March 2017 - First car before the fast cars.

First car before the fast cars.

I’ve had rather a lot of Italian cars. All Alfa Romeo’s, except for my ancient Fiat that’s served me well for twenty four years. As none of them were ever new, they have caused me a constant irritation that borders on persecution. Humans have to have broad backs. Essential for pushing. Two friends bought Mercedes Benz saloons with that unctuous smell all new cars exude. A back axle and dodgy electronics let them down. It seems we can’t win. Italy, missing il Duce, may have been the first country to recycle old biscuit tins and sundry other cans, and turn them into motor cars. The majority all rusted like the proverbial bucket. Not so my current Fiat. For some unknown reason they decided to galvanize most of the body, and made the rest in plastic. I don’t think they’ve repeated the exercise. It’s the reason the Fiat and I still have a good relationship. I daren’t sell it, not that I could, but it must have frightened the life out of the shareholders.

Back to the Alfa Romeo. Their bodies were always two tone, something and a touch of ginger, which was a shame, as the engine and gear box were some of the sweetest pieces of engineering ever attached to a mass produced car – of which I’ve had a very long list. Two of these were firm favourites with the Italian police, appearing in that iconic film, ‘The Italian Job’. The speedy 1600 Giulia Super model, was apparently the bench mark in its day. One of these boxy bolides brought my wife and I on our first visit to Italy. It blew a head gasket on the Friday afternoon dash down the autostrada out of Milan, fixed in Camucia along with a new valve all for the equivalent of £25. Undoubtably, not any more. I have a soft spot for that particular car which was registered BAN15H – and thus known as Alfie Banish. Not so with the Spyder Veloce, which was a pain in the proverbial. I once, in a first flush of passion, referred to it as the best pair of pyjamas I ever had; an instant romance. It was one of those cars that you can think round corners rather than steer. Our Airedale loved it as she could stick her head over the side, and soak up the ozone. Becoming so addicted to this sport, she had to be fitted with goggles. But the rust bug was everywhere, despite rebuilding the body twice. Finally I called it a day, and sold it to an enthusiast who fancied himself as Dustin Hoffman, though he didn’t look the type to handle Mrs Robinson. That negotiation might have been a mistake. I saw one advertised just recently for £75,000 pounds. I suspect because it’s the only one left!

Cars and I have a long love/hate relationship. Spoilt brat that I was, I had my first set of wheels when I was eighteen. Not two, but four. This dangerous event was occasioned by my family burying itself deep in the Wiltshire countryside with a bus stop about two miles’ distance. My father, whose driving was an alarming event, could be relied upon to get us into the nearest city in the morning and home again in the evening. Weekends were out, Salisbury was out, and my sister and I were marooned with one of my mother’s not very friendly geese being fattened for Christmas dinner. A fantasy if ever there was one. No one had the slightest idea how to kill a goose; especially my mother, who had a slight resemblance to Virginia Woolf, but no other connotation that would be useful. In any case it was a gander. After suffering isolation for a month I protested. My older sister had worked out that boy-friends with motor cars were desirable, and escaped. I, with my occasional rash of pubescent pimples, couldn’t even get a girl-friend, let alone one with a car. My father, seeing the injustice, decided I should have a car of my own. Not a motorcycle, which I rather fancied, because at thirteen I had pinched his friends BSA, and deposited it in the neighbours hedge which turned him dead against me and two wheels. It was another fifteen years before I found myself on a Norton Atlas. It was a little vicious. My daughter who was not used to such things, knew nothing of Newton’s Second Law regarding the net result of all forces acting upon an object, namely acceleration, and found herself sitting on the road!

I was not going to get a new car, of course, but in those days you could get a perfectly good runner for twenty five pounds, and the state turned a blind eye to the good runner that wasn’t a good stopper. Anyway, my father knew someone who knew someone, who had such an item that hadn’t turned a wheel since it was garaged at the outbreak of the last war. Apparently it was only five years old when it had gone up on the blocks. The mileometer said three thousand miles, which I suppose might be right given the circumstances, but the leather seats were a bit scruffy so I wasn’t altogether convinced. But it had this one undeniable attraction which set aside all others, it was a convertible. This desirable feature came in the form of a rare four door tourer made by Austin, a 10-4, with a face full of instruments, and a steering wheel as thick as a Cumberland sausage. The number plate wasn’t particularly attractive, being of the Virginia Woolf syndrome - PO 222 - and four seats were disappointing, given my sister’s beau had a Jaguar XK120 – white like the one in the photo’s. Never mind, the Austin with four seats was better than the local Bedford Duple coach with thirty. Like my libido, the maximum speed was fifty miles an hour, just about fast enough to keep me ahead of a Bristol double decker omnibus. The only place I could overtake them was on the straights after a golf course on the Amesbury road. The village, you’ll remember, where Guinevere had her contretemps with a well. It had a down hill run after an old conning-tower, called in my day the Highpost Hotel, which made this adventure possible, and fairly exciting. Naturally, like all old cars that are used and abused, it was always going wrong. I took the head off twice, but I never had to take the motor out, a nice little side valve engine of about 1100 cc. One saving grace was its four sparking plugs sticking out of the top, and easy to extract, important when they needed a clean every few days, and sometimes when you were on the road. It’s side windows were works of art because they were pretty abstract, not being a substantial reality, and tended to fall out at fifty miles an hour - if they hadn’t at thirty! This resulted in my always breaking the law, though I was never pulled over. I imagine the constables couldn’t believe I could go that fast.

We finally parted company in what was a very short romance, as they mostly are when you’re eighteen. It was on the self same lonely road, with only the hotel I’ve just recently mentioned, and the odd cottage, in its eight mile length. It was a sort of presage to the spooky wilderness of Salisbury Plain where four thousand year old ghosts were known to have social gatherings, and to keep open house for travellers who’d lost their way.

Taking friends home, living on the very borders of such a place at one o’clock in the morning, is not a sock full of wisdom.

I set out to make the return trip on my own, hood down, a full moon, and a mist rising. The lights on the car were getting dimmer by the metre, and the ammeter was on the wrong side of zero. I doubted I would even make it to the Highpost Hotel, and I didn’t. In the middle of a copse which straddled both sides of the road, the car coughed and spluttered, and gave up trying, with just time to pull into a lay-by. The silence was cold and ominous, the trees eerily silent. I looked under the bonnet, blew on the plugs, pulled a few wires, and ascertained it was the dynamo. New brushes at one o’clock in the morning on Salisbury Plain are difficult to find, let alone a ghost to fit them! These were the days before cell phones, let alone smart phones. When you stopped, you walked.

About to stretch a leg, a pair of lights flickered in the distance behind me. I wondered if the spooks had cars. A large, almost invisible black Humber slid past before coming to a halt. The door opened and a very straight backed sergeant got out. He came back and enquired if I was all right. Before I could answer, a window slid down and a bodiless voice ordered “If he’s broken down, put him in the front seat, and once you’ve dropped me off, take him home.” I climbed in with a sigh of relief, and nearly passed out. An illegal distillery seemed to have been deposited in the back seat. I sat in silence, the sergeant obviously not overjoyed with his extended trip, with only the occasional grunt from the back seat. Later, having deposited the gentleman safely at his front door I discovered that my benefactor was a Major General being ferried from a mess shindig at a garrison somewhere on Salisbury Plain. I suppose they were doing what officers do with not an enemy in sight. Break open another bottle of cognac.

The next day my father ran me out to the car with a tow rope, but it was too late. Shades had released their spirits of darkness, and the Austin was minus two wheels, the battery, and the offending dynamo.

Kissing goodbye to my first car, I was back on the bus!