The 1970s 'petrolheads' who tore up a Scottish island

The ‘petrolheads’ of the Isle of Lewis have spoken of the car culture that underpinned young life on the islands and the hi-jinks of those at the control of the souped-up motors.
Producer and presenter Iain Mackay explores the world of the 1970s 'petrolhead' on the island of Lewis.PIC: Contributed.Producer and presenter Iain Mackay explores the world of the 1970s 'petrolhead' on the island of Lewis.PIC: Contributed.
Producer and presenter Iain Mackay explores the world of the 1970s 'petrolhead' on the island of Lewis.PIC: Contributed.

Inspired by long-distance rallies, like the 1968 London to Sydney race, young islanders were captivated by new releases such as the Hillman Avenger and the Ford RS series.

Meanwhile, magazines such as Hot Car showed how to turn old bangers into something faster, with a great rush on to get cars ready in time for Friday night dances or arace down the peat track.

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The tarmac at RAF Stornoway also became a haunt for those wanting to go pedal to the metal, as did the machair at Barvas. The streets of Stornoway often echoed with engine roars, day and night as the culture for fast cars continued to turn heads.

"It was compared to the Dukes of Hazard. You might laugh at that, but its not too far from the truth,” one islander told the documentary Cearcaill Ceo, which will show on BBC Alba on Christmas Day.

The trend for building cars started around the 1920s when the first flat pack vehicles arrived on Lewis with the interest in modifying cars and upping their spec taking full hold in the 1970s.

Islander John Cunningham said: “It’s a small step from building a car to modifying it to make it faster.”

In the 1970s, as oil money brought more money into the island, cars like the Maserati Quattroporte and the Tiger Avenger started to appear .

Roads became test tracks and one set of skid marks, caused by the Maserati going through a junction in the town, remained on the tarmac for six months.

Iain MacKay, presenter and producer said: “These were the back roads of Stornoway and in the early 1970s a kind of street racing went on with lookouts on every corner. But someone with a bit of sense decided to organise something with a bit of sense.”

Autotesting events were then put on at the machair at Barvas, where homemade cars would turn up to compete in front of an audience of all generations.

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The motor car was a much-needed ticket to freedom on the island where public transport was fairly sparse. One woman recalled missing a bus and hitching a lift in a hearse. She also remembered a teenage boyfriend getting drunk at a dance with her sister having to drive home in his car – with the clutch operated by a piece of string.

The car shows put on by Norman ‘Gagan’ Macleod during lunchtimes in Stornoway were also remembered.

He said: "People used to give me money for petrol at dinner time, enough for a gallon, so I used to go into the yard in the town centre and just go daft in the cars. By the time I was finished….you would have about 60 to 70 people at the fences watching this idiot go round and round. But it was all good fun, it was all to do with fun.”

Cearcaill Ceo, Friday, December 25, BBC ALBA, 9.00-10.00pm

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