From wreck to Riches: Bruce and BMW the perfect motoring marriage

If Bruce Riches hadn’t taken a ride on a double decker bus through a rural Norfolk village in 1970, his 81-year-old Frazer Nash BMW may still be rusting away in a field.

At the time, the 319 sport cabriolet – believed to be the only surviving example in the UK – was serving time as a makeshift chicken coop.

“I was travelling on the bus and there was the car in a field in Castle Rising, being used for the chickens,” says Bruce, who waited a year before going back for a closer inspection.

An old wreck lying around

“When I first saw it I didn’t think it was anything special – it just looked like an old car, an old wreck lying around. But when I had a closer look a year later I saw that it was something special.

“We knew it was worth bringing back and restoring – you didn’t see many old BMWs about.”

The car was owned by a local haulier, who Bruce says probably just left it to rot after it stopped running.

“Old cars back then weren’t particularly sought after, to be honest,” he says, sitting in the dining room of the 19th century cottage he’s owned since marrying wife Christine in 1969.


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My last £25 in the bank

“We knew it was worth negotiating, and I spent my last £25 in the bank on the car. I told him If I ever sold it I would give him first refusal, and if I ever did sell it I would still do that.”

Not that selling the car he’s owned for 46 years is even up for discussion, with petrolhead son Stuart or daughter Kirsty earmarked to one day keep the BMW in the family.

“I’ve had no offers over the years, but it will never be sold anyway,” says Bruce, a retired TV engineer.

“It will be passed down to my daughter or son. They’ve got a good choice of cars!”

A successful racer since his 20s, Bruce is referring to a collection of road and race cars that includes a 1959 mark 5 Elva, one of only 13 built, a 1936 Riley two-seater special, a Noble 23, a Morgan Plus 4 and his next restoration project, a 1960s Jeffrey kit car.

Christine, gearing up to walk the dog on a bright autumn morning, is something of an automotive widow, but admits to a soft spot for the couple’s oldest car.

“He’s not allowed to sell that one,” she says. “That’s my favourite. I drive it back from the pub when he goes to meet up once a month with the car enthusiasts.”

She thinks it’s her car

“She thinks it’s her car – we let her think that,” laughs Bruce.

After towing the car out of the field and back home to Great Massingham, a picturesque village in north Norfolk, the white 1936 BMW with red leather interior had to wait its turn while Bruce worked on other projects.

“We didn’t have a trailer so we managed to tow it home with a piece of wood between two cars,” he says.

“I put it in the garage and it deteriorated really for about 10 years. In the meantime I bought some Bristols that needed work, so that’s what I did.

“My incentive to get it on the road was my daughter’s wedding – she wanted to use it so I had to get it finished in time.”

An evolution of the 303, the first BMW to bear the distinctive kidney grille, the 319 was introduced in 1935 with a larger capacity 1911cc, triple-carburettor, straight-six engine married to a four-speed ZF gearbox.

A year earlier, British car-maker Frazer Nash had secured the rights to import the cars to the UK, and in most cases the cars were assembled in Middlesex using bodies made here.

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Just 32 of its type worldwide

But Bruce’s car, a 319/55 sport cabriolet, was bodied in Germany by Reutter, who were later responsible for coachwork on the Porsche 356, and is now one of just 32 of its type worldwide.

It features independent front suspension and rack and pinion steering, “almost unheard of back then” according to Bruce, plus drum brakes all round, since upgraded to a hydraulic system.

After years in a field, and nearly two decades in Bruce’s garage, the old car was in a sorry state.

“The wooden frame needed replacing in places, and the bodywork was badly corroded at the back in various places,” says Bruce, who started repairing his own cars as a teenager because he couldn’t afford garage charges.

“I had enough contacts who could help me with the woodwork and the bodywork, and I did all the mechanics myself. The only major part I needed was a crown wheel and pinion for the differential, which had to come from Germany.

Ready for the wedding

“The whole thing was done in stages and it took about four years, but I had to hurry up towards the end to get it ready for the wedding.”

Thankfully, Kirsty got her dream of riding in the car on her special day, since when the BMW has been a regular, and an award-winner, on rallies around the county.

“Old cars are there to be driven and enjoyed,” he says. “They need to be used; they don’t like to be just sat there or they will seize up.

“I use it for the local rallies, like those run by the King’s Lynn and District Motor Club, which gives you a nice run of 80 to 90 miles, and the Broadland MG Owners Club, which is about 200.

“I don’t tend to show it and sit in a field all day. It’s a car that’s used rather than a show car. The only time I don’t take it out now is for the New Year’s Day run. We used to do it but there was lots of salt on the roads and it was a nightmare.”

The car is an important part of the couple’s social life, with the Forties weekend run by the North Norfolk Railway a highpoint of the calendar, as well as Bruce’s monthly meetings with the Vintage Sports Car Club (VSCC).

“We take the car there every year, we dress up in Forties gear and have a nice weekend,” says Bruce. “I think rather than us taking the car out, it takes us out and about to events. It’s one of the reasons for keeping it.”

As we drive around the village on our photoshoot, Bruce’s car attracts plenty of attention. It’s something he’s used to.


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They’ve never seen one before

“They tend to want to know what it is, and the history,” he says. “They’ve never seen one before. It’s fairly rare after all. They just want to look at it, we’ve never had any problems and on the Forties weekend we park it up and leave it all day.”

On the road, thanks to a home-built exhaust, the little roadster emits a throaty snarl and is well capable of keeping up with modern traffic on Norfolk’s winding back roads.

“I make exhausts for every car I’ve got,” says Bruce, now 70 and still racing on the MG Car Club vintage circuit. “I do like to hear the exhaust a little bit, to hear if the engine is happy, I must admit.

“Although I can keep up with modern traffic at 55 or 60mph, drivers don’t give me enough braking space. I can’t stop like a modern car and they don’t appreciate that. They see me coming in this little old car and think I’m doing 25, but I’m doing 55 and they pull out in front of me.

“The main problem I have with it is getting stuck in lorry tracks because of the skinny wheels. If I come across those it wants to follow the lorry tracks wherever they go.”

Bruce’s love affair with cars began in his teens, when his father – an engineer in the RAF – would pass on advice but “didn’t want to get his hands dirty”.

“The first car in my family was my Ford 100E van, and I couldn’t afford to take it to the garage so I repaired it myself,” he says.

“I learned from reading books, magazines and just having a go myself. There was no internet and nothing useful on TV.

“I met Christine at 16, and her father was a car mad man. He ran a little bus company, and I used his garage some of the time and he used to help me.”

Need for speed on the racetrack

Bruce’s passion soon developed into a need for speed on the racetrack, starting off in karts at around the time a young Nigel Mansell was cutting his teeth en route to F1 glory.

After starting his own TV repair business, karts gave way to the vintage sports car racing he still enjoys today in the Elva.

All told, his racing exploits have yielded a haul of about 60 trophies, testament to his skills not only as a driver, but as an engineer, his latest win coming at Cadwell Park in July.

“I enjoy working on the cars, and making them go as best they can, ” he says, showing us round a garage crammed with rare racers and motoring memorabilia to go with the vintage petrol pump that nestles in a corner in his house.

“I spend most of my evenings working in the garage until about 10.30pm. People won’t believe it but that’s my relaxation – it’s very relaxing out there rather than sitting in front of the TV getting wound up. People think it’s work but it’s not.

“I’ve been asked to do other people’s cars, but it will never happen. Once you do that it stops being a hobby and becomes work.”

Sign of a good marriage

He says his long hours in the garage are a “sign of a good marriage!”, though Christine admits: “I don’t like him racing if I’m honest, unless it involves a holiday to Jersey or Spa…”

She says son Stuart, who owns a Westfield and a mark 1 Mini, has “inherited the faulty gene”, and father and son enjoy track days in their own cars.

“The two of us do it – it’s a chance to let your hair down and put your foot down in safety,” he says.

“Some days Stuart’s quicker than me, some days I’m quicker than him.”

With the Frazer Nash BMW, first sold to a TAW Thorpe in London NW3 in 1936, still attracting admiring looks outside, Bruce shrugs off any sentimental attachment to this piece of pre-war automotive history.

“I’m not emotionally attached to any car – they are a mechanical thing I enjoy,” he says.

It’s unconvincing – after all, he’s been with car registration DMD 917 for almost as long as Christine.

Pressed further, he admits: “After nearly 50 years and having spent all the time with it in the garage, I must be fairly attached to it.”

Now worth more than 100 times the £25 he paid for a sorry wreck full of chickens in a field, Bruce says the BMW is worth more in memories than any amount of money.

“I’ve never bought an old car to make money on,” he says. “I would not sell it no matter what it’s worth.”

Just like his partnership with Christine, Bruce and the Frazer Nash BMW are clearly a motoring marriage made in heaven.

More information about vintage BMWs can be found at the BMW Historic Motor Club, of which Bruce is a member.

Photos by Simon Finlay.

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