Friday, 24 December 2010

Origins: My dad buys himself a Christmas present

In the next proper instalment we move to four wheels, so where, one might ask, does this obsession with the internal combustion engine come from?

It is certainly at odds with anything in the way of good environmental practices, and I’m not that good a mechanic, or that good a rider or driver either, to be honest.
But as it is of course traditional these days to blame your parents for pretty much any psychological problems you might have I can honestly say I hold my father entirely responsible for my disease.
Experience of motorcycles in the family included the Coventry Eagle belonging to my uncle which my old man crashed into a wall - Uncle subsequently went on to own a number of BMWs, that were utterly luxurious motorcycles by the standards of the day. A cousin broke his back piling his early Honda Goldwing into a pedestrian barrier in central London.
My grandad had a Lambretta 200 which he and granny went touring on round Scotland and another uncle had a Triumph Bonneville, and later an MG Roadster (he also had an Original Model 50 air rifle, which I thought was cool as hell)

In my childhood, once the old man got driving, we had a motley collection of motorcars.
As a small boy I was driven around in an Austin A40 and an AC 2 litre – which had a wooden chassis – and the enormous pile the old man rented in a decaying part of Birmingham had a coach house big enough to put both in and also housed a rotting Morris Eight that was there when we moved in and which I used as a climbing frame.
Don't get the impression we had any money. This was in the days when you could still rent decaying piles for next to nothing as no-one wanted them, and they hadn't all been turned into luxury homes and flats. 
I found the old place on Google streetview a while back. It was surrounded with horrid nineties pseudo mansions and had a gravel drive. When I lived there the drive was made of old bricks and bits of bombsite, and we lived in two rooms because we couldn't afford to heat around two thirds of it.)
Later he had a Renault 8, and then a Renault 10, which he put through a hedge upside down into a field. Tricky handlers, those rear engined Renaults on icy roads.

A Renault 10 with a definite whiff of Gitanes and black roll neck sweaters

After the Renaults we went to BMC, looked briefly at an Vanden Plas Pincess (a Morris Oxford with very classy  coachwork and a huge 4 litre engine) and he bought a Wolseley 18/85 saloon, more commonly known as the Land Crab, because of its tendency to drift sideways. This much-loved motor had a class - I loved the grey leather seating and the fold down shelves in the back of the seats and the way the Wolesley badge lit up in the middle of the radiator grille. 

The pride of British engineering
In 1973 we started a chain of events that had a formative effect on my motor vehicle ownership in later life.

At the time I was 12, and morphing from short-trousered  child into monosyllabic teenager.

By now the old Wolseley was pretty much on its last legs, so one Saturday morning my father and I climbed into it and drove into the centre of Glasgow. 

Our first stop was a tiny, grimy back street garage run by a small balding dwarf-like man who wore a tie under his overalls and had oily fingerprints on his forehead. He certainly didn’t look like a car salesman and there appeared to be only one car on sale, a fairly new Mini – an unlikely choice for my dad.

But he led us through the workshop to the rear and there he pulled a dust sheet off a shape in the dark corner.

There before me was a vision of loveliness, surpassing anything I had ever seen in my short life.

It was a 1949 Lagonda two and half litre convertible coupe.
How could anyone not want this?

It was burnished gold, and swept dramatically from front headlights to duck tail. It had a tan leather roof that matched the tan leather seats, a polished wooden dash, deep chrome and it smelled of pure class.

It had less than 40,000 miles on the clock. It was of course entirely impractical and I was in love with it – and so was my dad.

The garage owner wanted £700 for it.

My dad said he would have to think some more.

“Beautiful, isn’t it son?” he said as we left, “Of course, your mother would kill me.”

Next stop was a big flashy Ford dealership on the Maryhill Road. There we found a practical vehicle – a red 1.6L Ford Cortina Mk3 estate. 

 fucking horrible

It had black vinyl seats, black plastic trim, a ghastly and tinny chrome radiator grille and was everything hideous there could be in a motor car – especially after the encounter with the Lagonda.

It cost £700. And of course the head ruled the heart and the old man bought it, as it turned out to his eternal regret.

It was uninspiring and broke down all the time. Even though it was only a few years old, bits fell off.

We had owned it for a year or so when the main bearing which ran the drive shaft fell apart – and that was when he cried "enough!".

By now it was nearly Christmas 1974, we had experienced power cuts and miners strikes and petrol had shot up in price from about 30p a gallon to 75p a gallon and all thanks to the Israelis and Arabs. Thank goodness times have changed, huh?

So the old man decided that we needed a new car, and that it should be cheap to run and practical – an estate was a good idea for family holidays, and after his frankly traumatic experience with the Cortina, he wanted something a bit more solid. An economical diesel engine was considered essential too.

The only estate car diesels in the market place were Mercedes or Peugeots. He considered a Peugeot, being impressed by the extra fold up seats in the boot, but rejected it as a bit too French. He was disdainful of Mercedes as having ideas above their station. “You dont see Rolls Royce making estate cars,” he said.

There was one other option that almost fitted the description: a LWB Land Rover Safari Diesel – in the days when Land Rovers were a good deal more agricultural than they are today. Yes dad – that’s a really good idea for commuting daily into the middle of the Scotland’s biggest city.

He phoned around and found one at a big Land Rover specialists near Greenock so he arranged a test drive.

Driving the Cortina, driveshaft and all to the dealers we parked it as far away from the salesman as possible and we hoped they couldn’t hear the dreadful graunching noise.

This was a classy establishment, with carpets in the showroom and restrained and besuited salesmen speaking quietly and urgently to the farmers that made up their clientele. 
And when we went through the doors, there it was in the centre of the floor.

A five year old  XJ6 4.2 Jaguar.

We went over and sat in the Jag.

It had leather and woodwork in spades, Walnut fold down trays in the back of the drivers seats, a built in VHF radio, an eight track tape player under the dash, electric windows and other things to impress the 13 year old me – like two petrol tanks, and two exhausts curving out of the back.
The keys were in it, and he switched it on. A whole Apollo 15's worth of lights shined on the dash.

It also did about 12 miles to the gallon, and had an automatic gearbox and a six cylinder engine with pistons the size of coffee mugs.

It was as far from a Land Rover as it was possible to get.

My dad turned and looked at me.

“What do you think of this, then?” he said.

“Its gorgeous, dad.”

He pressed the button that brought down the drivers window and beckoned the salesman over.

“This Jag,” he said, “I’ll take it.”

I don't think I'd ever seen him so happy.

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