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The Austin Maestro van is not, truth be told, the most distinguished of Royal Mail artefacts. Current owner Steve Knight knows that.
The British postal service ordered a fleet of 70 in 1984 but found them dismally inadequate: the noisy 2-litre Perkins diesel engine couldn’t haul them up some steeper gradients.
The Ford Escort Mk3 van, though, had no such failings, and rapidly became the Royal Mail’s default choice.
Knight wasn’t really looking for a Maestro. His true passion is postboxes, and, owning nearly 150 of them, he has one of the most historically important and diverse collections in the country.
Where most people have statues in their gardens, Knight has lovingly renovated postboxes, and his garage is crammed with more.
There, the international set stands alongside other rare examples of Post Office paraphernalia, such as stamp-dispensing machines.
“I was offered the Maestro van for free,” he explains. “After I made some enquiries with people who know their Post Office vehicles, they all said ‘yeah, great – get it’. I liked it as something to display next to my two Post Office bicycles.”
It had served for just 18 months on morning deliveries before being withdrawn from service, ending up at the Wolverhampton depot of the Post Office National Collection.
After being tendered for sale, it went for £400 and was then regularly driven – and even rallied – before Knight acquired it. Little wonder it needed a full restoration.
The van was then stolen and used in a ram-raid burglary as the unlikely getaway vehicle to make off with a cashpoint machine ripped from a wall. Fortunately – and remarkably – little damage was done to the Maestro.
Twice a year Knight opens his postbox collection at his Colne Valley home in Essex for the delight of curious locals and “hardcore diehards”, he says.
All are fascinated by these freestanding totems of postal efficiency, first introduced in Britain in 1852. The most recent showing was on Sunday 22 September (see www.cvphm.org.uk for 2020 events).
“I bought my first postbox 20 years ago,” Knight says. “I have one of the really big oval ones from outside a main Post Office, with the double aperture, and visitors are usually drawn to the ones they remember best. The Victorian Penfold hexagonal one is easy to love because it’s so beautiful. And people like the Edward VIII-era one after seeing The King’s Speech. But I have plenty you just can’t see elsewhere.”
All working postboxes are owned by Royal Mail Letters and you need a letter (naturally) from them allowing you to own redundant ones. Ownership rules are then strict; you can’t, for example, display one in a public place if it has an open slot and is painted red.
Meanwhile, transporting these cast-iron classics is not for the feeble. A typical postbox weighs more than a third of a tonne, and is anchored 3ft into the ground, so plenty of lifting gear and volunteer manpower is needed.
Knight is the commercial director of a scientific instruments company, but you might sometimes catch him apparently chasing the last collection around rural Essex at the wheel of his Maestro.
It’s flat around there, so it goes well: “I love driving round in it because, believe it or not, it’s a real head-turner!”
Images: Max Edleston
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