Modernity has brought with it cars which can reasonably be expected to start and stop upon demand and can be owned and operated by the non-mechanically minded. One of the developments which made this possible was the widespread introduction in the 1970s of electronic ignition which now provides the ‘spark’ to internal combustion engines in all modern cars. Prior to this, engines were fired by a ‘distributor’, which was the means of routing high-voltage from the ignition to the sparking-plugs in the right firing order.
At the heart of the distributor is the ‘dead-object’ which has focused my attention this month: the Lucas 45D Distributor Rotor Arm [see image below]. It is a small cylindrical moulding about the size of a wine-cork and made of plastic and brass. During the 1960s, a rotor arm could be obtained new for about 5 shillings (25 pence). They are now available from specialist dealers to owners of old cars for £5 to £10. Although technically obsolescent, this tiny component is essential to keep an old car running.
‘My’ dead-object (the Lucas 45D rotor arm) qualified incontrovertibly as deceased on a recent visit to France in my 1960 Rover 100. It failed on a country road not far from Alençon as dusk was falling one Sunday evening last month. In Lucas tradition, the rotor arm gave no hint of impending failure. It just stopped sending current to the sparking-plugs and the engine died instantly. Trying to trace the fault was vexing and unproductive as night fell and dinner in Bayeux looked increasingly unlikely. It is now that the Deus ex machina intervenes. A French registered Jaguar E-Type Coupé c. 1964 pulled up beside our stricken Rover. The owner transpired to be British and, within minutes, had not only diagnosed the fault but produced from his tool-kit a spare 1960s Lucas 45D rotor arm which was fitted and fired the engine into life immediately. As I write this, it still seems to me to be a very improbable story that a fifty-year old obsolete British electrical component should find its way to a roadside in rural France on a Sunday evening at the precise moment that it was needed.
All of this set me thinking about the role played by Jaguar E-Types in films. They are invariably driven by heroes who save situations or put wrongs to right. Cool operators including Sean Connery in Thunderball (1965) and Michael Caine in The Italian Job (1969) drive E-Types. The car makes an appearance in The Big Sleep (1978), The Odessa File (1974) as well as featuring in contemporary episodes of The Saint and The Avengers TV series. An E-type Jaguar is also one of the stars of Just Jaecken’s Emmanuelle (1974). [Source: Internet Movie Cars Database]
Rover 100 cars play a very different role, often as background vehicles in street-scenes to evoke the 1960s period, as in Quadrophenia (1979) where ‘Sting’, who plays a bell-boy at a Brighton hotel, unloads luggage from a Rover 100 driven by a dapper hotel guest [see IMCDb]. The Rover represents professional, middle-class, well-heeled middle Britain in the 1960s [see Rover P4 videos] and was driven typically by doctors, solicitors and bank managers  It epitomised a set of values and a way of life which may be said to have disappeared in the years following the events of May 1968 in Paris and their international repercussions. Film appearances include The League of Gentlemen (1959) and The Spy who came in from the Cold (1965) as well as providing the authentic period back-drop for recent films (An Education, 2009) and for the TV series Agatha Christie’s Marple.
So there they were by the side of a French country road. The E-Type Jaguar driven by the hero who solved all our problems and vanished into the night, and the Rover 100, with its stately image and erratic British electrics. And deep in the heart of the broken-down Rover was a dead-object: a Lucas 45D rotor arm manufactured in Birmingham England 50 years ago by ‘The Prince of Darkness’.