Today I stepped inside the Agora. I was shocked. My expectation, given that the planners of the day had seen fit to demolish complete sections of Church Street and Buckingham Street and isolated the Square from Church Street and the Front, was that the interior would be an indoor shopping centre. Instead I encountered a warehouse. I see now that it must have been the planner’s intention to replace the traditional market with a new superstructure in the middle of the town.
David Marks concludes this section of his life with an account from the 1970s.
1969 was an important year for me as I got head hunted by Chrysler who had taken over the old Rootes group at Coventry. They were setting up what was popularly called their think tank at Whitley, in Coventry the site of the old aircraft factory which had built the Whitley bomber and late carried out pressure testing on the comet after several crashes. I was appointed as organizational development Manager (No I can’t remember what it was supposed to involve either !) When I arrived on day one I was summoned to the bosses office (a rather fierce ex naval commander) who advised me that there had been a change of plan following discussions with Detroit (there were always “Discussions with Detroit”) and that as a result I was now the Training Manager. This was my first insight into how the motor industry worked (Or in those days didn’t work!) It is not difficult to imagine my concern when I was summoned to the office of the big chief, Head of Product Planning and Design.
He had apparently received a communication from the Director of Engineering of Pressed Steel Fisher (who at that time made car bodies for just about everyone).
He was apparently concerned about the shortage of good car body designers and believed that the “big for” shoul get together with a view to establishing an appropriate degree level course at some suitable academic institution. He was therefore proposing a meeting, to be held at the Vauxhall plant in Luton tow be attended by senior management of the big four together with the Chief Engineer, body in white (the term given to a basic, unpainted chassis) and the Training Manager.
The meeting at Luton was quite impressive, if only for the quantity of cigar smoke being puffed into the air. The outcome was that Ken Osborne (Director of Engineering at Pressed Steel) who had initiated the meeting, volunteered to lead a working party comprising the Chief Engineer (body in white) and Training Manager of each of the big for (BMC, Vauxhall, Ford and Chrysler) and the Professor of Advanced Automobile Engineering at Cranfield and his Senior Reader (who had somehow wangled their way onto the group to try and get selected as the most suitable academic body).
So it was the that yours truly who had no experience of either training or automobile design, who had never flown found himself on an aircraft heading for Hamburg.
The reason for this was that Ken assured us that the Germans had an excellent car body design programme at a college in Hamburg and that was where we needed to be. Looking back I reckon that he had all of this staked out when he fist proposed the initial meeting !
The plan was that we would be met by our German hosts for lunch then spend the afternoon touring the Wagonbaerschule. After this we would visit the Zillerthaal for an evening meal and return to the hotel for further discussions of the days visit. The following morning we would finish ou tou and the take our German hosts out for lunch before flying home.
Well, that was the theory at any rate. We managed the lunch and afternoon tour alright, then came the meal in the basement of the townhall. It was a simply enormous meal which lasted for an age during which quite a lot 9of wine was drunk. We were being treated as celebrities as by chance Hamburg was having a British week. We had already spotted models of London buses, policemaen and beefeaters in shop windows, not to mention one of the main cinemas which was showing the film Battle of Britain which had jusr been released. The main difference was that whilst at home cinemas had large models of Spitfires outside in Hamburg they had a large model of a Messerschmitt 109.
It was a splendid meal, presided over by a large, jolly, waiter. The only cloud on the horizon occurred when the time arrived for dessert and one of the Vauxhall contingent asked the waiter if they had any gateaux. The mans face immediately clouded over and has started mumbling something. It was only after careful discussion with one of our number who spoke a little German that it was discovered that he though we were enquiring about a Ghetto as in Warsaw Ghetto !
Following this marathon eat in it was decided that it was clearly too late to return to the hotel to do any serious work and so, as we were in Hamburg, We ought to visit the Reeperbahn. I, in my innocence did not know what the Reeperbahn was, but soon found out that it was the red light district. Rather like Soho but much, much, worse. Ken carted us off to some club that he just happened to know about and which he assured us had one of the more respectable cabarets. We were there for about an hour drinking Scnapps and watching an unbelievable selection of strippers, the last one of which was absolutely gross and turned out to be a man. We emerged from this place around midnight and the night being youg, as they say, We headed for what is an apparently very famous Bier Keeler. A huge hall filled with long wooden tables and benches and dedicated to drinking steins (litres) of lager to the accompaniment of a Lederhosen clad oompah band. I recall one of those odd coincidences occurred on the way to this pace when I jokingly remarked “ I guess since its British week they will be playing “Roll out the Barrel2 when we get there. Well, that’s exactly what they were playing and my companions thought I was some kind of psychic!
The standard routine at this beerhall was that the conductor would wander out into the audience and place his tyrilean hat on some unsuspecting drinker who was then dragged onto the stage and made to conduct the band. Immediatley one of the Ford contingent bribed the ban to come and seek out Prof Ellis from Cranfield. The prof was noted as a somewhat humourless character who could be rather prickly, but by this time he was pretty well pickled and put in a pretty respectable show of baton waving. Being British week we were treated as honoured guests and we were all dragged out to have our photograph taken with the Prof. He was worried to death for the rest of the project that we weree going to let a copy fall into the hands of his students.
It can be imagined what sort of state we were in the following morning for part two of our tour. When the time arrived for us to treat our hosts to lunch we took them to a restaurant we had been recommended on the fourth floor of a building which overlooked the Elbe. Our German guests were highly amused at the state we were in and knowing full well where we had been the night before. In fact as soon as they saw us one of them grinned and said “Reeperbahn ?”.
I had a most interesting conversation with the Prof sitting next to me. He pointed across the Elbe and showed me the location of the U Boat pens during the war. He went on to explain that the allies had advised the city fathers that they proposed to dynamite the U boat pens and the city fathers had objected on the grounds that it would cause the collapse of the important road tunnel which goes under the Elbe nearby.
Evidently the guy in charge of the occupying force, one Captain Dunlop then offered to stand in then centre of the tunnel during the explosion as a gesture of confidence that the tunnel would not collapse. “And so”, said the Prof. “The brave Captain Dunlop earned the respect of the city fathers by doing just that”. (and the tunnel didn’t collapse)
I’m bound to say that I would have regarded him as the rather foolish Captain Dunlop and wondered how we came to win the was !
Surprisingly after quite a few more meetings and visits to numerous colleges and Universities a new degree course in Automobile Body design was set up at the then Hatfield Polytechnic and ran successfully with the support of the motor industry for any years. In fact the now University of Hertfordshire runs several degree courses in automotive engineering and claims to have its graduates in most of the formula 1 teams. It would be nice to think that our little band had perhaps played some small part in this.
The only other interesting exercise that I got involved in during my very short stay there was the setting up of a training programme to convert engineering draughtsmen into automotive body design draughtsmen, something which had not been tried before. I signed up a car body draughtsman who was interested in the project and eventually we set it up and successfully retrained quite a few engineering draughtsmen. I had the excellent services at that time of a training officer who was a real “mister fixit”, he had worked for the company for many years and new everyone and everything. If Kev couldn’t do something then you could reckon it couldn’t be done. One afternoon just as we were equipping or new traing centre I happened to mention to Kev that it would be rather nice if had a cut away body of the latest car in the foyer. A few days later Kev wandered into my office and said “David, come and see what I’ve got. There in the foyer was a complete body of a Hillman Hunter, cut deatly in half right down the middle !
“Where the hell did you get that from Kev”., I asked. “It got accidentally damaged on the line a couple of nights ago so I got them to cut it up and respray it for me” said Ken with a knowing smile and a wink !
I did not stay with Chrysler for long as the place was a disorganized madhouse with quite an unpleasant undercurrent of politicking and backstabbing. Those were the days of massive union power and the slightest problem on the shop floor would result in a walk out. I recall a colleague who had the office next to mine who had been recruited at considerable expense from the British Aircraft Corporation. His brief was to set up and run a management development system (Glossy brochures were eventually produced but nothing ever actually happened !). He came back to the office one lunch time having been over to the Stoke engine plant. He had spotted a mass meeting going on outside the gares and had stood at the back and watched and listened. He reckoned that whilst the main speaker harangued the crowd it was easy to spot the professional agitatoirs who were facing away from the speaker, watching the crowd to see who voted for what !. The point that really stuck in my mind however was his comment that the speaker was explaining in some detail an apparently devious management plot to swindle the unfortunate work force. As my colleague pointed out “ There isn’t a manager in this plant with enough intelligence to have thought that out !
He was about right there. On one occasion during the regular wage negotiations the top shop steward of DATA (The Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians Association) who was an extremely militant firebrand had negotiated a pretty good increase for the draughtsmen. As soon as the agreement was signed he pointed out to management that all leading draughtsmen (about 20 or so) now had salaries which were above the level which entitled them to be on the official list for a management car. The Personnel Manager at the time pointed out to them that the dat before the agreement was signed the company had issued a notice advising staff that the level which qualified people to be on the list had been raised and that therefore the leading draughtsmen did not in fact qualify. The wily shop steward then pointed out that the award ahd been backdated (about a month I think it was) and that at the time the agreement became effective they had in fact qualified and that there was not in existence a mechanism for unqualifying them. So they were put on the list ! The most amusing thing was that at the same time a number of Chrysler Valiants had been imported from Australia for some reason and were surplus to requirements. They had therefore been put on the management car list at a greatly reduced rental. They were hulking great American style cars and quite a few of the draughtsmen chose them so the staff carpark sported quite a few of these beasts !
Quite a few of the management team had been rapidly imported from Ford and were mainly young, ruthless and unscrupulous and on more than one occasion I found that people who were smiling and complimenting you on a job you had completed for them, may well then go behind your back and complain about you if it suited their career objectives. Anyway after about 9 months there I was contacted by my former boss at Whetstone and invited to rejoin them as Chief of Personnel and Training. It was therefore with much pleasure that I wreaked my revenge. I had learned some lessons from the boy racers from Ford including some schemes that were afoot to unseat the top man on the site (Head of Product Planning and Development, a pleasant man called Cyril Weighall). The week I left I called his secretary and advised her that I had some interesting information about some current scheming that he would probably want to hear. I had met him on several occasions to discuss the body design project and we got on well together. The effect was immediate ! He delayed his departure for Malta where he was due to attend the launch of what was to be the Avenger and we had a lengthy discussion. Cyril was delighted and when I left I took about half a dozen boy racers with me !
Despite the chaos it was an interesting place to work and I had some fascinating experiences there. On one occasion I had been asked to go to to meet the Head of Engine and Powertrain development, a charming man called Leo Kusmicki. Leo wanted me to set up some training progamme or another. As I sat chatting with him I noticed a rather splendid diecast ashtray with a beautiful model of the Vanwall Formual One car which had been raced by Stirling Moss. Being something of a Formula One fan I asked if he had been a Vanwall supporter. “You could say that” he replied, “I designed the engine.” Bit of a show stopper that !. I later looked him up and found the he was Pole who came over to England to fly for the free Polish Air Force and stayed on to work at Norton Motor Cycles. It was apparently only after he had worked there for a while that the company discovered that he hed been a leading expert on combustion engine design in Poland. He then went on to design the engine for the Manx Norton, which in turn formed the basis of the Vanwall engine. One of the training programmes I set up was an induction course for the intake of graduate engineers. One of the sessions was to be on automobile styling and I persuaded Roy Axe who was then the Head of Styling to run the session for me. He started his talk by telling all these enthusiastic young engineers that engineering niceties did not sell cars but that styling did as most customers wanted to show off theit new acquisition to their non technical friends. To illustrate this poit he liked to tell the story of the Sunbeam Rapier which at that time was the companieds flagship car. It had been decide that a special version would be introduced with a Holbay tuned engine to provide more power and an embryo spoiler incorporated into the rear boot. This had been submitted to Chryser JHQ in Detroit who had made the comment that a couple of “Go fast stripes” shoul be placed arounf the bittom of the bodywork. The somewhat aloof reply from the UK design team was that the English public were a little moe sophisticated than that and were not going to be impressed by aflashy paintwork. Detroit’s reply was to insist that it was at leat offered as a no extra cost option. The compasnt never sold one car without the stripes. One nil to the stylists ! On the other hand when it was decided to present a courtesy car (for marketing purposes) to Princess Grace of Monaco the styling people decided that since it was to used in the south it waould be a good idea to cut off the roof and fit it with a “rag top” It was apparently only at the last minute before it was shipped that someone from body design pointed out that all the strength was in the roof and the first time her Royal Highness went over a large bump or hump backed bridge the car woul almos certainly fold in half! So the Princess never got her Rapier which remained in a small internal exhibition. And so .. after only 9 months my brief, glorious career in the Motor industry came to an end and it was back to Whetstone. Fortunately we had never moved so were still living in Newbold Verdon.
Well, let me say this. The project is an abject failure.
The market that ran every Friday in the Market Hall was a vibrant living organism. Many traders of all stripes set up their stalls inside and out and I don’t recall many vacancies. United Counties scheduled buses from all the outlying villages on Friday morning and returning at lunchtime. They were mostly full and the Friday market was a very crowded place.
One job which I took on in my teens was to help one trader, Harry Tooth, to unload his rugs, tablecloths and bedlinen from his van. I would help him unload before school in the morning and load up after 4 in the afternoon. So he got in a full day’s trading at Wolverton market.
Fifty years later I still see town markets flourishing so I see no reason why the old Wolverton market could not have continued to thrive.
Wolverton had certainly grown in an unusual way because of Railway Board decisions. Once Bury, Garnett and Walker Streets had been razed, the commercial traders had to move but before too long the Front and Church Street had formed a new shopping centre ith residences to the east, south and west. When the little streets were flattened in the 60s the eastern side was gone and the town became once more lop-sided.
The planners and builders of the Agora could have justified their decision had they built a shopping centre with important tenants – but a warehouse doesn’t cut it!