It’s December 1954, and 12-year-old Peter Sloper is in hospital recovering from appendicitis and waiting for his father Sidney to pick him up in his new car.
Sidney had plumped for a Ford Zephyr Six, Dagenham’s ‘53 Monte Carlo Rally winner, after rejecting a Vauxhall Velox because his wife Mabel didn’t like it.
Nearly seven decades on, the big saloon Peter travelled home in that day remains his pride and joy, a veteran of 125,000 miles, two restorations, and a part as a police car in a John Le Carré TV film.
The Zephyr has been a constant in Peter’s life as the winds of change swept through his home parish of Laindon in Essex, subsumed within the Basildon new town’s post-war sprawl.
“I think it’s part of me sometimes,” he says. “I have so many fond memories of it, and when I’m out driving it all comes flooding back – the family holidays, nights out with my mate, trips to Torquay.
“I still enjoy driving it, and it’s a bit of a family heirloom now.”
The Sloper family is steeped in Laindon history, his grandfather William founding a dairy in 1906 and starting a milk round, carried on by Sidney and then Peter before the realities of cheap supermarket milk saw business dwindle and he sold out to Dairy Crest in 2003.
More change then, but, like his passion for the Zephyr, he keeps the past alive, owning a 1953 Ford Popular milk van, a 1947 electric milk float and two hand-operated electric milk perambulators.
Regulars at the Goodwood Revival over the past 20 years will have seen all of Peter’s vehicles completing parade laps of the track.
“I had a phone call in 2000 from Julius Thurgood at Goodwood asking if I could bring my electric milk float,” he says. “I told him I also had a little Ford milk van and a Zephyr police car, so I took them all down with my friend.
“One year, we loaded the milk float up with Champagne, right up to the roof, and had to go down the pit lane dishing it out to all the drivers.”
Back to the 1950s, and Peter remembers going on the rounds with his father for the ride while he delivered milk, eggs and cream to his customers, and helping his mother stock the general store at their purpose-built dairy in Laindon.
After leaving school at 15, he got an office job in London, being too young to drive the milk vans for the family business.
“I didn’t like travelling into London, on steam trains in those days, so I started on the milk round when I was 17 in 1959,” says Peter, who passed his motorbike test on a James and drove a three-wheeled Reliant van before taking his car test.
“I passed my test first time in a Bedford CA milk van, which I was used to driving. The only trouble was, it didn’t have a passenger seat so we put a milk crate there for the examiner to sit on. Those were the days!”
By the time he bought his first ‘proper’ car, a 1934 Morris 10, Peter was already well-acquainted with his father’s Zephyr.
“We used to go away on holidays as a family, staying in hotels and touring round Devon and Cornwall, as well as Wales,” he says. “The first time I drove it was on an old airfield in Devon. “Dad also let me borrow the car and I’d go down to Torquay quite a bit with my older brother John and my friend Michael. I’ve never been a fast driver, so dad was fine with it. He trusted me.”
While Peter never had an accident in the Zephyr, he did once reverse into it while driving an old Fordson E83W milk van in the dairy yard.
“I dented the door, which we had fixed,” he remembers. “It was just one of those things – dad never lost his temper, he was a very placid man.”
The 26-year-old Morris 10 was bought as a doer-upper, and Peter went to a breakers yard to find another headlight.
“Anyway, at the breakers I found a better car than the one I had, bought it, and got it home somehow,” he says. “I started it up and there was a big hole in the engine, so I took the engine out of the one I already had, reconditioned it and put it in that one.
“I always liked old cars and I used to like playing about with them.”
With the Morris sold on, Peter bought a new Thames 300E van, used to deliver milk and as his personal transport.
A free Zephyr
But in 1966 his father bought a new Rover 2000TC, and passed the 12-year-old Zephyr on to Peter, free of charge.
“I used it every day until 1976,” he says, the big Ford proving a reliable conveyance, other than the usual wear and tear. “I’ve had very few problems. A distributor pin broke coming home one Friday night in the 1970s, but I got it home and it was nothing serious.
“I’ve also had a half shaft go – they are prone to it. I went down to Benfleet to pick up some spares, went to pull away, and ‘boom’, the half shaft broke. They towed me back here, which is not far, and I got it fixed.
“I also needed a new steering box, and ‘New Ford Part’ in Preston sent me one for a Consul. I was off on holiday, so I drove it up there and got the right one. But when I got there the radiator was leaking, so I got a new one of those while I was there too.”
Peter was living on the premises at the dairy, so the car was used solely for days out until 1969, when the Basildon Development Corporation compulsorily purchased the Laindon High Road dairy and knocked it down to make way for a roundabout.
He moved with his parents to Herongate, near Brentwood a few miles away, and commuted to Ray Whife’s small dairy, also in Laindon, the pair teaming up to form Whife and Sloper.
Enter the Capri
Peter met his future wife, Pamela, in 1975, and the following year he took delivery of a company car, a new Ford Capri 1600.
“We made a lot of money one year and the accountant said ‘we’ve got to spend this money’,” he says. “I’d always fancied a bit of a sports car, and we went up to Scotland in that on our honeymoon.”
The Zephyr, however, had been their wedding car, and Peter couldn’t bear to part with it.
“I liked the car, it’s a nice car, and I’m into old cars, so I kept it,” he says. “I’ve never thought about getting rid of it, because it’s a bit of a family heirloom.
“From 1976 it became a show car, and I joined the Zephyr mark I club when it was formed in that year.
“The biggest problem was that I didn’t have a garage for it at first, when I was commuting, and it deteriorated a bit.”
Peter tidied up the car himself, sourcing a pair of front wings from rust-free Australia and getting a friend to respray it.
Peter and Pamela attended mostly local shows in the Zephyr, which was considered a ground-breaking car when it was launched in 1950.
It was the first mass-produced British car to use MacPherson strut independent front suspension, and the first Ford to use a monocoque construction.
Powered by a 2,262cc straight-six engine producing 68bhp, the Zephyr had a top speed of about 80mph and returned 23 miles per gallon.
The couple travelled further afield for the Norwich Union RAC Classic Run in 1990, travelling to Norfolk on the Saturday and staying overnight with a friend.
“Off we went on Sunday through all the country lanes nearly all the way to Donington,” says Peter, now 79. “When we got there we had to make two laps of the circuit. It was a warm day and we got a bit of petrol starvation, but we made it to the end and got a medal.
“Once it had cooled off it was all right, and we got back home after doing 300 miles in one day.”
The same year, Peter was approached by someone from the Zephyr club and asked ‘do you want to be in a film?’
A Murder of Quality
John Le Carré’s A Murder of Quality was being adapted for ITV, and they needed period police cars to appear.
“The chap who was doing the props for the film, Dave Watson, got in touch with me and asked me to bring the car to Richmond on the Friday,” says Peter. “He set it all up with the police gear in his workshop and we drove down to Sherborne in Dorset.
“They shot all through the night in December – I got so cold it was unbelievable. They had this double decker bus there for us to sit in. After filming, they put us up in a hotel and the next day we drove home in the snow. They paid us £200, which wasn’t bad, and it was a good experience.”
The police props were removed in Sherborne, but when Peter returned home he got in touch with Watson and asked if he could keep them.
“He said yes, so I picked them up in London where he lived – combining a trip to my mother-in-law’s – and brought her back with me,” he says. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
So now the Zephyr is fitted with a (fake) police radio, window sign, and sirens, and he’s since added some props of his own including a truncheon, handcuffs, police driving manual and a uniformed doll…
Wedding police car
“I just thought it would make the car more interesting at shows – something else for people to look at,” he adds. “I’ve done a couple of weddings with it as a police car, and they love it. I dress up as a policeman, I’ve got all the gear.”
There were trips round the Ford test track at Dunton, and the company’s rally proving ground at Boreham, before rust reared its head and something needed to be done.
So in 2005, the Zephyr went to restoration specialist Emlyn Bowdler at Stourbridge, who unearthed a whole heap of trouble.
“It was becoming tired and sad looking and a bit rough – there were rust bubbles on the bottom of the doors – but it was far worse than we thought,” says Peter. “He kept finding more and more rust. He made a really good job of it – it was well worth it.
“Eighteen months later, I met him at a Mk1 club meeting at Buckingham and collected my car. I was glad to have it back home.”
Apart from a service, the engine required no work, and the only major upgrades since have been a new headlining and the addition of overdrive picked up at the Enfield Pageant of Motoring.
We head off to the Wat Tyler Country Park in Basildon for photographs, and Peter describes what it’s like to drive a 1950s car in the modern era.
“It is a bit of a struggle these days, with the heavy steering and the brakes, but when you get down to Goodwood and you’re driving it all weekend you get used to it,” he says.
“The overdrive makes a lot of difference to cruising along at 60mph, it reduces the noise and uses a little less fuel. Coming back into a modern car is very different.
‘My dad had one of those’
“I get a lot of people saying ‘my dad had one of those’, and asking if it’s a real police car.”
And what of the future?
“I’ve never wanted to sell the car ever since my dad gave it to me, and I’ve no plans to sell it now, even though the prices some of them are fetching are unbelievable,” he says, with some cars selling for more than £25,000.
“My step-son is interested in cars, he’s got a Mk1 Cortina, but whether he’ll want to take on mine I don’t know.
“Other than that, I thought about the Ford heritage museum at Dagenham, but I don’t know if they would take it.”
Until then, with the Zephyr, the Ford milk van and the electric float, Peter will proudly keep motoring and Laindon history alive.
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