You’re nicked sunshine! Back on the road in the newly-rehabilitated Sweeney Consul GT. Sweeney Consul GT hits London streets. Your Car Guv’nor On the beat in one of TV’s most iconic cop cars – the unmistakable Ford Consul GT driven by John Thaw in The Sweeney. The last time this Ford Consul GT and actor Billy Murray were together was in a 1975 episode of The Sweeney. How long before someone says, ‘Get your trousers on, you’re nicked?’ Words Andrew Roberts. Photography Jonathan Fleetwood.
YOUR CAR GUV’NOR
Early morning, winter 2019. The scene is somewhere in London where the clouds are ominously grey, and there’s the regulation shopping trolley abandoned in a nearby canal. We’re here in Leyton to reunite NHK 295M with its driver from Stoppo Driver, arguably the finest episode of The Sweeney.
It’s authentically grim weather, and it only needs a couple of reprobates with Alvin Stardust haircuts sheltering in a railway arch smoking roll-ups to complete the impression of having travelled through a time-warp. After 45 years, Detective Constable Brian Cooney, also known as actor Billy Murray, will once more sit behind the wheel of the world’s most famous Ford Consul GT.
‘To encounter it in the metal is a surreal experience… It was a subject of childhood memories for so many’
The tenth story of the debut season of The Sweeney aired at 9pm on Monday 6 March, 1975. The opening scene shows two hoods in a down-at-heel Jaguar S-type robbing a bank messenger – ‘Mr Bun with the bread’ – and being pursued by the Squad’s Consul GT. In place of the familiar ‘Bill the Driver’ – Tony Allen, who was also John Thaw’s stand-in – is DC Cooney, a seemingly flashy individual who is trusted by neither Regan nor Carter. The latter complains, ‘Who taught you to drive, Evel Knievel?’ His guv’nor sardonically refers to his ‘holiday relief’ driver as ‘Fangio’.
Today marks NHK 295M’s first trip on the road in nearly 30 years; the interior no longer smells of Super Kings and Hai Karate. ‘It has been cleaned to within an inch of its life,’ says its owner and restorer, who aptly prefers to be known by the mysterious pseudonym ‘Mr S’. He cautions that some final fettling will be required once everything has bedded in, but enthusiasm outweighs pessimism as soon as the engine fires into its adenoidal growl. ‘I love the sound of that Essex V6 – it has a unique tone to it.’
On the move, the Consul GT feels as though it is tailored around the Essex powerplant, providing excellent long-distance transport. DI and Sergeant alike can enjoy a ride that is smooth but devoid of those marshmallow qualities so familiar to Zephyr and Zodiac owners. The GT is well-suited to cruising; its only downfall would be the lack of a fifth gear and Ford’s refusal to offer overdrive.
When Euston Films, the film division of Thames Television, commenced work on the pilot Regan, Dagenham already had a long-established tradition of product placement in major television and film productions. Says Mr S, ‘I’d imagine that Euston didn’t get an option on what it wanted. Ford would have decided what it would supply. The Consul GT was the sport model at the time, so it possibly wanted to push that.’
‘The fire engine you see was genuinely responding to one of our explosions’
The GT version of the Consul had debuted in 1973, essentially combining the L trim level with the 3.0-litre engine that wasn’t available on other Consuls and adding uprated suspension, extra instruments and driving lamps. As a press car NHK was well-furnished with optional extras including power steering, worth every penny of £81. Autocar complained that it was ‘an absolute necessity, especially if a woman is to use the car’ – 1973 was another world. Power assistance also compensated for the low-geared steering; considering the work the Consul GT is put to in Stoppo Driver, it’s hard to envisage a non-assisted example being employed. Billy Murray concurs, ‘The power steering made it easier to throw around during filming. I have strong memories of driving this car on set, apart from a couple of times when a stuntman was at the wheel. I was not going quite as fast as it looked on the screen because I was only doing about 60mph, but what you have to bear in mind is that there was a massive camera attached to the front wing.’ To many of us, the idea of travelling at 60mph through Battersea in a Ford Consul GT carrying heavy film equipment seems quite challenging enough.
When shooting commenced in September 1974, Murray was a well-known actor who played characters on either side of the law. ‘I came to be involved in The Sweeney through director Terry Green. There was talk of making me a regular in the series, but the producers eventually decided to concentrate on the Thaw-Waterman double act.’
Cooney is one of the most memorable of all the temporary Squad members – outwardly brash but placed by blackmail in a desperate situation. To re-watch the episode is to appreciate the world-class stuntwork that has a fair claim to be the British equivalent of the choreography that immortalised Steve McQueen’s Mustang. Stunt co-ordinator Peter Brayham devised the story and planned the opening sequence himself so an editor would not ruin it.
Throughout the pursuit, the camera constantly cuts from the Jaguar to the Ford. The moment when the S-type crashes into the regulation pile of cardboard boxes at the Battersea gas works was achieved by placing detonators behind the Jaguar’s windshield and having the driver Rocky Taylor press a switch just prior to the collision. The sequence is mirrored in the final reel by another unfortunate S-type crashing into some oil drums at Surrey commercial docks. Billy Murray recalls, ‘The fire engine that you see is genuine and wasn’t planned – it responded to the explosion because there was believed to be a real emergency!’
Brayham also orchestrated the initial agreement between Ford and Euston. He was a fan of the Granada MkI and had previously used Fords on Special Branch and in the John Wayne thriller Brannigan; the Jaguar S-type that famously jumped Tower Bridge was driven by Brayham doubling for James Booth. But there were to be no such moments in The Sweeney. Mr S explains, ‘Ford specifically said to Peter Brayham that the cars it supplied were not to be damaged. I’ve spoken to a couple of ex-Ford press garage employees at the time, and it seems the car was based at their Middlesex garage for most of its life, maintained and repaired as required. It never did any other press work so it didn’t appear in brochures, though cars bearing similar numberplates did because the NHK plates were issued in bulk to Ford for that purpose.’
The sole item of special equipment on NHK 295M was a two-way radio in the glovebox for communicating with the film crew. Mr S continues, ‘There are a few holes in the bodywork that didn’t appear to do anything, but it’s impossible to say when they were drilled. Naturally, accidents sometimes occurred, as can be seen in the series [there are some very visible dents on the Consul in Stoppo Driver], but all the cameras were strapped to jigs that rested on the panels – they were heavily padded and once removed left no trace.’
Euston allotted the series a budget that was limited even by Seventies standards, with a ten-day shooting schedule and a finite amount of petrol per car. Locations were within a few miles of Colet Court, the company’s Hammersmith HQ, with few expensive central London and night-time sequences. Yet the restricted budget worked in the show’s favour, with NHK 295M becoming a centrepiece for Britain’s first police series to be shot entirely on location on 16mm film. Regan is the tarnished knight figure moaning, ‘Try to protect the public and all they do is call you fascist,’ as he patrols litter-strewn high streets. In the Taste of Fear episode, the Ford cruises past various rusting Standard Tens and Mini MkIIs in the search for Norman Eshley’s ‘Bottling’ Bob Hargreaves.
The production ceased using NHK 295M in 1975 when Ford facelifted the range and dropped the Consul. It still appeared in the opening credits of the third series, driven by stuntman Joe Wadham – known to the industry as ‘heel-and-toe Joe’ and to film enthusiasts as ‘the chap with the David Niven moustache in a police Wolseley’.
Mr S points out that the natural replacement, a Granada 3.0S, was fitted with Bilstein dampers that made the handling more positive. ‘Despite the GT modifications my car wallows into corners like all Granadas, which is down to its size and design.’ Yet, compared with its predecessor, the early-Seventies generation of big Fords were a revelation in terms of their road-holding and directional stability. The combination of independent rear suspension and a more compact body was enough to banish all memories of the last of the Zodiacs amiably wallowing around Britain’s roads.
Today, NHK 295M is believed to the sole existing Sweeney Ford. Says Mr S, ‘My inspiration for tracking it down was because I watched it in the series and like most people, I wondered if it still existed. The previous owner joined the Granada Club, and I spoke to him on several occasions. Finally, in 1988, he decided to sell it and rang me first, and we came to a deal. At that time it had been through six owners and had various used panels fitted.’
The Consul GT had also been repainted, and 13 years after the end of its television career, NHK 295M was hardly in peak condition. ‘It had an MoT and was on the road, but it was difficult to understand how. It was not only suffering from bad structural corrosion, but had also been in a front-end accident in its recent past that had been repaired quickly and quite badly.’
By 1990 Mr S had stripped the car, but it was stored in a friend’s barn in Devon until 1999 before being moved, in bits, to Northamptonshire ahead of the restoration commencing in Bedfordshire in 2004. Mr S continues, ‘The most challenging aspect of the process was the bodywork, because it needed major work and I knew nothing about fabrication or welding at the time.
In terms of parts I pretty much had everything already because a friend and I had been running Granadas and Consuls since the early Eighties. But I did need a set of wheelarch trims and wheel centre caps; they proved difficult to find new. When I did finally locate them via Europe and Northern Ireland, the latter source said he didn’t believe he would ever see such parts again. They weren’t cheap to secure, but I’m glad I bought them!’
The refurbishment was completed in August 2019, shortly before it caused a sensation at the Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show. Countless visitors to the NEC were heard uttering the immortal line, ‘We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner’ and, inevitably, ‘Get your trousers on, your nicked.’
To encounter the Consul GT in the metal is a surreal and almost moving experience; it was responsible for the childhood memories of so many. The Copper Bronze Ford evokes Harry South’s theme tune and images of grey-faced villains in bad suits. Mr S remarks, ‘When I’m behind the wheel, I don’t imagine myself as Bill The Driver, I just appreciate the Consul GT for what it is.’ The sound of two-note horns or a bell wouldn’t go amiss but, as Mr S explains, they were post — synched. That’s probably for the best, because the temptation to use a Winkworth gong would be overwhelming.
The GT maintained law and order in a capital city of saloon bars with stained curtains and cafés that look as though they were last cleaned when Billy Fury was in the Hit Parade. Stoppo Driver is an example of The Sweeney at its finest, with Hollywood standards on a pre-gentrified-Hammersmith budget. The fact that Billy Murray can still recall his time with NHK 295M, and DC Cooney’s sad admission to the Chief Inspector – ‘I’ve ruined my chances in the job, haven’t I?’ – after nearly six decades as an actor is testament to its impact.
The series would still have proved a watershed in British TV without Ford’s involvement, thanks to the acting, writing, direction, editing and music. Yet, had Euston signed an agreement with BL to feature a Triumph 2.5 PI MkII or with Luton to use a Vauxhall Ventora FE, it wouldn’t have been the same show. The Consul was the right car for the right programme at the right time, not least with how its smart and faintly imposing appearance contrasted with an utterly grim West London. The thought of The Sweeney without Ford PR cars, especially NHK 295M, now seems as outlandish as an early casting idea of Stanley Baker as Jack Regan.
In the words of Mr S, ‘it was fantastic to see the car back with the man that drove it in its most famous car chase. It was good to hear that Billy still remembered the car and a lot of what he did with it; he seemed genuinely interested in the restoration. A day to remember for sure.’ Cue closing theme tune and end titles.
NHK 295M has been restored to a condition that would meet with the approval of DCI Frank Haskins. As a press car, NHK was well-equipped – optional extras included a sunroof. Independent rear suspension was transformative to big- Ford handling properties Naturally, the front passenger seat is reserved for the senior officers, as Sgt David Keel soon learns in Country Boy. The GT saw the first application of the 3.0 Essex V6 in the Consul range. Had it been an L, the S-type hoods would probably have made good their escape… Billy Murray is a longstanding car enthusiast – ‘My first Jaguar was a manual/overdrive Mk2 3.8, and I’m currently restoring a flat-floor E-type’
Thanks to Dino Karaoli, Mike Smith, Kevin Roberts, Magic Spells Brewery (magicspellsbrewery.co.uk)
1974 Ford Consul 3000GT
Engine 2994cc Essex V6, ohv, Weber 38/38 EGAS carburetor
Max Power 138bhp @ 5000rpm
Max Torque 174lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar; Rear: independent semi-trailing arms coil springs, telescopic dampers
Brakes Discs front, drums rear
Top speed 113mph
Fuel economy 23mpg
Price new £1780
Classic Cars Price Guide £3000-£11,000 (non-Sweeney Consul GT)