All roads lead to WSRO..

Vehicle licensing records aid Classic Car restoration

We can receive all manner of enquiries here at the Record Office, and while some may assume that our reach is bound by county borders, and primarily focussed on local history, we are always eager to highlight that the simplest of records can have far-reaching effects.

image4We recently received one such enquiry regarding a vehicle licensing register, which we hold for all registration numbers issued in West Sussex. Although the Vehicle Registration Issuing Books themselves only supply limited details for each entry – usually the make, first owner, dealer and issuing date – this information can be invaluable when tracing the history of a vehicle. The purpose of the enquiry was in aiding the restoration project on a classic E-Type Jaguar, only the 62nd ever built in 1961. Currently owned by comedian Steve Coogan, the car is the focus of a feature in Classic Car magazine, where journalist and original Top Gear host Quentin Willson is chronicling the purchase and restoration of the car.

Quentin and Steve’s research had already established that before the current OSL 662 plate, the E-Type had several previous registrations. The DVLA were able to confirm that it was first registered as 171 DBP in August 1961 by West Sussex County Council, having been sold by Rossleigh Edinburgh Jaguar dealers to another dealer or private buyer in Sussex. Which is where we came in! Looking to trace as much information as possible about the vehicle, Quentin enquired after our records, image2and we were able to confirm the registration number issuing slip listed the owner as ‘Cutley’, Hurstpierpoint, and that it was sold by a ‘Wadhams’. Although we have used local records to trace the original owner, to little success, we have found some wonderful advertisements for Wadhams of Chichester in the 1961 Chichester Observer.

Thankfully this volume of the vehicle registration issuing books was in fine condition, but a large portion of these records present us with a peculiar conservation problem given that there is a thick layer of a gummed, water-activated glue on the reverse of very low-quality paper. The pages often stick together, and have to be treated by our Senior Conservator, who uses a narrow stream of moisture from an ultrasonic humidifier to wet the paper just Conservation workenough to soften the join between paper and glue, and slowly warms the moisture until the glued pages are ‘relatively’ easy to separate. The pages have to be separated firmly but carefully, and the text layer often parts from the body of the sheet and needs to be drawn from the glue layer to retain the information. Separating each sheet can take up many hours of controlled and concentrated effort!

Although the number issuing books can cause extensive conservation work, and the information they provide can on first appearances seem to be minimal, they provide invaluable for vehicle owners and dealers.  Providing the evidence of this original registration has resulted in the re-issuing of the original number plate by the DVLA, a move both Quentin and Steve were extremely pleased about, and I’m sure will please car restoration purists and historians alike . Ultimately, one of our least glamorous collections has enabled a fabulous and historic classic car to be reunited with its original number plate, and make the front page of Classic Car magazine. However, the following day we were back to usual, searching through the very same registers for a local farmer’s much-used tractor!


Lauren Clifton

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