Michael Eastaff shares his start at work whilst still at school, his engineering apprenticeship and his love of driving. Michael left his hometown of Luton to pursue his career in Norfolk applying his engineering knowledge to vehicles and plastics, and continuing his passion for driving.
I lived in Luton and from 1952 to 1956 I was a mobile greengrocer assistant while I was still at school. We had a set round in the local town where I had to knock on people’s doors and ladies came out and ordered their potatoes, carrots, onions and things like that.
Our vehicle was a 1935 or 1936 open back Bedford, which had seen better days, like Hodges the greengrocer’s van in Dad’s Army. The brakes were very poor. Luton is a very hilly place and when we parked on a hill I had to put a 14 pound weight under the front tyre so the van didn’t roll away. After serving the customers in the area I would remove it on the command of ‘chocks away’ to continue our round. The van had no nearside window which was covered by a potato sack in case of rain. I had to move the sack when we reached a crossroad so Richard the driver could see when to pull out into the main road.
I left school in 1956 and was drawn to engineering. With Luton being an engineering town there were many companies. There were three companies at the site occupied by Luton International Airport like Napiers. Other companies like Hayward Tyler, George Kent, and SKF. The biggest employer was Vauxhall Motors; they employed 34,000 people and took 200 apprentices every year. Many companies offered five year indentured apprenticeships, whereas apprenticeships today seem to last two to three years. I chose Commer Cars, who produced trucks and vans, because they offered the earliest start date. My career was defined by that choice. I could have joined GPO as a telephone engineer and probably be much better at the internet than I presently am!
I did a five year apprenticeship with Commer Cars. The first six months were in apprenticeship training school and then different departments in the factory: gear cutting, drawing office, turning, milling, the normal things in engineering. All these things are done by computer today. We had an early computer generated machine which operated on a punch card system. It would turn bolts and studs for the wheels, churning out hundreds and thousands on a machine called a Conomatic.
After three years, you or the company decided whether you took a vacancy or specialised for the last two years of the apprenticeship. It was a mutual decision. I specialised in inspection: inspecting and measuring components, measuring gears and so on. In my final apprenticeship year I specialised in actual vehicle inspection by inspecting the finished product.
Moving on up
I finished my apprenticeship in 1962/63 and continued with vehicle inspection, various road tests and so on. In 1964 the company set up the equivalent of a quality audit section which I was responsible for setting up. The main factories in Coventry producing Hillman, Humber and Sunbeam cars had a similar department, so we mirrored this in Dunstable.
I first drove a heavy vehicle here. The maximum weight was about 16 tonnes; now it’s about 44 tonnes. I would take a 16 tonne vehicle and go up and down the motorway from time to time.
Around the end of 1966 or 1967, the Rootes Group had financial difficulties along with the rest of the UK car industry and they formed an association with Chrysler UK. They sent many experts and ploughed about £30 million. It collapsed later on but when they took over they established an industrial engineering section. We knew it as work study: the study of time and motion. About 20 of us were asked to form this new department and I liked a change. This lasted a couple of years.
Moving to Norfolk
Around 1968 I occasionally came to Norfolk to see my friend Bill Dolman in Wreningham. We worked together at Commer Cars and he left to work at Lotus for 18 months to two years. Bill was working for a plastics supply company who supplied sheet plastics to a plastics fabrication company in Attleborough. He let me know there was a vacancy if I wanted o move to Norfolk. I had married before but was single at the time, so I said ‘yes, that would probably be a nice place to live in Norfolk.’
J and K Plastics was a very small factory with only four or five employees and a couple of directors; but fabrication work was engineering so I could do it. I was production manager there for 18 months to two years. Six months before it finished it was taken over by an investor who didn’t really understand the business and sent it in directions you could see weren’t really going to come to anything. The company collapsed in 1970. I was out of work in the middle of 1970, living in Norfolk and not really knowing anybody.
I did a bit of part time window cleaning for Norfolk County Council, cleaning all the windows of County Hall inside and outside. We used to clean the outside by standing on people’s desks, crawl over the window sills and reach outside. County Hall is still the same today. I go past it often and remember cleaning the windows there. I did that two or three times between jobs.
Moving into the driving seat
I married again having met my wife Linda from Bungay. I thought ‘I can’t go on like this, either without a job or cleaning windows. What can I do?’ I could apply to a lot of engineering companies when it was becoming more mechanised and automatic. Norwich had big companies like Laurence Scott’s, but it was a bit different in those days. The only jobs advertised were in the EDP; no internet or list of local companies. You really had to find out who all the people were. I didn’t really know anybody.
Thinking ‘what can I do?’ I loved to drive since my apprenticeship days of driving heavy vehicles and had a driving licence since 19. So I decided to drive heavy vehicles. Eastern Counties Omnibuses were advertising for personnel so I went to them towards the end of 1970. I said ‘I want to drive’. They told me I needed a licence first. The way to obtain a licence was to start as a bus conductor and you were tested in your spare time; you start at the bottom. I took my PSV driving test around the end of 1970 and began to drive double deckers around Norwich. They were the old half cab types: windscreen which opened at the front and had a poor braking system.
Making agricultural machinery
I became aware of an American company, Farmhand UK, in Wymondham towards the end of 1970. (They no longer exist.) They wanted a production engineer and I joined them in that role. Farmhand UK imported American agricultural farming implements. They started importing the whole machine. Then they imported the machine parts; complete knock down or CKD we called it in the truck industry. Finally the parts were sourced in the UK to make the same machines they had in the States. We used companies like Frost Engineering and local companies like Bressingham Engineers to source most items. We built animal feed mills. Mobile animal feed mills would sit on a chassis on a truck. The client provided the truck and chassis which we built upon. I still see some of the mobile animal feed mills we built running around here today.
We also built bale handling machinery, particularly square bales and they introduced round bales. I was quite happy there but I had a bit of a falling out with the managing director at the end of 1972 and so I left.
Driving Mascot Coaches
I had my PSV licence so I wasn’t stuck. Older people in Norwich may remember Mascot Coaches run by the Votier family. I spent about nine months to a year there working full time mainly on contract driving.
Mascot Coaches had an extensive daily business. They had the odd school run but there was a lot of taking factory employees to work; Palmers clothing and lots of factories locals will remember. There were also day trips to Yarmouth, Felixstowe and Southend and the usual stuff. I quite enjoyed doing that. The big problem with coach driving was there was no money in it. You do a lot of hours for very little money and I was used to earning more money for probably a bit less work.
Back to engineering
After about nine months I looked to return to engineering and worked at another company in Norwich as a productions engineer for about three months. Older Norwich people will remember a company called Freight Bonallack up on Norwich Airport. They made 40 foot food trailers for the food industry and were used to deliver to supermarkets. They also produced aluminium box type trailers, which Tesco and Waitrose use, and can be seen up and down the A11. They made refrigerated vehicles to carry food about too.
It was quite a nice job and I quite enjoyed working there during those six months in 1973. My role was laying out production facilities and getting the best out of the facilities they had. It was very lucrative but I was there only for three months. I don’t know when they ceased operation but I think they’re no longer in existence.
A similar job at Aston Martin in Newport Pagnell was advertised. I went to the interview and joined as a production engineer. I was one of six production engineers and it was virtually the same thing. I lived in the south of Norwich, where I live now, and went to work on Monday morning to Aston Martin in Newport Pagnell and returned Friday night. During the week I lived with my mother in Luton.
It was very good; an interesting place to work. I think they’re moving production but their original factory was at Newport Pagnell. It was probably 50 years behind the times as they produced three or four cars a week; whether they still produce the bodies in the same manner, I don’t know. They had very, very skilled people who rolled the wings of the cars, rolled bonnets out of sheet steel. People trimmed cow hides, cut them and stitch them together. It was like a full circle going to Aston Martin where the process was still manual.
I came home one weekend and had a phone call from my works manager at Farmhand UK. He asked me if I was interested in returning. I said ‘not particularly after I fell out with the managing director at the time.’ He said ‘he’s gone now and I’m now the managing director and if you want to come back, you know, come and see me.’ We came to an arrangement and I took over his old role as works manager. Those were quite happy days. The company expanded considerably in that time. There was a new building which is now a little industrial estate at Suton on the old A11; this was Farmhands UK’s factory. We developed it quite a lot.
Farmhand belonged to a trade organisation for engineering industry which held regular meetings. I went once or twice a month and got to know one or two people. One worked for a Norwich company which had taken over a plastics fabrication company in Lowestoft. He said ‘if you ever want to change your job you could also come and work at the RW Plastics’. I spoke with Linda and she said it’s up to me what I do. I thought perhaps it’s time for change so I went to RW Plastics and stayed there for about 18 months. At the risk of repeating myself I fell out with the managing director and it was mutually agreed I should leave. I left in the middle of 1980.
In and out of the driving seat
I had enough of worrying tribulation in the engineering industry so I returned to coach driving with Red Car Coaches and Cullings Coaches on Ber Street in the middle of 1980. I stayed until the middle of 1981. It was local contracts like at Mascot with a bit of continental driving.
I left because I knew Richard Parker from my time at Farmhand UK; he called on us to sell us hydraulics. He ran a little company with Graham Prior called Parker Hydraulics; it became a larger company with quite a few subsidiaries. They’re both retired now and sold the company last year. I still keep in touch with Richard and Graham.
I was messing about in the coach yard when he saw me. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked. ‘If you want a job selling hydraulics you better come and see me.’ I went to see him and he offered me a job. I did a bit of sales- repping in Norfolk and Suffolk. They asked me if I would like to be manager of the office at Soham: Cambridgeshire Hydraulics. I said okay and I went to Soham for about six months travelling 48 miles to work every day and back. It was okay but not what I wanted to do in engineering; it was sales and management really. I liked the travelling because of the driving, and there was some work involved too! At the end of spring in 1982 I said to Richard ‘I’m sorry, Richard, I’m afraid I shall need to go’ as it wasn’t what I wanted to do. He asked ‘what are you going to do?’ I told him ‘going back to coach driving again full time.’
I started in the spring of 1982 at Pullman Coaches in Norwich and was there for two summers doing a lot of continental driving. The first summer I spent mainly in Austria and Switzerland. There were some to France, Germany and northern Italy. After the summer season finished in 1983 they said ‘there’s not really much going on until next spring.’ It was time I thought I better look for something more lucrative.
At that time I was approached by David Challis who I worked with at RW Plastics. He rang me to ask if I was interested in returning. I said ‘not if it’s still the same company.’ Similar to Farmhand UK the owner sold it to an extremely large national company, Altro at Letchworth, which was very well run. They took over the fabrication and wall cladding at Lowestoft where I returned to be contract manager in 1983 and in the role until 1994. I became a technical sales manager after a reshuffle in 1995 until about halfway through 1997. I was back on the road as a technical sales rep after another reshuffle until I took early retirement in the middle of 2000.
The passion for driving doesn’t retire
There was a time after I finished my apprenticeship and before I left Luton when I worked part time as an all-night and weekend taxi driver in the Luton and Dunstable area. In the early 1980s I had two years of part time employment with Bluebird Coaches who took over the remnants of Red Car Coaches. And between the end of 1982 to 2001 I was part time with Easton’s Coaches in Norwich. I drove during the holidays of my full time job. I did continental tours and other little tours. I left Eastons to join Chenery Coaches in 2001 mainly because I lived only four or five miles from Chenery Coaches and they offered more part time work than I wanted.
Since 2005 I’ve mainly driven the National Express service from Norwich to London Victoria but four weeks ago they decided I was too old to do that, so I’m back to normal coach driving two or three days a week. My next medical is May this year and if I pass it I shall continue for at least another year. If I pass it again next year I shall do another summer and probably finish at the end of summer 2017.
Unfortunately one of my colleagues, who was 73, died a couple of weeks ago. It’s made everybody really think about… Particularly part time drivers as quite a few are between 65 and 75. I think I’m the oldest now. If I’m okay I should carry on. If I decided to stop tomorrow, I decide to stop tomorrow. I’ve got plenty of jobs to get on with at home, some of which date back to when I took early retirement in 2000; none of them actually started!
Michael Eastaff (b. 1940) was interviewed for WISEArchive in Forncett St Peter on 18th March 2016