Recollections of Working at the Healey Cape Works

Interviews with John Gardner, Gordon Barton, Geoffrey Shepherd and Terry Westwood. They talk about working at the Cape Works site, the hardships of metalworking and visits from American airmen.

John Gardner had various jobs at the Cape Works including working in the drawing office and for Healey Marine. Gordon Barton worked in the stores at the Cape Works of the DHMC and later at the Coten End site. Geoffrey Shepherd was a mechanical assembler at the Cape Works and Terry Westwood worked in the body shop and experimental division of the DHMC.


Interviewer: I understand that when you started at Healey’s, your parents lived very close to the works?

John Gardner: Yes.  Healey’s was built on the site that was Wendy Ringrose’s parents pig farm which was the tail end of the allotments in the valley that ran from the Cape Road down through to Lock Lane. Living in Lower Cape, we used to see some of the Healey cars before they went into the hangar.  Well, when I got the job there it was very simple for me because I went out the back gate, down, jumped the fence, jumped the brook, jumped Healey’s fence, jumped the Healey’s brook, ran in, in just about a minute.

Gordon Barton: I went back to the job centre and they said ‘oh, Donald Healey the Motor Company in the Cape in Warwick want, they’re looking for someone up there’, so, I had never heard of them, you know, anyway, they explained to me where it was and I got the bike, I was on the bike, and I rode up to Warwick and as I was approaching Lock Lane there was a Healey came down the other way and it went there and I thought that must be it, so I followed it down, and when I biked into the works, there was about twelve American servicemen there, all in uniforms, wandering about, and all these lovely Healeys about and I thought ‘this is the place for me’.

Geoffrey Shepherd: Well, all that we had, I’ll explain this, all we had, we had carpenter’s, wood benches, what carpenters sits wood on, but they was a bit wider, I think, and this was, [drawing] this is the hangar, there was offices at the front, upstairs I think, I can’t remember, Geoff Price was up out the way, then there was the Foreman’s office in the corner and then from there, they had two benches there, two benches there, two benches there, two benches there, two benches there, I don’t know how many there was.  You put a chassis on that one and then you done what had got be done on that one, maybe a chassis on that, because I wasn’t in the run.  And then, I don’t know whether we went up like that, or whether we moved them up now, I can’t remember but they was built on these wood benches.

Interviewer: So you were working on several at a time.

Geoffrey Shepherd: No, they worked on one, they done the jobs on that one and then the gang that done the other jobs come and done the job on that one and then the gang, I think they moved it up for a few, I don’t know, I can’t remember.  Until it would come up the end and it was on it’s wheels and you could drive it.

Interviewer: And who drove it?

Geoffrey Shepherd: Anybody.  They drove it out and took it round to where the body was going to be fitted.

Interviewer: And did you ever do that?

Geoffrey Shepherd: Well, I helped, I did help.  I helped bodies.

Interviewer: So, you got to drive one then?

Geoffrey Shepherd: Oh yes, but then they stopped me because I bumped a couple.

Geoffrey Shepherd: I used to have to go and rub cars down when they was making the Silverstone.  That went. I don’t know when they stopped making the Silverstone now.  We started making these cars, they went, this Yank come, a big bloke, and he stood there, he said ‘my goddamn bloody garage is bigger than this goddamn bloody place’.  Never forgot it.  Big hat. He was about twenty-two stone I suppose. Our blokes are as big now, but I mean, all blokes were sort of my size – five foot eight but he was about six foot one, his size, was about eight and he stood in the yard where we used to drive them down to the front, and he stood in there and the door was open, I never forgot it, I can see him now, big trench coat on, big hat, and he said ‘my god damn garage is bigger than this goddamn bloody place’.

Interviewer: Did they ever come up to the Cape Works? You did mention that at the beginning, some of the American Officers used to come.

Gordon Barton: Yes, they did! Yes, when I went down the first day for the interview, there were about a dozen. They were nearly all pilots, air crew.

Interviewer: Was that quite common?

Gordon Barton: Yes. After that they used to come over and what they used to do, they used to fly over low in their jets, you know, they used to come over in the jets and fly over low. There was a few complaints locally I think, in those days. They were like in their Thunderchiefs I think, something like that.

Interviewer: Because they could see all the cars in the car park? Is that what they were doing?

Gordon Barton: Well they just flew over and they said, some of them, when they came in, ‘oh we came over the other day, did you see us?’ [Indistinct]

Gordon Barton: I went in there once and there was a Ferrari in there, a 1954 single-seater Ferrari backed in there and they had the engine out and put it into a Healey chassis. It didn’t work, it didn’t come to anything, but I remember them starting it up, the corrugated sheets rattling away

Terry Westwood: They were good years. I can recall things like the car park in 1958. If you saw what was in there, you’d got Austin 7s, Morris 8s, Standard 8s, an odd Morris Minor and then the bike shed was full but now, the bike sheds are empty and you’ve got all sorts of cars, but that’s the way it was…, I mean, the Machine Shop was an experience on its own. I mean, it wouldn’t pass the Health and Safety these days because it was all open belts and again, the noise was tremendous. But, as I say, you didn’t have all this red tape in them days, you just got on with the job.

Terry Westwood: Metal work is very hard, very energy consuming and it’s hard on the ears and your hands, particularly in winter time. Metal hand tools were left on radiators overnight, because you can imagine what they were like on a winter’s morning with cold steel as well. And the first job that Bill Buckingham and myself did in the morning, was to actually put Elastoplast on all our split fingers. This was a regular occurrence. And then you were ready for work. I spent many hours on wheeling machines, laborious job with large panels backwards and forwards. Body shells were created as a patchwork quilt, which I then welded into complete panels and, obviously, finishing up with a complete body shell. Alloy welding was one of my specialities, which is noted in the Healey books, because I had a natural flair for it. The only problem with that, is that the actual flux used in aluminium welding has a salt base and the salt used to get into your split fingers and it sums up a picture of what’s hard work and hard life, sheet metalworking was.

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