Proprietor(s): Mike Dean (d) & Mike Howe.
Location: Moor Road, Moorlinch.
Years of Operation: 1976-Present.
Sold: Cleveland, BP, Butler. Now diesel-only.
Interviewee(s): Mike Howe.
Mike Howe is not happy about the decline of the motor industry. He first started work at Harris Motors, Keward, near Wells. He recalls how they would offer their customers a complete service: a car wash and window clean alongside a petrol fill-up, all while the customer waited. He is pessimistic about the future, foreseeing a time when supermarkets will provide MOTs and drive the final nail into the coffin of independent garages. To make his point he tells me that just that week Sainsbury’s supermarket in Street failed to receive its delivery of petrol and left the town high and dry – Sainsbury’s being the only petrol filling station left in the town.
Mr. Howe paints a colourful picture of his younger days in business. He very nearly lost his job with Reg Harris after he was accused of “spilling” (or stealing) petrol from the business. The real culprit, a young man named Fred, got away with it. “I don’t steal petrol, Mr., I’m not like that”, Mike told Reg when he was summoned to his office and received a stern warning. Reg did come to respect Mike, however, and they remain friends to this day. George Nash was the foreman at Harris Motors, John Roger worked at the store and Roy Piper, a partner in the business, was car-sales manager.
In another story, Mike recalls the time a “very put together”, young, blonde, lady customer came in to fill up with petrol. The previous attendant had failed to put the nozzle of the petrol pump away correctly when Mike stepped forward to serve her. He conjures the image of a Marilyn Munroe figure wearing a fur coat and pearl necklace, her poised and confident exterior interrupted violently by the petrol, which thundered out of the nozzle and drenched both her and her car, flowing like torrential rain across the windscreen. Mike laughs, first in good humour and then with a tinge of embarrassment, as he remembers his attempts to dry her down with an oily rag he grabbed hastily from the workshop. Luckily for Mike, the woman in question was forgiving, and he was able to have her clothes dry cleaned.
I originally found Mr. Howe’s name while following a lead at a local museum. While I’m waiting to speak to someone I look through the local history books for sale. One on Catcott village reveals a photograph of the James family who ran the garage and filling station there; Mr. Howe is listed as the man who contributed the photograph. Mike, I learn, rented from the James family in 1973 and continued to operate there until 1976, when he bought his current site at Moorlinch. The Catcott Garage apparently fell to the same fate as many others – the incompetence of its later owners leading to an inevitable bankruptcy. Mr. Howe tells me that, at their peak, Catcott Garage was serving 35,000 and Moorlinch 25,000 gallons of petrol per year.
The original Moorlinch garage was opened by Frank Sellways, his two sisters running the village post office attached. In 1958, Frank’s apprentice, Mark Coombes, had the modern garage built and their erection was followed two years later by two bungalows. Coombes was succeeded in business first by Nato Cars, then by Mr. H. Cutlers, and finally by Mike and his partner Mike Dean, who tragically died young. In the early days the pumps served Cleveland, but moved on to BP by the time Mike moved there; he later switched to Butler, but today only serves diesel from the best going seller. Mike is very enthusiastic about the history of the trade, and mentions all the businesses he can think of as well as providing me with a valuable list of contacts. He is very insistent that I visit the “old tin shed” out at Shapwick Road, Westhay. Over in the nearby village of Othery there were three garages – one, now Othery Motor Company, owned by a Mr. Bounds, known to friends as ‘Boundy’, the second to “the old Major” and the third, next to the modern speed camera, to Mr. Layvis. He also tells me about one curious owner, Cecil Hagget of Silver Fish Motors, who kept a fox in his workshop. Now living in Frome, Mike makes sure to mention the Frome Motor Car which was made by Lynwood Motors.
Mike talks in self-effacing terms. “We weren’t like the young people today back then, we weren’t clever… We just had to find our way in the world.” He compares working in the motor industry to having a disease that you can’t get rid of, “…just working out the remaining years until retirement…” and says that if he’d had children he wouldn’t let them follow him into the trade. Conversations with others suggest Mike is exaggerating his predicament, however; Roger Curtis said he would “never” fail to turn a profit thanks to his shrewd business mind. When I return to Mike’s garage to take the photograph that accompanies this text, I tell him of Roger’s comments, and a smile flashes across his face for a moment and he tells me with a degree of pride that his customers always tell him “there’s no one quite like this garage”. Reflecting on this comment, he says he thinks it’s his dedication to the needs of his customers that keeps them coming back year after year.