1985 Dutton Phaeton S3

I was dismayed that most of the cars in my very limited price range were usually rotten with rust. I was working pretty much as many hours in the supermarket as my studies at University would allow, so I had a little more money than most of my friends at that time. The guys with real jobs had souped-up 3 litre Ford Capris and Rover V8-engined Triumph Stags.

So in 1985, I decided to buy a kit car. At first I was interested in a RSK Porsche Spyder lookalike, built on a VW beetle chassis. The original model famously was the car that had killed James Dean. It was a little too expensive and didn't have a roof option. Next I focussed on the Dutton Melos. It was an open top, four seater with a funky look to it. My uncle Allan, persuaded me that the Phaeton looked meaner and as a two seater it was also marginally cheaper to buy the kit. 

Delivery to Scotland from the factory at Worthing near Brighton, was an expensive option. So in return for petrol money and all the burgers you can eat, I set off with my friends Wullie Currie and his brother "The Dude" in his 1600 Ford Capri with a rented car transporter trailer. It was quite an adventure, I hadn't passed my car licence at that time so couldn't share the driving. We made it back, unscathed but very tired having slept overnight in the car. The diff in the Capri gave out a week or so later...

The build was difficult. I didnt have money for new parts, other that the special order Weller 5 Slot Magnum Wheels and tyres, so had to source and renovate all the running gear. I also didnt have a good garage, and had to move the rolling chassis between three different garages during the 12 month build. At one point I fell asleep under the car, trying to do some work on the underside, using only a candle for light. I also used a tree one time to attach a block and tackle to do an engine swap at the same lockup garage. By 1986, I was living on campus at the University and as president of the somewhat secretive Motor Club had use of a garage near the halls of residence.

At last the time came when the engine fired up for the first time. I was too eager to try it out and set off round the campus private roads in it.

The throttle was either on or off, and as the car took off down towards the main administration building the seat started to tilt backwards. It wasn't actually bolted to the floor at this stage. So i pulled on the steering wheel to steady myself and it came off in my hands. I hadn't put that centre nut in place either. Luckily I was able to ram the wheel back on the steering colums and maintain control.

As I got back to the garage one of my friends waived me down, "Your front wheel is about to fall off" he said. A bit more work was required before it would be ready for its first real outing.

During it's life it had several engines, a 1300 and 1100 Ford Crossflow, a Ford 1600 OHC and finally a couple of Ford 1600 Crossflows. I had one of the 1600's bored out to 1700cc and fitted it with a Cosworth A6 cam, steel rockers and rocker posts, duplex timing chain, stronger valve springs, piper magnum distributor and a high pressure oil pump. It had a 38DGAS carb from a 3 litre Capri and a very large bore, noisy exhaust.

It wasn't particularly fast, didn't handle well and was always giving me adventures whether I wanted them or not.

It was probably at its best when Wullie and I went down to the big kit car show a Sandown Park, Esher near London in 1985. There were a lot of Duttons there and it was also the first time I saw an Ultima being displayed.  I think Lee Noble might have been leading the project at that time. The car caught fire on the way down (oil filler cap blew out and melted on the exhaust) and also on the way back, when the wiring for the boot mounted washer pump motor shorted.

Dutton at Sandown Park

Dutton at Sandown Park in about 1985

Later that year, again with Wullie, I decided to go on a road trip for a long weekend to the Lake District. The weather wasn't too nice so we kept on driving and eventually got as far as Torquay, about another 400 miles away. It was raining there too so we turned back towards Bournemouth. Just outside town we got in a bit of a sprint down the dual carriageway alongside an Escort XR3. We had been driving for about 12 hours and as we picked up speed there was a bang and the car filled with smoke. The car was misfiring badly but we managed to crawl into a campside just beside the local airport.

One of the plugs was badly fouled but it we couldn't work out what was wrong. Luckily you always travelled in the Dutton with a good set of tools. So we decided to take the cylinder head off and take a look inside. I still remember Wullie's face as he handed me the cylinder head to put down carefully on the ground. We hadn't blown the gasket, one of the pistons was completely missing. It had detonated and bits of aluminium were sprayed all over the cylinder bore, head and sump. We thought about getting it trailer home, but that was too expensive, or even closing off the inlet and exhaust valves and driving the 480 miles home on three cylinders. In the end we managed to source another piston locally and rebuilt the engine in the campsite. On our last night we went to a local nightclub in the car, suggested by two guys we met at the campsite. Afterwards we went for a kebab and whilst parked outside a drunk driver reversed into the front of the car. The damage wasnt too bad, but he never did pay to have it fixed fully.

Another Dutton adventure was on my 21st Birthday. I had gone for a drive out to a milkbar on the road towards the Knockhill race circuit. On the way back, it started to rain a little. Approaching a right hand bend in the road the back wheels started to slide to the left. For a microsecond it seemed like fun. I corrected the slide and the back of the car started to slide to the right. Now it wasn't fun. I didn't want to brake because that would have made it worse. We narrowly missed a truck coming the other way, but a Vauxhall Cavalier clipped the right back wheel. The wheel was smashed and the tyre burst. Worse the leaf spring suspension on the back axel broke. There would be no more steering, and the car left the road on the left side, went trough a fence, down a bank and across a small stream. 

Luckily no-one was hurt. The aftermath was as much drama. I thought it would be a good idea to call the police as they would be able to help me recover the car. Wrong. They breathalysed me, which was negative, asked me to produce my documents and threatened me with a charge of careless or reckless driving. A local farmer was able to plow the car out of the marshy ground with his tractor. I left it in the courtyard of a non-descript building at the side of the road and went home to organise a car and trailer to recover the wreck. Turning up the next morning I was faced with a very angry teacher. The building was a primary school and I had to apologise to the whole class for preventing them from getting their morning break because of the dangerous wreck in their playground..

A sensible person would have scrapped the car , but I decided to rebuild. A new wheel, axel and rear wing were sourced. I also decided to upgrade the rear leaf spring suspension to a five line system that use motor bike style shock for the suspension. Dutton sold this as an option on new kits, but we didn't have the jigs to align it all so had to make do with measuring tape and chalk lines on the garage floor. My Dad did all the welding. I was never really confident that the wheels were aligned after that, and eventually the chassis started to bend under the punishment of those shocks which didn't really give very much.

I got the car down to Norwich. Eager to impress a new girlfriend, I hastily re-assembled the engine, which had been in my kitchen, and proposed a drive up to the North Norfolk coast. On the way back, she asked me what all the flashes were that she could see through a somewhat translucent fiberglass patch on floor. It didn't take long to find out. The engine sump had been scraping on the road and all the oil drained out.

Luckily, as usual, I had tools in the car and even a 5lt can of oil. I decided I could try to crimp the edges of the sump back together with some mole grips. Whilst struggling under the car, I struck up a conversation with an interested bystander. I could only see his shoes. "Just my luck if the cops come by" I said. "I am the cops" says he. He was ok about it, despite the slight slick it had left.

I poured the 5lts of oil into my newly rebuilt engine and made off as quickly as possible back to Norwich. A few miles down the road, the oil pressure dropped to zero again, but I was near enough to a garage to buy another 5lts of oil. At the northern outskirts of town it happened again. There was no way I could get back to my flat in the city centre like this. I decided to call a work colleague John McGregor to come and tow me across town with his Fiat Uno.

For some inexplicable reason John turned up in his 5 series BMW rather than the Uno. We rigged up a tow and set off the 2-3 miles to home. Approaching our first roundabout my foot slipped off the brake pedal, my feet were covered in oil, and I ended up pressing the clutch pedal instead. Bang, the Dutton sailed into the back of his BMW and bonnet of the car shot into the air. I could see his face in the mirror, he wasn't pleased but it was a short way to the flat so he didn't get out. A couple of hundered metres up the raod, another roundabout. Bang. I did it again :(

John was remarkably good about it. I had to pay for repairs to his bumper and boot. The Dutton had faired a lot worse.

The Dutton had one last laugh at my expense. I had bought my first home in Old Catton, north of Norwich. It didn't take long to move in what few possession I had, but there was no money for a trailer to take to the Dutton. I would drive it there. Everything went well until the right turn into the street where my new house was. The throttle jammed open and the car leapt onto the pavement and knocked down a section of one of my new neighbours fence.

It didn't go out again under its own steam. Eventually I gave it to Phil Betts, one of the only people I thought might be able to salvage it. And he did, by making two boat trailers out of it. The chassis was just too far out of alignment.

Goodbye Dutton

The Duttons final journey with Phil Betts