Monday, April 26, 2010

 

Putting Old Cars Through their Paces

I bought my first car from a dealer in Almería. I was eighteen and had recently (that morning, probably) passed the driving test in Huercal Overa. The car was a kind of old Renault van called a 4F with the push-pull gears, but fitted with an Ondine engine rather than the usual 4L couchez-avec egg-beater. This meant that the old girl could thunder along at a rather better speed than suggested by the body and was just the ticket for me. The passenger seat was removable; it merely hooked in at the front, so it offered a rather nasty surprise to anyone sat next to me when I stepped on the brake, but with the seat parked on the tarmac, I had room to stretch out full length on a thin mattress for a snooze. That’s right: my first vehicle was a camper.
I remember belting one day down the wiggly line on the map laughably called a road which connected Mojácar with Murcia and all points north. In those far-off times, roads went through towns, rather than round them, which meant you could stop for a libation every hour or two. Trucks would work their winkers to let you pass. There were no discernable speed limit and no one took any notice of the signs anyway. There were drain-channels across the road which, if hit with sufficient speed, would cause you to leave a dent in your roof as the car dipped and you didn’t. On this occasion I was approaching Murcia at somewhere over a hundred kph when I saw two cops on the side of the road, just at the point where the road itself dropped about six inches and turned into a rutted track. No warning signs, of course. Spoil the fun. There wasn’t time to slow down nor was I inclined to, as the two grinning policemen waved me past, like fans at the track. I think I broke a kind of automotive long-jump record that day.
The car took me to England in about 1972 on an early adventure in my life, the only time I have ever driven from here-to-there, all the way through to Calais and across the channel. Crossing into France caused me some embarrassment as I stopped at the frontier and whipped out my passport at the desk with a merry ‘Bong-jour’ only to see a small package arc across my line of vision. It was a single and rather elderly prophylactic that I had kept in an inner pocket ‘for emergencies’. To my horror, monsieur le flic saw it as well. ‘Is ze engleesh gentleman goin to defloweur one of our fine French beautees?’ he asked kindly, picking it up and returning it to me. Sadly not.
The front axle of my passion-wagon fell off in Norfolk and a mechanic friend of the family told me that it would cost 50 pounds to repair and that the car wasn’t worth it. Yea, right. So, once fixed, and driving back home, again through France and into Spain, the old Renault van proved him wrong. It lasted another couple of years before I sold it to the Bédar town hall.
A few years later, a Spanish friend with an odd sense of humour told our family of how he had just bought a strange foreign car: a brand he couldn’t remember (you could only buy Simcas, Renaults, Citroens and Seats in Spain in those days, peppered vaguely with a few enormous American Dodges and a strange kind of Austin making sure that the British car industry would remain a world power forever). He had left this car, he continued, in Almería, parked on some side-street and the problem was, as he explained to the police, he couldn’t remember where he had left it and, as they attempted to take down some details, he admitted that he had no idea what sort of car it was. Despite this unforgivable lack of crossing one’s tees and dotting one’s ayes, the car was eventually located and returned to its concerned owner… who promptly sold it to my father. It soon became mine. It was a two-tone Karmann Ghia 1500 Special and easily the worst car ever made. It had a rear engine hidden under a false boot and a large and empty space in the front, empty, that is, except for some rust and a sack of cement. Without this aid, the front wheels would lose all contact with the road once you got up to about sixty, which may have helped improve my reaction time and general driving skills but must nevertheless be seen as a major design flaw. Sometime along the way, a school-friend came to stay and asked to borrow the car. He seemed a decent sort, and played a lot of cricket. He wanted to go down to Marbella for some amorous reason. I gave him the keys. I have never heard from him or the car since. I hope he’s all right.
I met my fastest and most terrifying car for the first time when wandering around in Madrid and suddenly saw her sat in the window of a second-hand car studio. This was a red Italian super-car, a 1967 Iso Rivolta with a gigantic American Corvette V8 engine in it, making the car capable of breaking the sound barrier. I was about 30 and in the mood for some muscle and so I bought it from the suspiciously grateful dealer for a million pesetas. The car brought me down to Mojácar in a personal record time, helped by not having any brakes at all. It was quite splendid. It turned out that the car had belonged to a political nutter who had shot some left-wing lawyers dead in a famous attack in Madrid in 1977. He obviously wouldn’t be using it for a while. To give you some idea of how fast this luxury four-seater was, the speedo – while unfortunately broken – went up to 300kph.
But that was then, before they invented air-bags, satellite navigation and eight-track. Today I drive an old Mercedes lovingly made in 1984 which, at a top speed of around 100, is a bit slower than I’ve been used to, but it does mean that the traffic cops and those ugly speed trap gizmos on the motorway will leave me alone as I chug effortlessly past. These days, that’s enough for anyone.

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