Very shortly, I’ll be celebrating my ‘second’ 21st. My first 21st celebrated my time spent on this earth. This 21st celebrates my time spent with a full driver’s licence – and what a ball it’s been. As an elder, please allow me the indulgence of reminiscing about my first car and first year of driving.
All through my 16th year on this earth, I literally ticked off each day on my Rover Cars calendar until I could learn to drive. I was exceptionally fortunate in that I was given a car for my 16th birthday. Then, on my 17th birthday and with my first two-hour driving lesson complete, I applied for my driving test.
My test date was an agonising eight weeks hence. This was because people rushed to pass before the dreaded Theory Test came in. Christmas also got in the way. I begrudged all those rushing to pass now who thought they’d fail said test. I fervently believed that, if you really could drive, then you’d have passed as soon as you turned 17 and shouldn’t fear any such assessment.
Do you remember the Theory Test coming in? It was a costly exercise where you had to answer a series of (incorrectly marked as it turned out) questions which then enabled you to proceed to the ‘practical’ test. Pass both of those and then, cruelly, the DVLA ‘rewarded’ you with a severely limited Driver’s Licence compared to those who passed previously. Unfair or what?
Sure enough, I passed first time having sedately trundled around Gateshead’s vast Team Valley Trading Estate in a locally-assembled Nissan Micra belonging to my instructor. Team Valley was a complex serious of factories, retail units and old Tyneside back-to-back housing. In amongst this were railway lines, rivers, roundabouts, dual carriageways and cobbled back-streets. I loved the variety of it all.
My driving instructor dropped me back home where I walked to my lock-up garage, lifted the up-and-over door and looked proudly at my car; My parents had gave me a five-door Austin Metro with the torqueful 1275 A+ engine under that metallic Atlantic Blue bonnet. Low miles, polished to within an inch of its life and fitted with the wonderfully stylish Michelin TDXE ‘run-flat’ tyres (I can still draw the tread pattern today). Nothing in my life would ever match my hope and pride of that day.
Choke out, clutch depressed and a twist of the bendy key allowed the four-star petrol to flow through the SU carb, ignite in that Weslake-designed cylinder head and we were away. First stop, my sixth form college where I collected four mates. Next stop, the Weardale Moors where CAR tested all those supercars to the max. I mean, where else would you go to ‘test’ your first car on wintery Wednesday?
The sheer joy of driving, the romance, the excitement, the unbridled freedom of it all was a fantasy made real. The car itself rewarded like no other. Every action was greeted with a reaction. You got out what you put in, but the reaction to your responses seemed to be magnified by ten in that little car. Steering feel, throttle response, braking retardation, suspension ‘bounce’- they were all new and wonderful sensations.
Sensually, your whole body seemed to be assailed with the feel, the smell, the varying vibrations through feet, arse and hands while your eyes scanned, ears intently listened and your sense of balance reported back. Together, they all tingled and talked and made you feel alive and in command. Driving to experience those sensations fully required immense concentration and, for my first year, I couldn’t have the (single speaker) AM wireless on at all while driving.
Most of all, I lived to corner that car as fast and as fluently as possible. In doing so, I experienced the full garrulity that the little car could offer me. I planned full days out using Phil Llewellyn’s guide to Britain’s best driving roads which had run as a series in CAR Magazine. Brake, blip throttle, change gear, turn wheel, accelerate, repeat, but next time, even faster.
Could such a romantic adventure happen now to those 17 year olds who pass today? I don’t wish to sound like the old fart I am, but probably not. Let’s look at legislation and assume that the 17 year old could afford both a car and the required insurance these days. If that 17 year old gets over 6 points in the first two years, then it’s game over. Six points isn’t a lot when you think about it, so that’s always in the back of your mind, ruining any innocence.
Then there is that legally-enforced gambling called insurance. These days you’re required to have a ‘black box’ in your car to measure your ‘driving style’. It cannot see the fluency with which you just sliced through that apex. It just reads G-force and speed. Never mind that you are on a deserted moorland road with a clear view for a mile and vast soft verges in case of a run-off. It just assumes you are outside a school when it’s home-time. It’s a horrific invasion of personal performance in my opinion. It just sits there waiting to sting you for enjoying yourself.
The Law and the wholesale spying on the populace is also out to get you now. Police cars and vans lurking with cameras, VOSA MPVs, Community Beat Officers with scamera vans, GATSOs, Average Speed Cameras, Traffic light cameras, private security watching empty retail car parks and the like – all with technology to recognise registration plates and get your details from the morally corrupt DVLA.
Even fellow driver’s with dash-cams can also record your every error, even if your youthful reflexes meant there was no danger posed. I know there is no escaping from Big Brother now. I used to naively think of 1984 as the year that the Montego came out and not a text that correctly predicted wholesale spying on the innocent.
Anyway, getting back to cars, I think the late 1980s to mid-90s was the high-water mark for both automotive quality and driving enjoyment. My Metro was well equipped with sound body engineering, sturdy subframes, Hydragas and seemingly little else. But then a friend got an old Fiesta and you realised that the Austin was a real Driver’s Car.
Consider it had electric screen washers, a flick-wipe and twin sun visors up front while, at the back, I had a heated rear screen with a rear wiper – all for my viewing convenience. It had dual circuit (you only appreciate this when a pipe or cylinder bursts, trust me) servo-assisted (an essential driver aid) brakes, which clamped onto vented brake discs (a tad optimistic). It had wide tyres to give sufficient grip when five up and utilising all that stopping power.
These tyres (with generous sidewalls) turned on wishbones at the front and were independently sprung on the back with varying rates of (nitrogen) spring compression. You soon realised that struts didn’t do manual steering any favours as you heaved on a lesser steering wheel and watched the front of the car jack itself up and then back down again… or that a torsion beam back-end with weak dampers is a scary place to be. Austin Rover certainly spoiled me and fellow Metro drivers.
However, even so, all the cars back then offered simplicity and involvement to the benefit of the act of driving. They also allowed a fair degree of tinkering with some basic tools and a Haynes manual. This allowed you to understand your car and learn some mechanical skills. The only possible ending of the man and machine bond was serious structural rot.
Now we have numb e-pas to ruin driving enjoyment, strangled exhausts banishing hardcore choke and carb manipulation. There’s a herd of airbags waiting to be triggered when you get it wrong. Can you still legally use a car when the airbags and seatbelt pre-tensioners have triggered? In the Metro, the closest equivalent were the inertia reel seat belts, which just clicked and reset. And yes, I did bump it as I found both the limit of corning grip and my skills, but it wasn’t written-off, just bashed back into shape.
Then there is an army of sensors just waiting to short-circuit and possibly stop that next MoT pass – that’s assuming they don’t stop your progress first by putting the car into ‘limp-mode’. Fixing an electrical fault is by no means straight forward or cheap and, let’s face it, on cheap old cars, they’re going to be a given. It’s not as satisfying as setting tappets or greasing nipples either. A misfire was an inconvenience, not an act of environmental terrorism.
I am reluctant, but I could concede that standard ABS is sort of a ‘Good Thing’ but, as Issigonis stated, if you give a driver a margin, he will use it. I can still remember that low rumble of hard-pressed brake discs as I panic-stamped on the brake pedal, the feeling of both time and car slowing, but then the sickening realisation as a wheel starts to lock and the rate of deceleration is eased. You know you’re going to take a hit and the only thing that is going to stop is your heart. But then you lift, it grips you’re back on the pedal and you ultimately win this close-run thing. It’s educational in the extreme – your heart is racing and your rectum (…nearly killed him) is pulsating, but man, you did it.
ABS+EBD+anti-dive suspension is a bungee cord with a parachute for a ten foot drop and shouldn’t be an immediate rite of passage. You need to go there to come back to get an idea of what’s sensible and what’s certifiable. I could go on, but the smell of burning oil and uncontrolled emissions is fading from my hairy nostrils now, so I suppose I’d better go and do something productive.
These days, if I’ve not got a heated steering wheel to go with my heated seats, screen and mirrors, then I’m not happy. I consider the act of kicking a clutch, changing gears, switching on lights and wipers to be the very definition of hard work – but then, I’m not as young as I was. I’ve also learned that parking by feel is expensive on body-coloured, impact-absorbing bumpers… I’m no longer a J-turn man but a Parking Assist passenger.