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PPN 515, 1959 Info from owner James Hewett

Although I have owned PPN since 1968, it has had a VERY chequered history, and has spent considerably more time off the road than on it.  It has three main claims to fame.

First – it was, uniquely, painted in different colours on the two sides when I bought it – apparently in an (unsuccessful) attempt to deceive the Police.

It then appeared (briefly), parked on the skyline facing the stage, in the film of the first Glastonbury Festival (I was living in it at the time).

Later it covered itself in glory by breaking down seven times in a month, on a trip to France in 1970 – including once, to the extreme irritation of the French matelots, on the ferry ramp!

The van having been technically abandoned in a field in South Suffolk in the 1980s (for the second time – it was similarly abandoned in a field in Essex in the 1970s), I was spurred on to doing something about it when my son, then aged four, climbed onto the front offside wing and the whole thing collapsed to the ground, much to his chagrin.  Thereafter, we both (when possible) worked on it, mechanically and body, until it seemed ready for MoT in 1995.  Sadly, unsolvable carburation problems, and a move to Wales, scuppered that, and it was again abandoned (in another field).

In 2006, I had it low-loaded over to Porthmadog in North Wales, but, again, it sat for some years half in a hedge (as can be seen in the gallery photo), as I was working seven days a week and had no time or energy to spare.  In March 2011 it was again low-loaded – this time to East Suffolk, and it now resides in a rented centuries-old barn, with swallows, jackdaws, lots of hay, and the occasional donkey.  This is PPN’s first time under cover since 1967.

I am faced with doing most of the work over again, as the salt wind and heavy rainfall in Wales have played havoc with the body, and sitting in the hedge has allowed the brakes to seize, and the clutch hydraulic seals to fail.

Previous bodywork repairs were always completed, before painting, with Jenolite anti-rust treatment, but this has turned out to be a mistake:  it proved impossible properly to neutralise the remaining acid with water, and of course the water itself created more problems.  But at the last NEC Classic Car show (where there was a very nice J-Type stand), I discovered Rustbuster’s Fe123, which claims not to need the water treatment – I will report how well it works.

So – the last lot of repair and fill (I use Isopon’s ‘Metalik’, not because it’s really any better than ordinary fibreglass, but it’s easy to sand and I like the feel) has been redone, grinding down to bare (well – rusty!) metal along the edges of the roof, around, on, and under the front grille, around and on the wings, all around the rear doors and hinges, etc.  I have made much more work by having a “museum” mentality, thus trying to save as much original fabric as possible (the front wings are a patchwork of welded old and new, for example).

Ideally, I would take PPN down to the chassis, and replace much of the body panelling with the excellent new sections from Fairmile, but at my age, I don’t think I would ever see PPN on the road again – hence the “cut and patch” approach, which I estimate will take between 6 months and a year.  The current effort will inevitably be my last – it’s basically a race between dealing with the hard physical work of reversing the decrepitude of PPN, and my own increasing decrepitude – I’m not sure which will win.

Having removed the old sealer around the roof edge, and made good (the worst damage is inside, presumably from condensation), I bought what looked like a very fancy sealer (Sikaflex 521) from Rustbuster – but it turns out, I think, to be pretty much bog-standard Tiger Seal, so I hope it doesn’t dry out and crack the same way.

Having completed the roof (except for post-primer painting), on 25th June I jacked PPN up onto axle stands on the front, ready for underbody and mechanical work – but had problems with the rear – my (very expensive) 2-tonne trolley jack seems to have developed an inability to raise beyond a certain point, and so the van’s back end is still on the wheels.  BTW, I’ve always experienced problems jacking at the rear, as there’s very little area for a solid, reliable jacking point – not only that, but the ideal area (on the axle, between the spring u-bolts), when used, doesn’t allow the axle-stand room to stand safely, and clear the tyre.  Does any owner out there have a solution to this?

Next I will have more steel and aluminium delivered ( 1m x 1m metal sheets are unwieldy on a bus, I’ve found – PPN is my only vehicle), and will continue with bodywork strut replacement under the quarter-lights, behind the grille, under the windscreen, around the rear door glass and hinges, on the rear lower quarters, and so on.  For these I make templates from artists’ mounting board, which folds a bit like steel, and then I cut out the shapes with tin snips from steel sheets, which are then bent to shape by hammering in rather crude blacksmith’s fashion, fitted in, sometimes pop-riveted to stabilise, and welded.  Not having done this for about fifteen years, I find I now can’t cut 1.5mm steel by hand, and my Nibblex never was much good, so I’ll have to look into other methods – luckily 1mm does OK for most jobs when it’s formed.  A confession here – I use galvanised steel, which lasts beautifully – but can of course only weld it in the open air, and suitably masked.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to others.

The aluminium is to replace some of the windscreen interior trim:  it’s been hard work trying to remove any of this in one piece, as the (presumably) stainless steel screws are immoveable (despite paint stripper and graphite releaser), and also pretty well undrillable.  Grinding them off destroys the ali. trim as well.  As I know all the glass and rubbers will have to be replaced, I have not bothered to mask the window glass when grinding – you get an interesting pattern of melted silica from the sparks – a pattern duplicated on my watch!

Meanwhile, looking forward a bit, I now have two beautifully-chromed grille side-pieces courtesy of Register member Gordon, plus a steel centre-piece which I shall get chromed.  PPN has been gloss black since 1970 (previously blue and white, originally bright green), but I’m thinking of doing it in a less sombre scheme:  the body style seems to lend itself to two-tone – probably dark maroon and rich cream, as being very 1950s-style colours, particularly when echoed in the lettering.  The East Anglia Transport Museum has given me the name of a retired upholsterer who may sort the maroon vinyl seating, with cream piping.  I have preserved the hub-caps, MORRIS badges, door handles, etc. – plus there’s even some mudflaps with MORRIS on – but all that titivating will have to wait for quite a while yet.

I’ll need a new exhaust (the one on there is a patchwork of 4 welded pieces from 4 different vehicle types, and has proved impossible to seal at the manifold), and I think the manifold gasket itself is blowing.  The brake and clutch systems will need a complete revamp (tho’ the piping itself should be OK, as I replaced the steel with phosphor bronze some years ago), the petrol tank sender and drain plug are seized solid – again – and I’m sure other mechanical disasters will arise as time goes on.

To end, for now – a plea – I have had no luck at all in sourcing the following, all needed – or at least wanted – for completion:

  • DZUS fasteners for the front grille,
  • the chromed countersunk washer behind the door handle,
  • the interior lamp,
  • the horn,
  • the appropriate hinges for the rear number plate,
  • the missing cast tongue which holds in the spare wheel

– can anybody out there help?