was a dark blue box on wheels with white rubber bumper overrides that left marks on people’s trousers, and a 1200cc engine donated from a Triumph Spitfire. My dad’s car had twin carburetors and was fractionally faster than a normal Herald. It also had an exhaust made from off cuts of other exhaust pipes. It bowed in the middle, and on undulating roads would scrape on the tarmac and was rather louder than it should have been.
The mechanical cacophony was made worse by a worn differential that moaned loudly. As a child I would sit in the back on long journeys barely able to hear myself think. On one trip the family parrot came too. Its cage sat on the luggage deck inches from the back of my head, the towel draped over it did nothing to stop the parrot expressing her displeasure at the noise by shrieking constantly into my left ear.
Eventually my dad replaced the noisy diff and secured the exhaust properly to the car’s underside, and it became a lot quieter –although the parrot did not. By then we’d all rather bonded with the Triumph, partly because it was impregnably reliable, not something that could be said of its predecessors.
This was in the 1970s, when Heralds were everywhere. Triumph made 14,000 Herald estates, so my dad owned a very ordinary car. He eventually sold it to help finance the purchase of an early, 1,000cc, Honda Gold Wing motorcycle, which is now a real collector’s item, but so, apparently is the workday Herald estate, as only about 130 of the 57,000 built are still on the road in Britain. Recently I went to visit one.
It’s a much-loved 13/60, owned for the past thirty years by Phil Willson, who bought it as a family hack, and being a Triumph fan (he’s a big noise with the Triumph Sports Six Club), never got rid of it. The Herald has a Meccano like quality, with a separate chassis frame and a body bolted together, so Phil was able to strip the car completely, repair, rust proof and restore it, in a way that, had he given the work to a professional old car restorer would have cost far more than the car is worth, which is why there are still loads of much-loved Herald convertibles, but few estates.
I’ve written a book, out next year and likely to be called ‘An Estate Car Named Desire?’ about growing up with cars from the 1960s onwards. This features my dad’s Herald. We’re still looking at ways to illustrate it, so Phil kindly agreed to let me take his car’s picture as a source of inspiration. I also went for a spin in it.
My dad said goodbye to his Herald when I was 13, so Phil’s seemed a lot smaller than I remembered, but then cars have generally grown in the past four decades. I was also struck by its neatness. For a utilitarian little box, the car had simple good looks, and with very slim pillars, absolutely superb vision. However, the Herald dates from 1959, a mostly pre-crash test, pre-crumple zone era, so it also felt very insubstantial.
“You take your life in your hands whenever you get into a car like this,” said Phil with a shrug. Well, that’s progress. When he turned the key the starter motor’s chatter, the engine’s warm mechanical hum and the sound of the four-speed gearbox made the years fall away. Phil chatted happily about using the car when it had a tired engine that burned oil and required three serious top ups on a 160 mile trip to see relatives. It’s now beautifully preserved, but rather like my dad’s estate had once been a bit of an old banger. Not any more, and it’s not hard to see why. Everything about the way the car looks and feels has become increasingly old fashioned, which is part of its charm, but charm is something it had from the day it was built. There are plenty of classics that handle better and go more quickly than Phil’s Triumph, but for sheer friendliness it’s hard to beat. Perhaps that’s why I remember my dad’s car with such fondness.