Header image, credit James Taylor)
Growing up in The Sixties and through the early to mid-Seventies, having a family car was more of a luxury than the virtual necessity it’s become these days. Can you imagine, then, the excitement I felt as a seven-year old, when my dad shelled out (he reckons) no more than forty pounds for a second hand Hillman Californian, back in 1965?
I’m no Jeremy Clarkson, or James May or even that other bloke – all I know is it was two-tone green, had five wheels (yes it did – I’m counting the steering wheel) and having now looked it up, was technically a 1953 Hillman Minx Mk VIII Californian. (Like the one above.)
So, it was possibly about twelve years old when we got it. Way to go, Dad!
Hey – I’m not complaining. It may have been a bit rickety and perhaps not the most dependable, but it did allow us to get away on holidays – rather surprisingly as far away as Littlehampton in Sussex, though that did entail at least one overnight stop, two doses of Avomine travel sickness tablets, four loaves of bread and three jars of Heinz Sandwich spread.
“Are we there yet?”
As I recall, we ran this car for a good few years – even when my sister and I were told not to put our feet on the rusted floor for fear of falling through. Dad eventually called time on the Californian when he parked up one evening, pulled on the handbrake, and it came away in his hand.
Our next two cars were also bought second hand. The first was a blue and white Ford Cortina (Mk 1, apparently) with the registration number, BYS 616C. A few years later, and we’d upgraded to a sort of beige coloured Ford Corsair – registration KUS 72E.
I think these particular ‘reggies’ stick in my mind because together with the other kids in my street, I used to keep a notebook with a record of all the plates I saw! Like sad little wannabe traffic wardens, we’d walk round by where we lived and fastidiously note down the registration numbers with the make and model of all the cars we saw.
Don’t laugh – it was a proper ‘thing’ back in the day. Granted, we maybe we took it a tad too far, but there were actually books that would help identify the makes and models we spotted.
Fortunately, I managed to kick that habit in the early Seventies before there was ever a chance of being dragged into the dark and murky world of plane spotting.
By now, my uncle was working as an accountant for Ford Motor Company and so could supply my parents with a steady stream of Cortinas, Granadas and the like, all at super-knocked down prices. We were very lucky.
Luckier still, when in the middle of the decade, my dad qualified for a company car. This meant the family budget could extend to a second car – one for my mum’s exclusive use. Ha Ha! Like it was ever going to work like that.
This was indeed an exciting development. I had just turned seventeen and was now of age to slap these big red, ‘L’ lettered plates on the bumpers of a car and take to the road. I’d seen those American ‘teen movies’ where to the soundtrack of late-Fifties Rock ‘n’ Roll, the local lads with big, flash cars were idolised by attractive girls in brightly coloured swing skirts.
Sadly there weren’t many ice-cream parlours in my area and even less Drive-In Movie lots, but I still I had visions of cruising the not-so-mean streets of suburban Bearsden in a fancy-dan, shiny, ‘chick-magnet.’ The trouble was, a classic T-Bird 1948 convertible far outreached my budget, and the car I had ready access to was …my mum’s red Fiat 126!
Hey! Check me out!
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. I had to pass my driving test first, and that proved a little problematic. I sat the exam at my local test centre – Anniesland, Glasgow. Typical of my luck, the examiner was the one with the reputation for failing young drivers as a matter of course. True to form, after giving way to a corporation bus which had encroached onto my side of the road, I bombed. (Apparently, I showed undue consideration and should have carried on. Oh yeah?)
It would be another few months before I could re-sit.
Not to worry. I was young for my school year (August birthday) and many of my pals had already passed their test and now drove around in their parents’ cars, or even their own. One had an unreliable Ford Capri and another in my close circle had a dark green, Morris 1100. It had more room in the back than the Capri and wasn’t quite so prone to petty malfunctions. Despite it looking decidedly less cool than the metallic-bronze coloured Ford, the owner was pleased that his ‘baby’ was preferred as the communal carrier.
This owner, who shall remain nameless, was not one famed for being outrageous or troublesome in any shape or form in school. Just a decent, ordinary geezer. But behind the wheel of his car, he was a raging lunatic! A real cretin, in fact!
For instance, one school lunch-hour, six of us piled into this four-seater of his. That was bad enough, but he then proudly announced he was going to take a high speed run through a crossroads without either slowing or looking.
The moron did it too.
I fair near wet myself. I wasn’t the only one, either.
He promised faithfully never to do anything so stupid ever again.
Some weeks later, two others and I fancied dogging off Maths class went a spin in his car again – ‘spin’ being the operative word.’
Heading out into the countryside he sped over a blind hump / bend combination, only to see a large truck approach from the other direction. Taking urgent evasive action he swerved to the left, clipping the roadside embankment. The car spun violently round, fortunately missing the passing lorry, but catching the opposite verge, putting the car momentarily onto two wheels, before coming to a rocking rest spread across both sides of the road.
The truck driver didn’t stop, perhaps oblivious to the near catastrophe, though more likely not wanting to get caught up in matters entirely not his fault.
The four of us were a gibbering mess. Even our erstwhile stupidly bold and wreckless driver was shaking uncontrollably. He parked the car up at the side of the road and after several minutes’ partial recovery, we unanimously agreed that what was left of double Maths wasn’t such a bad option after all.
A much slower and sensible drive back to school afforded some time to cobble together a feeble excuse about the car breaking down, resulting in our being late to class. We thought the day couldn’t get much worse. We were wrong.
Our regular, soft-touch maths teacher was ill that day and the Deputy Head, who had a fearsome a reputation for discipline, was standing in.
“Where have you boys been? You’ve missed half the lesson. Are you all right? You look white as sheets.”
Mr Wilson? Compassionate?
Nah – it was only a momentary slip of his guard.
“Sir – we were just …”
“I’m not interested in excuses Jackson! The four of you – my office after class.”
All things considered, two of the belt was an infinitely better fate than the possible alternative we had face a couple of hours earlier.
I really had to pass my Driving Test and at least be in control of my own destiny.
I could get out and about ok – I had ‘wheels’ in the form of my Suzuki TS125 motorbike. However, asking a girl on a date, then requesting she pull a crash-helmet over her beautifully coiffured barnet is probably not going to lead to a long-term relationship. It also rains a lot in Glasgow. A motorbike ride in the rain is hardly going to impress.
I did, then eventually pass my Driving Test in 1977, sitting it this time at a different test centre. I was by now wearing reading glasses as a matter of course but didn’t want to declare this and be bound to carry them with me and wear them whenever driving. So, prior to the test, I memorised the number plates of the cars which I thought could form part of the eyesight test. (The New Seekers were spot on with their assertion of ‘All my life’s a circle.’)
In time, I would buy my own car, but the decade would be turned by then.
And I never did get that 1948 T-Bird convertible.
Fiat 126? Chick-magnet? I’ve seen more effective fridge-magnets.
(Post by Colin ‘Jackie’ Jackson from Glasgow, February 2023)