THIS IS A COPY OF AN ARTICLE FROM THE PRE-WAR AUSTIN SEVEN CLUB MAGAZINE
This month sees the 50th anniversary of VJ Day (August 15) following closely in the wake of the Victory in Europe celebrations and the UK government’s marking of the conclusion of WWII with various ceremonies including a pass over London by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. This is the last opportunity for some years to come, and sadly, but inevitably, the final chance for a lot of people to commemorate the momentous events of the 1939-45 era. It goes without saying that the Austin Seven played a significant, though often inconspicuous role, in this unparalleled story. One such car is BBM 69, a 1937 Ruby. BBM’s tale is not unique and if you know of the part your car played in the War or any dramatic events in which it participated we would like to record its heroism in the pages of the Magazine.
Just before 9.pm on the night of November 25, 1944, Wellington bomber LN242 took off from Chipping Warden airfield near Banbury. Minutes later, with only 300 feet of altitude the port engine’s number five cylinder retaining studs sheared. Inevitably the pilot, one of a seven-man crew, could not control the aircraft. The scene was set for one of the worst tragedies in wartime Oxfordshire. Has this anything to do with Austin Sevens? What was about to happen was horrific, but at a different level it laid the cornerstone in the history of what must be a unique Ruby. BBM 69 is a 1937 ARR de-luxe saloon. On that fateful night she was being driven through Upper Boddington by a new owner. Monty Smith was a ground crew sergeant at Chipping Warden and he had much to make him happy that day. Not only had he a splendid grey and black Austin to replace his three-wheeler, one of the reasons he needed the larger car was that his wife Phyllis had just given birth to a son and he was on his way to hospital to visit them. When LN242 hit the 16th Century manor house at Upper Boddington it was already on fire. Having struck the ground it ploughed through the garden wall and orchard and into the south wing of the house. Its recently filled fuel tanks ruptured and aviation spirit drenched not only the building but also the grounds. ‘In a minute the top of the house was ablaze; the whole place was filled with cascades of flaming petrol,’ said Hilary Brooks whose family owned the manor and who was climbing the stairs with her parents when the bomber hit. The south wing was home to Charles Tester, a member of Sgt Smith’s crew and on duty at the time of the crash; his wife Evelyn and their two young children, the three of whom were to perish. The flames and heat that were turning the house into a furnace did not deter Monty Smith. He ran from the Ruby and actually managed to reach the bedrooms of the south wing. By now his own escape was barred and he leapt from a window into a tree before falling to the ground miraculously unhurt.
His courage unabated he then had to be physically restrained from re-entering the house to rescue a dog trapped in the blazing kitchen. Monty had to discard his service greatcoat, due to the effects of smoke and heat, when he arrived at the hospital he failed to mention what had happened on the way, leaving Phyllis to wonder why he was out on a cold night without a coat.
After the war Mr Smith moved with his family and BBM to run a garage in Suffolk.
The car, which had originally been Banbury-owned, by a bus operator/driver now took on the role of general runabout and taxi.
She performed these duties until 1961 by when the Ruby had acquired a new coat of black paint. Mr Smith then sold her to an owner who would take the car to London.
Shortly after though, the story took a remarkable turn. Monty Smith’s daughter, Dianne, and her fiancé, were looking for their first car and Dianne came upon BBM in Thetford. Under intense marketplace pressure from Dad she outbid her parent by £5 with £25 and brought the Ruby back into the family. The man Dianne was about to marry was none other than our own Lincs Group Secretary, Ed Davies who now takes up the story. ‘The Austin was re-sprayed again and we used her for work and pleasure for about two years, even going on honeymoon in the car. ‘In late 1964 the engine gave up the ghost and BBM was left to gather dust and rust’. Monty stored the car hoping to restore her when he retired, ill health intervened, and BBM languished in the garage, a home for several mice.
Happily in 1998 Ed and Dianne decided to restore their Ruby and handed her over to craftsman par excellence Ian Bancroft. Now finished in maroon and black BBM was ready – by a day – for the couple’s 35th wedding anniversary in March 1999 and carried them to a celebratory lunch. And as a testament to Ian’s superb work she has completed a marathon holiday trip through Spain and into France without problem.
BBM has all the charm of any Ruby, but most would agree that one of her most endearing characteristics is both a niche in wartime history and the lives of one family.
This article was prepared with the assistance of Dianne and Ed Davies.
As a postscript, on their way to the Millennium Celebrations at Gaydon, Dianne and Ed called at the house and were invited in by the present owners, who still turn up bits of aircraft in the garden to this day. The oak beams in the rooms are still blackened from the effects of the fire, and the garden gate is still bent. Dianne found the experience very moving. During the same trip they showed BBM to the sister of the man who sold it in 1944. She remembered the price (£75) and still thought it excessive even for an Austin Seven.