caianmagazine

On 8 June 2013, Cambridge’s history books will be rewritten as a historic prank carried out by Cambridge University students is recreated. On the same day in 1958, an Austin Seven car was winched onto the Senate House on King’s Parade by a twelve-strong group of engineering students, attracting worldwide newspaper attention. 55 years later, a 70ft platform resembling Senate House will be constructed, onto which a vehicle will be hoisted. This is only one of many well or little-known Cambridge legends which have been thought up by Cambridge’s most creative and mischievous minds.

The original event took place as the students brought the car through Cambridge and winched it up onto the roof of Senate House using cables and scaffolding stolen from King’s College, before removing the engine and wheels of the Austin Seven. Described as the "Legend of the Austin 7" by Gonville and Caius College, the college’s website pays tribute to the ingenuity of the students’ feat: “This rearrangement of existing material — a good eight hundredweight of it — had been successfully achieved in darkness without detection by a team of thirteen working (most of the time) to a highly complicated plan.”

Due to the practicalities of this ambitious undertaking, the recreation will instead involve a platform which will be erected by the Cambridge University Officers’ Training Corps at Parker’s Piece, less than a mile from Senate House. Basil Jacques, a member of the Vintage Car Club, thought of the idea to recreate the stunt to add interest to the car club’s annual rally. He said: "It's just a bit of fun, but we'll also be raising money for Combat Stress and Jimmy's Night Shelter."

The group of students responsible for the prank were reunited in 2008 and for the first time revealed their identities, despite being discovered for their stunt at the time because of a plank joining the college and Senate House. Peter Davey, who masterminded the idea, said that the idea came to him while staying in a room which overlooked the Senate House at Gonville and Caius College. He said that the roof “cried out” to be made more interesting.

Their strategy involved picking May Week to carry out their stunt, during which time the only passers-by were likely to be drunken rowers. The ingenious plan involved some difficulties including damage to the vehicle, until the following day, when crowds of onlookers were astonished by the new addition to the Senate House.

It took the police and fire fighters a week to try to hoist the vehicle back down. Having failed to do so, they set the car alight, using a blowtorch and breaking it down to pieces. If the group’s prank wasn’t legendary enough, they said that their only regret was not having the car left in place for ever.

Cambridge has a history of legends and student pranks, spouted every day by punt tour guides to groups of tourists, to varying degrees of truth. So much so that a book entitled Cambridge Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem was published in 2010. It recounts some of the best known jokes including “the story of how a group of students disguised themselves as Abyssinian dignitaries and duped the Royal Navy into allowing them to inspect HMS Dreadnought, how another group fooled the art world with their Post-Impressionist Exhibition, and of course the most famous prank of all - the Austin Seven on the roof of Senate House.”

A prank which certainly rivals the Austin Seven stunt involved the Bridge of Sighs, in 1983. Again, an Austin Seven was used, this time to be dangled under the bridge by using four punts to bring it down the river and into position to be hoisted up by rope. The prank was repeated five years later, using a Reliant Regal three-wheeler car. Luckily, the 182-year-old bridge sustained no damage in either incident.

A more recent and festive prank occurred in 2009, when Santa hats were placed onto each of the spires of King’s College Chapel. The college went to considerable expense and great difficulty to remove the Santa hats, using steeplejacks who took two days to remove all four of the hats. The same trick was replicated at several other college chapels.

One prank that was decidedly unfunny to the University took place at Jesus College, as three undergraduates donned smart Eton suits and told teenagers who were visiting the college for interviews that the college was the preserve of public school pupils. The three were punished for what the college’s senior tutor called an act of “stupidity”.

The Golden Age of Cambridge pranks may be over. Indeed, it is inconceivable that the Austin Seven ‘legend’ could ever be bettered. But perhaps the stunt’s recreation this summer may serve as inspiration for a new generation of Cambridge pranksters, following in the footsteps of those few Cambridge students who wished to make their student days more memorable.

Sponsored links