The One That Got Away

The Ones That Got Away: A guilt-ridden Jonny Smith on the cars he wishes he’d saved

by Charlotte Vowden
2 November 2022 6 min read
The Ones That Got Away: A guilt-ridden Jonny Smith on the cars he wishes he’d saved
Images courtesy Jonny Smith

“I can’t change the past but I do feel guilty about three of the cars that are no longer in my life. One was scrapped, one still lives (kind of) by the skin of its teeth, and one was exported to the Netherlands and I never saw it again. 

The first is the family car I grew up with; a Hillman Avenger estate 1600 Super in deep metallic green. It’s the car I got taken home from the hospital in when I was born, went to school in, and learnt to drive in; I was about 10 when I mastered the gearshift and clutch control. 

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My folks bought ‘MHY 781R’ in 1976 in preparation for having a family, I think my mum was pregnant with my brother, Greg, at the time, he was born in ’77 and I was born in ’79. It got used every single day and although it wasn’t an exotic car I thought it was cool because it looked a little bit American at the front end. Avengers live in the shadows of the Escort, and I like to champion the underdog.

I remember the Avenger catching fire once. I was on a bus that overtook a car abandoned on the hard shoulder and my mates were like ‘that’s your mum’s car isn’t it? It’s on fire!’ The Avenger was getting a bit long in the tooth by that point and mum had a sense of humour failure about it, so when it started smoking she just got out, walked away and said ‘I’m not having anything to do with it!’ Thankfully, it didn’t burn to the ground. 

I’d bought a VW Beetle ready for when I passed my driving test, but when the day came, the battery was flat. Good old dad, always thinking, had the left Avenger with a full tank of fuel as a back up, so I got in that, called on my mates and went into town for a cruise. I nearly crashed because I was staring at some girls and forgot I was in control of the vehicle; I had to do an emergency stop. A few days later I got pulled over and told off by the police for messing around in a McDonalds car park. They searched the car, which had all my dad’s engineering and surveying gear in it, and confiscated his pick axe because they said it was a dangerous weapon – he was livid.

My dad was a hobby RAC man and nursed the Avenger for 22 years. He’s always been a preventative maintenance person so the Avenger spent a lot of time up on axle stands having various things done to it, but this was pre-internet so getting car parts was harder and involved scrap yards. My parents never had breakdown recovery so dad would take a full tool kit and spare battery everywhere. Watching him work on it helped to propagate my interest in cars. 

Jonny Smith Hillman Avenger

The interior was scorching in the summer because the seats were upholstered with black vinyl. If we were wearing shorts, me and my brother used to sit on a tartan blanket to stop us getting third degree burns. That blanket now lives on in one of my cars.

In 1998, encouraged by me and my brother, dad finally traded the Avenger in for a Ford Granada. Cars were built really badly back then so it had a good innings and amazingly still had its original engine and gearbox. It’s since been scrapped, but I’ve still got the ignition key and my dad has still got some parts; he’s a bit of a hoarder.

The Avenger, whilst not strictly mine, is still very much in my head because it has a place in my heart and it’s on my list of cars that I must own, I am going to get an Avenger. Nostalgia can become an expensive disease! I’d like a project, but wouldn’t do an homage car, it would be a two-door restomod with a Ford Duratec and five-link rear suspension so that it’s really drivable and fun.

The second car that got away was a factory right-hand drive Pontiac Parisienne; I went halves on it with my mate Lewis in 2004 and we paid 600 quid each. We’d been to the MG liquidation auction at Longbridge hoping there might be something interesting to buy, but sacked it off because the prices were out of control and a friend had tipped me off to the whereabouts of this car, so we came home with an American land yacht instead. It had been parked under a tree on a housing estate in Birmingham and was covered in algae; it looked green but was actually blue.

Factory RHD American cars are so rare yet people in the UK don’t seem to value them, they are cruelly overlooked, but I think they are fabulous. They were special order cars so were seen as glamorous because it was mostly rock stars and well-heeled people that could afford them. We used to keep ours on the driveway outside my rented house and we ran it on a shoestring. 

One of the things I’ve always liked about American cars of that era is that you feel like you are in a movie when you’re cruising around, you can pretend you’re somebody else, somewhere else, just for that drive – it’s such brilliant escapism. It had a really cool number plate as well, ‘NUC 8E’ which we used to call ‘nookie.’

Jonny Smith Pontiac Parisienne

Lewis bought my share of the car in 2007 because I needed the money to put into another American car. He had grand ideas for its restoration so stripped it down but life got complicated, the job went to the back of the queue, and it’s been there ever since. He knows how upset I am about it and I feel real guilt that I let him dismantle the Pontiac and not put it back together. That car should live again because it’s so handsome, albeit very rotten now because half of it was left outside. We need a plan to resurrect it.

The third one that got away was a really practical and beautifully made 1984 Mercedes W123 series 200T estate. I needed a cheap runaround and my brother stumbled across it on a farm in Dorset when he went to buy a dozen chickens. It had been parked in the corner of a field for years and used as a chicken coop and when he asked the farmer how much he wanted for it, the bloke said ‘give me a penny.’ So, my brother gave him a penny, took it away and being a lovely dude, steam cleaned the whole interior because it was covered in feathers and poo. I drove that car every day for four years. I even spooned a V8 that was in pieces on its back seat one night when I was too drunk to pitch my tent during an outdoorsy stag do. 

A bin man almost wrote it off with his truck when he reversed and gouged a hole all the way up the side of it. I had to battle with the insurers to keep it but the damage was superficial so I went to various old school scrap yards (which are inspirational places especially if you are building a project car!) and used eBay to find new panels. They were all different colours, so it became known as the harlequin Mercedes. 

It was a dependable car and we shared many happy miles but it was dog slow if you didn’t manually shift the auto box on the motorway; people would get right up behind you. In 2008 I was about to put some proper money into it with a restoration but the recession kicked in so I had to put it up for sale. A guy in the Netherlands bought it for £600 and I’ve never seen it again. I hope it’s still around. 

My brother and I have tried to take on our dad’s mend and make do mentality. He grew up in the post-war era when you had to look after stuff because there wasn’t money flying around, and as we enter into a time when we’ve got to be even more thrifty than we’ve ever been I want to encourage people to do that in the car world. I love second hand cars, there is so much good stuff out there that gets weighed in, brilliant cars get killed every minute of every day.

I have a habit of over-cramming my life with cars (I went to a car boot sale once and bought a Mk2 Polo for £15 that wasn’t even for sale) and although you can’t keep them all, I feel guilty about the Avenger, Mercedes and the Pontiac because I should have seen those projects through.”

Discover what quirky classics and ‘carchaeology’ barn finds have been pushing Jonny’s pedals lately via thelatebrakeshow or visit his website here.

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