Classic Cars

Travel back in time

Too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair.
George Burns

One of the features of St Helena is the collection of classic cars, mostly not just in running order but actually in day-to-day use

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Below: Why are there so many classic cars on St Helena? • Photographs of some cars • One you can definitely ride in • St Helena’s first car • How we scrap cars - the ‍Artificial Reef‍ • Dreams… • Some older cars • Project? • Read More

Why are there so many classic cars on St Helena?

The answer is in two parts:

The garage mechanics here do a wonderful job keeping these elderly vehicles running, despite our poor quality road network. One of the garages even hand-machines spare parts, so if your crank shaft fails and the maker went out of business in 1968, all is not lost!

Photographs of some cars


Some are beautifully maintained; some a little less so:

Whatever their condition they are always interesting. And because people here are so friendly, if you ask you can probably get yourself a ride. Want another go in the first car you ever bought? It may be possible!

Please note that all these photographs were taken recently but we can’t promise that all the vehicles mentioned above will still be running when you arrive.


The car is a 1966 Humber Super Snipe, Tower Limousine. It was brought here in 1974 with 17,493 miles on the clock and entered service for Governor Thomas Oates on 7th of March 1974, replacing an Austin 12. It continued as the Governor’s car until 1982 when Governor Massingham decided he needed a new car! The Humber was passed down to the Chief Justice, still carrying the plate SHG1 until it was retired on 29th January 1991. It was bought by Nick Thorpe and later donated to the Museum of St Helena. The car has been restored and was first exhibited on 14th April 2019 at an event at Plantation House.

One you can definitely ride in

If you stay at the Farm Lodge Hotel you will definitely get a ride in Steve Biggs’ 1974 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow{10}. He uses it to collect guests from the Wharf. Or you could hire it for a wedding

You can read an article about the car{h}.

St Helena’s first car

The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty - a fad.
President of the Michigan Savings Bank to Horace Rackham, one of the first investors in the Ford Motor Company, 1903

In 1919, eying developments overseas and concerned to protect the island’s way of life, motorised transport was prohibited by Ordinance on St Helena. For five years this was uncontested but in 1924 islanders began debating whether mechanised transport should be allowed on the island. The opponents maintained that St Helena had got on very well in the past with horses and donkeys and in any case they considered our steep and narrow winding roads unsuitable for a motor vehicles. Governor Charles Henry Harper was strictly neutral in the discussions, but did report to the Colonial Office that after all, time is rarely of the essence of any undertaking in St Helena and thereby let out a hint of his own private opinion.

Postage Stamp, first car

The dispute raged on until 1927 when, in the face of considerable local feelings and opposition, the 1919 Ordinance was repealed and a new Motor-Car Ordinance was passed, making it lawful to import motor vehicles to the Island. To be ready for the rush of cars, in 1928 some 100Km of road were prepared. The following year, St Helena’s leading and most enterprising inhabitant, Mr Humphrey Solomon, imported an Austin 7 RK, the first motor vehicle to run on Island roads. Registered as number 1, and sold to and operated by a Mr Withecombe, the car was fondly referred to as ‘the Number 1’.

Actually the very first ‘car’ on St Helena was a type of cyclear brought out by Captain Mainwaring, a car mechanic. This vehicle, however did not prove successful, and during its trials it crashed into the wall of the graveyard - with Governor Harper as passenger. Hence ‘the Number 1’ could perhaps be more accurately described as St Helena’s first successful car!

In 2002 Mrs Hilda Benjamin recalled an encounter she had with Number 1:

It was just coming on dark, when I first saw the headlights of the car travelling down Constitution Road. I was 15 years old, and living at Maldivia House at the time. I asked our house keeper, Maggie Francis, who it was and realising it was Mr Solomon’s number 1, I ran as fast as I could down the road to St. John’s Church and met the car just as I reached the corner. Mr Peter Brooks was driving the car that night, and I asked if I could have a ride. He agreed, and drove me down to Reagons where my Grandmother was living. When the ride came to an end I thanked Mr Brooks and felt proud to have ridden in number 1.

Sadly, it’s not still running. Research by Andrew Turner of South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (S.A.M.S.) established that it was burned out in the 1970s and abandoned. It is thought to have been scrapped - a sad end for a historic vehicle. It’s seen below at various dates:

You can read an article about it by Timothy Payne, incorporating a few more pictures.

Early vehicle growth
Early vehicle growth{8}

Within a year of its arrival the number of cars on St Helena had risen to 14, and there were also 5 lorries. 40 years later there were about 560 vehicles registered.

Also for the record, the island’s first significant motor accident occurred on 22nd September 1933 when a motor bus carrying hockey players overturned in Half Tree Hollow, throwing the occupants into the adjacent prickly pear bushes. There were some injuries but no fatalities.

A Naval serviceman stationed here in World War 2 described driving here thus{i}:

The island being so hilly, all motoring is done in first or second gear, creeping, slowly up, or as slowly down, the steep hills with their hairpin bends, which are in some cases so sharp, that even a small car cannot get round without stopping and reversing.

The March 1956 edition of the St Helena Wirebird{16} published the following ‘For Sale’ advert:

Vehicle number 20, an Austin 7 in good running order. £50.

How we scrap cars - the ‍Artificial Reef‍

Clearly on an island of only 122Km², there isn’t a lot of space for storing old cars after they have finished their useful life or are damaged beyond repair, and we have no heavy industry so recycling the materials is not an option. The cost of freighting scrap metal off to, for example, South Africa, would be considerable and the island only needs so many chicken houses…

In fact old cars are cleaned, with all the fuel, oil and other contaminants removed{12}, and then dumped in an area of the sea just off Breakneck Valley, in an attempt to create an Artificial Reef. You can explore it while diving. There are some photos below of the operation:

Who knew we’d see the day when St Helena would export cars!{j}

The other thing, that was tried once in 2005, but has sadly never been repeated, is to hold a ‘Stock Car Rally/Race’. A dirt-track near the Millennium Forest was marked out and a collection of vehicles that could no longer be kept roadworthy was assembled for an afternoon’s competition (actually finishing seemed to be the winning activity). There are some pictures below of some of the competitors. Photography was almost impossible during the actual racing due to the clouds of dust…

Dreams…

This image was contributed to an Art Exhibition held at the Museum of St Helena in April 2008:

{13}{14}

Taking a tour is one of our Top Twenty things to do during a visit to St Helena.

Some older cars

These are photos of older cars that used to run on St Helena:

Car plates, until 1989
Car plates, until 1989{k}

Project?

Looking for a restoration project? How about this Austin 16, stored and in need of some work at Cambrian House{l}:

Read More

Below: Article: Oswell Blakeston visits, 1956 • For motorbike enthusiasts

Article: Oswell Blakeston visits, 1956

Extracted from an article by Max Chapman, Blakeston’s companion, published in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{11} #7, Spring 1993{13}

Hiring a car was an essential priority. Thanks to the kindness of our good St Helenian friends a splendid auto was presently brought round for our inspection. It was a dashing, bright yellow M.G. sports-car, open-topped! Rather out of my league was my first reaction…for I was the chauffeur-to-be. Then when I spotted the gear-change on the steering-column…a system of control at that time wholly alien to me…I seriously doubted whether the car would do. What, for example, if I wandered into reverse while trying to negotiate a snaking mountain road? Yet on a trial-run or two later and I was on the best of terms with the debonair four-wheeler and regarded it with some affection. Not so its batteries, however. So far from pristine were they, they compelled me to become…as indeed I did…an adept at running backwards down the steepest gradients to start the engine up again!

Oswell Blakeston himself also wrote about the expedition.

For motorbike enthusiasts

The images below, thought to date from the 1920s, are claimed to be of the first motorbike on the island, used by Cable & Wireless to deliver telegrams from their receiving station at The Briars to customers around the island, seen here in Napoleon Street. If you have anything to add, and especially if you can identify the ‘bike, please contact us.

Credits:
{a} Andrew Turner{b} Simon Benjamin, SB Solutions{c} worldlicenseplates.com{d} Into The Blue{13}{e} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{13}{f} Hugh Crallan{g} Lolly Young{h} By Richard Charnley, ‘Spirit & Speed’, magazine of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club, May 2018{i} Robert Stephen, a World War 2 serviceman stationed here, from his memoirs ‘Around the Atlantic’{15}{j} Anonymous, quoted in the St Helena News, 30th October 1987{13}{k} worldlicenseplates.com{l} Chris and Sheila Hillman

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Footnotes:
{1} This was actually restored as a Rehabilitation Project by somebody serving time in prison. The photo shows the work-in-process: [Image, right]

Work in progress

{2} We have a photo of this before it was restored: [Image, right]

Un-restored Beetle

{3} Look closely and you can see a Taxi sign above and to the right of the vehicle.{4} According to the Cornwall Austin Club: No 15 is a Tourer Type AD introduced in August 1928. It has the distinctive chrome radiator surround and the headlights are now on the sides of the rad. Previously they had been fitted by the windscreen. These cars are now referred to as the ‘Chummy’.{5} According to the Cornwall Austin Club: The vehicle No 41 is not an Austin Seven. Looking at the sides of the bonnet, it has a series of vertical slots as air vents, so this indicates it to be in the style of an Austin Ten. These were a larger saloon car introduced in April 1932. But the one shown looks like a ‘Special’ that someone constructed from a wreck. Austin Motor Co. did not produce enclosed vans until 1934, and I feel sure never did produce pick-up trucks. In the 1930s/40s/50s many men were very skilled at DIY and when cars became rusted and falling apart; were badly damaged in an accident, or crushed when garage roofs fell in during WW2 bombing raids, they salvaged what they could and modified it to their own design. Hence we saw many ‘Specials’ based mainly on Austin and Fords cars post war years as new cars were not made again until 1947-49.{6} The rear plate indicates that it is licenced to carry 3 passengers - not including the driver!{7} The rear plate indicates that it is licenced to carry 4 passengers plus driver.{8} Figures from The ‘Blue Book’ 1930-1938. Publication was suspended after 1938 due to World War 2 and when it resumed in 1947 vehicle numbers were no longer reported.{9} Since 2019 vehicle import duty depends on the vehicle’s emission levels, in an attempt to make the island greener. Unfortunately, few Saints can afford to import the more modern, lower-emission models, so the net effect has simply been to make cars more expensive for Saints to buy.{10} The car was thought to be a Silver Wraith, a long wheelbase variant of the Silver Shadow Mk. 1, but an expert said that it is actually a 1974 Silver Shadow that had been retro-fitted with post-1977 bumpers. The circular door mirror and lack of a front spoiler gave the game away.{11} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{12} And where do these go? Good question, and probably one you would rather we didn’t answer!{13} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{14} If you are the artist, or know the artist’s identity, please contact us as we’d like to offer attribution.{15} Reproduced in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{11} #46, 2017{13}.{16} The Government newspaper{11}.

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