In a magazine section of a current newspaper there is a piece about people and the cars they have owned. And although I have taken a rough interest in the mechanics of the cars that I have owned, it is the happenings connected with those cars that are of more interest.
After the war, in the late 1940s, my brother, an engineer, was working in a town where a mechanic was assembling cars from more or less whatever automotive parts that came to hand. I asked if he could make a sort of sports car for me. Which he did, and I bought it.
This car was constructed mainly from Austin 7 parts – triangular chassis, engine, steering and brakes. It could seat two, had a rudimentary canvas roof, and an outside exhaust that ducted the gasses close to the ear of my passenger. Girls would climb in at the peril of being burnt. The car represented freedom, fun, sometimes envy, and often incredulity. I added a sign on the radiator “Austin of England” and replaced the radiator-filling cap with an antique temperature gauge, visible from the driver’s seat. It went like a bomb (or rather felt like it) but was the very devil to stop – so a bit dangerous. Brakes were not too good in those days, and in an Austin 7 particularly so.
I had been invited to stay in Norfolk, and was passing an open truck where cows had been packed athwartships, when one of them decided to relieve herself. I was soaked in herbivore urine. It was not an ideal way for a guest to arrive for the weekend.
Still owning the same car, I had entertained fellow ushers at a London wedding, and was leading them on the road to the evening’s festivities, when a lamp post jumped out in front of me. I left the car where it stood and now cannot remember how it was returned to me. The car was never the same again, becoming unstable at speed.
I then belonged to the 750 Formula Motor Club and, at a meeting of enthusiasts, asked Colin Chapman, of Lotus, if he could diagnose the trouble. But he was unable to do so.
I sold the car to someone in the City, being rather fearful that there would be recriminations. The buyer contacted me on a small matter, so I asked him how he was getting along with the car and how fast he had taken it. “I don’t go over 30 miles an hour”, he replied.
My next car was a very early MG, given to me by a cousin. It was a real sports car, but unreliable. I was rather proud of myself in substituting a tin disk instead of an open universal joint, to stop oil from leaking from an overhead camshaft into its magneto. This was an effective cure, but made rather an oily mess inside the bonnet. I got tired of having to stop and tinker with it with girls aboard, and gave it away in the spirit with which I had received it. The car went to a Norfolk family and disappeared.
I was working on painting scenery for theatrical touring shows, The Royal Opera House, television (in black and white then), children’s theatre and repertory, which gave me a chance in between jobs to create an all-purpose vehicle to take on a grand tour of Europe.
The basis for this rather unique vehicle was a well-used Ford 8, builder’s flat-back van. On it I attached a moulded covering of ply and, on the roof above the most comfortably designed of two seats, I attached ships’ ventilation air scoops made of copper. They faced forward to duct in air (if uncorked) and backward when it rained.
The car, unused to the post-war rough roads of Europe, needed fairly regular mechanical help from local peasantry – countrymen who exhibited a wonderful range of basic skills. Which was a fine way of meeting people.
After France and Spain, I was driving across northern Italy on a hot day, when a bee was scooped up by an overhead air duct and ended up in my shorts. A quick look in the rear-view mirror revealed several distressed cyclists.
The car was fitted out with sleeping and cooking facilities, food, wine and all the rest. But, after a while, starting the engine was a problem. This meant that nights had to be endured at an angle on steep slopes – to get the car moving in order to start the engine in the morning.
An emergency pot of money, left with a friend in Paris, went with her on holiday. So I had to sell things to be able to re-cross the Channel on my way home.
I had been painting scenery for a pantomime in York and was in a rush to get back to London. Now it so happened that I painted in an all-covering garment that I had cut from theatre canvas and stuck together with rubber adhesive. It was my paint-spattered, scenery-painting costume, and had the air of religion about it. Also, when painting scenery I used colour from old china chamber pots, as they were designed not to spill. Dressed in this painting kit and with pots of liquid paint aboard, I set off for home directly after work on a cold and snowy day. A moronic lorry driver decided to turn his truck around on a main road and right in front of me. Jamming on the brakes on an icy surface hardly slowed me down. So there was a bang, and paint shot everywhere from those pots, including over me. I imagine that the sight surprised the helpful witnesses.
The car took the fancy of a Scottish laird, who bought it for his estate.
A Citroën 2CV came next as it coped beautifully with the rough and overgrown lane leading to my studio house in the Berkshire Downs (and it whistled to the south of France and back, loving its own native country).
Then later, as I was working toward an exhibition of large sculptures in elm wood, a Citroën Ami 8 was able to do the same as the 2CV but with much more room for works of art. So I swapped it for its sister car, a station wagon type that had all the imaginative, idiosyncratic and innovative ideas of its predecessor, but without the centrifugal clutch. This did me well until a lorry driver, entering my main road from a side road, failed to see me behind his rear-view mirror. He was most apologetic and took full responsibility for the accident. But it left me with a broken wrist, which was the jumping-off point for a change of career. I then wrote articles and books for the next 25 years.
My last car was a splendid VW cabriolet that somehow retained the pleasant scent of its previous owner. The car’s only fault was its dislike of dealing with deep puddles – when the engine became flooded and cut out. It impressed a Russian eye specialist with its speed on our smooth roads. And when viewing the thatched houses of the rich from its open top, thought that the owners of these abodes must be peasants who could only afford to cover their houses with straw.
In London, some 30 years ago, in a street of perhaps a battered Ford or two, the VW’s soft-top was susceptible to vandalism. So, with excellent public transport nearby, and with Margreet’s Embassy number-plates on her own car, I gave the VW to my elder son. Of its demise I heard nothing.
Since Margreet’s retirement we also did away with the RAV4 after many years of smooth driving.
Cars have their stories.