My First Car
This year saw a motoring milestone with the 80th anniversary of the driving test. Introduced on a voluntary basis in March 1935 it became compulsory in June that year. Back then there were 11⁄ million cars on the road,
2 today it’s rather more congested with 32 million! Even though the number of vehicles has increased much of the test remains the same with the hill start, emergency stop, reversing, a three-point turn and questions on the Highway Code, although this is now a separate theory test. There were two occasions when testing was suspended. The first was during the war and then later in the Suez Crisis when examiners were needed to help with fuel rationing.
Many drivers — including some of those featured here — can recall the tension, trauma and, ultimately, the triumph of passing the test. Remember the steely scrutiny of the examiner who barked instructions from the seat beside you, the mirror-signal-manoeuvre mantra and, for those taking the test before 1975, the hand signals? As you gripped the steering wheel in the regulation 10 to 2 position and carefully navigated the test route, all you wanted to hear were the magic words “You’ve passed”, then you could wave goodbye to the L-plates and be on the way to your first car. And with that in mind, here is the latest selection of your motoring memories — look out for more in the winter issue.
P.D. Greenwood, Chorley, Lancashire:
It was June 1970 and I was a 17-yearold apprentice electrician. With my savings I bought my first car for £110. It was a 1962 Triumph Herald 1200, red and white, walnut dash, the bonnet/wings all lifted up together, great access for tinkering. I passed my test a couple of months later. The car was a good little runner for about 10 months then, when the engine warmed up and the speed was above 40 mph, the oil pressure warning light started coming on.
Yes, the engine was worn and needed a big overhaul. Time to get rid!
I advertised the car in the weekly company newspaper for £100, I said it was a bargain. If anyone wanted a test drive on the company’s huge works the maximum speed was 15 mph. A young fellow from the office made contact wanting a test drive in his lunch hour. He needed a replacement for the car he’d blown up a couple of days earlier. The test drive went well, £100 was handed over and both parties were happy. A few weeks later I heard that he’d blown up the Triumph on the very first weekend. He must have gone fast and with the condition the engine was in it couldn’t stand it. I did hear his dad was keen to have a word with me, but somehow he kept missing me!
A.P. Smith, Pulborough, West Sussex:
My sister and I purchased our first car, a brand new Mini Traveller back in 1957, for the sum (I think) of £752. As far as I can remember petrol was 3/10. I had just finished my National Service and my sister was working near to where we lived. She used it for work each day and in the evenings picked me up from the station, after a day working in London.
One of our first holidays was to motor up to Scotland from Surrey. We did the journey in one go, swapping drivers every two hours. We made frequent stops just to “de-numb” our bottoms, as the seats were a bit basic in comfort! We did many holidays, Wales, Devon, Cornwall, and it was a superb little car — it was our pride and joy. We kept it for three or four years then upgraded to a Morris 1100. When you think back to the switch levers for the lights and a pull-out choke, a button on the floor for dipping the headlights, the wood on the bodywork, no radio, no air conditioning, how very basic it was compared with the car I drive today, but you never forget that first car.
Howard & Barbara Pendleton, Point Roberts, Washington, USA:
Our first car was a very used Ford Eight Station Wagon of dubious mileage, costing £25 and resembling a chicken shed on wheels. It needed not only petrol but a constant supply of oil as the worn engine emitted black smoke from burned oil when under stress.
Not lacking in bravado we decided to explore the northern coast of Brittany and booked with Channel Air Bridge. The plane departed from Lympne, in Kent, and had room for three vehicles in the front, accessed by a ramp, and a small cabin for 10 or so people behind. Getting the car into the plane required full throttle and some human assistance.
We drove off happily into Brittany. The car boasted hub caps, but on rough cobbled roads or railway crossings these frequently came off requiring quick stops to retrieve the rolling missiles.
The headlights had been described by a mechanic in England as Butler Lamps. Whoever Butler was his lamps emitted about the same light as a candle! We did not do much driving at night on French roads, but when we did we developed a technique of moving very slowly watching out for animals or pedestrians until a French car came speeding along. When this occurred we speeded up rapidly to follow it until it escaped us and we were reduced to waiting for the next one to come past.
As time went on the battery became less efficient at holding its charge and we took to stopping near the top of a hill, so that we could roll down, engage low gear and hopefully jolt the car into action. On one occasion we reached the town quay by the water’s edge still with no action from the engine!
We returned to England via Southend and soon after arrival encountered a very steep hill which our complaining wagon would not go up. As reverse gear was lower than any forward one, we turned the car and reversed up the remainder of the incline. We sold the wagon a month or so later for £50 after it had been smartened up. Yes, we did tell the next owner of its eccentric antiquity, but he bought it nonetheless.
Derek Scott, Eastbourne, East Sussex:
My first car after National Service was a superb vintage 1937 Morris Eight. “EMMA” as she was affectionately called was bought for £75 in Stockwell, London. From 1953 to 1960 I was teaching at a preparatory school in Moffat, Dumfriesshire, and Emma did the return trip from London to Scotland for 21 terms without breaking down except for the odd puncture.
My route involved leaving London at 6am avoiding any rush hour and heading up the Edgware Road to hit the A5 and A6, no motorways in those days. My main problem was getting over Shap Fell and through the Narrows at Penrith. As each journey was over 300 miles I used to aim at 100 miles every three hours and then a break. Petrol was 2/6 a gallon. Apart from a de-coke and new spark plugs on occasions Emma was very reliable and needed very little maintenance. I’m now 81 and, having motored all my life, I have the fondest memories of Emma.
Geoff Pearce, Watchfield, Oxfordshire:
My first car was a 1933 Jowett four-door saloon, with a fabric-covered body, a central accelerator pedal and a seven-horsepower flat twin-cylinder engine. My father owned it from 1934 and gave it to me in 1949 when I left Sandhurst. I had helped him with its maintenance and repairs, so I knew its workings well. I sold it in 1955 on being posted to Germany and I enclose a 1950 photo of it.
Arnold Wade, Newquay, Cornwall:
In 1963 my wife and I bought a 1934 Austin Ten for £40. No one had any training in vehicle maintenance, but by chatting to friends and colleagues in engineering in Coventry I could repair and maintain everything on the car. The electrical supply was from two six-volt batteries slung under the wooden floorboards below the driver’s seat and access to top up with distilled water was fairly easy. The floorboards were loosely fitted and when it rained our feet got wet.
Punctures were a regular occurrence and mending them was a job at home using tyre levers, but taking great care not to nip the inner tube. It was like mending a puncture on a bicycle, but much more difficult.
The method of indicating your intentions to other drivers was by using hand signals. Before executing a lefthand turn the right arm was extended out of the window and waved in a large anti-clockwise circle while steering the car with the left hand towards the corner. Driving test examiners were keen to see the proper use of hand signals. Concentration on driving while taking the test in the winter was difficult with the window wound down!
Hand signals were superseded by trafficators, which were illuminated arrows about six inches along attached one either side at the top of the door pillars. When energised they would flick up at 90 degrees. Often, when cancelled, they did not return to the vertical position and a smart blow on the door pillar was necessary to encourage them to drop down. Sometimes both trafficators protruded at the same time and the car would fly around a corner with two miniature wings on view.
One journey was from our home in the Midlands to Cardiff to see two aunts. They were keen to visit Caerphilly Mountain, but the car refused to climb a steep gradient. The aunts, sitting on the back seat, were urging the car by pitching forward in unison, but to no avail, the engine was racing but we were stationary. Clearly the clutch was slipping. Just then someone drove down the road, stopped, and pointed out that it got steeper further up. I have yet to see the top of Caerphilly Mountain!
Eventually the Austin had to go in favour of a better model, but despite all its shortcomings a sense of nostalgia remains with a little regret that we could not have kept “her”.
David Luck, Leicester:
My first car caught my eye, and my heart, as it stood gleaming in magnificent British Racing Green in the showroom window. It was a Singer Le Mans, renamed from a Singer Nine, when the model finished 13th at Le Mans. If my memory serves me correctly, the price was £265, which in 1950 was a considerable amount of money. I had recently received a bequest from my late grandfather, which fortunately covered the cost. The purchase was made and CMF 845 became mine.
Many trips were made and admiring glances became commonplace. One fateful day I drove the car to Bournemouth where I met a delightful lady and became so smitten that Leicester to Bournemouth was a regular run for the Singer and me. The outcome was inevitable. To help me set up home with my new love, I sold the car to help with expenses. However, memories never fade and I often wonder what became of CMF 845? Shortly after marrying my Bournemouth Belle, I made this montage of a red Singer Le Mans from a calendar, with a photograph of my Singer, with my wife and I on either side. It had pride of place on one of our landing walls.