Jensen Motors Paint Shop Operator | Recollections
An impromptu telephone call from Peter Stait’s brother, Tony, in 1972, led him to join Jensen Motors as a Paint Operator. Tony Stait had been employed at Jensen Motors as a paint sprayer since the late 1960s. He had often mentioned to his brother, Peter, that he should apply for a job there. With large scale hiring of workers in 1972 due to the launch of the new Jensen Healey, this was Peter Stait’s chance.
I was born in Birmingham in 1950, and went to St.Patrick’s School. At 11, I moved to St.Alban’s School and left at 16 to find gainful employment.
My first job was at a Birmingham-based firm, Garretts, close to home. I cleaned cars for them and received the princely wage of £3.50 a week. I had to give my mum £2.50 towards my keep, and had £1 to spend on myself. Some months later, my brother Tony told me that there was a vacancy at the Birmingham-based Coach Builders, Davis & Field.
Tony was already working at Davis & Field, and I was accepted as an apprentice painter. By the time I had been working there a couple of years I was on £11 a week. I continued to work at Davis & Field until 1970, and then moved to Bristol Street Motors, at Charles Henry Street in Birmingham. This was a large company, and I was a fully qualified painter on £21 per week.
I had only been at Bristol Street Motors for a couple of years, when I received a phone call from my brother Tony. By this time he was working as a painter at the West Bromwich-based Company, Jensen Motors. He had left Davis & Field in the later 1960s to work at Jensen, and had often mentioned to me that they were a good company to work for.
“Peter, Jensen Motors are actively hiring people to work on a new model, called the Jensen Healey,” he said. Tony was sure Jensen Motors would pay me more than I was getting at Bristol Street Motors, and pushed for me to call and ask for an interview. The very next day I made enquiries with Jensen, and was asked to come in for an interview.
Following an interview with Stan Yates, the Paint Shop Supervisor, I duly started at Jensen Motors on the 23rd October 1972 as a ‘Paint Operator’ on just over £30 a week. I was living at Highters Heath in Birmingham and travelled to work in my Triumph Vitesse Convertible. It was about 12 miles to Kelvin Way, West Bromwich, and on average took me about 35-40 minutes.
When I first started there, although I was a fully qualified paint sprayer, I had to work my way up. I was 24 years old at the time and was on the track, rubbing down (flatting) Jensen Healey bodies, which had been dipped in red oxide primer.
It was a messy job which was made all the more messy by the occasional shout of “Sorry”, as someone on the other side of the track splashed you for a laugh, on the pretence of an accident as the body was wetted to rub it down. It was mostly taken in good part, although some of the water fights which broke out did get out of hand, with the entire contents of full buckets of water being thrown at each other.
After a couple of months of this, I was happy to be moved up the track to apply final paint to Interceptor & Healey bodies. I was to remain painting Interceptor & Healey bodies for about 12 to 14 months.
In fact this brought up an interesting point, as I just wasn’t sure, decades on, if there was a track for Interceptors, and a separate track for Healeys. However, having spoken with my brother Tony, and a couple of other former employees, it seems that both Interceptors and Healeys came through on the same track.
Typically there would be two us working on a car body, with one of us each side of the track. Each of us sprayed one side of the car, starting with the bonnet and working towards the rear while the painter on the other side did the opposite so that we didn’t cover each other in overspray.
Because virtually every car was going to be sprayed a different colour, someone (I guess the foreman) brought the paint to us for each car. They obviously were in charge of checking the build sheet for the chassis, and providing us with the correct paint for that car’s specification.
As we finished each car, we had to clean out our guns completely, to make ready for the next batch of paint. It’s funny, most people think a painter doesn’t care what colour they were painting, but there was definitely some colours I loved, and a couple I hated. In particular, Brazilia comes to mind. Why would anyone order a car in brown I used to think to myself !
At Jensen Motors, painters would spray an initial single coat, called ‘Flashing Off’. This was a thin coat which was allowed to semi-dry off (only 5-10 minutes) then a double coat (two coats at once) was sprayed on. After that the car was pulled (on its bogie) into the oven.
It’s easy to get the impression we were spraying constantly, but that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, the chaps flatting down the red oxide just couldn’t finish the cars quick enough, that meant a delay with the priming, leading to a waiting time between bodies, of 10, 15 even 20 minutes.
All the sprayers could do, was to pull down our masks, and have a rest until the next car was ready. There was an unused area by the wall of the bay, so we would sit ourselves down watching to see when the next car was being pushed along to us.
Mind you, we couldn’t be complacent. Our Paint Shop Foreman was never far away, as we saw him approach, we would quickly shout out, “We’re just waiting for the next car to come through to us.”, Normally we would get a retort back, such as, “And make sure your ready with your spray guns when the body arrives for painting. We’re not paying you to sit around doing nothing.”
My obsession at that time was darts, and amongst the various social activities going on at Jensen Motors was darts. But there was lots of other activities we could get involved with, such as a Jensen Motors Dominoes League, several card schools, and not forgetting the Jensen Motors Football Club.
Both my brother Tony, myself, and our friend, (another sprayer) Alan Ellis, formed a darts team. We played darts at any spare moment, and had a board on the wall near to the paint booths. I used to take sandwiches to work, so most days myself, Tony, and Alan would play darts at lunchtime, eating our sandwiches at the same time. It was a proud moment for us all when we won the 1973 Jensen Motors Darts Trophy. Later on I won a trophy for the most individual wins in one season.
My brother Tony came up with the bright idea of running what he discreetly called T.B.C (Tony’s Book Club). For a small weekly donation which allowed Tony to purchase all the lads’ magazines of the day, like Mayfair, Penthouse, Men Only, Escort etc, any member of the T.B.C could come over to Tony and have loan of a couple of the magazines. The T.B.C meant that a fair few chaps from other parts of the factory would come over to the paint area to have loan of a magazine. Even a couple of management chaps joined Tony’s club.
At the beginning of 1974, we were all affected by the three-day-week. Many today might not remember the three-day-week, but it was the time when a lot of homes were lit with ‘candle power’. The three-day-week had been caused by industrial action by the miners, which meant there wasn’t enough electricity. Management at Jensen Motors wanted us to work shifts during the three-day-week, which would involve us coming in about 10.00 in the evening and working until 8.00. Our Union at Jensen Motors believed we needed to pull together, and voted to allow shifts while the three-day-week was in operation. I think we were very lucky with our Unions at Jensen Motors. They acted very fairly, and perhaps that is why we never had the levels of industrial action that was prevalent at other factories. The three-day-week ended up lasting from 1st January 1974, until 7th March of that same year [ see notes on three-day-week at end of feature].
Not long after the end of the three-day-week, I was moved to the Hospital Bay. It seemed like a promotion, but since it didn’t include higher wages, I guess it wasn’t. Working in the so-called Hospital Bay was the most interesting and rewarding job I had at Jensen Motors.
After painting in a paint material called L.S.C., low stroving cellulose, the bodies were baked in long tunnel ovens to cure the paint. This was before two-pack paint came into common usage in England. Even at a relatively low temperature sometimes the lead loaded areas (of which there were many) would ‘pop’. This could be caused by slight air pockets or insufficient cleaning of the lead prior to the priming process.
This is where the Hospital Bay came in. The job involved the touching up of the finished body by dropping paint into each of the individual places where the lead had ‘popped’. The job was quite painstaking. At any one time there was two cars in the Hospital Bay, separated by some sort of curtain. Myself and another chap known as ‘Little’ Dennis worked as a ‘pair’, and Alan Ellis and Pete Evans were the other pair working the other side of the curtain. The Interceptors would then be flatted down with 2000 grade paper and mopped to a finish. This process also removed any orange peel imperfections. Since the problem was caused by lead loading it was only Interceptors that came into the Hospital Bay.
I would say we achieved close to what would be called a concours standard on the new vehicles by the time they were finished. The paint had to be flat and perfect. Even then, they were re-inspected by the paint shop foremen, Arthur Moss or Ernie Fellows, who could still put a chalk mark by any imperfections they spotted, which then had to be rectified. The cars were immaculate when finished.
The Hospital Bay was also, on occasion, where visiting dignitaries would be brought to see finished vehicles. On one occasion during 1974, the immensely popular novelist, Harold Robbins, came to the factory. I was working on a car in the Hospital Bay, when in came the flamboyantly dressed Harold Robbins, along with a member of management.
I was introduced to Harold Robbins, and asked to tell him what I did in the Hospital Bay. After telling him about my job, and just before he was about to leave, I plucked up enough courage to ask Harold Robbins for his autograph. “Sure thing” he said, and with that brought out a pen from his pocket. With that I had to find a piece of paper. Trying to be as quick as possible, I found a piece of light blue writing paper, he penned his name in blue biro, said goodbye, and with that they left. It was quite an exciting moment for me, especially as I was reading his novel, The Carpetbaggers, at the time. If only I had the book with me, he could have autographed that I thought, as I looked down at his signature on a piece of paper.
On the 3rd January 1975, I was one of many receiving an envelope we didn’t want to open. We all knew what it meant – redundancy. I can’t remember how many chaps were made redundant at the same time as me, but it was a lot. Within the Paint Shop, as elsewhere, it was a case of LIFO (Last In First Out), I guess the fairest way of dealing with an unpleasant situation. As an indication of how many redundancy letters were being handed out at the same time, these were simple photocopied letters with just the name, address, dates, and position left blank, so they could be quickly typed in.
I was luckier than some, as I managed to find employment quite quickly, at the Birmingham-based Kaminski Brothers. That was the start of a number of jobs with different companies, ending up by the 1990s, as manager of an accident repair centre.
In 2000 I went self-employed, starting up my own bodyshop called Green Lane Classics (later Kestrall Classics). Although I would take on any classic car, my fondness was still with Jensen, and I became quite well known for working on Jensen cars. Over the years I have owned a number of Jensens, including a 541S, two CV8s, a Jensen Healey, and a Jensen GT.
Today, looking back on my time at Jensen Motors, I realise just how lucky I was to have worked there. Great cars, and great camaraderie between the employees. They were happy days.
NOTES ON THE THREE-DAY-WEEK: Jensen Motors were on the same gas and electric circuit as Bromford Iron & Steel which was close by. Due to this, the power was not actually turned off at Jensen Motors, but they still had to comply with a three-day-week, and energy use restrictions. Management at Jensen Motors worked out a system, where by the Paint Shop would close down during the day because that area used most power. This allowed the assembly track and other areas to continue work throughout the day. The Paint Shop would then operate on a night shift. This idea was put to the unions, and was accepted for the duration of the three-day-week.
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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Peter Stait
COPYRIGHTS: Jensen Museum | Peter Stait
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