In the first of a series of articles, Ryan Taylor charts the restoration of Shetland’s oldest working car.
You can see the pride in Erik Erasmuson’s eye as soon as he opens the garage door. The 1923 Bean takes centre stage in Erik’s shed, its blue paintwork gleaming as the car is slowly bathed in natural light. In the corner of one eye sits another, rather sorry-looking Bean, but the 11.9 – its model-name derives from the horse-power available from the 1794cc engine – could just as well be a museum exhibit. She poses in that sit-up-and-beg stance that is common to all vintage vehicles and can render you speechless with her beguiling charm and unmistakable character.
But if the Bean looks showroom-fresh, her road manners are from a different world.
Travelling by Bean involves a lot of anticipation. You have to put your faith in Erik’s hands as he connects the battery and pushes and pulls an assortment of levers to give the old girl momentum. Motoring up the hill near his Gulberwick home (I imagine a Bean is a car you should “motor” in, rather than just “drive”) you wonder if she will ever make it to the top. But the car does not disappoint, and on the open road she cruises happily at 30mph, as the wind buffets your ears and the smell of engine oil blends with the sea air.
Erik is rightfully proud of this vehicle, the oldest vintage car on the road in Shetland. He has been working with her for the last 20 years, and has known about her since he was a small boy. So it’s no wonder he treats her as part of the family.
All of which is pretty amazing when you consider the car’s past. The Bean had lain abandoned in a shed since the outbreak of the Second World War when a young Erik first saw her in the 1950s. The shed had become so cluttered that all Erik could see of her was one wheel. But even then he knew she was special.
“Because she had been sitting since ’39 and this was the early ‘50s, there had been lots of things laid around her and upon her until you couldn’t see her,” he says.
“But you could see the spokes of one wheel. The wheel construction is unusual, compared to what we had. The spokes are not like spokes on a motorbike. They are about an inch in diameter and it’s actually a steel tube, in effect.
“The wheel is made up of two steel sheets that have been pressed out to make the shape, and then brought together and seam-welded. That forms the spokes with the two halves.
“As a peerie boy I could see this wheel, and I can mind being fascinated by that. I was desperately interested in cars and bikes. This wheel was totally different.
“It aye stuck in my mind: why is that wheel no the same as all the wheels I am seeing around and about?”
It’s that eye for detail that has stayed with Erik as he has followed the Bean’s progress, and helped rebuild her from worthless scrap into the gleaming piece of motoring history you see here.
But his knowledge stretches beyond the Bean’s restoration. He has come to learn the marque’s history and pedigree, and he has researched GB 3881, as well as all her owners since she came to the isles.
Despite her Scottish registration – her ‘GB’ numberplate shows her to be of Glasgow origin, in the same way ‘PS’ used to denote Shetland cars – Erik’s Bean has a strong heritage here.
She spent her early years on the mainland, but was snapped up by the founder of today’s bus operator John Leask & Son, Johny Leask, grandfather to Peter and Andrew who run the company now. Mr Leask ran his own taxi business, and used to ship-up second-hand cars he bought down south. The Bean is believed to be one of those cars, although Erik admits “there are no hard facts yet”.
After some time she was bought by a science teacher at the Anderson Institute, Edwin Dixon, who ran her for many years.
“He was an amateur geologist and toured all over Shetland with her, chipping off peerie bits of stones and putting Shetland’s geology down in writing”, says Erik.
The teacher would come to visit the Erasmusons at their home in Sullom, and would take the young Erik, then aged five or six, along the beach, pointing out the different rocks in the face of the banks and explaining what they meant.
He ran the Bean until 1937 when “she started giving trouble”.
Mr Dixon took the Bean to Sullom where she was given to the Mowat family at Punds. The car was of particular interest to Johny Mowat. A cabinet maker and joiner by trade, he had a treadle Myford lathe, with which he used to make various parts for watches.
Bean, by then, had long-since gone out of production, which often posed a problem for anyone needing spare parts. Mr Mowat took exhaust valves from an old Ford truck engine and, using his lathe, adapted them to fit into the Bean, which was badly in need of replacements. At that time the four-seater tourer was converted into a truck, to help bring home peats, neaps and tatties from the rig.
“He made a lovely wooden frame, a heavy frame that must have been about nine by three, and he made a wooden cab for her as well.”
A plan was hatched to run her as a crofting vehicle. However the outbreak of war put paid to those ambitions. The Mowats were kept busy running the shop and post office as thousands of troops descended on Sullom. The Bean was pushed to the back of the shed where she remained – covered in junk with one wheel exposed – until 1989.
By then, Johny and his wife Babs had passed away. But Erik remained great friends with their sons, Bobby and Bertie, who helped Erik maintain his keen interest in engineering.
“I worked for Xerox mending printers and photocopiers, and was over at the terminal nearly every day mending stuff.
“I would go along Bobby. We came to be speaking about the Bean and he said to me, ‘I think we’ll have to get her out’.
That’s when we got together and decided.”
Pulling her out of captivity, the two men were amazed by what they saw. Neither of them could have known she would ever work again, but in some ways the years had been kind to the 11.9. Her bodywork was “red and rusty” but had no serious holes.
“It wasn’t like a lace curtain,” says Erik. “You see some cars hanging together with good luck.”
Also counting in the Bean’s favour was the corrugated iron shed she had been held in for 50 years. It had plenty of gaps for the wind to blow right through, helping to keep the car dry.
“Sullom was kind of sheltered from the main exposure of the salt air coming off the ocean”, says Erik.
All of which gave the Bean favourable odds of success when it came to restoring her. At the time, however, it was all Bobby and Erik could do to just stand and stare, and take photographs of the amazing relic.
The Bean may have been released from her captivity, but getting her fully restored and running was always going to be a big job, and there was no guarantee of success. The first step had been taken, but the road to full restoration was very long indeed.
(Continued next month)