Plodding the by-ways vintage style

PILGRIM  mobile police unit look-alike
PILGRIM mobile police unit look-alike

News that the long-awaited Community Contact vehicles for Borders police are a little behind schedule comes as no surprise. Such vehicles are usually only built to order for customer requirements, usually with facilities for the brewing of tea and wellie boot lockers high on the list of goodies.

Another more mischievous thought suggests a cautious delay in laying out the long green for such vehicles pending the commencement of the all-singing all-dancing single Scottish Police Force. It would after all, be a deshed shame if the gleaming new Bill-wagons were acquired then mothballed due to a change in priorities.

The title of Community Contact Vehicle is a snappy handle for a style of working that is not all that new; little in the police ever is, and because of that my memory bank gave a couple of twitches and I found myself thinking of a vehicle that once performed a similar mission.

In the early 1970s a garage at the Hawick Police HQ housed a strange vehicle, optimistically described as a mobile police station.

Any visions of a high-tech machine were instantly dashed on seeing this device; the mobile cop shop, known to all as The Hairy Monster being, in fact, an elderly Fordson truck with a bulky but cramped coach-built office body mounted on the load bed. It was powered by an antiquated petrol V8 side-valve engine, which in those days would have qualified it for the Antiques Road Show.

It is tempting to claim this vehicle was a specially commissioned job, but the less glamorous truth was that it started life as part of a massive fleet of trucks used by either the Civil Defence or another strange quirk of the post-war years – the Police Mobile Column. Both had been set-up in the Cold War days to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear bomb strike.

To be honest, had the unthinkable happened, neither organisation would have been in a position to do much more than bury some of the dead, but at least they tried.

Inside this wondrous truck there were a few rather basic fittings, including a panel covered with a faded ordnance survey map of the then force area, protected by a Perspex cover, on which the tactical commanders would no doubt have plotted the disposition of whatever staff had survived the big fry; and, believe it or not, there was at one time a voice tube with which the big cheese would issue directions to the driver on the move, assuming, of course, the hapless chauffeur could hear anything much over the din of that horrible engine and its whining gearbox.

Sound deadening was nil and on long uphill climbs in warm weather a choking mist of oil and exhaust fumes would rise through gaps in the floorboards. All in all, this vehicle was never in the best of shape, something which brought about its eventual demise, as we shall see if you are patient.

On the road, the MPS meandered along the highway at a rather sedate pace, with the overall vehicle performance best described as placid. Its 0 to 30mph time required a calendar rather than a stopwatch, and the turning circle was measured in acres rather than feet.

Being top heavy, any notion of racy cornering was quickly forgotten in favour of a driving style similar to a yacht beating to windward against a light breeze. Braking required a degree of planning, and to obtain maximum retardation, it was advisable to use both feet on the brake pedal. Needless to say, the transmission was of the rudimentary kind, known for good reasons as a crash gearbox. Gear changes were effected using the double de-clutch technique, something of a forgotten skill these days. A bungled change would send a tidy old kick up the gear lever capable of inflicting real pain. If it all went wrong, the only real solution was to bring the vehicle to a halt and start over again, with a little more attention to the relationship between engine revs and road speed.

At some stage, some genius trundled the old beast over a weighbridge only to discover that it was heavy enough to require a Class III HGV licence for the driver. So, one sunny afternoon along with several other reluctant HGV hopefuls, I took my turn at driving the ‘L’ plate- adorned MPS from Hawick to Denholm, then up the Vertish Hill and back down again, at which point I impressed the examiner with an army style handbrake change-down, something he had not seen since his national service days. Much to my relief it swung me a pass as I was pretty vague about the Highway Code.

My HGV qualified compatriots and I drove the rapidly deteriorating MPS around the Borders for a couple more years until the engine expired in spectacular fashion.

The truck was deemed not worth fixing up, although crated new engines for it were cheaply available from military surplus dealers, millions of them having been made during the war.

I suspect those who decided such matters gave this some thought but concluded that if the old beast returned to full power, it would then be so dangerous it was not worth the risk. I think they were right on the money with that one. Bit of a shame really, it did all the shows and common ridings for years and was held in considerable public affection.

Although I deplore the decision to close rural cop shops, a move that will save only a small sum compared to treasure wasted on other trendier schemes, the Police Community Contact Vehicle is a good idea, but only if the cops keep their promises and don’t allow it to lapse as soon as it has been milked for publicity value.

Given the snappy title, why not take the opportunity to add an information officer from the local authority to the crew, maybe somebody on a public health ticket?

The whole idea is something of a gift for multi-agency operations, all of which would increase the prospect of long-term retention.

Dare one even hope for an expansion to cover more areas with an improved service? Or do we return to what we always do, by leaving such decisions to blinkered desk wallahs in urban offices, few of whom could find their own butt with both hands?