Alva’s topless Camaro: five decades of fun

Alva Williams has parked his topless Chevrolet Camaro SS in the High Street for some photos, and the locals can’t get enough of it.

Driving past, a man shouts out from his BMW “are you selling it? I’ll buy it”, a hatchback driver yells “I’ll swap you”, and a pedestrian gets his phone out and starts snapping away.

It happens wherever Alva goes, and it’s one of the reasons he bought the striking muscle car back in 1974 and has never considered selling it, despite some dark financial times.

“I was a younger man when I bought it, 33 and still a bit of a silly bugger, and it was just wonderful – the looks you got, roof down, arm on the side,” he says, back at home in Kent.

“It means the world”

“It means the world to me, the absolute world. Everyone knows me for the car, it’s like I’m part of it. I see blokes I haven’t seen for five or six years and it’s ‘still got your car?’ not ‘how are you feeling?’

“I’ve never, ever considered selling it. I had some tough times with money back in the ‘80s, but you get through and keep pushing on. I could have sold it then, but it was never an option and I’m glad I kept it.”

Born in Wales in 1941, Alva’s family moved to the south east when he was two and, after leaving school and starting a carpentry apprenticeship, he bought a succession of motorbikes from the age of 16.

“I was one of the Ton-Up Boys in the mid to late ‘50s,” he says, as an Elvis clock in his lounge announces 11am with a jangle of rock ’n’ roll. “I’ve had about 30 motorbikes, the first was a used BSA 250, then a brand new one followed by a Triumph Tiger 110, Gold Flashes and then mainly Triumphs.

“I got married in 1962 and got my first ‘car’ the following year, an Isetta bubble car.”

Then came an Austin A35 van for work and a series of Vauxhall Crestas and Ford Zodiacs, followed by a Vauxhall VX490.

“I had so many cars – I chopped and changed all the time,” says Alva, now 80. “You could in those days because the cars weren’t expensive.”


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In love with Americans

All that was to change when Alva fell in love with American cars and bought his forever Chevy in 1974.

“I started really getting into American cars when the chap that owned the Crispins fish and chip shop in Sittingbourne bought a Chevrolet Corvair – the dangerous one that’s supposed to break away at the back,” he remembers.

“I got friendly with him, we’d have a chat when I used to go and get my fish and chips, and I saw this Corvair and thought it was wonderful.

“He took me out in it and I thought ‘this is nice, I’d like to have one of these’. He had it for a couple of years and then he bought the Camaro.”

It was the 1967 Camaro SS that now sits proudly outside Alva’s house, not too far from the fish and chip restaurant still run by the Crispin family.

Alva paid £625 for the car when Mr Crispin decided to buy a camper van instead, but the Chevy came with a distinctive odour.

A bit fishy

“I always remember it – I went to pick it up from Whitstable, where his brother owned a fish and chip business,” he says. “When I opened the back of the car it stunk, because when he used to go and get the fish he used to put it all in the boot. Honestly, it took me weeks to get rid of the smell. I completely washed it right through but it hung about for a good time.”

So what made him buy a gas-guzzling muscle car in 1974, when the oil crisis had sparked a steep rise in petrol costs?

“Look at it – who wouldn’t buy it?” he smiles. “The power it had; I thought my VX490 was quite quick but when I got in that, wow.

“The petrol situation didn’t put me off. I’ve been down to Wales on holiday in it and, on a run, you get about 20 to 22mpg, but if you run round the town you probably get 15 to 18.

“What makes it sound hideous now is that you get about 60 to the gallon even from the big cars, but in those days a Zodiac or Cresta would only do 20 to 25 to the gallon so it wasn’t much different and you kind of got used to it.”

The Camaro was launched in 1966 for the 1967 model year, and the SS was the performance model fitted with a 5.7-litre (350 cu in) V8 producing 295bhp at 4,800rpm and 380lb ft of torque at 3,200rpm.

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All the gadgets

Alva’s car is fitted with power steering, electric windows, a power-operated hood, hideaway lights, and a two-speed Powerglide transmission.

“The only thing it doesn’t have is air conditioning, but then it is a convertible,” says Alva, who believes the car may have originally been exported from the USA to Italy before coming to London.

“I know it’s a European car because the speedo is in kilometres, and the previous owner in London was an Italian bloke.”

With a pick-up truck for work use, the Camaro was used purely for pleasure, including ferrying his children, Donna and John to the seaside.

“They absolutely loved it,” he says. “We used to go down to Margate and, in those days, believe it or not, I could leave it with the roof down all day with no worries about anyone touching it. If you did that now it would probably be gone, on the back of a lorry.

“On Sundays, I used to take my boy in it to play football. I’d pick his mates up just to take them out in the car – you can imagine, John sitting there ‘go on dad, go on dad’. I was probably the most popular football dad.”

Alva also had plenty of fun in the car on his own – possibly a little too much fun.

“I used to be a bit of a Jack the Lad and I’d go out in that with my mate driving his yellow E-Type convertible,” he remembers. “They were the sort of guys I used to run around with, into their cars and women.”

Big freeze

After eight years of trouble-free motoring, the Chevy was not so lucky in the big freeze of December 1981 and January 1982, when UK temperatures plummeted to record lows.

The car spent the winter in his now ex-wife’s garage to keep it out of the worst of the weather.

“It was in there for a long time, and one day I went to get it out and it started up on the button,” says Alva. “I reversed it out, looked underneath, and there was water coming out. I thought ‘ugh, frozen the radiator’.

“Looking closer, the ice had split the block – it was that cold, even in the garage.”

Out came the engine, and Alva accompanied a mechanic, a good friend from his Ton-Up days, to London to search for a new block.

“We couldn’t get anyone to weld the split, so we went to a car breaker and found a ‘67 F-model block,” he says. “There was no wear on the top of it, but he honed it all out and put all the original pistons and everything else back in. So although it’s not the original engine, everything’s original apart from the actual block.

“It was off the road for probably nine months, and that’s the only time it’s been out of action since 1974. It’s been good ever since, although I had the head skimmed about two years ago because it was running a bit lumpy and losing a bit of water. That cured it.”


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Back to blue

Originally Nantucket blue, Alva had the SS resprayed primrose yellow many years ago to match his friend’s yellow E-Type.

But about three years ago, with the paintwork showing signs of wear, it was time for another change.

“It had a couple of little scuffs on it, nothing too bad, but I thought I’d bite the bullet and while I was on holiday in Spain my mate sprayed it for me,” he adds, opting for a Mini blue that’s as close as he could find to the original colour.

These days, the Chevy is used far less than in it and Alva’s heyday, a Jaguar saloon now the daily driver, but he and John enjoy taking it to a handful of American car shows in the summer.

“We go to three or four a year, not as a show car, just to park it up,” he says. “Although we did take it to Brands Hatch about three years ago, just with a ticket to get into the show.

“We drove in and the bloke said ‘show?’ I said ‘yep’ – I thought he just meant ‘are you here for the show?’ but then it was all ‘come this way’ and we were all in line with the show cars. It was really good, but we didn’t win anything!”

From father to son

Looking to the future, Alva hopes that John will one day keep the car that’s been such a huge part of his life.

“Both him and Donna love the car, and he’s on the insurance and he’s got a key so I encourage him to take it out,” he says. “If it’s a nice day and I’m not around I’ll say take it, but he’s a bit reluctant. He says ‘well, it’s still your car dad’, and I’ll say ‘yeah, but come on, it’s got to be used’, so he has taken it out a few times. He says he will keep it, and I really hope he keeps it alive.

“My granddaughter, who’s 27, also loves it, and I’ve also got a four-year-old great granddaughter. You can see how old I am, can’t you?!”

We’re coming towards the end of our chat, and Alva is thinking of the past, the fun he had, and how the memories flood back when he takes the car for a blast.

“The years fall away,” he says, eyes moistening as he thinks of the friends he has lost. “All the lads, the Ton-Up boys, they’re all gone, so you’re out on your own now basically.

“But the attention you get in the car gives you a lift. If I take to Asda, which I don’t do very often in case it gets dinged with a trolley, when I come out it’s swamped with people.

“It’s never the same as when you’re young, but I get a lot of pleasure out of it, I really do.”

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