I’ve always been a bit of a petrol-head in a quiet sort of way. I learned how to drive a car when I was about twelve or thirteen, and at the age of fourteen I had a weekend job on a fruit farm, and often used to drive the tractor, rotavating fields, pulling trailers full of fruit and doing general farm stuff. I loved driving, and would grab any and every opportunity I could to get behind the wheel.
My first vehicle that I actually got to drive on the public highway was a Messerschmitt, which my mother had bought in the vain hope that, being a small vehicle, she’d be able to drive it. Unfortunately for her, that was not to be. The Messerschmitt requires a good degree of flexibility / contortion just to get into, and the task was beyond my mother.
In fact the very concept of driving was beyond my mother, bless her. I don’t know how many times she took her driving test, but it was lots – at least a dozen times, and probably more. She always failed. Which was probably just as well for other road users, as she was petrified of the roads, and when she rode a bicycle would always dismount and walk it round roundabouts because the system confused her. She used to say (after another failed test attempt) “It’s not driving the car I have a problem with, it’s all the other traffic! If there was no traffic, I’d pass easily!”
So I inherited / appropriated the Messerschmitt. I was only 16, but I could drive it on a provisional bike licence, as it only had three wheels (this was back in the 1960s – the laws may well have changed since then). It was an absolute blast to drive; surprisingly stable for a three-wheeler (although having the single wheel at the back helped on that level) and quite nippy. If I remember it had a 175cc two-stroke engine and the gears worked like a motorbike, sequentially. It also had very direct steering (lock to lock was less than 180°, maybe even as little as 90°) and a sort of airplane style steering wheel, I guess so you could get your legs in.
Sadly, when I was away travelling my mother sold it, so on my return to UK, by which time I was 19, I took my car test, and passed on the second attempt. The first time I failed because I nearly knocked a drunken cyclist off his bike as he swerved into my path. I was deemed to have given him too little clearance. Ho hum. In those days for the test, you still had to keep the window open and do hand signals to accompany every manoeuvre; left turn, right turn, slowing down etc. And although we had flashing indicators (I took my test in an Austin 1100), the self-cancelling function had to be disabled so you had to remember to cancel it manually. It was all pretty stupid, but the Highway Code hadn’t been updated for a while, I guess, and the mindset was still with cars that had those funny illuminated flaps that sprang out of the side of the car like suddenly erect ears to indicate your directional intent. I don’t think those old cars had brake lights, either.
My first proper car, with four wheels, was an old Austin A35 pick-up.
I’d bought it off some gypsies for fifteen quid, and it was, one could say, ‘well used’. But it went, and quite rapidly, too. Never mind that the brakes were fucked, and you had to pump the pedal frantically if you wanted to stop. Never mind that the dynamo was bolloxed and the lights barely worked and it had to be started with the handle (yes, it had a handle that you inserted through a hole in the front bumper to crank it with. Amazingly, it started really easily, even on a cold morning, needing only a couple of cranks). Never mind that it leaked water like buggery, and the radiator had to be topped up every twenty miles or so. Never mind that it was lubricationally incontinent, and left puddles of oil wherever it was parked for more than thirty seconds. Never mind that the heater didn’t work, and you froze your balls off in winter. Never mind that the whole car would shake violently at 80mph. (I later realised that it had different size wheels and tyres on the front axle, both the wrong size for the car, neither of which had ever been balanced.)
But it was a car! It was freedom! And it was mine! All fifteen pounds worth of it! And the radio worked, too! I had it for nearly a year until one day, inevitably, something went very noisily wrong in the engine, and when I looked under the bonnet, there was lots of oil mixed with bits of broken metal coating the inside of the engine bay. It was terminal. I abandoned it, with great regret, by the side of the A30 where it had expired. All good things come to an end, I guess.
I then had an ex-GPO Morris 1000 van (lent to me by a friend I was working with at the time) for a while until I moved back up to London, where a car was largely superfluous. After a while there, I got a job flogging ‘art’ (don’t ask – it was a scam; “Hello, I’m an impoverished art student….. blah, blah”) door-to-door in the Home Counties. That was quite fun, as we’d head out with the ‘team leader’ at lunchtime and hit a likely area. When we found some suitable estates, we’d all get stoned out of our minds in the car and then head out to knock on doors. I did quite well, and was making good money. So well, in fact that the bosses gave me a car (contract hire from Hertz) and my own team, which meant I was making even more money off their commissions too. I had a brand new VW Beetle to start with, and then a Hillman Avenger. It was fortunate really that we had to change the cars every month or so, because by the end of a month, my boot was starting to fill up with parking tickets which I got on a daily basis for parking in the road outside where I lived in Bayswater. It was a bit of a silly situation, really, because there were only two options for parking. One was to get a resident’s parking permit, which you couldn’t do when it was a hire car, and the other was to put it on a meter. We normally didn’t get back into London until midnight, and then we’d go for a few beers in a local club, and I’d roll home about 3am. So getting up at before 8am to feed the meter (which wasn’t allowed either – two hours max, I think) really wasn’t on the cards. So three options, actually, the third being that I just got a ticket every day, and filed it in the boot of the car.
When I moved to West Sussex for a few months prior to heading off to Australia, I got a job delivering and installing electrical goods (washing machines, fridges, TVs etc) for a local branch of Currys electrical stores, and they let me use the delivery van privately, A BMC something-or-other (same as in the pic below)
which was handy, as it meant I didn’t have to go to the expense of buying and running a car. It was a welcome perk, as it enabled me to accumulate my travelling money that much faster.
Thus began my fascination with the joys of motoring.
My arrival in Australia in 1971 heralded the next phase of my driving career…