Jason Goodwin: When a rusty old horsebox becomes a chariot of happy dreams

A chance find in a neighbour's barn might not quite be the rusting Bentley of dreams, but nonetheless inspires our columnist's family with ideas and ambition.

During the Second World War, my father and his sister would visit the Hon Mrs Victor Bruce, their nearest neighbour, for tea.

Tea was not the sole attraction. After cake, she would lead the children into the barn, where a magnificent open-topped Bentley stood up on blocks, with its carburettor removed according to wartime regulations.

They would climb into the car and sit along the bench seat, with Mrs Victor Bruce at the wheel, and she would take them on hair-raising journeys, sweeping around hairpin bends, along the Côte d’Azur or west from Cork, all three of them swinging into the bends, bracing at corners, straining to get every ounce out of the pistons on the straights and, motor roaring at the top of their lungs, frequently reliving Mrs Victor Bruce’s own world-record 24-hour solo run in the same car at the Montlhéry circuit in 1929.

The Bruces pictured in 1932 (Picture: L’Echo d’Alger/Wiki Commons)

Some of that glamour attends the horsebox in the yard next door. We discovered it five years ago, mouldering around the corner at a field’s edge, a glint of faded blue and cream behind a barrage of cow parsley and couch grass.

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An ash was growing through the coupling mechanism, but the tyres looked sound and, after a short negotiation, a donation in the right direction and some sawing, our friend Nick came round with his Toyota and we dragged it into the yard.

The boys freed up its rusted, frozen joints and hinges with a blowtorch and WD-40 – although not generally at the same time – heads full of plans to convert it into a mobile second-hand-book shop. There was a dividing panel down the middle and we thought that we could institute a one-way system, lining the van with bookshelves and getting the customers up the ramp and in on the left-hand side.

Readers would browse along the stacks until they reached the pointed end, where someone would sit on a fold-down seat with a small coffee machine and the cash box. On sunny days, hanging shelves, full of books, would hook up outside like an old-fashioned poulterer’s and, early every Monday morning, we would take the trailer to the railway station to catch the passing trade. It would have a name such as Goodwin’s Travelling Literary Emporium and we’d do markets and festivals, too.

On the strength of that idea, Izzy and Anna worked all one Saturday to remove one of the four wheels to check its tyre, which was fossilised. When Izzy was invited to display his harmonograph at the Belladrum festival, the idea for the trailer changed. By night, it would become a small festival cabin, equipped with a hammock or two and Campingaz, with lanterns hanging from the ceiling. By day, it would transform into a minute theatre, maximum capacity six, like the flea circus we once visited at Port Eliot.

Inspired, the children spent a weekend taking out the dividing panel, re-laying the spongy wooden floor with fresh old planks and painting the wooden panels inside. It was beginning to look quite spruce in its livery of faded blue, like a continental railwayman’s boiler suit.

They scraped rust and had a go at removing another wheel, which wouldn’t budge. The man at the garage said the nuts were an unusual size.

Sometimes, it will be a travelling harmonograph display and, sometimes, we think about a small mobile pub. The bookshop idea has fallen by the wayside, for reasons I can no longer remember clearly. Harry dreams of making it into a tiny home, which is faintly comical because Harry must be 6ft 2in.

It hasn’t actually moved since we first rolled it into the yard, because the brakes are shot and there’s long grass between the wheels – it now has only the three – but, in some ways, it’s been just as active as Mrs Victor Bruce’s Bentley. It, too, is a chariot of happy dreams. Mine is to use it as a hen coop.