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