Back when I was fifteen, in 1958, it was the norm for high schools to offer driving lesson to those student aged sixteen. So, we left America and came to the UK where learning to drive was an expensive pastime, done only when necessary. Living in central London made it totally unnecessary to have a car so I didn’t learn in my teens. In fact I went through my early and mid twenties without bothering – the family didn’t even own a car – but in my late twenties I was offered a car which was old but had very little mileage on the clock. It was an Austin A55 Cambridge, made circa 1957 and a boring shade of dull grey but it was quite luxurious inside with red leather seats and a column gear shift. There were several things it didn’t have which are essential in today’s motoring including a heater and windscreen washers. I remember getting a friend to drill some holes in the bonnet and buying a do-it-yourself washer kit and installing it (more or less) by myself!
That car (nicknamed ‘Big Busty Bertha) lasted two or three years before the clutch gave out – I blame my driving instructor for that because he was always saying. “Cover the clutch, cover the clutch!”, which led to my driving with my foot resting on the clutch pedal. That was the car in which we did many of our trips from London to West Malling and back, the year Judy, Veronica and I lived in digs in London and went back and forth at the weekends.
One December night we were driving down the A20 on the last leg of our journey to West Malling for the Christmas holiday carrying our clothes, our bedding, my daughter, my sister and my mother (this must have been in 1972 and, as yet, there was no M20). As we went along the Swanley by-pass, a thick fog came down. I had never driven in fog and was very nervous. We drove up Death Hill (!) (near Brands Hatch) and I had great difficulty seeing where the road was – it was pitch black with thick grey fog swirling in my headlights. Being a total coward I was probably driving at fifteen miles per hour and I drifted to the left slightly, following the kerb only to find I was driving in a lay-by! I got safely back onto the road itself and drove through West Kingsdown and down Wrotham Hill. There were no street lights and no other traffic (thank goodness). At the bottom of Wrotham Hill was a roundabout. I thought I was at the roundabout and turned left only to find myself going up a bank on the roadside. By this time I was very nervous, made even more so by my mother who was the personification of ‘nervous’ and, when she demanded we pull into the empty petrol station at Wrotham Heath and phone a taxi, I was exceedingly relieved.
Before she rang for a taxi, my mother rang the police and asked them to come and pick us up so that we would get home safely! They declined 😳 so she phoned a West Malling taxi company who valiantly came out to get us and and drove us to Market Cross Cottage. (The fog lasted for three or four days and we paid for the taxi company to take a driver back to the garage and drive my car home as I was too scared to drive in the fog!)
After Christmas we drove back to London and it was some months later, I seem to remember, I had driven to my temp typing job (London Transport, I think) and the clutch just stopped working and I couldn’t put the car in gear. I phoned a garage who sent a young man out and I gave him the car! I’m sure he was pleased and, though I had to find my way home without my car, I was pleased I wasn’t having to spend any money to put it right!
Soon after, I found an early Cortina estate car. I took it to a local garage for them to look over as I hadn’t a clue about cars. They said they couldn’t recommend it but, they added, it looks all right, so I bought it. Within weeks I was back there having some major work done on the chassis! That car was okay and lasted a couple more years, though the starter motor caused me some grief from time to time and I learned how to jump up and down on the door sill to rock it enough to get the starter motor to start! (I think).
One day in 1975/6 I was driving through Snodland on my way to the school I was teaching in, when — the clutch went! (Damn and blast that driving teacher!). I struggled, somehow, to get into a side road and left the car there, phoned my garage who picked it up and disposed of it…. I don’t remember them sending me a bill, but I could be wrong. Anyway, I then bought a Mini Countryman from a small garage in East Malling.
That car lasted me a good three or four years. I drove to work and back, took my daughter and her friends to their riding lessons, did the week’s shopping, went to the tip with old tat, and even tried to give a driving lesson to an older woman friend of my mother. That only happened once because, though she had (supposedly) had proper lessons, she went straight across a junction without looking either left or right! Luckily nothing was coming but I was shaking and made her trade places so I could drive home!
End of part one
(Copyright first two pics: Charles01; third pic: allenthepostman)
photos found on Wikimedia
Cars (as well as all other electronics like tv’s, fridges) broke down frequently back in those days. They had no reliability at all. But they were all very simple and cheap to fix, weren’t they? By 1968, Toyota was making reliable cars, specially Corona, but I guess they were not yet popular.
Yes, things fell apart quite quickly! The Austin, though it had a good engine, was rusty and, when it rained, water got into the petrol! I soon learned how to take the carburettor apart and empty the mix of petrol and water from it so I could get the car started!
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Unreliable and yet simple – I don’t like the first adjective but badly miss the second one in modern technologies.