Down memory lane with Peter Tuffrey - Flea built from scratch

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Claybourn’s was established by Jack Ernest Claybourn, who was born in Askern in 1893 and was a sergeant mechanic with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War.

He returned to Askern after the war and opened a bicycle and motorcycle repair shop.

After he was married in 1922 his father-in-law, Sydney Webster, helped him establish a motor garage on Doncaster Road, Askern.

The business thrived and in 1931, moved to premises at the corner of Hall Gate and Waterdale.

The small showroom originally held four vehicles, though eventually the business expanded into most of the other corner buildings.

In the early days Claybourns had the agency for Armstrong Siddeley, Morrison Electric, Jowett and Lanchester.

However, during 1936 it was revealed that the company was diversifying from repairing and selling cars and constructing a Pou du Ciel (Flying Flea) aircraft in the works.

Aero enthusiasts throughout the country saw it as a machine which could be built in the garage or backyard, with rule-of-thumb techniques and a few plans.

Earlier, around 1935, it was reported that one was going to fly from London and land at Doncaster airport.

Ernest Claybourn and about 3,000 other people waited to see this, but the aircraft crashed at Retford.

Witnessing all those people waiting there to see an aircraft impressed Ernest and he thought he ought to build one and use it for publicity. And that’s what he did.

For a while the aircraft’s inventor, Frenchman, Henri Mignet, came to supervise the construction.

Whilst the Flea was built by Ernest primarily as a publicity gimmick, it was to prove its worth not only in this direction, but also as one of the most successful machines of its kind.

It became popularly known as ‘The Flea that Claybourn’s built,’ and at one stage the company planned to build and sell more at £175 each.

The opportunity never arose, however, as the Government, alarmed by the growing number of fatalities among Flea pilots, stepped in to ground the lot and the Claybourn Flea never flew after 1937.

From 1949, it regularly appeared at RAF Finningley’s Battle of Britain displays and was eventually destroyed by a fire at the base in 1970.

During the Second World War, normal operations at Claybourn’s were halted and the premises were turned over to the manufacture of aircraft parts for the Fairey Swordfish.

After the war, Ernest’s eldest son, Dennis, entered the business, followed by his other son, Graham in 1948.

He said: “When I started work for my father I did it because I wanted to, he didn’t bully me into it. And there was no favouritism, even though I was the boss’s son. I started as a mechanic and worked my way up the hard way.”

Ernest Claybourn retired in 1955 and went to live at Bridlington.

From that time his sons took control. During the 1960s the company was quite happy plodding along dealing in car makes such as Singer, Hillman Humber, Sunbeam, Austin, Morris Daimler and Riley. But as the decade progressed production of many British models was drawing to a close.

In 1969, the Singer was discontinued and this according to Graham ‘was like losing half our business.’

He said: “A further blow occurred in January 1970. Rootes said they had too many dealers in Doncaster and they only wanted one. That left us with Austin Morris.

“We looked at the competition. There were about eight dealers in the area and we were not a large concern.”

Claybourn’s then sought assurances about the future from British Leyland.

Graham said: “They could not give us an assurance that they would be continuing forever, so we looked around and Renault gave us an assurance of continuity.”

In 1970 there was a change in the Claybourn’s management structure and a part of the business moved.

In January 1970, the firm’s interests were separated and shared between Dennis and Graham.

Dennis took over sole control of a finance and property company, previously associated with the parent concern, and Graham assumed the office of managing director of the motor business.

Also in 1970, the service department, which had been in Prince’s Street for seven years, moved to new larger premises opposite the Vine Hotel near the Balby Bridge roundabout.

At the same time the Hall Gate property was closed and the sales side of the business was concentrated in Prince’s Street.

This continued until 1978 when, through a need for more space, new car showrooms were erected at Balby Bridge.

When this occurred, the Prince’s Street premises were vacated and the entire Claybourn operation was concentrated at Balby, where Ken Dodd opened the new showroom.

By 1987 Graham Claybourn at the age of 55, was ready for retirement. He still loved being involved with cars, but found the money made from this ‘enjoyment’ was not adequately covering the overheads.

Consequently, when he was made a good offer for the business, he accepted it.