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 Pitbox Special

M&E Miscellany. A collection by accident

Our Photo last month prompted speculation as to how such a line up of M&E cars could have been accomplished? The most obvious answer, a huge investment, was not the case. The real story was far more complicated, as nothing in the photo was quite what it seemed.

The truth behind the photo covers a period of over fifty years, but never a moment at which a decision was made to try and gather together the complete range of M&E cars, it just 'sort of happened'. That it should have taken so long is explained below.

L to R: Special. GP Austin, D Type ERA. Wasp.

The genesis of the photo was back in the late 1960s and the good old days when model shops still existed. Russ Models of Battersea was a regular destination as a student, cycling over from Chelsea for bits and pieces. On one such visit, a customer came in bearing something called a RTP (round the pole) car, by then just a historical piece of modelling memorabilia. The shop owner was not interested in buying it so said student walked out with a model of a GP Austin that had two front wheels and a third in the cockpit, all for the princely sum of £1.50. This was indeed the catalyst, unknown at the time, for what became something of a lifelong obsession with tethered cars.

A few months after getting the car, a huge box of old Model Engineer magazines, again for £1-50, revealed the identity of the car and manufacturer, as on the front cover of one was the very car on the track at the ME Exhibition, and an article about M&E Models. Not that this was much help of course as RTP racing was apparently non existent (in the UK), M&E had vanished twenty years previously, as had ZN, not that this was known at the time.

Close examination of the model back in the college workshops revealed the M&E Logo, a serial number, ZN logo on the wheels and tyres and a superbly made body on a relatively crude chassis. No sign that it had ever been run, no engine, but a nice decorative item. No model shop on subsequent, extended travels around London had any knowledge of either M&E or ZN or any suitable wheels so it was a case of making the best of what there was.

No sign of a back axle or anything to hold it on, so a temporary set of blocks held a single axle with one wheel only and an aged ED Racer roughly coupled to the gearbox, the car becoming a shelf queen for the next twenty five years. Visits to the ME Exhibition were an annual occurrence where the acquaintance was made of a certain notorious dealer who had a selection of tethered cars, hydroplanes and engines, all at seemingly exceedingly high prices. Could he provide a more suitable engine for my Austin, yes, a deal was done and a box arrived through the post and revealed that another unsuspecting punter had been royally 'done over'. The prices being asked for cars at the time indicated that it was worth keeping the Austin, and so it sat there, untouched, for many a year.

No sign of the subsequent obsession yet? It was a chance visit to Old Warden to meet Ian Mander who had some vintage engines for sale, that led to the discovery of Model Engine World and the Retro Racing Club. Through the adverts, a dealer whose prime purpose was buying cars came up with a matched pair of ZN wheels or an alternative offer to buy the car for a Japanese client for £600. For some totally unfathomable, illogical but ultimately lucky reason, this was declined.

The new ZN wheels proved to be front wheels with bearings, so another axle was made  At last it could stand on four wheels. In short order, information started percolating down that the car never had ZN wheels as M&E supplied their own, it should have had a steering mechanism with stub axles and axle blocks at the back, and almost any motor other than a McCoy 35 Sportsman inside.               Right, Four wheels, but not the correct ones.

Knowing this and finding the missing parts were two entirely different matters until an ad in the Retro magazine provided a basket case M&E 'Special' chassis that looked like it had been through a crusher, but ideal as a donor for parts, but no. Although badly bent and battered, it was just that. Apart from a couple of broken radius rods that could easily be replicated, it was complete, so became the second of several M&E restorations, although without a body.

Watford, Bilston and the magazines meant that a ready supply of more appropriate motors were becoming available, although it didn't get the Austin any nearer completion, but at least it was now known what parts were needed and what had to be made. This included a new front axle as whoever had fitted the ZN wheels had carefully cut off the important plain stub ends of the original. Easily replicated, once the correct LH die had been found and just by chance, another enthusiast had two genuine axle blocks lurking, so it was getting nearer.

Just the one, unfinished car still, until a series of unconnected, but ultimately productive events took place. At the second of Miquel's sales, several boxes of assorted car parts, bought for not very much, produced a number of original M&E clutches and another box several wheels and other valuable parts. Up north, a collector having a clear out to fund a vintage car provided a complete chassis plus one that could be a donor, but no bodies.

Enough parts now to complete the Austin, sans motor, then I found out how much the only other one known to exist was sold to America for, gulp, I was glad I had not sold it.

                       Right: Austin complete, but still without an appropriate motor

Watford provided the 'Special' in the line up, which has been the only M&E actually bought for real money and more or less complete as it had been put together previously by someone with an excess of parts. What was becoming apparent was that there were lots of bare chassis about, but a dire shortage of bodies that were not already on cars. Yes, something could have been built, but to replicate the craftsmanship on the originals was far beyond any realistic expectation.

Hope was in sight as Gary Maslin had found a home built, rear engined special with a Channel Island Special for power. What it did have was an M&E 'Special' body, that he did not want, alas, it was just half a body as the back had been cut off, but putting it on an original chassis roughly replicated what the builder had in mind.

An ETA 5R stuck in the back looked the part so an M&E Special 'Special' it became.

Gary Maslin also provided the next link up with an ERA, well, just the body, a really complex piece of carving and detailing and even that was missing the radiator grill, but that would fit one of the chassis from Bolton, but not the one from the Retro ad as that was a 'Special' with the Stentor in the back. With two front engined cars, a bit of research was needed to figure out how the motors were mounted, especially as most of the period engines had lugs way above the crank centre line so needed mounts that were well above the chassis rails, especially the Owatt, a standard fitting but with the mounting surface above the lugs.

Incidentally, the chassis rails were commercial curtain railing as could be found in most homes for many years. Several session with benders produced the correct mounts, a few odd bits remade and at last the Austin was complete, the ERA complete and a more or less original 'Special'.

It was clear that there was little possibility of adding a 'Challenger' to complete the range as these seemed to be changing hands for vast sums of money, although they were one of the standard bodies. A previously mentioned, a restored but far from original one, cost a buyer £8,346 at an auction in Kent in 2023??? A couple of original Wasps did materialise, the one on the left from an auction where it was described as a radio control car and commensurately cheap. Still no Special body though.

Around ten years ago, two more M&E cars had made their way up to Lincolnshire. Keith Bragg obtained a chassis with a very interesting provenance as it was believed to have come from Modella of Bradford who manufactured the Owatt motors. Again, no body, and in a bit of a state with several bits missing, but Keith, being a superb boat modeller, created a new body along the lines of an early Mercedes, much as he did with his Auto Union look alike.

An original Owatt completed the rebuild. Keith's near neighbour, Peter Hill, had been offered an original 'Challenger' that he snapped up, which was featured in a OTW Pitbox in 2014. This one did not have an engine, but apart from the missing faux exhaust stacks seemed relatively complete, so the whereabouts of the entire M&E range was established and a possibility of a photo of them all lined up at some stage?

M&E Challenger as found, sans motor ERA, Austin or Challenger chassis with Mercedes body

Life is not that predictable though, as in short order, Keith died, followed by the first of the lockdowns and all the aggravation which ensued. The Mercedes joined the 'Challenger' in Peter's office, allowing us the first look at both during the post lockdown track days. Out of the blue in August 2023, Peter decided to thin out his collection, so a marker was put on the 'Challenger', the temptation precluding any discussion about price. A trip in September to collect it ended up with the Mercedes as well to ensure enough parts to have at least one complete and original car, and all at a most agreeable price, thanks Peter.

The 'Challenger' really was a challenge in mounting a motor, as what many previous builders did was cut holes in the bodies and add a block or fairing to cover the top of the motor, or even have the plug or comp screw sticking out urgh!. The original owner of this car had used a bit of lateral thinking by taking out the seat squab and having the motor sticking out of the cockpit, mite style, urgh again, but at least the body was unmolested. The motor, whatever it had been, was missing. The Mercedes completed a 55 year cycle, as yes, as with the Austin all those years ago, the rear axle blocks were missing. The builder had made the two stub axles into a single live axle with a tube connecting them through a brass bearing bracket, which meant that there was no steering or suspension. The front end was a bit of a dog's dinner as well, as one radius rod had been broken, rethreaded and reassembled with the front axle now at a delightful angle to the car, as well as the replacement gearbox being somewhat graunchy.

How it was, the 'live' rear axle assembly How it should be (or is the steering yolk upside down?)

First on the bench though was the 'Challenger', and a false start with a DC Wildcat bought on spec which was far too tall. SAM swapmeet provided a K Vulture, also a standard M&E fitting, which could be accommodated where it should be, under the bonnet. New engine mounts, correct sprung loaded cardan shaft, new exhaust stubs, a couple of suspension trunions and a few other minor bits that had gone missing at some stage and there was a complete and original, M&E 'Challenger'.

Despite never having any intention of completing the group, it had just happened, thanks to several helping hands along the way.

The Mercedes did not prove as long a winded project as the Austin, as there were now patterns available for all the missing and broken parts, so was completed in 3 days, rather than forty odd years. Never did find bodies for the 'Special' chassis, so one found a new home to pay for the 'Challenger', the spare found a ready buyer, as did a job lot of chassis parts. The one attempt at a body sits, quietly rusting, in the loft. It was OK, but not an M&E, and there is the key to the raison d'etre behind what I does.

                   Right: Chassis restored to original with the Owatt in position for the Mercedes

Over fifty of the 600 or so M&E cars produced have emerged to be recorded, with the Special being the most numerous, the ERA and Challenger with ten examples of each and just three Austins. Half a dozen bare chassis have also turned up.

As the Wasps never had chassis numbers there is no indication of how many of these were sold, but judging by the number that have come on to the market recently, it was a lot, and aren't they popular when they come up for sale. Phew, some of the prices are unbelievable?

Post script: As this photo proves, our line up was not unique as it had previously been achieved in the US, as seen here. The Austin though was on a world tour and only resident with the other models for a short while. It had made its way from the UK where it had been for many years, wandered around the United States for a while and then made its way to the Antipodes, appreciating by some 500% in the course of its travels.