I had several goes at driving friends cars, while I was in the RAF and I got reasonably good at it, but I learned to drive properly as soon as I completed my National Service, employing a driving school to teach me the finer points of the art. Then I passed my test at the first try and bought myself my first car, a 1935 Standard Ten – which turned out to be a real turkey! I’d learnt just about all I needed to know about driving a car, but I still had little knowledge of what made the vehicle tick – to my cost!
So after a couple of months I got rid of it and bought another from a friend of mine. This one was a 1925 Morris ‘Convertible’, ten years older than the Standard, but a car with genuine character! It had a shape somewhat similar to a matchbox and, in an emergency stop situation, I was advised in the handbook, to use both hands on the handbrake, while also desperately pushing the footbrake through the floor! The book didn’t mention the steering wheel, either from choice, or omission, I daren’t think which. The ‘roof’ was made of black canvas that folded away at the rear of the car, and there were no side windows at all. If I drove with the roof up all I had protecting me was the windscreen in front and this canvas above and behind me. In a side-wind, I got wet!
Further excitement was added by the fact that the petrol tank, which fed the carburettor by gravity alone, was situated in the top of the engine compartment, right above all the source of heat. Because of the gravity feed, if I needed to refuel I either had to stop the engine, or fill up with the engine running, for one very important reason. If I stopped the engine, all the petrol in the pipe down to the carburettor immediately evaporated, and it was impossible to start again for at least half an hour, when the engine cooled down. Needless to say, because the rules were much laxer then than now, I always filled up with the engine running! Nowadays I break out in a cold sweat every time I think about what might have happened if I had spilled just a drop of that volatile liquid, onto the exceedingly hot engine. (I can hardly write about it now, the thought is so terrifying).
Apart from these minor quirks, the little car was deceptive. Although it looked primitive to say the least, it had a wonderful MG overhead camshaft engine fitted, with gleaming brass external oil pipes and the high tension leads were all neatly tied into a loom along one side. Under the power of this unit I could make her scream along at about seventy miles an hour, with the thrill of the wind in my face from the open sides and the fear that I might sometime have to make an emergency stop! I really loved that car and I painted it bright red and called it ‘Jezebel’, drawn in white letters on each side of the bonnet. I eventually also made Perspex side-screens for it, which increased my comfort immeasurably, though perhaps removed some of the thrill.
Somehow, my gleaming 2007 VW Passat, wonderful machine that it is, doesn’t offer the same closeness to nature, coupled with terror, that was the gift given me by that old Morris, not that I’d change, if offered the choice of course. (I’m not that stupid!)