When I headed off to Australia in 1971, I opted to travel overland via Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, fly from Calcutta to Bangkok, then down through Thailand and Malaysia and fly the rest of the way. I’d done the route to India a few times already, and wanted to check out a few places I’d missed previously, and I’d also never been to Thailand, which I wanted to see. I employed, for the most part, my favoured mode of travel, which was hitch-hiking. It’s a cheap way to travel (albeit unpredictable time-wise) and you get to meet all sorts of people from all walks of life. Hitch-hiking has provided me with some unforgettable experiences, both good and bad.
So my vehicular adventures en route were mostly as a passenger. However, I did have one, quite interesting, driving episode on the way. I’d arrived in Villach, Austria, and was having a beer in a bar while contemplating getting out onto the the road heading to the Yugoslavian border, so I could stick my thumb out for a lift. I got chatting to a couple of guys in the bar (as you do) and they asked me If I wanted to make a bit of money driving a car into Yugoslavia for them.
It was, naturally, a dodgy deal to avoid import taxes, but I was quite sanguine about it, having done the same thing a couple of years before, driving a car from Bulgaria into Turkey. That one had been slightly complicated by my being arrested by the Turkish police in Edirne (which is close to border crossings to both Greece and Bulgaria) and thrown into no-man’s-land between Greece and Turkey without a passport (which was in my hotel). It was fortunate that I hadn’t yet done the deal with the car, because the Turkish Mafia guy I was dealing with still needed me, and so having discovered where I was, turned up at the border a few hours later and paid off the guards to let me back into Turkey. But that’s another story.
I agreed to drive this car to Ljubljana for a reasonably generous number of Deutschmarks. The instructions were that I should avoid the main border crossing and use a second, much smaller crossing in the mountains, arriving at the border just before it closed at midnight when all the guys there were about to go home, the theory being that their checks would be cursory at that point in their shift.
That part of it worked fine – I got through the border quickly and easily. However, the drive to the border was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. The car in question was a beat up old VW Beetle. It was, of course, left-hand drive, which I had virtually no experience driving. The back of the driver’s seat was broken, and had completely collapsed, so there was no seat back (have you ever driven a car without a seat back? It’s surprisingly difficult, not to mention uncomfortable). There was no gear knob, just the iron rod with a screw thread on the end; the lights were about as effective as glow worms in need of a good meal and the windscreen wipers didn’t work at all. And I was driving this wreck up over an unlit and rarely used mountain pass which I’d never seen before, at night and in the middle of a thunderstorm and torrential rain. That I didn’t fall off the side of the mountain was a miracle in itself, and despite the chill mountain air, I was slick with sweat by the time I reached the border post.
I really earned those Deutschmarks that night.
Anyway, some six months after I’d started out, I pitched up in Australia, and headed for Melbourne where my girlfriend / ‘common law wife’ was waiting for me.
I grabbed the first job I found, which was working for a pallet hire company in the port of Melbourne, repairing broken pallets. It wasn’t too long before I’d graduated to forklift driver, which was great fun. When a truck came in for a load of pallets, two of us would work in synchronisation. A stack of twenty pallets would be extracted from the stockpile and dropped in an open space. The trick then was to make that stack nice and straight so you could load twenty stacks on the trailer. This was achieved by lifting the forks to above the height of the stack, tilting the mast forward a bit, and then ramming the stack of pallets at speed. This was then repeated from the other direction, and resulted in a nice neat, straight stack, which was then loaded on one side of the trailer. The other forklift driver would be doing the same with his stack of pallets. When there was a stack on each side of the trailer, we would again raise the forks and tilt the mast forward and simultaneously ram both sides of the double stack so they were tight up to each other. It was like a well choreographed dance, and done very rapidly. We could load a 40 foot trailer in less than fifteen minutes.
Having recently arrived (broke), I used to get the bus to work, and the bus passed a used car lot where all the cars were parked out front. There was one car parked there that really caught my eye. I’d never seen anything like it, and each day I passed the car lot, I liked it more. Eventually it got so bad that I’d be looking out for it to see if it had been sold yet. So I bit the bullet and went to have a closer look at it, telling myself that if it was over a thousand dollars, I’d forget about it (not that I had a thousand dollars anyway). So I went and looked around it. It appealed to all my automotive senses. It looked fast, it was sculpturally beautiful, and I wanted it. The owner of the lot came over, and I asked him how much it was. “$999”, he said. Ha! Well, it was below my self-imposed $1000 limit! The next hurdle was finding the money. Being a recent arrival in Australia, I didn’t qualify for finance, but the lot owner knew a guy in a loan company, etc etc, and so I got finance and was suddenly the proud owner of what was already a bit of a classic, a 1962 Chrysler Valiant ‘S’ Series.
(Apologies for the poor quality of the photos – they were scanned from some very old prints and don’t really do the car justice. This was the one I owned, but there are better photos of the model here. And the reason the back of the car is cropped in the top picture is because I wasn’t taking a picture of the car, I was taking a photo of the house I lived in.)
It was known as ‘the panel beater’s nightmare’, for obvious reasons.
It was a fabulous motor. It had a 225 cu in (about 3.7 litre) ‘slant six’ engine which was mounted at 45° to allow for a lower bonnet profile, and a ‘Torque-flite’ auto gearbox, which was controlled with buttons on the dash next to the speedo binnacle.
The one I had was fitted with an uprated dual-choke carb, high lift cam and exhaust extractors which terminated in two tailpipes either side just ahead of the rear wheels. It had a real throaty burble, and used to go like shit off a stick. Didn’t get very many miles to the gallon, particularly the way I drove it, but petrol was relatively cheap in those days, so MPG wasn’t an issue.
After I left the pallet company, I did a stint driving larger forklift trucks for a while and then a guy I knew offered me a job driving for the family business, which I took. It was a multiple drop delivery company, and they had about a dozen box vans (Isuzu, if I remember), and we delivered predominantly fabrics and wallpapers to various shops around Melbourne. It was a great place to work – probably one of the best firms I’ve worked for. There was Bruce, the patriarch, and Terry and Rod, the two sons, who were not much different to me in age – early to mid twenties. They had well maintained vehicles, they paid well, they looked after all the drivers and they were friendly. In fact Rod remained a good friend of mine long after I left the company. It really was like a family, and all the guys who worked there looked after and cared about the business. They were very flexible, too. I used to get through my runs very quickly (I was a bit manic on the roads back then), and would often be back at the depot, job done, by three in the afternoon. And as long as the job was done, and everything hunky-dory, they saw no good reason to keep me at work, so I’d finish for the day.
I remember one morning when we were all preparing our deliveries and loading up, this guy swaggered through the door and announced that he was from the Transport Workers’ Union, and invited us all to join. We all, to a man, declined, which kind of upset this guy, so he went on the offensive, telling us how we really needed to join to ‘protect our rights’. We said thanks, but no thanks, our rights were fine. At this point, Bruce came into the warehouse from the office to see what the fuss was about. The union guy got really stroppy, and told Bruce that if we didn’t join the union, then he’d blacklist the company (back then the unions could shut companies down on a whim). “So how much is it a year?” Bruce asked. I think it was about a hundred bucks each or thereabouts. Bruce went into the office and returned with a cheque that covered everyone, and gave it to the guy. “Here”, he said, “Here’s your money. Now fuck off and never come back.” So much for the union movement.
Being able to finish early in the day then enabled me to start taking driving lessons for my Class 1 HGV licence. And even though the guys knew that it meant I would be leaving the job, they were completely supportive. On this occasion, I passed the test first time. It was a bit intimidating, because it was a police examiner, both for the written test and the practical, but I made myself relax and just get on with it.
I’d never really even thought about driving trucks until I got to Australia. The English trucks I was familiar with were thoroughly underwhelming, and so I’d never had an interest. They were the under-powered, moving road blocks that I’d curse when I got stuck behind them in the pre-motorway days in UK. But when I got to Australia, I started seeing a totally different breed of truck, the interstaters. Big American rigs like the one in the photo below, with big powerful engines, fancy paint jobs, shiny chrome exhaust stacks and a growl that went to the heart of the hunter warrior that still resides within us. And I used to think: “Fuuuck, I want one!”
And what really tipped me over was the fact that one of the guys I worked with in the delivery company had been an interstate truck driver, and still did the odd weekend interstate trip (in a Kenworth, the prince of trucks) for a bit of extra. I went with him a couple of times and he gave me a drive of the big rig. It was scary the first time, such a huge and heavy vehicle, but that was it, really. I was besotted. I needed a Class 1 licence.
So I took the lessons and got my Class 1 HGV licence. But that of course was only the beginning.
Nobody puts a novice in a hugely expensive high speed interstate truck covering large distances. In fact my target was doubly difficult, because interstate truck driving was pretty much a closed shop, an exclusive club if you like, and membership of that club was normally only open to third generation Aussies back then. And I was a Pom, or to give myself the full title, a ‘Pommie Bastard’. Which added an extra layer of difficulty to my quest for a seat in one of the thoroughbreds that ran interstate.
But when I decide I want something, I can be remarkably persistent. So I started, as I knew I would have to, at the bottom rung of the ladder.