Sunday, April 3, 2011

What Humber-dingers: The amazing collection of vintage cars... owned by potato merchant from Hull

While more than 80 per cent of all the Rolls-Royces ever built can still be traced today, fewer than one in 100 Humbers has survived

Allan Marshall's collection of 55 Humbers; in the centre is the 1951 Pullman

They were once loved by the British Army, prime ministers, and kings and queens alike. Humbers were known as the poor man’s Rolls-Royce. But while more than 80 per cent of all the Rolls-Royces ever built can still be traced today, fewer than one in 100 Humbers has survived. Even more surprising, the largest collection in Britain isn’t kept in a national museum but belongs to a potato merchant from Hull.

The bonnet of a 1951 seven-seater Humber Pullman, with 30,000 miles on the clock; the badge is a snipe, a game bird famous for being fast and agile

Allan Marshall, 55, keeps 27 Humbers in a 10,000 sq ft building next to his lorry depot. "My father, Reg, bought his first one 51 years ago for £90. It was a 1954 Pullman built for Baroness Rothschild. She used it in London and kept the car garaged at Claridges hotel. Once I took the back seats out to deliver spuds to fish and chip shops. I’ve even used it to tow a 16-ton lorry from York to Hull."

The future King George VI took delivery of his first Humber in 1935. He was so impressed by the limousines that after the war he ordered 47 to be sent to British embassies around the world. Every prime minister of the day arrived at Downing Street in a Humber; Winston Churchill boasted a fleet of five Humber Pullmans. The car’s robust build quality and reliability attracted the attention of the Army too. Specially modified Super Snipe models were turned into field cars during World War II. The most famous, staff car No M239485, was used by Field Marshal Montgomery from the D-Day landings until the end of the war. His 4.5-litre model covered 60,000 miles around Europe in less than a year. The car  is still affectionately known by the nickname he gave it, Old Faithful."

Humbers fell out of favour in the late Fifties. With thirsty, six-cylinder engines they guzzled fuel at just five miles per gallon. The Suez Crisis and rising oil prices meant owners couldn’t haggle a part-exchange – not even for the new, fuel-efficient car of the era, the Mini. The last of the large Humbers were finally sold in 1968.

An interior

Marshall and his team of enthusiasts restore all the cars in the collection themselves, often working up to two years on each vehicle, at a cost of £10,000. "Some of the cars might be worth £40,000 or more now but money isn’t the point. I’ve never sold a Humber and if people want to come and see my collection it’s free. The only money I make from them is by hiring them as wedding cars."

Despite Humbers being seen in TV series like Heartbeat, Open All Hours and the latest Upstairs, Downstairs, Marshall refuses to rent his vehicles to film companies or lend them to other museums for fear of damage.

The English-made Jaegar speedometer. The dashboard of an unrestored Humber.

"I've never had to go looking for a restoration project either. People just phone up or bring them to me. Humbers are like a faithful labrador. My wife Barbara says it’s like an RSPCA for old cars round here."

The highlights of Marshall’s collection include: a Pullman Landaulette, built for King George VI (the King died before it could be delivered); a 1952 Super-Snipe MK3, which was owned by the Queen Mother and kept at Castle Mey in Scotland; and a 1967 Imperial saloon that appeared in The Big Sleep.

Rusting Humber Hawks await restoration

His favourite Humber, however, is the biggest wreck of all. It was found in a Somerset scrapyard, remains covered in dust and has yet to be restored. The 80bhp Snipe dates back to the Thirties and was used by Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson as an unofficial Royal car. They used it to get around London unseen. It just has a small window in the back, so you can’t tell who is travelling inside.

A car radio from a later model (left) and a Pullman engine (right)

The 1932 Humber Snipe used by Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson awaits restoration

A 1955 Humber Super-Snipe - this rare example featured a three-speed automatic gearbox



Wireless.Phil said...

Wonderful! Never heard of them, but still wonderful to have such a collection.

Is this where the phrase "Humdinger" came from?

JR said...

I own a 1963 Humber myself