British Motor Museum Volunteers

British Motor Museum Volunteers

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A Star in an Exorbitantly Priced Car

Volunteer Collections Centre guide Cameron Slater tells a fascinating story of what he believes to be the Star Car of the Show at the British Motor Museum.
Star quality is a very rare thing. The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice spend millions every year searching for people who have it.  From its very beginnings, the Hollywood film industry has based an entire philosophy of business, art and entertainment on the idea of “The Star”. Since then, every form of entertainment has had to have “The Star of the Show”, “The Top of the Bill”; today’s leading film actors are not just stars but megastars … and so the hype goes on.
I was reflecting on this one day in the Collections Centre while I was gathering my thoughts for the 1.30 tour. What, I wondered, was our “Star of the Show”? The 1955 Bentley Continental Fastback? The Queen’s P5B Rover? The 1936 MG Magnette NB? The very last of the Issigonis Minis? Well, no – it’s none of these, and not even the very latest Land Rover Discovery either. I decided that the real Star of the Collections Centre had to be the 1950 Daimler “Green Goddess” DE36 Drop-head CoupĂ©, which is from the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust collection.And I am not alone in this because it’s one of the cars about which we get more questions and comments than any other.

1950 Daimler “Green Goddess” DE36 Drop-head Coupe
Now this is hardly surprising. The car is a supercar long before the name was thought of. It’s enormous and magnificent with the flowing lines of its coachwork by Hooper, painted in a two-tone design of silver-grey and deepest blue and the hood is made from the best black mohair. It’s powered by Daimler’s own  eight cylinder, five and a half litre engine which develops 150 hp and gives the car a top speed of …… 83mph!! This hardly compares with the 200mph plus performance of today’s McLaren or Bugatti Chiron, but the Daimler is not made for speed; it’s made to be a statement about real star automotive quality and in any case, it weighs in at a shade under three and a half tons. You only have to open one of its two doors to feel the weight and to appreciate the engineering that has gone into that wonderful, solid, metallic ‘click’ when you shut it. So there it sits, lording it over everything else around it. A Star.
The information board tell us that it was one of seven such cars built to the design of the original Green Goddess (because it was painted green, since you ask). The Hooper-bodied Coupe was introduced at the 1948 London Motor Show although the DE36 chassis had been available since 1946. The first Green Goddess was run by Sir Bernard Docker, who was at that time the Chairman of BSA Industries, the owners of the Daimler Motor Company.
Those of us who have reached a certain age will remember Sir Bernard and Lady Docker who were, I suppose you could say, the Posh and Becks or maybe The Kardashians of their day. Their extravagant exploits in the London social scene of the early fifties kept the gossip columns (and frequently the front pages) of the popular newspapers full of tales of a lifestyle that the rest of the country could scarcely imagine in their wildest dreams. Where our Green Goddess is chromium plated, theirs, I seem to remember, was gold plated and they tended to favour zebra hide and ivory for interior trimmings. All this in the early 1950’s when the country was still reeling from the after-effects of the Second World War and when just about everything was severely rationed. Nothing succeeds, as they say, like excess.
But back to our information board which also tells us that the first owner of the Daimler was a New York opera singer called James Melton. Now I have been going to ‘The Opera’ since the early 1970’s and I know a bit about opera stars of the past, but I had never heard of James Melton. So I did some research and I discovered a Star in an Exorbitantly Priced Car (with apologies to Jeremy Clarkson). Our Daimler which James Melton bought and had shipped out to New York cost £7,000 in 1950. I looked this figure up in an inflation calculator website and the 2018 equivalent is £235,200. So this guy must have been some opera singer to be able to spend that kind of money on a car.
Many hours of internet-surfing later, I discovered that he wasn’t just an opera singer – he was a popular recording star, a film star, a radio star, a television star, a concert singer and, yes, an opera singer; and it wasn’t just one car – it was a hundred cars and he owned his own motor museum, first as the Melton Museum of Antique Automobiles in Norwalk, Connecticut from 1948 until 1953 then as the James Melton Autorama in Hypoluxo, Florida until his death and the closure of the ‘Million Dollar Museum of Motoring Memories’ in 1961. So, yes, some opera singer!
Melton was born in 1904 in Moultrie, Georgia. His musical abilities were obvious from an early age and developed during his time at Florida State University. He went to New York in 1927, determined to be a singer and joined a singing group called Roxy’s Gang at the Roxy Theatre. He then joined a vocal quartet called The Revellers as lead tenor and performed with them across the USA and in Europe until 1933.
But from the late 1920’s he was also a recording star in his own right. He had a beautiful light lyric tenor voice of the kind that was very fashionable at that time. He recorded for the major record labels of the day - Brunswick, RCA and Columbia - with a repertoire that included such gems of popular sentimental song as I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.
In 1934 James Melton went solo and established himself on concert tours (including one with George Gershwin) and on network radio. However, as the thirties progressed, Melton’s style of singing began to go out of fashion and he found himself competing with a new, popular style of singing-star such as Bing Crosby. Melton continued to broadcast on national radio, but he knew his career was at a major turning point so decided to become an opera singer.
Now, today, this would be a very unusual step, but Melton made it work. From 1938, he appeared in various regional opera companies in the USA, singing major roles in operas by Puccini, Verdi and Donizetti. His operatic career reached the heights when, in December 1942, he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York where he remained as a leading tenor until 1950.
During the 1950’s, however, James Melton’s career went into decline. He had been a star in almost every form of musical entertainment, but time and alcohol began to take their inevitable toll of his voice and the huge popularity of singers such as Mario Lanza, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Perry Como meant that Melton gradually disappeared from the scene. 
As I said earlier, James Melton’s other passion was his fine collection of historic motor cars. He was, in fact one of the world’s earliest private collectors of historic cars, especially from the period the Americans call The Brass Era and we in Britain call The Veteran Era.
By the time he set up his first museum, The Melton Museum of Antique Automobiles, in Norwalk in 1948, he had amassed about fifty-five cars as well as bicycles, car accessories, model trains and music boxes. As the collection grew, it became clear that the Norwalk museum had become too small and Melton built its replacement in Hypoluxo, Florida. So in 1953, the James Melton Autorama was completed and in typical show business style the cars were driven – under their own power - in cavalcade and with maximum publicity from Norwalk to the new building in Hypoluxo.
The collection by this time numbered about a hundred cars, some of them extremely rare and important. The oldest was an 1893 Custom Steam Coach and the collection had a number of early steamers including a Stanley Steamer Mountain Wagon and a White Steamer. It also contained a 1900 Rockwell Hansom Cab which was thought to be the first New York City taxi, a fabulous 1913 Peugeot “Skiff”, - a Type 150, 4 cylinder, 40hp roadster with a 7478cc engine. Melton’s personal favourite was, apparently, a 1907 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost which had been the very first Silver Ghost to be imported into the USA.
So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in the great days of his musical career, he often appeared in a radio show called The Firestone Hour which was sponsored by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company; his own weekly radio show in the thirties was sponsored by Texaco; his weekly television show in the fifties was called The Ford Festival and was sponsored by the Ford Motor Company. And it was Melton who first sang Back Home Again in Indiana over the PA system at the opening of the Indianapolis 500 in 1946 which then became a tradition that continues to this day.  
Our Green Goddess, therefore, is not only a star in its own right, but in 1950 was bought by a genuine star in the old Hollywood tradition. And you can see both the car and the star in the YouTube Video below...
Alternatively you can watch it via YouTube visit
The visuals accompanying the music include a photo of James Melton and friends, in front of the American Airlines office somewhere in New York, with our very own 1950 “Green Goddess” Daimler DE36 Drophead Coupe right there in the foreground of the picture – where the real stars always are. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

1960 STANDARD ENSIGN (Part 18)

The engine runs and the car moves – a big day

Our last blog described how, for just a few seconds, the restoration volunteers finally managed to fire up the Ensign again for the first time in many years. However, because the car is located on the first floor of the Collections Centre in the public viewing area, any further running would have to be done in the workshop. So recently, following a final check over and the completion of the instrument wiring, the car was ready for its short decent to the workshop below.

The Ensign on its way down to the workshop in the vehicle lift

As the photos illustrate there was a good turnout of the restoration team, who were on hand to help or just watch this big test of their hard work. So, with space cleared in the workshop, connection to the exhaust extraction system in place and around two gallons of petrol added, everything was set up for the big moment. Whilst the team could smell petrol, they weren’t totally convinced it was finding its way via the pump into the carburettor and the engine initially lacked any sign of life. However, a quick check of the still exposed fuel tank and then a look at the workshop manual confirmed that the car’s reserve tank tap was in the off position!

Thursday, 4 January 2018

1960 STANDARD ENSIGN (Part 17)

Fitting the fiddly bits and the engine fires
Progress on the Ensign has been quite slow recently, due to the time involved reassembling all the fiddly bits on the car. Everything was photographed when the car was originally stripped down and this pictorial record, plus the extensive workshop manual we acquired have proved invaluable as the rebuild has progressed.

The fitting of things like door seals, lock mechanisms, wiring looms, brake pipes, steering column and engine ancillaries has taken many hours. Even what should have been the fairly straightforward job of refitting the front and rear windscreens was not without its problems. New rubber seals had to be sourced and then cut and the actual fitting process required a bit of expert help from the Museum’s workshop staff.

Fixing the door lock mechanism and inserting the chrome strip in the rubber window surround

However, the most encouraging news on the project for some time has been that the engine, now installed with all its ancillaries, was at last fired up recently for a short period. Just to recap the engine is a 1670cc OHV straight four, which we believe had done around 83,000 miles. The block had a slight crack, which we’ve had professionally repaired and new pistons and rings have been fitted. A new water pump was required and the original radiator was refurbished with a new core. Given that the car currently resides on the first floor of the Collections Centre a further running and testing of the engine won’t be possible until we can move it into the workshop. The fact that it appears to work OK, has been good for morale.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

Volunteer Collections Centre guide Cameron Slater tells an interesting story relating to nostalgia and how one car in the collection brought back teenage memories.

One of the satisfying things about being a guide in the Collections Centre is seeing people’s reactions to cars that were once important to them. It’s the Nostalgia Factor and we see it all the time. “I passed my test in one of those” or “My dad used to have one of those” or “That was my very first car”. Now, although I can tick off four cars in the Museum that I have owned at some point in my classic car career, I was never particularly affected by the Nostalgia Factor because I’ve got loads of photographs of them and some very vivid memories of good and bad times with all of them.

Until, that is, I started putting together my tour for visitors to the Collections Centre. I usually begin on the first floor with the 1900 Daimler and contrast it with the 1950 Green Goddess Daimler which neatly illustrates 50 years of automotive development by the same company. It’s a good talking point and gets people thinking about the differences between the two Daimlers and about the way cars have developed over the years.

My next talking point is the 1912 Rover Landaulette which, at some stage, belonged to Lord Catto, who became Governor of the Bank of England in the 1940’s. So there’s a lot of mileage (sorry!) in this car in terms of the changing role of the motor car and the rise of the car as a part of business life and the distinction between the wealthy owner and the not-so-wealthy driver or chauffeur.
The 1912 Rover Landaulette is on the first floor of the Collections Centre
As I did some research into the history of the Rover, however, I discovered that it had been part of the Sword Collection. Now for those of you who think this is part of the Royal Armouries in Leeds, let me set you right. John Cuthill Sword, born in Airdrie in 1892, was a wealthy businessman in the West of Scotland who built up a transport empire which included Western SMT Buses, well known to all who travelled in Glasgow and the west of Scotland in the 40’s and 50’s and Midland and Scottish Air Ferries, which flew out of Renfrew airport and which, much later, became British Midland. Over a number of years, Sword amassed an outstanding collection of veteran and vintage cars, many with a Scottish connection. So there were Albions, Arroll-Johnsons, Beardmores and Argylls as well as Daimlers, Sunbeams and other famous and exotic marques.

Sword died in 1960 and part of the car collection was put up for auction in 1962, and this is where my nostalgic memories begin. I would be about 15 or 16 at the time and totally obsessed with cars of all kinds since childhood. My dear old Dad suggested that he would take me to East Balgray, the Sword estate in Ayrshire to the viewing day for the Sword Collection auction. Of course I jumped at the chance and we made our way into rural Ayrshire along with a large proportion of the petrol heads of all ages in Glasgow and the West of Scotland and places much further afield.

The cars were stored in barns and sheds and my recollection, at a distance of more than fifty years, is that most of them seemed to be in pretty poor condition. But this was a major sale because some of the cars were very rare and most of them had never been seen since Sword acquired them.

All this came back to me when I was looking into the history of the Collections Centre’s Rover Landaulette. And the Nostalgia Factor was not so much about the cars, but about my old Dad who’s been dead for more than twenty years now. He was often a bit distant and his job meant he spent a lot of time away from home, but on that weekend in 1962, he must have thought that I would enjoy seeing these marvellous old cars and that it would be a day out for just the two of us. It had the added effect that it brought us a bit closer together; not only did he start letting me drive his company car – which was a pretty risky thing for him to do (away from the public roads of course) - but when the time came, he got me through my driving test at the first attempt, aged 17.

And I never looked back – at least not until I discovered that the 1912 Rover Landaulette in the Collections Centre had been in the Sword Collection all those years ago.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Awards time for volunteers

It’s hard to believe that five years have passed since August 2012 when 53 volunteers were recruited, by the then Heritage Motor Centre, as part of their lottery funded campaign for the building of a new Collections Centre. During that time we have carried out full vehicle surveys of every vehicle in the collection and all relevant mechanical data, renovated cars and engines, attended shows and exhibitions and worked on an oral history project. Then in February 2016, we finally became guides at the new Collections Centre.

The class of 2012 in the motorsport section of the main Museum
Of the original volunteers, 27 remain actively involved at what is now the British Motor Museum, in some or all of the above activities. To recognise our five years of service the Museum, and its Managing Director Julie Tew, kindly invited us all to a reception recently where we were all thanked for our dedicated service and help. Twenty three of us were able to attend and were presented with a certificate and a five year service badge, followed by tea/coffee and a specially made, rather large chocolate cake.

It should be pointed out that since the Collections Centre opened in 2016 and with an increasing number of visitors, a lot more volunteers have now been recruited. We now number around 80, allowing four guides per day to be on duty for the full seven days of the week that the Museum is now open.

The cake, in all its glory is shown above, together with Julie Tew presenting Oliver White with his certificate and badge. Oliver incidentally has in fact been a volunteer for over 11 years, having started well before the current volunteer programme began. He’s a former BBC editor who spends a lot of his time in the sorting and labelling of film material for the archives department.

The awards news doesn’t end there though, as for the second year running, the British Motor Museum had two entries accepted for the annual West Midlands Museum Development Volunteer Awards. The ceremony was hosted by BBC presenter Sarah Bishop at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 19th September. Volunteer Mark Bradbury was nominated for the individual “Above and Beyond” category for his work in moving, collating and displaying the Museum’s artefacts, whilst Vince Hall was nominated in the “Collections” category for his work leading the oral history team and in particular for all the editing he has undertaken. Both finalists received recognition of their achievements from the judges with Vince declared the worthy winner of his category.

Above are some members of the oral history group alongside one of the recently installed audio consoles in the main Museum. Vince is in the pale blue jumper knealing at the front and his Winners’ tile plaque is shown on the right.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Great British Women in the car industry – a volunteer reports

During June, volunteer Ian Hicks, who played a large part in organising the Museum’s Symposium back in March, received an invitation along with Emma Rawlinson, Family and Lifelong Learning Officer, to attend Autocar’s celebration of Great British women in the car industry.  This is Ian’s account of the day;

This is the second year that Autocar magazine has recognised and celebrated the rising women stars of the British Motor Industry. The event, to inspire more women to consider a career in the industry we love, was hosted at the home of English Rugby, Twickenham stadium.

The panel on stage

The current imbalance between the numbers of men and women in the industry is dramatic.  By shining a spotlight on those who have both reached the top, and the industry's brightest rising stars, Autocar and the organisers hope more women will consider the rich, exciting careers that are open to them.

The day was really inspiring with talks and panel discussions with the great and the good from across the British Motor Industry. There were some interesting insights into development of the Land Rover Velar, and the Riversimple hydrogen powered car, a whole new concept in vehicle “ownership.”

It was inspiring to see how many women had achieved senior roles in the automotive industry, Emma and I had a really enthusiastic conversation with Helen Emsley, the Head of Design at General Motors in US. It was interesting to hear how they do all their styling in-house and have their own model-makers, carpenters and artists-in-clay to create and better control their vehicle styling.

Emma and Ian

Emma and I were able to network and build contacts for future events at the Museum. As ever, it was really gratifying to hear pretty well everyone had heard of British Motor Museum and were all, to a man (or maybe woman) really complimentary about what we do.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

1960 STANDARD ENSIGN (Part 16)

Assembly now well underway

It’s been some time since our last blog on the Ensign, which covered the decisions and processes regarding the vehicle painting. Whilst some areas of the bodywork will still require final attention, the rewarding job of assembling all the components, including the engine, is now well underway.
The saying goes, “every picture tells a story” and the following photos clearly illustrate some of the work the restoration volunteers have undertaken recently. It is perhaps worth reminding readers that this whole restoration project has been done by different teams of volunteers working on different days, and been coordinated by a log written up after each day.


The first of these photos shows the new door seals that were required being fitted. The second shows glue being applied to the roof interior prior to the sound proof padding being attached. At this stage the car was still attached to the swivel vehicle frame, which allowed the car to be worked on at various upside down angles.

These photos clearly show the engine bay before and after the engine was fitted. Again some new parts were required as can be seen, with a new brake servo on the left and new copper brake pipes in the centre.

With most of the wiring now installed in the car, things like the front and rear lights can be fitted

Following the installation of the engine, the gearbox has now been fitted as well. As you can see the interior wiring looms are now all in place, so one of the next tasks will be to fit the dashboard and all the instruments.

So, as this last photo shows, our Ensign is looking something like its original self again. There are still a lot of fiddly jobs to be done and a few minor problems to solve, but at long last the end is in sight.
Don’t forget when visiting the British Motor Museum you can see the Ensign being worked on. It’s situated on the first floor of the Collections Centre and the volunteers will be only too happy to chat to you and answer any queries you may have.

To read the full restoration story click here