Dr Who and Bessie

The Search for Bessie: It all started at the NEC Classic Car Show in 1996, with a gentleman walking onto the Ford Sidevalve Owners Club stand and for a change did say "I learnt to drive on/used to have/buried or some other way disposed of" one of those - Ford sidevalve that is.     What he did say was that he had built the original car that the BBC used in the Doctor Who TV series in the early seventies!   I had always wondered if the original car had survived - you know what film sets can be like!   Anyway he went on to say that he had visited the Siva Engineering showroom in Weymouth and offered to buy a pre-production set of mouldings.   The proprietor was persuaded to sell the mouldings and the parts to make up a Siva Edwardian.     This was done and the car put on the road at the end of the 60s and used by the gentleman's wife to go to work.   Eighteen months later a BBC Producer arrived at her work and persuaded her to sell the car.   The builder stated that the name "Bessie" came from his wife's name Betty but I can't see the logic!   The usual promises were made to send photographs and so on but nothing materialised.   I have heard many of these "stories" over the years with another person at a car show in the East Midlands who was convinced that a Siva that he had worked on had been the original but no details emerged.

Anyway, time went on and while wandering through the centre of Leicester - as you do, I saw a bargain bookshop.   Being one for a bargain, in I went for a browse and my eye   strayed to the Science Fiction section being interested in anything to do with Bessie of Dr Who.   There before me was Doctor Who - the Seventies and naturally, I picked up a copy.     In what has been described as "one of the best books about television ever" were found stills from the TV series showing "Bessie" at work with the late Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker.

The car was bought by the BBC from the Siva Engineering Sales Company situated at Weymouth in Dorset although the fibreglass kits were made at Blandford Forum nearby.   The kit was designed to fit directly to a Ford 8 or 10 chassis built between 1937 and 1959 - although most were probably built on the 103E Popular.   The cost of the basic kit was £145 pounds for the 2 seater Roadster and £160 for the 4 seater Tourer.   The contents included the body shell, seats, bonnet, foam seat cushions, mudguards, wheel trims and the brackets to hold them all together!   Bessie was built by the Siva factory for the BBC and boasted the full list of extras costing £182, some of which were horns, luggage trunk, coach lamps, headlamps (Cibie a la Citroen 2CV), hood and frame with sidescreens, seat covers, windscreen and carpets.   The total cost of the car was around £500.   This was a substantial sum for “props” on the Dr Who show as may be seen by the quality of the costumes and props for the show exhibited at the Dr Who Museum in Llangollen.   This museum is now closed and   I understand that when the museum closed the collection was returned to the BBC and other private owners.

My wife and I whilst on holiday in 1996 visited the museum and found that Bessie was out!   I asked if she was in the Tardis with the Doctor and received a "Vulcan eyebrow."   We were directed to a local classic show and there she was with the Doctor and a Cyberman in attendance.   This Cyberman was not as tall as usual as he was only 10 years old!  The Doctor said that he was a stand in as the Doctor's good wife had succumbed to heatstroke while dressed in the silver rubber suit.....   We saw that the old girl (Bessie that is) was looking a bit tired with loose running boards and a longer nose than the car that I own.     This was due to the fact that the Ford 10 engine and gearbox had expired as a result of galactic travel and been replaced with a 1200cc Ford Anglia (105E) engine and gearbox (like the Harry Potter car).   Oh how the mighty are fallen!   Instead of the Tardis, this good Doctor used a 5 ton white van with a ramp at the back - not quite in keeping with a Time Lord but a practicality in the late 20th century.   The car also featured thick artillery wheel trims instead of the more delicate originals.   Presumably this was an upgrade dictated by the rigors of filming.  

A few years later, a second car was bought by the museum to allow Bessie a more dignified retirement.   The second car was a roadster which the museum planned to convert to a tourer to take on the local round of shows and suchlike.   This car originated from Cornwall, it is believed, where it spent an earlier life competing in Production Car Trials rejoicing in the name of McGinty! How the museum has got on with this replica of Bessie before closing is unknown.

Below is a picture courtesy of the BBC of the original Bessie before the conversion to 1200cc Ford Anglia engine and gearbox.   This necessitated elongating the bonnet and gave Bessie the "Pinnoccio" long nose look.

Since the Dr Who Museum in Llangollen has closed (apparently due to lack of interest!), I had heard various stories of where Bessie was kept..

Some years ago - 2010ish, I heard that there was a Dr Who exhibition in Coventry at the Transport Museum but by the time I arrived the exhibition had finished.  We did however have a wander around the museum and found that Bessie was still there in the warehouse section.  I assume that she was awaiting collection by her current owners.  Her condition was much the same as when last seen in Llangollen many years ago.

However, since the Welsh exhibition in Cardiff closed in September 2017, the well-known car travelled around the UK in various exhibitions before finding a new home at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, at the heart of England’s New Forest National Park.

It would be nice to hear that she has been restored to her former glory with the correct engine and gearbox and the "Pinnoccio" nose removed.  

2018: Bessie is now part of the On Screen Cars exhibition at Beaulieu Motor Museum

I live with the hope that she will appear for a guest appearance on the new Dr Who show!  So far though there has been  no appearance or rumour of Bessie re-appearing - perhaps the new Health and Safety considerations prevent putting expensive actors in a vehicle with no doors, belts and airbags!




Dr Who's Bessie

Some screen grabs of Bessie with Dr Who in the BBC series.

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