How chocolate wrappings saved the day when the engine stopped

A 1957 FE Holden. Source: Wiki Commons


Back in the late 1960s, I was based in Perth. I drove out to Kalgoorlie, entering a local business. A Wongai man stood talking to the man I’d driven out to meet. I was invited to enter their conversation and will never forget how it went.

He was a Wongai bloke named Frank. Although he’d ‘done his bit’ and fought in the AIF in WW2, he was unable to either read or write because he never had the chance for a white feller education. Nonetheless, Frank was highly intelligent and held in great respect within the community, white and black.

He owned an FE Holden that he drove everywhere you could imagine, and then some. It was nothing for Frank and his family to be seen in the desert country around Leonora, where he was raised. Although he’d have loved a Lan’cruiser, the price of one was well out of reach, so the old Holden had to do.

I heard of one particular trip, Frank and his family were driving through the bush somewhere around Lake Emu when the motor stopped. Although untrained, Frank had mechanical empathy and it took him only minutes to establish the problem. It was electrical. No spark. Lifting the distributor cap, he soon found the cause.

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I don’t want to bog down on things automotive but a little explanation is necessary: A long, flat, thin curve of spring steel had broken near to where it is fastened to wiring on an insulated sleeve. Not only does the spring operate the ignition points, it carries electrical current. The motor in the FE had come to a stop on both scores.

The area was isolated. Even with drinking water in the car, Frank and his family may well have been in jeopardy. The temperature at the time hovered in the high 90s and low 100s (nowadays, high 30s), conditions in which humans perish.

It took only minutes for Frank to work out a solution. The kids had been eating chocolate in the car and all the wrappings had been tossed on the back floor. Thankfully, it was back when Cadbury used a combination of foil and paper wrappings on their blocks. At the time, something so mundane became the answer to their lack of motive power… and perhaps a life saver.

Picking up the wrappings, Frank tore them into strips. Then, with care, he wrapped foil around the spring to provide electrical continuity while, at the same time, using the paper as wadding. It provided insulation and acted as a base against which the broken spring could press.  He popped the rotor button on and then the distributor cap. Finally, removing and blocking off the vacuum advance hose, he reached in and turned the ignition switch.

The engine fired up and they drove back in to Kal. Things vibrated apart a couple of times on the trip but Frank simply did it all over again, thus safely completing the journey. He had just bought a new set of contact points when I met him and heard his remarkable story.

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This is a car story, published on the demise of the Australian motor manufacturing industry. There are hundreds of others out there. Would you care to write an item about one you know?

Do you have fond memories of an old family car, or maybe a genius solution to a problem like this?