Mirabelle Classic Cars

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All steamed-up

A story by Andrew Bywater on how not to treat your Morris Minor.

"Yes, I'd love to go for a drive next weekend" said Joyce, my Mother-in-law, little knowing what she was letting herself in for. The plan was to drive up to Whixall near Whitchurch in Shropshire, complete a little business and then be back home in Cannock in time to take my wife Judith to a wedding. "On time" being more critical as she was to play the church organ.

Joyce had once owned a 1958 clarendon grey 2-door, reg. WFD 891, which she had bought from new in order to learn to drive. She passed her test and the Morris gave many years service until replaced by an Austin 1300. It is now some years since she stopped driving but still likes to go for a country run with me in my 1957 clarendon grey Morris "Maybelle".

I bought Maybelle in 1993 and since then I have been carrying out a rolling restoration mainly, as with most Minors, on welding repairs to the rotten bodywork, consequently I had spent little time on the mechanicals other than general maintenance. This was to be her first long-distance run, about a 100-mile round trip. I had recently fitted a temperature gauge which I thought would help me to keep an eye on things, and just in case I put a fan belt and a gallon of water in the boot.

The morning of the journey came … a glorious summer's day, later to turn out the warmest day of the summer. We journeyed down the A5 from Cannock to where it meets the A41 then heading north towards Whitchurch. I always enjoy this route through rolling farmland, the roads are generally wide enough for other traffic to pass, enabling a steady pace to be maintained without forming a queue. Joyce sat beside me soaking in the sights and sounds of the journey.

I completed my business a little later than planned at about 12.30. This gave me an hour and a half to drive the 50 miles back to Cannock, get washed and changed, and ready to leave for the wedding at 2 o'clock; I would have to "press on" a bit! By now the sun was high in the sky and the air temperature was about 28oC as I maintained a steady 50 to 55 mph which Maybelle seemed to be taking in her stride. As we approached the A5, about 15 miles from home, the temperature gauge began to rise to somewhere between normal and hot on the Smith's instrument. I decided to ease off the pace a little to 45 mph to give her chance to recover, after all I reasoned it was a hot day and I had been pushing the pace a bit.

I arrived at Weston Park as the needle of the gauge hit the stop at "H". I convinced myself that the gauge was probably faulty and I couldn't really stop as the A5 is a clearway being quite narrow for some distance at this point. I continued in denial for some distance further, weighing up whether it was better to stop and let the engine cool down and possibly be late, or to press on and risk it. I decided on the latter; Joyce sat looking out of the window apparently oblivious to the turmoil in my mind.

We reached the "Spread Eagle" pub at the junction of the A5 and the A446, no signs of steam from the bonnet, no red charge light indicating a broken fan belt, but Maybelle was now beginning to get a bit sluggish. With about 4 miles to go the goal was in sight and with thoughts of the engine internals turning blue, I set my jaw, the red mist descended and I pressed on "death or glory"!

A strange thing happened at the next island as we crossed the M6, an elderly man in a Ford Escort seemed to be going slower than we were, didn't he know if I let the revs drop the engine would probably seize? Obviously not as his hand waved limply out of the driver's window; if his slow-down signal had been a little more forceful I would have realised that he meant me. By the time I realised what he had been trying to do it was too late, we had passed him - what did he know that I didn't?

It was with some guilt that I saw him drop in line astern 3 cars behind us, I had unwittingly spurned a helpful gesture from that stranger, my main concern now was that Maybelle didn't die in front of him! At Longford island, notorious in the Cannock area for being choked with traffic, I half closed my eyes as we entered the melee and much to my relief we exited unscathed. The relief was short-lived however as turning off the A5 we were really struggling to make any headway at all accompanied by an ominous "top-end" rattle. I almost pulled over at this point on a relatively quiet stretch of road, but after all that had happened we were only a mile-and-a-half, and one hill from home.

At this point I should warn those of a nervous disposition or with any degree of mechanical sympathy not to read on!

Cannock by-pass is a hill split into two sections of dual carriageway, the first of which we made up at about 20 mph with yet more rattling. As we crested the brow of the second section there was a momentary silence from the engine until it "bump-started" back up again, more coasting now than cruising down a slight slope. Like a pony express rider in the old wild west, I had ridden my mount to exhaustion and at this point as I reached for 3rd gear she metaphorically rolled over with all four legs in the air dead!

Silence fell upon as we sat like a dead duck on the busy dual carriageway, I looked in the driving mirror with detached interest as cars travelling at speed changed lane at the last moment to avoid hitting us. Joyce hit me with a massive understatement, (better that than her handbag), is there something wrong with the car? "Er, yes there was!"

I pulled the bonnet release handle and with Maybelle between myself and traffic travelling at 60 mph, I lifted the bonnet to survey the damage. There wasn't any to be seen, no steam or pools of oil or pistons hanging out of the side of the cylinder block, just a sense of heat and a metallic "pinking" as the hot metal started to slowly cool down. I remembered the water in the boot, so as Joyce remained seated in the car, I threw a leg over the crash barrier at the side of the road and took the safe route to the boot again jumping over it to quickly retrieve the water and some rag. Back at the front of the car I gingerly released the pressure on the radiator filler cap expecting to be showered in scalding water - there was none! For whatever reason unknown to me at the time, a large part of the coolant had boiled off prior to the engine seizing.

I now decided to do something that you should never do, I started to pour water into the radiator, risking cracking the cylinder head. My plan was to dribble water back into the radiator slowly so that it would gain some heat before reaching the head, thus reducing the chances of thermal shock and a cracked casting. The plan seemed to be working as the cooling system devoured the contents of the can until it happened… With a "whoosh", and a cloud of steam the Severn Railway would have been proud of, the engine bay of my little car erupted into a cloud of steam and scalding water. I leapt the barrier again to relative safety until things subsided again, this process being repeated again several times resulting in several "minor" eruptions as the water reached the hotter parts of the engine. Things seemed to subside about the same time as my gallon can ran dry; time to rejoin my passenger, patiently waiting inside the car; we were now at the moment of truth. The little "A" series fired-up second turn of the key, I said a prayer of thanks and engaged first gear. We completed the remaining mile or so without further incident; even after the short delay I was still able to park the Morris in our garage and journeyed to the church on time in the family Ford.


I was unable to look properly at Maybelle until the following day, lifting the garage door she almost seemed to eye her tormentor suspiciously. The eruption of the coolant which contained antifreeze had scarred her paintwork resulting in dull patches. On checking the engine oil level, I found that 3 pints were required to bring it up to the "max" mark on the dipstick, presumably the heat generated by the engine the previous day had rendered the missing oil into a block of carbon in the sump. Having topped the fluid levels, I did a compression check on the cylinders which were all within specification.

I ran Maybelle for several months after the events of that eventful day with no apparent problems. It wasn't until the radiator was sent a way to a specialist that I discovered what the cause of all the trouble was. Although I had flushed the cooling system and refilled it with the correct antifreeze mixture when Maybelle came into my possession, it appeared that she had been run for many years on tap water, the resultant lime-scale deposit had partially blocked the narrow tubes in the radiator core. This only became a problem in extreme conditions, such as on this occasion where a long distance was covered in hot weather, where the coolant was boiled off leaving virtually none.

If this story proves anything it is that the old Mog and the "A" series engine will take a beating and still get you home like a faithful friend!

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