There is something very satisfying about spending one of the first warm weekends of spring outdoors. Warm enough not to feel chilly, though not yet with that feeling of being in a warm bath from the air temperature one gets in the summer. Green buds showing on all the trees, the crows mobbing the buzzard when it came too close to their nest site, and a bumble bee meandering through the emerging greenery.
I was outdoors because I was reassembling the Wreck's engine. Nothing too challenging, just a long sequence of parts to put together.
Well, I say nothing too challenging. But I was struck as I have been before: with my engineer's eye I look at some of the assemblies and wonder why on earth they designed them as they did. The nut at the rear of the carburettor that requires either a 1/2" spanner with a 45 degree bend, or else a 2" long shaft. Or the exhaust manifold, the centre two fixing nuts of which can only be done up slowly by hand with a ring spanner.
I once saw a documentary about the Wreck and its derivative cars. It had a section on the factory which was newly built for the Wreck's model line. I am guessing my car would have been built in its first few months. The documentary went on at length about how advanced the production line was, and how it was one of the first major factories to use CCTV for inspection. Very impressive, but I can only now think of those manifold nuts. If it's such an efficient factory it's churning out Wrecks at an impressive rate, right up until the point at which they attach the exhaust manifold. At which point there's a bloke with a ring spanner laboriously tightening up those two middle nuts by hand. No super-quick air tools will fit on them. It took me a couple of minutes to do each one, I'm guessing someone practiced could shave 30 seconds from the time. Or more likely not tighten them up properly, which I suspect is why the original manifold gasket had burned away around the two central exhaust ports.
When Austin unveiled the Mini in 1959, the engineers at Ford famously bought one and dismantled it completely to cost its production. Their concerns that it would affect their Anglia model were muted when they concluded that it cost more to build than its list price. Looking at the Wreck's design, sometimes ingenious yet more often downright baffling, I can only conclude that the disease of poor manufacturing design was not limited to Austin's engineers.
There are many theories about the decline of the indigenous British motor industry. In the 1950s and 1960s cars like the Wreck, the Mini or the Anglia were ubiquitous here and in many other countries, by the 1980s and 1990s their successors were something of a national embarrassment. The misty-eyed will cite trade unions, dodgy Russian steel, bad management and disloyal consumers, but they rarely look at the cars and admit that some of them just weren't very well designed. Comparing the 1980s Austin Metro I had in the mid '90s with the 1980s Volkswagen Golf I had at the end of the '90s was a revelation for me. Instead of a machine that required all sorts of know-how for fixing hard-to-reach parts which kept failing I had a car that just worked. And kept on working, even though it had had a hard life before I owned it and drank cheap oil as a down-and-out drinks Special Brew.
I love the Wreck, with all its quirks. It's a slow car with major handling flaws and woeful brakes, but it's fun to drive and I like its period styling. But that won't blinker me as to why its successors are no longer in production and the site of the factory where it was built is now a housing estate.