Monday February 11, 2019
The year is 1980 and Earth is under attack from an army of bad mannered aliens whose goal is to invade the Home Counties to kidnap humans and harvest their organs for use in their bodies. Leading the fight against these anti-social hoards is Edward “Ed” Straker (and his incredible performing wig) of SHADO Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation.
UFO has the distinction of being Gerry Anderson’s first live-action television series, with 26 episodes shot at MGM-Borehamwood and Pinewood between 1969 and 1970. There was also a fantastic theme tune, some truly bizarre costumes and several “futuristic” vehicles ranging from Commander Straker’s car to the SHADO Jeeps. This example is owned by James Winch, a devotee of the show although he is keen to point out that ‘I was born in 1964 so I only caught UFO on its second run’.
This was the case for many UFO enthusiasts, who caught the adventures of SHADO on the afternoon schedule of TVS or when the programme aired on late night television. In fairness, the screenplays were often ambitious, Ed Bishop was a very good leading man, and the hardware was incredibly accomplished given the less than Hollywood-budget. Captain Kirk and Co. never had road transport as utterly groovy as the SHADO Jeep, and such hardware helped to distract from the silver catsuits, string vests and various hairpieces that we would all apparently be wearing in the year 1980. George Sewell’s toupee merited a BAFTA award for its sheer dramatic impact.
As for the Jeep, it may have sported six wheels, but the central speedometer would have been very familiar to many an owner of a Mini or a Morris Minor 1000. While the headlamps were equally reminiscent of a certain Luton-designed product. James explains that, as far as is known, Anderson’s company Century 21 Television used three converted Mokes for his 1969 production Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (aka Doppelgänger), the virtual precursor to UFO.
The great Derek Meddings, of Thunderbirds and The Spy Who Loved Me fame, devised the gull-wing doored coachwork, and two of the Jeeps would appear in the subsequent TV series.
James notes that ‘all the Mokes were sent from the factory to Space Models for conversion’ and one strange detail is that although the Jeeps in the series are LHD, they were built as RHD models. ‘Basically, they moved the pedal box from right to left and flipped the steering rack, but it’s been done correctly now!’. To create the six-wheel layout Space Models fitted the Mokes with an extra rear axle ‘attached to an additional Mini subframe’, but otherwise, the Jeeps are mechanically identical to a standard car.
As for the distinctive coachwork, it is ‘a fibreglass outer skin and a lot of wood’ while the headlamps and grille were sourced from a Vauxhall Viva HB’. Inside, the seats had extended backrests while ‘the central Mini speedometer is functional, but the other instruments are all dummies’.
After UFO wrapped the car was put into storage, and James believes that in the early 1980s ‘there was going to be low-budget sci-fi picture shot in Tenerife. The Moke went out to the Canaries, but there were financial problems with the picture’. As the story goes, ‘the crew was left stranded, and so they sold the car to a local’.
A video shows the Jeep being driven in a parade in 1991, but by 2014 the one-time transport for the dashing Colonels Virginia Lake and Paul Foster was languishing on waste ground in the middle of the town.
It was at that time when a photo appeared on a Mini forum, and ‘a friend’s wife told me about it. I got in contact with Luca, the chap who took the picture’. After the removal of advertising hoardings that bordered the land, the Moke was revealed to be sitting on top of an equally dilapidated lorry.
The owner of the scrapyard apparently bought the Jeep for its motor and subsequently abandoned it but fortunately ‘Luca was really helpful and bought the vehicle for me for 200 Euros, and he also arranged for enough guys to basically carry it to his garage where it was kept for safety’.
The Moke remained in Tenerife for another six months before it was transported back to the UK ‘by a chap who did regular runs to The Canaries’. The restoration took around 2 ½ years - the engine and running gear were missing, as were the gullwing doors and the centre section ‘but overall it was fairly easy. As the original 848cc unit would not have been enough to cope with the new GRP body, I fitted a 1275 A Plus unit and upgraded the brakes to Cooper S discs.’
To see the Jeep today is to appreciate why it made such an impact on television viewers and the amount of work required for its return to duty. By 2016 even Commander Straker would have approved of its condition, and James sometimes takes his SHADO Moke on the highway – ‘a car is designed to be driven on the road! The Jeep goes very well, and you do not notice the modifications as the back wheels are just freewheeling’.
SHADO operatives were apparently too hardy to require a heater (a BMC optional extra) but as James notes, ‘there is not a Moke bonnet under all that GRP, so you do experience all the heat from the engine’.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the Moke attracts a great deal of attention from other motorists and when Mr. Winch was attending an ITC celebration last year, ‘I went from Canvey Island to Elstree along the M25, and people were going faster and then slower just to look the car!’.
But this it is all in a day’s work for the Moke that once served with SHADO - and its army of silver-foil clad and purple haired defenders of Earth. Cue the opening titles -
WITH THANKS TO – JAMES WINCH