Nice piece of kit
There was a time when building your own car was all the rage – and it saved you a lot of money. BBC Radio Norfolk’s David Clayton recalls the world of kit cars.
Okay lads, do you remember those splendid Airfix kits when you laid out some newspaper on the kitchen table and painstakingly stuck bits of grey plastic together to make that Spitfire?
No, I never had the patience to paint mine either and yes, I know the aroma of the glue gave you a few heady moments – but we’re all still here – we survived.
My mother used to shout at me to open the window and keep the glue off the Formica table top! With all that in mind let me take you back to another quirk of a more innocent age – an age when there were but three channels on our TVs, The Man from UNCLE always followed Top of the Pops on a Thursday, you could buy a packet of Acid Drop Spangles for 3d and significantly there was no such thing as VAT.
There was, however, something called Purchase Tax and while you probably didn’t pay it on Spangles you did pay it on a new car … unless . . . unless you built it yourself!
Cars were a good bit more basic and there was nowhere to plug in a diagnostic computer, which was probably bigger than the car anyway, back then. It really was just four wheels an engine and somewhere to sit – the overall mechanical bits of cars were more straightforward then.
One of the main kit car manufacturers was Norfolk-based Lotus. You could, if you were well-heeled enough, buy a car from the showroom ready to drive away or – and here’s the loophole – save the Purchase Tax and build it yourself from a kit supplied by Lotus.
Take, for example, Jezz Hookham’s car. He’s got his late father’s Lotus Elan and a fine looking, desirable car it is too, these days. Back in 1969, Jezz’s dad bought it in what was called “component form” to construct himself and here comes the all-important sums. Had he purchased a Lotus Elan straight out of the showroom he’d have parted with £1,768 16s 0d back in 1969. Get the Elan in bits from Lotus to knock it together yourself and you only had to kiss goodbye to £1,353.
Now, I grant you, £400 isn’t that much especially today when you seem to get twice that knocked off a sofa in a spectacular and seemingly endless SALE, but cast your mind back to the end of the Swinging Sixties and it was a veritable fortune – enough of a saving to make it worth building an Elan yourself.
That’s what the late Mr Hookham Senior did and Jezz is now the proud owner. Unless you knew the home-build truth it is a perfectly normal Lotus Elan and Jezz has all the paperwork to prove how it was “born”. As he told me, his dad was a bit of a hoarder but thankfully because of that we can revel in this quirk of tax-avoidance car purchasing by checking the paperwork.
Now before you think too hard about the last flat-pack furniture you struggled with, let me reassure you the Norfolk-based Lotus boys would part-build the car into basic sections with a set of instructions.
You could bolt part A to part B attaching the correct bit of C in the process and with a bit of patience you had built your Elan. You then started it up – hopefully – and took it to the Lotus factory or a local Lotus dealer. They’d inspect it and if all was well they’d issue you with a warranty as if it was a new car. Bob’s Your Uncle, or possibly Colin, in this case! You had a brand new Elan and saved a quarter of the price.
Sue Miller runs a business she started with her late husband, Mick at Kelsale near Saxmundham and knows all the ins and outs of kit car Lotuses. She says the boast was you could buy a Lotus Seven, Europa or Elan on a Friday and have it built and running in time to drive out to a pub lunch on Sunday.
Chris Blyth worked for the Norfolk Motor Company on Sprowston Road in Norwich in the late Sixties, from where you could order immaculate, fully prepared Lotuses from their showroom which were displayed side by side with an equivalent car in bits.
He recalls people buying them to save the iniquitous purchase tax. Some would happily build their own, but there was another slightly spurious short cut. A nearby mechanic would take delivery of your kit car and put it together in 24 hours for a fee. Okay, you’d pay him his dues but you were still quids-in on the full Purchase Tax list price. According to Sue Miller she and her late husband Mick did the same for kit car purchasers, but were you really supposed to have any professional help or could that technically negate the purchase tax dividend? Who would really know if you did?
Sometimes people would order a Lotus in kit form and have it delivered to the mechanics’ home address rather than their own – but don’t tell anyone now, will you! Mechanics, used to the work, could build one overnight for around £30, back in the Sixties.
Chris tells me he used to sell Elan kit cars and the components were side by side in the showroom with the normal ready-to-drive-away models. So you could have walked in to Norfolk Motor Company and seen a body shell, chassis, engine and gear box, drive shafts etc which must have been strange, but they did sell a good number of Elans in kit form.
It was part of the deal for the amateur builder to bring the car back and have it inspected and road tested. According to Chris, who now owns Brundall Motor Company, they always had to particularly check the brakes and ride height which amateurs never used to get right. Chris says Norfolk Motor Company would go to the trouble of registering and taxing the car at Norfolk’s County Hall for the customer, which is where you went to tax your car back then. Remember the queues!
He even recalls a tale of a mechanic who bought a Lotus Seven in kit form for himself and with the help of his colleagues had it built by the end of the working day – and they started it at 3pm. They were road testing it before they went home for the day! It slightly flies in the face of the rules as Chris remembers them. He says it was okay to have professional help to build the car, but it had to be done on private premises. That’s what actually got round the purchase tax thing.
It was the introduction of VAT in the early Seventies that took away the tax advantage of building your own kit car, except for the die-hards who were doing it more for the love than the financial saving. These days quite a few manufacturers produce cars in kit form and they still have their enthusiasts. There’s a saving from what might be a full-build price, but perhaps it’s the “I did it myself” feeling and the distinctiveness of owning a car you know intimately.
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