“I became motorised at nine years old. The parish priest left me a two-seater 1922 Harding invalid carriage with tiller steering in his will. He lived next door to us in Northern Ireland and I used to take him grapes that my father had grown in his greenhouse, when the priest was dying.
The Harding was made in Bath; it had a 250cc side valve JAP engine, a three-speed motorcycle gearbox and tiller steering. I had no idea what rallying even was back then, but I was interested in cars and mechanics so to actually get my hands on something that I could drive was exciting.
I got permission to drive it round the dirt roads of a nearby private estate. The brakes only worked on the rear wheels so it used to skid, that’s how I learned about car control and how to make handbrake turns.
When kids learn to ride a bicycle they think it’s great, they go too fast and knock their teeth out. Well, I didn’t want to do that with this car, my first car, because it was wonderful. I’ve had very few crashes in my life, if any, I’m lucky I’m not very good at it.
I drove it on the road once, with my elder brother who had a licence. We didn’t go very far and it only did about 30mph – it had a very unreliable air-cooled engine. Of course, I became quite a good mechanic because it used to break down a lot. I learned how to rebuild it and therefore learned a lot about the engineering of cars.
I can’t remember why it got taken away and scrapped, I think we moved house from outside Belfast to inside Belfast and there was no room for it. I was into motorbikes by then anyway, the Harding was difficult to drive on the road and the image of going along in a ‘Bath’ chair was not my idea of getting about in style – it wasn’t a vehicle that I was able to take girls out in.
I became a professional rally driver in about 1955 and travelled all the way around the world. Years later, during a BBC radio interview, I was asked how I started driving and spoke about the Harding. I said I didn’t know where it was, then someone rang up from Dulwich in London and said they had a similar vehicle that they’d bought from Northern Ireland – in bits. I paid a visit, and there, in one of the boxes of pieces and parts was my number plate; IJ 9670.
I didn’t tell them that it was my car because I knew if I did the price would go up – I’d even hidden my Porsche round the corner. I’ve got no idea how it got from Belfast to London but I bought it with the hope that it could be restored and driven again. I did a lot of research, I inspected drawings and photographs then visited Bath to find out about the company that built it.
At the time I worked with a charity called SKIDZ, which supported young people at risk of going off track by helping them access motor mechanic courses. The mechanics teaching them got the rebuild going in their spare time before a friend who I’d met working for the British Motor Corporation finished it. It was a slow process but it’s pretty much as it was – even the same colour – when I first had it.
I took it to the Kop Hill historic hillclimb charity event and my friend Mary Berry came for a ride with me. I didn’t take her all the way up the hill, we only went a short distance, but we raised a lot of money. I hadn’t driven the car for 75 years and it got quite a lot of interest. It’s now in The British Motor Museum at Gaydon.
It was exciting to see the Harding come back to life, but I’m sad to say it was never dear to my heart. When I think about it now though, looking back at how I found her, I suppose it is a bit more of a story than I realised.”