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Exeter Stories

Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >>  │

Olive Johnson nee Nibbs - Early motoring, our first car


I would have been about 8 or 9 years of age when Dad acquired our first car. At that time, we had a lodger living with us. He would have been about 19 years old and had been my sister's boy friend for some years and with his parents having split up, he came to live with us temporarily. I mention this because it will fit in with my description of this vehicle, a lot easier than the effort we had to make to fit three of us into its back seat! My father rode everywhere on his trusty old push bike. Although lovingly dealing with motor cars daily at 'the shop' as he called Standfield & White, he had no ambition to own a car himself ... that was until one day, he saw a friend of his tootling along the road in his car at snail pace and stopped to talk to him - as one could in those days when the roads were only infrequently used. "Where are you heading?" my Dad asked him (as one does). His reply was, "I'm off to the dump - I've been offered a pound for this heap and I'm taking it!"


"Hold your horse!" my father replied, "I'll give you a pound and you won't have to spend time dumping it and getting back again on foot!" The deal was settled there and then. I think my mother was appalled when she first set eyes on it, but it was a vehicle and it did actually 'go', if rather hesitantly. It was a Rover tourer of unknown vintage and of basic structure with practically no padding. A tin can on wheels, but what fun we had with it! Dad, of course, completely overhauled it at 'the shop' and whilst no-one could disguise its age, it ran well, but when it came to loading it up with family, which included Eric our lodger who eventually became my brother-in-law, to say that it was comfortable would stretch the imagination. I doubt it was designed to take four adults and one child, but we all breathed in before squeezing in and stayed immobile until the journey was over. Dad always told us that he didn't need to fix the horn because whenever we turned a corner, the whole body swayed over and the wheel and what was laughingly called the wheel-guard joined company and the screech was all that was needed to herald our approach! We actually drove to London in that little monster, but en route the magneto played up and the lights went out, so Dad had to get out to rectify the problem. Whatever may have been said about this wreck, it was a very good pound's-worth! We only rid ourselves of this game little car when another bargain came Dad's way.

Going up in the world

A gentleman living in Teignmouth was a customer of Standfield & White, who had bought his Rover from the firm, and who had insisted that 'Freddie' was the only man to service his vehicle. When the time came to replace this with a new car, he sought advice from them and chose a new model. This Mr. Stayner had become quite a good friend of my Dad's and for some three years or so we had received, at Christmastime, a large mailed box, addressed to 'His Nibs' 3, Weirfield Road, Exeter. Inside was a fruit cake, marzipanned and iced with a scripted message ... "His Nibs ... Happy Christmas" surrounded by iced holly berries!

This indeed was not the only way in which he expressed his gratitude for my father's work on his car. Whilst waiting for the delivery of the new car, he confided to my Dad that he had been very disappointed by the very poor price they had offered him for his present car. Knowing how well it had been serviced during the time he'd had it, he knew that nothing had to be done to make it ready for sale. All they had to do was to drive it into their Sales Showroom and ask a price. Mr. Stayner told Dad that they had offered him thirty pounds, which he thought derisory. It seems that he had offered it to his daughter-in-law and she had declined it, so he would be perfectly happy to let it go to my father for the same price as Standfield & White offered. He told him that he knew Dad would be too proud to accept it as a gift, but that he would enjoy the thought that if Dad could afford to buy it, it would have a good home. It transpired that Dad had fifteen pounds to spare and that my uncle would lend him the other fifteen pounds. This Mr. Stayner had pointed out to Dad that he felt that borrowing money would be a mill-stone around his neck and he offered to keep the Rover until my father could raise the money himself! All very gentlemanly - and his Rover became our new car as soon as the money was exchanged. This was a horse of a different colour altogether! A saloon car with all the luxuries that Rover could produce at the time of manufacture. It hadn't a scratch on it and the mileage was pathetic. Whilst still living in St. Leonards, we garaged this car in a large building called Jennings at the bottom of Holloway Street in the knowledge that our new house, when built, had an integral garage in which to house it.

Accidents will happen

My sister was the one to make the most use of this car, as she had a job as an assistant teacher in a school in Exmouth. At the weekends it was used for family trips. My sister had been taught to drive by Dad when we spent our Summer holidays camping in a field above the Mount Pleasant Hotel at Dawlish Warren. Now, with this much posher car, she could swan around like Lady Muck.

The first accident was not her fault, but it caused the car to be off the road for quite a while. Sylvia was driving Mum and me into town on a Saturday and took the route through Magdalen Road. All was well until we were passing Victoria Park Road. Sitting in the back seat, I didn't see what happened, but suddenly there was a terrific crash and the car was pushed across the road, where it hit a lamp-post. I was slightly hurt by flying glass and shocked. Someone came out from one of the large houses in Magdalen Road and took me into their house, whilst my sister and Mum managed to get a call through to my father who was working at 'the shop' at the time. A young man called Beresford, had been driving a new sports car down Victoria Park Road and made the mistake of putting his foot down on the accelerator rather than the brake, thus hitting our car broadside on, pushing it over the road to be saved a capsize by its contact with the lamp-post. Our car was speedily repaired as good as new once more.

The second accident was definitely my sister's error! Always a bad time-keeper, she left home late to drive to her school...when she reached the narrow road over the Clyst St. Mary bridge, she was tearing along at a rare pace. She always met the Devon General bus at this bridge and the driver knew her well and always allowed her through first. This time, the driver was unknown to her and didn't stop for her to progress, consequently, having reached the middle of the bridge, he expected that Sylvia would stop and wait, but No, not Sylvia ... she was late so everyone had to give way for her! They met very clumsily of course, the bus pushing our car backwards through the bridge wall, leaving it overhanging the river bed, which luckily was fairly dry or a final push may have caused her to drop into the river and drown. Chaos, of course. Dad arrived with the pickup lorry and my sister had treatment for a broken nose. This was the end of our treasure! Dad listened to Sylvia, who swore it was not her fault and took the case to court. Against the Devon General Company and all the 'witnesses' in this bus. Dad lost the case and the cost of repair to the car and replacement of the wall was so high that he had to borrow to settle the bill. We never owned a car after that.

© 2006 Olive Johnson - David Cornforth

Olive Johnson nee Nibbs was born and brought up in Exeter. Her father, Fred Nibbs, was employed at Standfield and White, in Sidwell Street. The family lived in Weirfield Road. She married in 1942. After the war, she returned to Exeter to bring up her sons. She has since moved away from the city. In these extracts from her emails, she remembers her family's first car and other incidents during the 1920's and 30's.

The 'pound' bargainFred Nibbs next to the 'pound bargain' Rover with Granma (mentioned in another story) sitting in the car. The Rover Fred Nibbs and Olive, his daughter, in front of the posh Rover - 1930's. Sylvia's first crash The Rover after the Magdalen Road crash - the lamp post is on the left. Fred Nibbs is trying to release the rear wheel.

PC Barrett
I wonder if anyone alive can remember one of our most vocal policemen. His name was Barrett. He was a large man and with his tall helmet, black cape and penetrating voice, no one could miss him! Wherever he was, he would direct the traffic, whether it was needed or not. Woe betide any driver who disobeyed his directions - his voice would have raised the dead! I can see him now, standing in the middle of the road in Sidwell Street, waving his arms about and shouting his orders. I wonder what happened to him!

I do remember my father telling me about an occasion when he happened to pass P.C. Barrett in Heavitree Road whilst riding home on his bike and stopped to have a word with him. The constable was ranting on about the owner of a car which he reckoned had been parked in an illegal place and he was about to rout him out and give him a bit of his tongue. Dad waited until the constable returned, not with his usual bombastic swagger but more like a dog with his tail between his legs ... the owner had been one of the top Exeter council officers and apparently he gave P.C. Barrett more than he bargained for! My father was very tickled about this. This constable was a real character - they don't come like this, these days!

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