I’ve always enjoyed driving. All kinds of driving and all kinds of vehicles. I enjoy the cut and thrust of city driving, and I enjoy the leisurely relaxation of country driving. I enjoy being able to look at the views around me during the daytime, and I enjoy the isolation and tunnel vision of night driving. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of operating different types of driveable machinery – diggers, tractors, front-end loaders, dump-trucks, forklift trucks, tracked vehicles – of all shapes and sizes. And I’ve enjoyed experiencing the gamut of road vehicles, from mopeds to articulated trucks.
From a very early age, I wanted to drive. I always associated driving with freedom, as indeed I still do. I’d look on with envy at the grown-ups as they hopped into their cars, or onto their motorbikes, turned the ignition key and – vroom! The world was suddenly their oyster. Free to go whither they would, the wind rushing through their hair, the road unfolding endlessly ahead of them.
I wanted to be able to drive so much, I could taste it.
My first opportunity to drive a motorised vehicle came when I was about nine or ten years old I think, and my mother bought a Corgi motorbike thingy.
My mother, bless her, had absolutely no rapport with any motorised vehicle of any description. I don’t know how many times she took her driving test, but it was certainly more than a dozen; and she failed every time. She used to say to me: “I can drive a car alright (which was itself a debatable point), but it’s the other traffic that’s the problem. If there were no other cars on the road, I’d be fine…”.
Yes, but mother, the fact is…
This was a woman who, when out on a bicycle, would dismount at roundabouts and walk the bike round on the pavement, so as to avoid having to actually negotiate the roundabout. And I’m talking about back in the 1950s, when traffic as we know it today just didn’t exist. By the mid – sixties, she’d given up the bicycle altogether because she thought there were too many cars. No, my mother was not to be counted among the world’s ‘natural drivers’. She was an intelligent woman, and had many talents. Driving a car, however, was not among them.
But she persisted with buying various bizarre vehicles that she thought she might be able to drive, and the Corgi bike was one of the first. It was painfully slow (only the one gear) and not very comfortable, and unsurprisingly never really engaged my mother. I, on the other hand, thought it was wonderful. Heaven sent. A dream machine! And I had the luxury of a two acre garden in which to buzz around on this most amazing opportunity which had fallen into my lap. I would zap up and down the gravel drive, power-sliding (as much as a low-powered, single gear Corgi would allow power-sliding) at each end to go back the way I’d come, all the while dreaming of the day that I’d be able to break free of the confines of the garden and head off down the open road.
I learned to drive a car when I was twelve, maybe thirteen. I’d grown enough by that time that I could reach the pedals and see (just about) over the steering wheel. A family friend had a Hillman Minx convertible, and offered (read ‘was relentlessly pestered’) to take me to a disused airfield to learn to drive it.
It was the same model as the one in the photo above, although not in the same pristine condition! In fact, it was quite scruffy, and a shitty green colour. It had a bench front seat and column shift, and in my opinion at that moment in time (since I was going to be given the opportunity to drive it) was the best car in the world. The nearest I’d got to driving a car at that stage was sitting in my dad’s car, holding the steering wheel and going “VROOM, VROOM!”, and a spin on the Dodgems at the fairground.
I’d already got the hang of the clutch thingy when playing on the Corgi, albeit hand, rather than foot operated, so it wasn’t a huge leap to transfer that skill to the car. In fact the whole thing felt completely natural – I took to it like a duck to water. It probably took me half an hour or so to get the hang of it all, and from that point on it was pedal to the metal. With the airfield being quite long, I was able to get up to a good speed (probably only 30mph, but it felt like Mach 1 to me), and actually feel that wind through my hair. Oh bliss! The only downside I remember was being constantly told to slow down, but even that didn’t impinge on the exhilaration I felt that afternoon. I was driving! A real car! This, it seemed, is what I’d been waiting for all my short life. Nothing else mattered.
But it was still bloody years – eons – before I’d be allowed to get out on the highway. Damn! What to do?
The Gods must have smiled on me, because a year or so on, I got a weekend job on a nearby fruit farm. The pay was terrible (the owner was using a 1949 copy of the ‘Official Guide To Pay Rates For Agricultural Workers’), and I think he was paying me 1/3d an hour (a tad over 6p in new money), but the bonus was that he had a tractor and a couple of small tracked vehicles (called ‘cats’, as I remember) for pulling trailers around the orchards. The tractor, a smallish Massey Ferguson, was used mostly for grass cutting or rotovating a few fields he had where he grew vegetables.
As an aside, my boss, the owner of the fruit farm, was related (I’m not quite sure how) to the Mitford sisters, and on more than one occasion while I was there Diana would turn up with her husband, Sir Oswald Mosley. I have to admit, it didn’t mean much to me at the time, but I now wish I’d paid more attention when I spoke (briefly) with them, as I have no real recollection of them or what they said to me. Ah, these moments of history which pass us by…
Anyway, it didn’t take me long to persuade (pester) my boss that I was the ideal candidate for tractor and cat driving duties, so I inveigled my rear end into a driving seat again, much to my delight. It was the only thing that kept me there. The boss was a real task-master, and the pay, as I said, was lousy. But I got to drive! And for that pleasure, I was willing to endure all the negatives about the job.
A little anecdote which comes to mind as I recollect my time there, was when I was rotovating one of the fields. On a strip of land separating the field where I was working and the adjoining apple orchard, there were several bee hives. He got nice honey from these, but I would imagine his main reason for having them was for pollination purposes. Anyway, I was trundling up and down this field, turning the earth over, and as I passed the hives, something, maybe the noise of the tractor, or perhaps a stone flung at the hive by the rotovator blades, disturbed the bees, and they poured out of the hive in an angry mob, looking for the cause of their discomfort. With me being the only foreign object in the vicinity, I was what attracted their attention.
I can highly recommend not being chased by a swarm of angry bees. It’s a disquieting and painful experience. I fortunately noticed them amassing around the hive before they launched their attack, and in one fluid motion raised the rotovator, engaged high-ratio and hit, at speed, the adjacent track back to the farmhouse. The old Massey Ferguson was not, alas, a match for the speed of the angry mob in hot pursuit, not even in high-ratio, and it wasn’t long before the bees had overhauled the object of their ire.
I was kind of stuck, really, as I was trying to keep control of the bucking bronco I was driving (the gravel track I was on wasn’t exactly billiard table smooth) and at the same time flailing madly to try to discourage my attackers. It wasn’t too far to the house, and I skidded into the courtyard, leapt off my mount and headed for the hosepipe, which I turned on full and doused myself with. The water was bloody freezing, and I didn’t have a change of clothes, but those niceties had to be put to one side under the circumstances. The water did the trick, and my tormentors lost interest and presumably went back to the hive, doubtless satisfied with a good job well done. The would-be invader had been repelled – routed, even, and the hive was once again secure.
I was a bit lumpy for a few days after that, but it could have been worse. In the end I only had about twenty stings, mostly on my arms and head. However, not something I’ve ever wanted to repeat.
I left that job eventually, tractors notwithstanding, as I’d reached an age where other things were starting to take priority, like girls, music and going to the pub. Back in those days I could get a drink in many pubs at the age of 15 – the landlords must have known I was underage, but the attitude was much more relaxed back then, and as long as you didn’t get paralytic and make trouble, you’d be ok.
Thus ensued a hiatus in my driving career which lasted a few years, as when I reached an age at which I was legally permitted to drive a car, I was on the cusp of heading out for parts unknown, and driving, if you’ll excuse the pun, took a back seat.
So it wasn’t until some years later that I was able to re-visit my passion for driving. However, by this stage it was a whole new ball game. The confines of the garden could be left behind and the open road beckoned…