When I was young

I had a sudden ‘flashback’ to my youth this morning — it took me right back to the 1950s, when I was only about 20 years old, and it reminded me of how things have changed since those days, especially on the family car!

For instance, in those far-off days I was able to do considerable work on my car’s engine; the various parts were recognisable then, carburettor, coil, distributor, even the cylinder-head, and we all knew how they worked and how to repair them if necessary.

I am and was no great expert as a mechanic, but even I could take the ‘head’ off my car, de-coke it and have it back together and working within a couple of hours. Nowadays, most of those familiar parts no longer exist, or if they do they’re carefully disguised, and on top of that it’s all computerised too, so if you don’t have the right electronic wizardry you can’t touch the damned thing at all.

Of course, safety is the major issue now and I’m all for it. I look back with horror at some of the common practices, totally disallowed today! I remember no one would dream of buying new tyres until the old ones were completely bald and treadles — it was considered positively sacrilegious when the law started insisting we had to buy new when the old tread reached a depth of two millimetres, we were all quite sure it was just some con to make more money for the tyre manufacturers.

Seat belts were another issue — at first you were thought to be a bit of a sissy if you had them fitted and used them, and as for air-bags — well, they were so far into the future that they hadn’t even been thought of then, and if they had people would have wondered how on earth they were supposed to be blown up and act as a protective device in a smash. I think we subconsciously thought there were going to be little men in every car with very powerful lungs, who could see an accident was about to happen and could blow them up in those final moments!

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Then there was the steering. Most cars had a rather primitive mechanism for this in the ’50s and it became worn after time, so that steering could reach a state where you had almost an eighth of a turn on the wheel before it had any effect on the tyres — quite disconcerting in an emergency situation! On top of that, road wheels were much narrower than they are today, with the consequent minimised road contact and breaking efficiency.

I well remember one of my earlier cars, which possessed just about all the things wrong you could desire in a car, in fact, looking back I’m surprised I survived the ownership at all. The advance and retard was purely manual and had to be operated on a stick behind the steering wheel; in an emergency I was supposed to haul on the hand break while applying maximum force to the foot break; if it rained while using the vehicle, I had to reach up to the windscreen and operate the wipers manually, no one had thought of fitting an electric motor when the car was built, and there was no synchromesh mechanism in the gearbox, so I had to double de-clutch when changing gear.

Boy, you just don’t realise how easy driving is now up to what I had to do in that little car! One last safety feature, (or lack thereof), in it — the petrol tank was situated right over the engine and in the same compartment, so that petrol could gravity feed to the carburettor. This meant that when I got low on fuel I had to put petrol into this tank and hope I didn’t splash any onto the motor where it could have exploded and sent me to glory!

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I also had to keep the engine running while I refuelled, otherwise the heat evaporated the petrol in the pipe down to the carburettor and I wouldn’t be able to start again until the whole system cooled down.

The very thought of life on the road at that time makes me break out in a cold sweat now, and you will never hear me complain about the cost and intricacies of safety features today. I simply consider myself very fortunate to have made it this far, when I think of what I considered to be normal 65 years ago!

What memories do you have about when you were growing up? What was your first car?

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