This post could also be subtitled “Cultural References You Completely Missed For Literally Decades”. For those not much into British humour, I am referring to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. If you liked Monty Python you would probably like Hitchhiker; if not, well, you could probably skip reading the rest of this post and feel none the worse for wear for it. For the record, I don’t look up to or down at anyone who finds either of these tedious and unfunny; being a live-and-let-live kinda guy, I don’t consider either to be “an acquired taste” or “more sophisticated” or any of that (heck, I find farts — even mine — well, okay, especially mine — funny). It’s different and that’s that.
At any rate, I read the book back in the early 1980s and when I read about this ‘Ford Prefect‘ character I thought it was kind of funny, but didn’t think it meant anything other than that it was a goofy name. For a bit of background, Ford is an alien who hitchhiked to Earth
from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. Arthur Dent’s failure to suspect this reflects the care with which his friend blended himself into human society – after a fairly shaky start. When he first arrived fifteen years ago, the minimal research he had done had suggested to him that the name ‘Ford Prefect’ would be nicely inconspicuous.
Being a young man from the midwest, I had no idea that ‘Ford Prefect’ was anything other than an unusual name for someone to pick out of a hat. And so I went for many years, happily reading the books and not bothering to ponder many of the references therein very much.
Until this whole Internets thing came along. And only recently did I do a search — for reasons I hereby state that I do not remember — for “Ford Prefect” and discover, lo and behold, it was a car! Since that’s what we do here, I figured it was ripe for a post.
Except that I know virtually nothing about the Ford Prefect automobile.
Not like that’s ever stopped me before. . . .
I honestly admit that I can’t get much interest worked up over this thing. According to its Wikipedia page, it seems to have been very popular, which makes some sense as it was derived from the Ford Popular, and it was also supposedly a popular car to modify into a hot rod. And so here you go:
The Ford Prefect was introduced in October 1938 and built by the Ford plant in Dagenham, Essex. The original Ford Prefect was a slight reworking of the previous year’s 7Y, the first Ford car designed outside of Detroit, Michigan. It was designed specifically for the British market. It had a 1172 cc side-valve engine with thermocirculation radiator (no pump) and the ability to be started by a crank handle should the battery not have sufficient power to turn the starter motor running from the 6 Volt charging system. The windscreen wipers were powered by the vacuum ported from the engine intake manifold — as the car laboured uphill the wipers would slow to a standstill due to the intake manifold vacuum dropping to near nil, only to start working again as the top was reached and the intake vacuum increased. The windscreen opened forward pivoting on hinges on the top edge; two flaps either side of the scuttle also let air into the car. The car has a durable 4 cylinder motor.
The most common body styles were two- and four-door saloons, but pre war a few tourers anddrophead coupés were made. Post war, only four-door saloons were available on the home market, but two-door models were made for export.
And there you went. Also check out this ad:
And thus have we plumbed the depths of my interest in the actual Ford Prefect.
I can’t say that Hitchhiker changed my life a whole lot. I mean, I certainly enjoyed it and to this day when life’s circumstances cause certain scenes to occasionally flit through my brain I find myself having a mild chuckle, but it didn’t exactly alter the trajectory of my life to that point. Well, with one minor exception. The unofficial motto of the book is “Don’t Panic”:
“It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words “DON’T PANIC” in large, friendly letters on the cover.”
I have often wondered whether Wikipedia might not be fulfilling that function these days, although their motto might more appropriately read “Don’t Believe Everything You Read”.
I confess that a few times during college, when faced with a particularly daunting task, such as taking an exam for an upper level statistics class where I missed roughly a third of all lectures (all on Friday, obviously), I would immediately write “DON’T PANIC” at the top of the paper in hopes that it would calm me down and allow my thought processes to percolate out the correct answers. Perhaps surprisingly, it worked! A couple of times I reallywas in panic mode when I didn’t recognize a question or problem, but calmed down sufficiently to come up with at least a passable answer (FYI, I managed an entirely average “C” for both semesters of said statistics class, which is probably more than I deserved, but I’ll take it anyway). Come to think of it, I also utilized it the night before the second day of my comprehensive exams in graduate school when I realized there were significantly more questions that I hadn’t bothered to prepare for than I had anticipated (I passed those, too, btw).
So, who knows, maybe if I’d flunked any of those exams I’d be a happy, well-adjusted, though slightly dull (shut up) chartered accountant somewhere instead of an archaeologist-cum-public health researcher writing no doubt forgettable (though hopefully entertaining) missives at a pokey motoring blog.
Also, a towel indeed makes a fine necessity to carry around while traveling though not perhaps as massively useful as the book suggests. But it helps.
So there you have it, my entirely uninspired ode to the Ford Prefect automobile. I hope you have enjoyed this short interlude into 1970s British humour. As a token of our appreciation, we hope you will also enjoy the two thermonuclear missiles we’ve just sent to converge with your computer. To ensure ongoing quality of service, your death may be monitored for training purposes. Thank you.
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