In praise of the 1950s sales rep

1957. The first motorway was under construction and just a year away from launch. This vast ribbon of tarmac, scything through the landscape, would transform Britain and in particular the life of the country's army of travelling salesman.
My thoughts turned to them yesterday as I trundled up one of our newest motorways, the M40 through Oxfordshire at the wheel of our 1957 Morris Minor Traveller.
For a variety of logistical reasons I was driving rather than trailering the Morris back from its stint on display at the Royal Horticultural Society's Spring exhibition in London.
The Traveller, of course, is the estate version of the venerable Morris Minor, the back end constructed with an ash wood frame in the American 'woody' style. It was hugely popular, a sort of progenitor of the hatchback (or GT in BMW parlance). Its clever name reflected its use by holidaying families as well as sales reps, its capacious boot filled with suitcases or carpet samples. These buyers were taking advantage of Britain's burgeoning road network to travel further afield in their increasingly comfortable and reliable cars.
That may well be but after my trip I do rather pity the poor travelling salesman collecting the keys to his new company Morris Minor Traveller in 1957. With the new M6 just 12 months away his world was about to change rather dramatically.
It may seem remarkable now but the humble Morris was the car that got Britain motoring. It was cheap family motoring. This wasn't a short distance run-about, it was intended as an economical car in the Ford Focus mould.
Today's travelling sales people have never had it so good. As soon as they jump in their cars the outside world is locked away behind tight window seals and thick soundproofing. They sit on a seat that has endless adjustment permutations to exactly suit their posture. The steering column adjusts, the windows move at the touch of a button, there is a radio, probably a satnav, a phone system. The car's cabin temperature can be intricately adjusted and automatically maintained. There are airbags, tyre pressure warnings, an engine temperature gauge, remote releases for boot and fuel flap. Low fuel warnings. Rain sensing wipers. Heated screens. Power steering. Central locking.
Wing mirrors. Some of these features even now we take for granted. Power steering? Imagine a world where that didn't exist! Central locking? Did they ever make cars without it?
The sales rep of 1957 accepting the keys to his new Traveller had none of the above. He also had no rev counter, no screen washers, no seatbelts, probably no heater and no ashtray for his perma-burning Woodbine. And yet this wasn't austerity motoring. The Traveller had wind up windows. Adjustable individual seats. Electric window wipers (rather than vacuum operated). A floor mounted gear shift. But that was it. A heater was an option. No engine temperature gauge. No self cancelling indicators. No radio.
As I discovered on my wintry 130 mile drive, to sell carpet samples up and down Britain in 1957 you had to be made of tough stuff. Crawling out of London in rush hour traffic was quickly tiring as the awkward floor-mounted clutch wore out my ankle and the lack of synchromesh on 1st made stop start traffic a tough call. The wheel is big and well placed - very easy to lean on for a rest - and the steering is light but the long-legged driver sits in a hunched, knees up position, right knee knocking against the window winder.
Once up to speed on the A40 and M40 - by which I mean an indicated 55mph - other challenges presented themselves. Principle among these were my numb feet. Although our Morris is a Delux with optional heater and leather seats, the former doesn't work very well. At all. Credit where it is due, it is exceptional at heating the air within 3mm of the vent, less effective further afield.
Next up was the wind. I began to feel that I was driving the Morris head on into a hurricane. Slight inclines blunted speed by 20-30%. The wind whistled around the flat screen like a howling banshee. Strangely when I stopped at the services the air had miraculously stilled.
Trucks and vans were a real hazard. Stuck in the inside lane everything passed me, usually at ferocious speed. Trucks created a swelling headwind that virtually brought me to a standstill. The air pressured created by speeding vans caused the door skins to flex against my arm.
Fortunately I had no need to change lanes. I like to think that I'm a confident driver but the Morris' lack of speed and puny - optional - wing mirrors made judging lane changes genuinely frightening. Other drivers gave such manoeuvres short shrift (yes, I mean you spikey haired man in the white 318d). One thing 1957 man had in his favour, I suspect, was much less traffic and a more rational, less aggressive approach to his fellow motorist.
Did I mention the headlights? Notable by their absence. There are doubtless candles of greater luminescence. Even with the optional Driving Lights switched on I could only manage to dimly light the area 3 feet in front of the car. Fortunate, then, that I was going so slowly.
Taken in context, the Morris Minor of 1957 is a remarkable car. Easy to drive with light controls, excellent interior space and a smattering of innovations - like those electric wipers - it would have been cutting edge in its time. The Travelling salesman, used to cars with big cycle wings and draughty sliding windows would have relished his new company wheels.
So it is a little unfair to deride the poor Morris by pitting it against modern motorways. And yet, within a year of this car's registration the world of motoring would be transformed by motorways. They would eventually force rapid change in cars to cope with the demand for long distance comfort and more speed. Which, over 50 years, took us from Morris Minor to Ford Focus.
I enjoyed my Morris adventure, but next time I'll stick to A and B roads. Today it is perfect for pootling around the Cotswolds, stopping regularly for tea and cakes, its days of high mileage motoring are thankfully well behind it.
You can hire our Morris Minor Traveller, one of 5 Minors on our fleet, by visiting http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk or call 01527 893733.




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