THE middle-aged woman got off the speedway ride that had whirled her round at a dizzying pace with her eyes shining, and gasped: “My God, that’s as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.”
David Littleboy roars with laughter as he recalls her reaction, because he’s in the business of fun with a scary edge. The sounds of delighted screams from one of the rides he has rescued from decay is music to his ears. He’s loved funfairs all his life, the brightly-painted rides that take customers to the exhilarating edge of fear that they’re going to be thrown off.
And that passion has grown into a unique business – Britain’s only company that restores vintage fairground rides, found rotting away in showmen’s yards or farmers’ barns and bringing them back to pristine working order.
David and his business partner Roger Sibley have just played a key role in the reopening of Britain’s oldest funfair, Dreamland, at Margate, in Kent, where their rides from the 1930s are proving a huge draw for crowds discovering the sheer hands-on pleasure of hanging on for what feels like dear life. For these old rides retain a potent kick from an age before health and safety put caution before all else.
“If you don’t hold on, you’re coming off,” said David. “There are no seatbelts, this is the real thing. People think that because of health and safety you can’t have fun. Yes, you can, because these machines have proved for 70 years that they’re safe to operate, but it’s back to using your common sense and your own gumption in knowing that you’ve got to hold on, and that’s the thrill.”
The legacy of the great age of travelling funfairs is all around at the workshop at Kinsley, near Wakefield, where David and Roger are based. It is dominated by a giant waltzer from 1938 built for WH Marshall and Sons of Bradford, the only one of its kind in existence. A full restoration awaits, but the brightly painted woodwork featuring portraits of elegantly-gowned women has been brought back to its original glory.
Close by is a caterpillar ride bound for Margate, its tangle of rusty ironwork and cat’s cradle of struts and fittings destined to come together once more as thrillingly as when it was new. Soon, these rides will be joined by a ghost train scheduled to be restored and taken to Dreamland in time for Halloween, hauled there by David and Roger’s vintage lorry with gold-leaf lettering on its panels.
It was rides like these that captivated David, 50, who owns a successful IT business in Wakefield, as a child.
He said: “The local funfair used to roll up in the villages just down the road from here, Ryhill and Havercroft, and it was a typical fairground with a waltzer and a speedway and I was always fascinated how it appeared overnight, went together, and was gone. It was wonderful how it could just appear and before you could blink, it’s gone. I just had a fascination with it from being small.”
But he was in his 30s before the restoration bug bit him when he found a website devoted to vintage funfairs that featured a 1930s Noah’s Ark ride.
“That was the one ride from my childhood that I always liked, and I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have one of these, and take it to steam fairs?’ And with no knowledge, nowhere to store it, after about six months I managed to acquire one of these things and set about restoring it. It just mushroomed from there, but it was really only a hobby at that stage.”
David eventually traced the ride’s entire history before selling it. He has subsequently bought it back. Roger, 47, an engineer, moved from London, where he had been working for a fairground family. David quickly made him his business partner and they embarked on restoring the rides commercially.
Their firm, Littleboy’s Vintage Restorations, has a team of three, with the work being led by Roger. Word started to spread about them among the families who have for generations taken travelling funfairs the length and breadth of the country, and turned out to be David and Roger’s biggest fans.
“The fairground families are a very close and tight-knit community,” said David. “They are unbelievably proud of their heritage and they are over the moon that we’ve come along and we are going to restore what they see as their heritage. They will go to extraordinary lengths to be helpful. They are an unbelievably supportive and friendly bunch from one end of the country to the other.”
One of them was the original owner of the 1934 speedway now at Dreamland. He produced a bagful of parts for it, telling David: “I took these off that machine in 1964 and I told my wife: ‘One day somebody will want these,’ so there you go, lad, take them with you.”
The collective memory of the families reaches back a long way. If Roger needs advice about a ride, he calls them, and somebody who operated the machines perhaps decades before can always be found to help. David and Roger’s relationships with the families have led to rides being unearthed after years in storage – or of neglect.
“They’re in barns, they’re in old lorries rotting into the floor with a sheet thrown over them, some of them dry stored in containers,” said David. “And nobody wants to tackle them, because you need a lot of storage and they’re expensive to move.
“I spend all day, every day working in IT and then all night, and all weekend on the fairground thing, doing research, digging things out, and we know where all the machines are.”
It’s an expensive business – the 1938 waltzer will have cost £500,000 by the time it is fully restored – but seeing the rides in action once more gives David and Roger immense satisfaction.
The public love them too. Their retro thrills have been the biggest hit with crowds at the reopened Dreamland, and a perfect fit with the heritage of the amusement park that led the way for all others in Britain.
It opened in 1920 with the motto “Pleasure without Measure” and boomed in the 1960s with two million visitors a year. In its heyday, mods and rockers battled there, the Rolling Stones and the Who played there, and teenage boys took girls there to impress them.
But the cheap package holiday boom killed Dreamland. The Londoners who had traditionally flocked there headed for the Costa del Sol instead of the Kent coast and after a long, painful decline it shut a decade ago, the derelict site becoming the target of arson attacks.
But two years ago, plans were unveiled for its rebirth, and after a £30m revamp, Dreamland opened two months ago.
And its new owners knew exactly who they wanted to help them recreate the old magic. They came to David and Roger, who sourced and restored a set of gallopers, a vintage dodgem track, a double-decker ride and a jet ride. Their speedway went to Margate too.
Besides the joy of seeing people enjoy these vintage rides, there’s a satisfaction in preserving part of the heritage of how people had fun in another age.
David said: “The speedway was restored in 2008 and it’ll see me out. You do feel you’re doing legacy projects, and once something’s had tens of thousands of pounds invested in it, it’s not going to go backwards again because whoever owns it is going to make sure they protect their investment.
“It’s the best job in the world. You’re finding something that nobody else in their right mind would tackle, you’re restoring it, you find a home for it, and the public absolutely loves it.
“You’re taking something that’s knackered, you’re turning it into something stunning, and it doesn’t matter if they’re two or 92, people are absolutely beaming when they get off the ride. How could you not enjoy that? We have such a lot of fun with it.”
• Littleboy’s Vintage Restorations is at www.littleboys.co.uk