Giles Coren on fa­thers (him) and sons (Sam, aged four). This month: driven to dis­trac­tion

Esquire (UK) - - Contents -

In his lat­est dis­patch from the driv­ing seat of fa­ther­hood, he pon­ders his son’s love of mo­tors

I am only be­gin­ning to un­der­stand, 10 years af­ter his death, how much my father wanted his re­la­tion­ship with me to be about cars. That is to say, our re­la­tion­ship was partly about cars, but not in the way he would have liked. And so when it comes to my own son, and the way that we talk about cars, I do des­per­ately want to get it right.

Cars were in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to my dad. He was born at a time when, al­though cars were the­o­ret­i­cally more ex­pen­sive than they are to­day, get­ting hold of one and driv­ing it was much eas­ier for a young man that it is now, be­cause the MoT test had not yet been invented. In his first year at univer­sity in 1956, my father, a schol­ar­ship boy on the full gov­ern­ment grant of £300 a year, was able to buy a 1935 Mor­ris Ox­ford with his friend Jon Ray­man for £10, each of them spend­ing roughly a week’s main­te­nance money, which to­day would be around £100.

In 2017, ob­vi­ously, you can­not buy a car fit to pass an MoT for £200. Nor could you for £10 in 1955, but you could buy one that wasn’t and hap­pily drive it around un­til it conked out, at which point, hav­ing very lit­tle money, you poked it about un­til it worked again and then drove it some more. (The Ox­ford, Jon tells me, “could only be started by crank­ing be­cause the starter mo­tor failed early on; there was a nasty cot­ter pin so placed that as the car started, the crank han­dle came free, and you couldn’t help tear­ing your hand on the pin.”)

In do­ing this, my father, and a whole gen­er­a­tion of men, learned not only how to mend a car but pretty much how to strip one down and build it again. And in do­ing that, they de­vel­oped a feel­ing for those ve­hi­cles that was tan­ta­mount to love: in­deed my father was as ap­palled by the in­tru­sive­ness of the MoT, when it came along, as he would have been by a mu­nic­i­pal au­dit that sought to tell him whether or not his wife was fit to keep for another year.

My father talked end­lessly about the cars of his youth: the Wolse­leys and the Alvises, his own father’s eight-seater Armstrong Sid­de­ley, the Austin-Healey 3000 (num­ber plate 800 HOO) that he brought me home in from the hospi­tal and then had to sell when I was big enough to need a seat of my own, some­thing for which he never truly for­gave me, de­spite re­plac­ing it with the only royal blue, right­hand drive Mercedes-Benz 220SE con­vert­ible ever built (he claimed).

Soon af­ter buy­ing that beau­ti­ful car, he man­u­ally al­tered the regis­tra­tion from BEC 21C (in­di­cat­ing a 1965 pur­chase) to BEC 21G (1969) be­cause not only did he care deeply about his car but he cared deeply about what other peo­ple thought about his car. To which end, he never let so much as a scratch re­main on a mo­tor of his for more than an hour. Ev­ery hair­line im­per­fec­tion was T-Cut­ted till it looked like new, ev­ery dent ham­mered out, ev­ery thumb-print pol­ished away.

And then I came along. And I didn’t give a shit. And he didn’t help me to give a shit when it came time for me to learn to drive, by re­fus­ing to let me so much as touch his pre­cious car, by then a red BMW 325i con­vert­ible. There was no bor­row­ing it to take chicks

Un­like my daugh­ter, who learned to read and write early, likes to draw, dance, sing, play mu­sic and cook, all Sam is in­ter­ested in, at go­ing on five

now, is cars

to the drive-in, like in the movies. No male bond­ing of that or­der at all.

In­stead, much wealth­ier than his own father, my dad bought me a 10-year-old ma­roon Ford Es­cort MkII for £800 to learn in (num­ber plate BOY 434T) and I was very grate­ful, of course. But his at­tempts to teach me to drive in it were cat­a­strophic, con­sist­ing of noth­ing but fu­ri­ous in­com­pre­hen­sion that I couldn’t drive al­ready and an in­sis­tence on us­ing the post-war mo­tor­ing ter­mi­nol­ogy of his youth. He’d sit in the pas­sen­ger seat, smok­ing fu­ri­ously and yelling, “Throw out the clutch!” And, “Give her plenty of throt­tle!”

And I’d won­der, “How can you throw out a pedal? What is a throt­tle? Is it that thing my funny lit­tle man from the BSM calls the ‘gas pedal’?”

At ev­ery shanked gear change and stall my old man would yell, “It’s just a case of dis­en­gag­ing the clutch plate from the blah blah blah fuel into the car­bu­ret­tor blah blah mix­ture blah blah ex­plo­sions in the cylin­der blah blah pis­tons blah blah drive­shaft…”

And I’d go, “That’s all very well, Dad, but if it’s so easy then how come you’ve got an au­to­matic?”

This was a touchy area with him be­cause he though au­to­mat­ics were for girls and be­lieved that a car should be driven hard and man­u­ally as if it were only one step up from a horse. And yes, his Beemer was au­to­matic. But he claimed it was what the com­pany car pool sys­tem had landed him with and he drove ev­ery­where with his hand hov­er­ing over the im­po­tent au­to­matic lever like Jackie Ste­wart at Le Mans, as if just about to change one of the non-ex­is­tent man­ual gears, roar­ing off up our quiet sub­ur­ban street at ridicu­lous speeds, with the roof down and three fags in his mouth, cack­ling like Mr Toad…

The first time I pranged the Es­cort, he shouted, “WHYYYY???” And ran out into the road in his dress­ing gown to look at the small dent in the me­tal bumper and all but weep for the dam­age done to its soul. He got in to drive it to the garage to get the mark beaten out and as he fired it up he said, “How long has the en­gine been run­ning on like this?”

Like what?

“Can’t you hear that en­gine note? It’s dieselling!” “Eh?”

“For God’s sake, son, what do they teach you in that posh school? The fuel is ig­nit­ing spon­ta­neously in the com­bus­tion cham­bers with­out a blah blah blah you need to ad­just the blah blah blah, it’s very sim­ple you just blah blah blah… why don’t you take more care?”

He just couldn’t un­der­stand that I didn’t want to tinker, wasn’t cu­ri­ous about how it worked. Failed to grasp that I was the spoilt son of a rich man who got given a car (three cars, in the end, another Ford and then an MGB for my 21st) and just drove it un­til it stopped work­ing and then called the AA, whose di­ag­no­sis was usu­ally that it had run out of petrol.

And the first time I had a re­ally quite big smash, I called to tell him and he said, “Oh my God! In the MG? Is it OK?” And I said, “I’ll tell you when they let me out of hospi­tal.” And he said, “Good, OK, be­cause I can get it booked in for you at that place in Willes­den.”

So I al­ways swore I would try to have a health­ier “car re­la­tion­ship” with any fu­ture son of my own. I’d be cool, toss him the keys of what­ever I was driv­ing when the time came, and never task him with fully com­pre­hend­ing and then ex­plain­ing back to me the work­ings of the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine.

And then Sam (named af­ter his Armstrong Sid­de­ley-driv­ing great-grand­fa­ther) came along. And un­like my daugh­ter, who learned to read and write early, likes to draw, dance, sing, play mu­sic and cook, all Sam is in­ter­ested in, at go­ing on five now, is cars.

He has per­haps 500 of them from mi­nus­cule to al­most fully driv­able. He spends his days cre­at­ing traf­fic jams in the kitchen, watch­ing videos of monster trucks, mo­tor­bike stunts and car crashes. At the lo­cal farm park, while my daugh­ter han­dles chicks and milks goats, Sam drives a small elec­tric tractor round and round a cir­cuit for six hours at a stretch. When it stops, he gets out, sighs, pushes it over to the wall, plugs it back in and tells me, “It’s elec­tric, Dad, we need a petrol one. Ex­cept trac­tors don’t run on petrol, they run on diesel, which is when the fuel vapour ig­nites with­out a spark and means you get to go fur­ther with­out run­ning out and you can put red diesel in it but then you can’t drive it on the road or the po­lice will put you in prison.”

And then we drive home in our old Land Rover De­fender and Sam says, “Dad, what’s this lit­tle ex­tra gear stick over here? Dad, is it al­ways four-wheel-drive or just when you go in mud? Dad, why does it make that hor­ri­ble noise when you change gear? Are you do­ing it wrong? Dad, how come it’s so good at pulling heavy things but doesn’t go very fast?”

And I feel a shame I haven’t felt in 30 years when I tell him, I don’t know. I don’t know any of those things. So I have sworn to try to give Sam the car life my dad wanted to give me. I’ll take him out onto the fields in the De­fender (which he calls “Rosie the Rover”) as soon as he is tall and strong enough to “throw out” the mer­ci­less clutch, and he can be driv­ing it to the lo­cal pub by the time he is 14, and be one of those boys. And when he’s 17, I’ll get him some­thing rusty of his own and he can spend his life un­der­neath it, ig­nor­ing his school­books.

The Coren love of cars has un­ques­tion­ably skipped a gen­er­a­tion and it moves me deeply to see in Sam that ex­cite­ment at the sight, smell and sound of au­to­mo­biles that I never felt my­self. I only wish his grand­fa­ther were around to tell him how they work.

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