The Fosters originated from the small village of North Curry, in Somerset. There are a bunch of us buried in the churchyard there, and stained-glass windows in the church dedicated to the memories of our ancestors. My great-grandfather moved from there to Wellington, Somerset where my grandfather was born. As I recall, he moved to London and worked in a shop, and then moved to Leeds to start his own, where my father was born.
My mother’s family came from Liverpool, where her grandfather had a furniture store on Elmswood Rd. She was born across the Mersey, in Wallasey. She met Dad at the Festival of Britain in August, 1951, and they got married 3 months later. Dad was working on jet engines in Leicester, and got a position in the States with Joy Manufacturing.
He eventually moved to Westinghouse in Kansas City, Missouri, where I was born. I had two pre-existing sisters, Anne and Linda. A third one, Sheila, was acquired 22 months later.
We moved to Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, 10 miles south of Pittsburgh, when I was about 2, and lived there until 1970. It was relentlessly suburban, but a great place to grow up. We had some woods behind the house that we used to hang around in, and in the winter, when they were covered in snow, I used to ski down from Washington Elementary to our house. My fascination with vehicles of all sorts started at this time. In 1963 or 64 my folks gave me a Sears Flightliner bike (identical to, but not, the bike in this picture) and an adjustable wrench for Christmas. I managed to disassemble the bicycles of each of my sisters. My best friend, Gordon Brightsen, and I rode all over Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair.
In 1970 we picked up and moved back to the UK. I was 14 at the time and my folks bought the Malvern Hotel in Brighton, and I started going to Brighton, Hove, and Sussex Grammar School for Boys. I bought a Carlton Cobra from Halfords (again, like – but not – the one below).
For a short while I got interested in train spotting, but by the time I was 15 or so that started to give way to other interests. I developed friendships from school – Steve Cawley, Martin Harvey, Nick Maddox, Marc Bowden, Laurence Marchini, and David Tanat-Jones. We all used to go to Martin’s house for lunch (it was close). We started to hold parties – and these became surprisingly popular. Some of us had sisters, and thus there were actually girls at some (rather a unique experience for attendees of an all-boys school). It was a bit weird, as I’d never been popular before.
As soon as I was 16 I bought my first ever motor vehicle. It was a Motobecane Cady (again, like, but not, the one in the picture) and I soon forgot to put oil in the petrol and seized the engine.
Not knowing what to do I advertised in the Evening Argus for a moped engine. You’d be amazed at how many people don’t have an engine, but do have an old moped they want to sell. I bought and fixed up and sold a few of them. When I was 17 I bought a Lambretta 150 similar to the one below for £25. I honestly don’t remember what happened to it.
I also started taking driving lessons from Fred Bibby in a blue Datsun. When we moved over from the States, we had brought a 1967 Opel Kadett and a 1964 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with us. At this point, Mum & Dad went into partnership with my aunt & uncle in Morecambe to buy a hotel there (the Brandon), and Dad was making frequent trips up there. I used to drive him as far as London (Victoria station) in the Oldsmobile and then get the train back. It was a hoot to drive on English roads at 17.
At this point, Laurence Marchini’s aunt, Violet Dorothy Bunce, sold us her 1953 Anglia. I eventually bought Laurence’s half share when the big ends went (presumably due to lack of maintenance). I tried to repair it but I knew nothing about car repairs – and apparently, without piston rings the thing will run but makes a lot of smoke. Timing was bad because at this point I needed to go to university, the car sat in the Regency Square car park until the fees owed exceeded the value of the car and I just walked away from it.
In 1975 I went to the University of Lancaster, my grandad Foster died and left me £350, and I went out and bought a used MGA for £365, shown below with my girlfriend Fiona on an outing to the Lake District. 1976 was an exceptional year for summer weather and an ideal year to own a sports car, and the MGA was magic.
I still think that is one of the world’s all-time all-around best cars. Sure, it’s a bit pokey by modern standards, but the handling was brilliant and the styling, coming after the MG TF, was amazing.
I kept the MGA throughout most of my time at Lancaster. At one point it froze and I thought I had cracked the block, so I rented a garage on campus, bought a scrap MGA, and enlisted the help of Rob Bourne, a fellow Engineering student, to help me swap the engines. Ultimately it turned out it had simply pushed out the core plugs and was easily repairable. Rob had a Morris 1100 that required a series of motors, and we eventually got to the point where we could replace the engine in an 1100 in about an hour. In my final year I shared a house in Upper Bentham (Yorkshire) with friends, and one morning on the way to uni with Rob in the passenger seat and Chris Taylor on the armrest, I failed to see a car coming at a stop sign and ran into them. The MGA had severe hidden rust and basically just unzipped. At this point I stripped it down with the intent to rebuild it, and went through a few interim cars until in my final year I found a Rover 2000TC that needed some TLC.
After Lancaster I wasn’t sure what to do. I was focused on automotive engineering, but found the opportunities available to me to be uninspiring. My mother pointed me to an ad for Cranfield, saying ‘you like aircraft, right?’. She was right (after all I had just gone to the 1978 Farnborough Air Show – Rover shown there below), so I applied and got a grant to go there for an MSc. Best thing I ever did.
I sold the Rover just before starting at Cranfield, and I bought a Morris Minor van so I could tow the MGA on a trailer I had borrowed from a friendly car breaker, from Lancaster to Cranfield. Rob helped me load it and we went through Manchester on the way, so I could drop him off at his house there. Before we got there the bus in front of us braked way more quickly than the Minor could with the loaded trailer attached, and I ran into the back of it. Bus – broken engine cover handle. Minor – grille pushed back over radiator and bonnet latch not functional. Eventually we had to hacksaw off the bonnet. Fortunately we had a full tool kit in the back.
That evening, I called a number of ads in the Manchester Evening News until I found a Morris Oxford that had a tow ball for £175. We went out and bought it, towed the MGA to Cranfield, drove back to Manchester and put the Minor on the trailer and towed it back to the breaker in Lancaster as a gift. I kept the Oxford throughout my time at Cranfield but it was rubbish. I never got the chance to finish the MGA, and ended up essentially giving it away.
When I graduated from Cranfield the aircraft industry was a bit depressed and I mooched off friends for about 6 months before I found a job at Piper Aircraft in Lock Haven, Pa.
To be continued…