Blog : Learning to drive, 1987 style…

Rover 213: the car Keith Adams learned to drive in

A very scary number hit me today – I’ve been driving for more than 35 years. I guess that, in the grand scheme of things, that’s no big deal, but for me it did come as a bit of a wake-up call, because even now, I really don’t take driving for granted, and still pinch myself that they let me take a vehicle out on to the King’s Highway unaccompanied.

I know I recently had a bit of a moment, where I stated that I was rapidly falling out of love with driving – truth be told, though, that’s a side effect of me just pounding the motorway simply getting from A to B, instead of getting out more often and simply driving for pleasure. In reality, I don’t know what I’d do without my car (whatever it is), and I couldn’t imagine life without my key to freedom, and my little four-wheeled metal, glass and plastic box.

I think it’s fair to say that life on the road has changed somewhat since those early days for me back in the late 1980s. Cars are bigger, heavier and packed with tech we could have only dreamed about back then, and there are a damned sight more of them on the road now. According to the RAC Foundation, it’s 33.2 million now, compared with around 22 million when I picked up my provisional licence back in May 1987. That’s a big, big difference.

Although we moan about the sheer volume of hulking SUVs on the roads today, most driving instructor’s cars are still superminis, with the Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris and Vauxhall Corsa proving extremely popular. Back in 1987, these were the ubiquitous BSM-spec Austin Metro, Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall Nova – sometimes with a five-speed ‘box, if you were lucky.

That’s probably why I learned to drive in a Rover 213S. I remember being a frustrated pedestrian during the spring of 1987 and, as I contemplated what I’d learn to drive in, I’d cast my eye at all of the instructors’ cars I spotted bimbling around Blackpool at 29.9mph. And for me, there was only one stood out in a sea of superminis – Pete Whiteside and his red SD3-generation Rover 200.

Weeks before my pink paper provisional licence turned up in the post, I called up Pete and asked if I could book a special  ‘double lesson’ for £16 (standard rate £8.50 per hour) for my birthday, coming up on 18 May. I’d not driven before, and I definitely wanted to be on my way before the end of my first lesson – I mean how difficult could it be?

When the day finally came, I was beside myself with excitement – and, at precisely 10.00am, the red Rover pulled up smoothly outside my mum’s house. I remember bounding out of the house and to his car, where he was sat in the driver’s seat… Disappointed, I walked round to the passenger seat and climbed in. He introduced himself, we got chatting, and I quickly got to why I chose him – because he had the best car.

Smiling, he drove to a quiet road near Blackpool’s Stanley Park, and proceeded to teach me to drive. By the end of the lesson, I was indeed driving the Rover 213, and although I’d yet to master the subtleties of clutch control and smooth steering. It genuinely felt like I’d gone through a rite of passage.

By August, and with a bunch of lessons taken I sat my driving test (no theory or hazard perception test back then) and passed it first time. I’d love to tell you something funny or scary had happened along the way, but it really didn’t. I got in, drove, and on a sunny summer’s morning, once the formalities were done, I began my driving odyssey.

My memories of the Rover 213 are therefore happy ones. The car was smooth and easy to drive, and it had an engine that ran like a Swiss watch. Compared with the 1980 Toyota Corolla that stood in on one lesson (due to the Rover being in for a service), it really was a small, luxury car.

Looking back now, I find it astonishing that during my subsequent driving career, I’ve never owned an SD3-generation Rover 200 despite having a huge fondness for them. Yes, I’ve had three Triumph Acclaims and countless Rover R8s, but never an SD3 – and I really must do something about that.

At a dinner conversation the other evening, I asked the question, ‘what car did you learn to drive in?’ There were some interesting and amusing replies, including Mike Humble’s well-polished story about his Austin Metro driving test misadventure (read it if you want a laugh) and Barrie Wills’ exploits in an Austin 10.

I know this – my own (incident free) experiences helped set me on a Rover-themed path. But how about you? What did you learn to drive in, and did this influence the rest of your driving career? Let me know in the comments, as I’d love to follow-up this story.

Oh… before I go. Apologies to regular readers who might be wondering why the site’s not been properly updated in the past two or three weeks. I’ve been busy moving house, which seems to have taken all of my spare time and energy. But I’m over it now, with just a chunk of my library left to unpack (why so many books?) – but the good news is that I’ve returned to Lancashire after being away since 1998, and am making myself at home up North once again.

The new place has loads of room for cars (probably bad for my wallet), which is good, but the downside is that there may well be lots of introspective, nostalgia stories like this one, as I go revisiting all of my old haunts. Apologies if that proves to be the case!

Rover 213

Keith Adams
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42 Comments

  1. I learned to drive in a Mark 3 Ford Fiesta 1.8L, almost impossible to stall, had a five speed transmission to reduce the engine noise, but a sluggish car ideally suited to a driving school. Driving instructor, the late John Jones, swore by diesel Fiestas, being an early convert in 1985, as they were very economical, cheap to maintain and had a sturdy transmission. His first car as a driving instructor was a 1.3 litre Marina that chewed its gearbox after 10,000 miles and he went over to Ford as they had much stronger transmissions.

  2. Learned in 1987 in a Micra. Passed 1st time and got back to the garage I worked and the owner waiting. He gave me some keys and told me to deliver a car to shepton mallet about 20 miles away. The car was a 1983 jaguar xj6 4.2 sovereign. Was quite scary as he hadn’t told me not to use the clutch foot for the brake!

    • That was a massive vote of confidence from your employer. He must’ve really trusted you. I never did drive anything that powerful!

  3. It was in 1990 when I learnt to drive and the chosen car was an Austin Metro City X finished in Azure Blue. I chose Paul and his Metro as I was an ARG fan and also because I didn’t like the alternative instructors and their cars – a mid spec Ford Fiesta owned by Peter who was heavily into football (so we would not have got on), and Dave who had a Peugeot and a liking for driving down country lanes (although I think I would have been safe).

    So, despite everyone thinking I was a snob for not wanting to drive a Ford, it was Paul who taught me in his Metro complete with optional pop-up glass sunroof! I found the gear change ponderous and I usually struggled changing from 2nd to 3rd gear because of its dog-leg action, resulting in some very strange mechanical sounds being created. Then, when I was practising emergency stops for my test, my size 11 would nearly always hit both the accelerator and brake pedals at the same time, bringing the Metro to an abrupt stop with a shrieking A Series engine that caused old ladies in Exmouth to look around in horror.

    I took my test in Exmouth in a brand-new Henley Blue example and the test went okay enough for me to pass. I then had the joy of occasionally driving my mum’s three-year-old MG Maestro EFi, which was fun to drive and resulted in me eventually getting my own example. That said, it took a further year of driving post-driving test before I was told to explore its extra gear (fifth) and a further two years before I ventured onto a motorway.

    At the time of learning to drive I always fancied an SD3 Rover 200 Series (or the “compact Rover” as I liked to refer to it as) as my first car, but it ultimately never happened.

    Looking back, I often wonder what happened to those old ladies I frightened during my learning phase.

  4. In 97, a nasty 1.0 Vauxhall Corsa horrid nasty and cheap feeling. I failed my first test as I had not observed the driver coming around the roundabout, I had he had his indicator on to come off and then continued behind me around the roundabout again! Passed on my second time, though I thought I had failed. In loverly Southend (it was back then!), in Carlton Avenue I was asked to reverse around the corner. Well Carlton Avenue is a local rat run, and back then a local bus route. I started and stopped about 30 times because of traffic and ended up about 2 foot out from the curb. When we got back to the test centre and he said I passed, I asked him what about the reverse around the corner, to which he replied I don’t think I would have been much closer with all that stop and starting!

    Anyway, I got my manky first Fiesta, which compared to the Corsa was a joy to drive (even at 18 years old) but my Dad was slways adamant that the Corsa can’t be that bad. Well shortly afterwards some idiot drove into the side of his Sierra, and he was given an insurance replacement, A 1.0 Corsa. He then realised how bad it was!

  5. I learned in the mid 1970s in a Hillman Avenger. I’d not driven anything at all until that, so I had no idea how it compared to the rest of the world. Looking back now it was a pretty decent car; I’ve since been in much worse.

    That Avenger is still the best car I’ve ever driven for heel-and-toe gear changing.

  6. Mk2 Escort in 1980/81. I chose my instructor because he’d taught a school friend. The car didn’t influence my decision in any way. I had a weekly lesson and was initially supposed to practice with my dad in the time between. My instructor soon decided that driving dad’s FE VX2300 was impacting my driving of the Escort negatively and told me to stop practicing. Passed first time though. I still see my instructor out and about on the roads. He uses a Golf these days.

  7. Failed my first test in an Avenger and passed second time in a silver Viva HC. My first car was a Mini, but second one owned was another Viva HC (good memories). By the way, the photos of that red R200 SD3 look good – even 35 years on.

  8. Failed my first test in an Avenger and passed second time in a silver Viva HC. My first car was a Mini, but second one owned was another Viva HC (good memories). By the way, the photos of that red R200 SD3 look good – even 35 years on.

  9. As my dad had one, I asked about the school’s Fiesta. Long waiting list. In 1982, Mini instantly available. First car 57 Austin A35. In a 5 year period when I rarely drove, had a few miles in an SD3, in which I was a very regular passenger. Really liked it!

  10. I passed my car driving test (on the second go) in Herne Bay in a 1995 Nissan Sunny ‘Sequel’ in September of that year. It had a really good CD player, on which my instructor played Music Box by Mariah Carey when he drove me back home after I’d passed.

  11. Indeed, 35th anniversary of my driving license was just a few days ago.

    1987 most learners would have had a Golf Diesel – as it was common from mid 70s to well into the 2010s. Seeing something else was actually a real rarity. My teacher turned up in a rather nice BMW 324d – power steering, 6-cylinder, 5-speed gearbox – a proper car. At the time we had to do at least 10 hours driving lessons, including some at night, some out of town and two on the Autobahn. So typically it was between 15 and 20 hours before we could even think of registering for theoretical and practical test… I did reasonably well with 13 hours only, certainly thanks to the good instructor.

    Although the BMW was certainly nice and allowed to quietly glide along the motorway at over 90mph (yes, including the ‘driving school’ sign) – it had no significant influence on my selection of cars later in life. The first car to drive for me after haven the license in hand was our nearly new MG Maestro EFi. The Austin 1800 S followed after I gained a little more experience.

    Of course I do remember that metallic grey E30 with its chrome bumpers well enough, including the electric mirror on the passenger side – helping me on parallel parking…

  12. Learned to drive in 1988 in a white E reg MG Metro, to an 18 year old Austin Rover fan it was wonderful. The biggest memory however was the instructor chain smoking cigars, oh how times have changed!

  13. I feel ancient reading this feature. I learnt to drive in 1962 in a Wolseley 1500. As I grew up on a farm and had learnt the basics driving a Land Rover, my instructor taught me how to double de-clutch during my first lesson. I passed my test after eight hours tuition, and my first car was a 1958 Ford Prefect 100E.I since went on to obtain a HGV class one license.

  14. Took the test in my own Triumph 1300, failed the highway code bit put passed the test first time round at 17 years and 4 months old 🙂
    My mum said I would be too nervous and over excited to drive myself home but after she stalled it twice leaving the test centre I took over lol.
    Nearly 42 years since I passed my test and it still feels like yesterday.

  15. Here’s a rare one for the list:
    I learned my mum’s 1989 Subaru Justy mk1 (facelift). It was a lovely little car with pokey 3 cylinder engine, good handling and 4 wheel drive activated by a red button on the gear stick!
    I loved it!

  16. I learned to drive at a similar time, after turning 17 in late 1986.

    My first lessons were in an Austin Metro 1.0, but after that got written off (not by me!) the instructor got a Mk 3 Escort 1.3, which I failed my first test in.

    After another really annoying near miss failure, I passed 3rd time in my father’s Austin Maestro 1.6L (S series).

  17. BSM Metro 1.0L for me. Passed in Oct 1987 two months after my 17th birthday.

    In the year or so before that my Dad would let me drive his mk1 Cavalier around car parks of closed shops on Sundays (remember Sunday closing?) so I didn’t have to learn the basics of clutch control, gears (up to 2nd :)) and steering. I had quite decent knowledge of the rules of the road too, from a few years of cycling everywhere.

    Sadly after I passed my test it was over six months before I bought my first car, a J-reg Viva HC that was very nearly as old as me, but much rustier.

  18. I learned to drive in the early nineties and apart from diesel Fiestas, other popular driving school cars were Rover Metros( either 1.1 petrol or 1.4 diesel), diesel Peugeot 205s and 1.2 litre Vauxhall Novas. It seemed the instructors wanted familiarity with their cars( Fords being everywhere at the time) and most were moving over to diesels due to the economy and lower chance of stalling.

  19. Passed my test 1976 first time! Learned in a varity of cars. Driving instructor had a Austin 1100 My dad had a 2.5 Ford Granada estate (Actually badged as a Consul) Took my test in my mums Mini Clubman estate. My first car was a 1968 Vauxhall Viva HB

  20. Originally started to learn in driving instructor’s Datsun 140J Violet – poor visibility, little sense of feel and usually after school in the dark. Failed first time reversing around a corner on a slope. Took second test in my Dad’s Wolseley Hornet – much easier car to drive – and passed. I don’t think he ever noticed that I backed it into a wall at his place of work while returning it straight afterwards, scraping the bumper overriders…

    • The Datsun 140J saloon & 160 SSS coupe are just about forgotten now. Boxy with a 1397cc 70bhp engine (saloon). There were less of these on UK roads than the Cherry & Sunny. I believe their replacement was the Stanza.

      • @ HIlton D, also called the Violet, these were intended for buyers who wanted something bigger than the Sunny, but couldn’t afford a Bluebird. I do remember the 140J/ Violet having more external brightwork than a Sunny and four headlamps ( a sign a car was more upmarket in the late seventies). Also the seats were finished in a higher standard of fabric like a velour. Not a bad car, but like most seventies Datsuns merely a reliable way to get from A to B and soon forgotten.

  21. Interesting that the UK car pool has increased by around 50% over the period from 1987. Back then was the era of Chris Reas Road to Hell and everyone bemoaned the congestion, particularly on motorways. I do wonder that although there are more cars registered they are being used less? – Business drivers that made up the bulk of the motorway traffic back then have splintered – Sales reps being made redundant by web sites whilst others gravitating to tapping on their laptops and jabbering on their mobiles in second class until more recently taking refuge at home on Teams and Zoom.

  22. @ Paul, the main growth has been in second and third cars, with the number of households owning at least one car or van growing more slowly. I notice in more affluent areas, car drives having to be widened to accomodate more cars and even then, there isn’t enough space to accomodate the cars.
    Regarding sales reps, these aren’t so common now, but there are far more self employed people with vans and cars.

    • It doesn’t help that people don’t use a garage these days to put the car away, most are full or rubbish or been converted into rooms. My dad always put his car in the garage to make sure it was safe and secure.

  23. Australia calling. I learnt in a 1969 Ford Falcon – 3.1 litre six, 3 speed all-synchro manual (this was significant, as it turned out!), heavy non-power steering with about five turns lock to lock. Yes it was crude, and most driving school cars were smaller, but it was a more modern version of the family car I’d be driving, so it made sense to me.
    I failed the reverse parking first time (downside of doing the test in a big car), and lost my nerve. Got it on a second attempt – even though the test course I got drew that time had me dodging lorries and semi-trailers around the docks, instead of dodging homicidal taxi drivers in the city centre.
    But, I soon learnt what synchromesh did. Dad’s car had no synchro on first. He came out to watch his oh-so-proud newly-licensed son drive around the block. At the first left hander I slowed right down and went to slip into first for the corner – oh dear! Horrible sounds of mechanical torture. No wonder Dad drove it like a two-speed and relied on the engine’s torque (his was a 3.3) for slow corners. Live and learn!
    BTW, is anyone else having trouble remebering to say ‘King’s English’ these days? 🙂

  24. A Nova Antibes was the car I passed my test first time in, though I had lesson in a MK3 Escort before that. I had chosen the instructor because the other driving school in town only used Minis.
    I remember the Nova having what felt like a terrible gearshift compared to the Escort, which rather put me off Vauxhalls.

  25. Well, I partly learnt to drive in an Austin Ambassador, that, and a Nissan Micra K10, and then my first car a Renault 5. I finally passed my test (3rd attempt) in a Fiesta mk3. But, the Ambassador was a trial – the gear change was dreadful, and I kept changing from 4th to 1st when trying to find 3rd!

  26. I first learned in a 1934 Morris 8 , and then, more prosaically in a 1957 Vauxhall Victor and passed my test in a 1960 Hillman Minx

  27. I learnt in a Triumph Toledo in 1983 and my first car was my dads old marina coupe 1.8 1971 model that had a dodgy 3rd gear so most of the time you had to go from 2nd to 4th.
    Traded that in the following year for a 1.3 Allegro with a dodgy petrol gauge

  28. @ Craig, speaking of dodgy petrol gauges, my first car was a Mark 2 Cavalier with a broken petrol gauge. For a couple of months, I filled the tank every 250 miles, so I knew the car wouldn’t run out of petrol, until I decided to get a second hand float unit from a scrapyard that cured the problem of the non functioning fuel gauge. Mind you, as the car had done over 100,000 miles and was burning oil, it paid more to carry a full container of oil as it would need refilling every 400 miles.

  29. I learned in 1970-71, first on a Morris 1100 with no synchro on first and dire warnings not to change into first while moving, followed by a 1300 all-synchro where the instruction was to change into first before the car was stationary. This was about the time when instructors were transitioning to Japanese cars because of their build quality and reliability and with instructors being what we now call influencers, ever sale to an instructor probably resulted in another 20.

  30. Growing up in a rural district I got to learn a lot about driving at the wheel of various tractors, Land Rovers and MOT failure farm hacks – driving an Austin Westminster on bald crossplies across wet grass teaches you good skid control.

    First on-road L-plate action was in parental cars, 2.5 Grenada, Cortina 2000E, 4.2 XJ6, all automatic.

    But I wanted a manual licence, so after a quick chat with a relative I did a bit of practice in her Escort 1600 Ghia, in which I then took my test.

    I found the Escort horribly small and difficult to place properly on the road compared to the others. No power steering either. Still, I had strong arms from driving the Land Rover.

    Having learned on big cars the first time I got to drive an 850 Mini I was absolutely terrified. Big cars are great for beginners though.

  31. I too learned in a Metro – 1984. I’d bought a bright Carrobean blue hillman imp as my first car as it was laid up and needed work. My brother was a mechanic so we worked the MOT skinks out and. Then the 850cc head gasket went. We swapped the engine from a damaged stiletto so I got the 998cc and vented blending cover. Practised in that driving all over the place with quite a bit of dual carriageway from Tonbridge to Norwich.

    Took me three attempts – mainly nit looking in the mirror because I didn’t love my head, I just looked. So made it obvious 3rd time, but also totally forgot nerves that time and just took some bloke for a drive. The 10 months of practice paid off.

    Then it was a Dolomite 1850 in black with flared arches and a pink furry dashboard. It was wicked, hilarious to drive in the snow, with headlights that fell out through rust. But it had a rev counter! All it missed was overdrive, and while I can understand saving money on options, it would’ve made a difference in those trawls up the M11/A11.

  32. Engine cover not blending cover and moved my head, not loved (but I do love my head where it is).

  33. I hired a 213S from Bletchley Motor Rentals in 1985 to interview with Lucas Girling (I had written off my Ventora and had no car). I got the job. The car carried the plate 778BMR, they were saving “personal” plates until they got 800s as hire cars.
    Some 6 years later I got to drive my dad’s 216EX on a 125-mile round trip (the 213 was about 250 miles). Both were nice cars but felt a little cramped; but the 216 regularly did over 40mpg. PS learned to drive on Mark 2 Escorts and a Toledo. Hated both.

  34. I can remember when the Mark 2 Escort made up the vast bulk of driving school cars and probably explained why many chose an Escort as their first car. The Escort was a fairly dependable car that in basic form was cheap to buy and easy to maintain, and was a better car than a Mini( that some instructors used at the time) for taking the bumps that could occur with new drivers.
    Come the eighties and with improvements to smaller cars, the Fiesta, Metro and Nova become more popular with driving schools, and the introduction of the diesel Fiesta with 50-60 mpg was a godsend to the driving instructors as it was cheaper to run than petrol cars and far harder to stall. My old instructor was a diesel Fiesta fan until he retired in 2001.

  35. I learned to drive in a 1987 Mitsubishi Colt. It was quiet, easy to drive and all the controls were light and undemanding. It was the perfect car to learn to drive in, and to pass a test in (which I did first time after 18 lessons, no prior experience and no practice in between).

    Ironically, though, it’s precisely the things made the Colt a good car to learn in that I now dislike in a car. Nothing depresses me more than sitting in a bland “white goods” kind of car that is purely designed to go from A to B with minimal fuss and driver enjoyment. It’s probably also why most Japanese cars leave me cold!

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