From mechanical woes to wild adventures: Tales from owning my first car

Jun 24, 2023
'On another occasion, a thing called the brake master cylinder decided to leak and spray brake fluid over the hot engine every time I pumped the brakes.' Source: Getty

We’ve all probably had some experiences with our first cars, and chances are, unless you were very lucky, it probably wasn’t a brand new Lamborghini or a new anything. So the car you started with probably presented you with some challenges in your first years on the road. Here are some of mine.

At the ripe old age of 19, I was late to the car driving scene. I had a trail bike and a motorcycle licence for a couple of years, and these helped me get from A to B. However, trips to the drive-in and the beach weren’t quite the same experience my mates were having in their cars, especially when the weather was cold or wet. I eventually got my car licence, and for the next few months, I happily drove Mum’s Mini or Dad’s Gemini. However, this wasn’t always convenient for all concerned, so the hunt was on for my first car.

The manager of the petrol station where I worked part-time also dabbled in used car sales. He’d pick up the odd car from an auction, give it the once over and park it outside with a for sale sign across the windscreen. He sensibly suggested a nice, neat 1969 Hillman Hunter he’d bought, but I wanted a panel van, far more suited to the 70s drive-in experiences I had in mind.

He gave up on trying to sell me the Hillman and duly supplied me with a bright orange 1970 Escort panel van, which, after organising a $700 personal loan was all mine.

My girlfriend’s parents and my future in-laws took one look at my pride and joy and, obviously having the gift of prophecy, decided to give me an RACQ membership as an early Christmas present. They were obviously trying to minimise the amount of time their secondborn was going to be stuck on the side of the road.

As it turned out, there were a few mechanical problems that showed up fairly quickly, and I learned a lot about the mechanics of cars from that first car. I discovered that radiator hoses, much like our arteries, need to be clear. On one of our first road trips up to Toowoomba, the engine temperature needle started moving into the red. We pulled over to the sight of steam pouring from under the bonnet.

After a two-mile hike back to a fruit shop we’d driven passed at Marburg, we borrowed a phone and called the RACQ. By the time we walked back to the car, the mobile service guy was there holding up the radiator hose. With the encrusted rust and gunk within it, there was barely enough room to poke your little finger through.

He replaced the hose, and we were on our way again, but as we ascended the steep range to Toowoomba, the red light lit up again. Apparently, it’s not a good idea to leave the choke on for an extended amount of time, especially when driving up a mountain.

On another day trip to the beach at Bribie Island, we were just about to leave when we got bogged in the loose sand in the park. Fortunately, a couple of burly blokes came out of nowhere and pushed, or, I should say, lifted, my car out of trouble. Not really a mechanical issue, but that was to come on the drive home.

Driving through Brisbane city and keen to make good time to make my girlfriend’s curfew, we stopped at a set of lights outside a pub in Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, just as they were getting ready for the six o’clock closing. Of course, the car stalled, and on turning the key, nothing happened. Having had the problem once before, I knew it was a loose battery cable that needed a bit of a jiggle

My girlfriend had no driving experience at that stage, so it was up to her to do the jiggling under the bonnet while I turned the key. This was fine except as we’d just come from the beach, she was still in her bikini, and the happy Sunday drinkers were starting to spill onto the footpath to cheer us on. History shows that she did end up forgiving me for the embarrassment.

On another occasion, a thing called the brake master cylinder decided to leak and spray brake fluid over the hot engine every time I pumped the brakes. After cleaning it off with some rags, we were able to limp home using the handbrake. As we later learned, the handbrake doesn’t activate the brake lights, so we had several near rear-enders and heard a few choice words on the drive home.

At the time of buying my first car, my mates were dedicated revheads, and they were forever doing this to their carburettors or to their big ends. I had neither the budget nor the mechanical wherewithal to treat my car to these types of alterations, so I went for budget aesthetic improvements to enhance the burnt orange paint job. My unhubcapped wheels looked boring, so, to my mate’s horror, I sprayed the rims with gold paint.

I then began accessorising by adding a two-metre fibreglass whip aerial to the roof. It did nothing to improve reception on my AM car radio, but I thought it looked cool. If I wanted to go into an underground car park, my girlfriend had to reach out and grab the aerial to save it from dragging across the concrete ceiling. I also discovered that the hole I drilled in the roof for the aerial wasn’t as neat as it could have been, and on a rainy night at the drive-in a few weeks later, the inside of the van resembled a water park.

Not at all conducive to romance on a winter’s night. As it turns out, the carpeted floor on the driver’s side also had more holes than a colander, as we discovered on the drive home through the puddled road. To add insult to injury, one of the wiper blades decided to abandon us by flying off into a paddock on the side of the road.

Next, I added a Bathurst 500 decal across the top of the windscreen and black stripes to make my dream ride go faster. The one mechanical upgrade I attempted was to replace the car’s muffler with a thing called a hot dog, but all it did was make the car sound like it was farting, which was kind of appropriate considering the problems I had with it.

Car sound systems were just starting to come into their own at the time. No duff duff subwoofers yet, but I thought my Clarion cassette deck with two ten-watt speakers was pretty smick. After the hole in the roof fiasco, I wasn’t game to drill any more holes in the bodywork, so my speakers sort of free-ranged in the back suspended on some cushions, at least until one of my friends threw up on the cushions, at which point the speakers were on their own.

Just as well the cushions were gone because the following weekend, my girlfriend and my mate decided to take a trip to a drive-through lion park. We were merrily making our way around the park in my van; my girlfriend and I were in the front seats, and my mate was in the back of the van.

Everything was going smoothly, with a pre-feeding time pride of lions skulking around noisily outside the van and us viewing from inside the safety of the Escort. My girlfriend and I were admiring the kings of the jungle when we heard a run of panicked expletives from the back.

Apparently, the latch on the back door of the van was faulty and one of the doors chose this moment to swing open. My mate swore loudly, grabbed the door and slammed it shut, and managed to avert a horrific 6 o’clock news story. Suffice it to say if the aforementioned cushions had still been in place I think I would have had more than vomit to contend with for a cleanup.

Next year I took on a milk delivery run which of course needed a milk truck. Having a work vehicle as well as the Escort van was a bit extravagant and the milk truck was more reliable so I sold my van to a mate. I made him aware of the numerous problems, but he said he could fix them.

A couple of months later, I heard that he ended the Escort’s life by taking it for a bush bash up the state forest, where it ended its days. A year later, my girlfriend bought her first car, and based on my experiences, she chose a far more roadworthy ride.

Was your first car experience fraught with roadblocks, or was it more of an easy ride?

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