As oft mentioned in these tales, I was a foster kid for five days out of seven. Within my birth family I was an only child. Actually, that’s not entirely true, as the main candidate for being my father had at least one other child, or so I’m led to believe. The other candidate had three so genetically I’m not alone, which should one day make interesting reading for someone when their Ancestry.com results land in their inbox, if it hasn’t already.
Right, back to the main topic, within my foster family I acquired two older sisters (17 and 12 years older than me) and one older brother (11 years older). My eldest sister, Isabel, emigrated to Australia in September 1967, aged 20 never having owned a car in the UK and is thus beyond the scope of this ramble, although it’s perhaps worth noting that, on my first visit to her house in Australia, aged 28 and while on tour with my band, that I had to catch a tram from the centre of Melbourne to its outer lying terminus and then wait for Isabel to pick me up in her ailing car, which she had asked me to ‘have a look at’. Once I’d fixed it (nearside front wheel bearing, since you asked) with the tools that she just happened to have borrowed, she drove me back to tram terminus, waved me off and drove away in her now much quieter motor car. It’s lucky that I like trams.
My other sister, Liz, owned a fine range of cars during the 1970s, aiding my descent into fervent classic car enthusiasm, but one of the most memorable journeys of my life was made in a car owned and driven by her friend. My sister’s chum had a son a couple of years my junior. She also owned an NSU Prinz, with rear engine and styling I was rather fond of and it was in this car that we set off for a camping holiday in Wales, in May 1974.
It soon became apparent that not all was well with the car when, after an hour or more into the journey, fourth gear became difficult to obtain slowing our progress somewhat. By the time we arrived at our destination in the rain, it was getting dark and so we found overnight shelter with one of my sister’s friends at their house handily located nearby.
The next day, the Prinz slowly delivered us at the campsite where we set up the tents. Remedy was then sought for the car, but this was not forthcoming, it being rather too late on a Saturday morning to obtain parts combined with the car being altogether too rare.
Over the next couple of days third gear also became unobtainable and so the ensuing journey home was made extremely slowly and very noisily. The final five miles, through Birmingham, were achieved using first gear only, my abiding memory being cars crowding past us as we crawled past Edgbaston cricket ground. The car made only one further journey, to the breakers, a sad end to what was a relatively youthful, ‘G’ registered car.
Back to Liz; she had passed her driving test at the age of 17, in late 1968 and was a driving ‘natural’. In the mid-1970s, her then boyfriend had been knocking about in a black Wolseley 4/44, with a rather puny 1250cc engine and so it was little surprise when she showed up in her ‘new’ chariot, a green, c.1955, Wolseley 15/50, with a bit more ‘poke’. This slightly dilapidated machine I though splendid and delighted in being driven about in it, but it didn’t last long, being replaced by a 1962, rose taupe-coloured Morris Minor, registration number 6709FH. It was in this car under her tutelage that I really learned how to drive, or at least control a car, on the then deserted, disused taxiways and roads of Fradley Airfield, near to Lichfield. The year was 1976 and I was just 12 years old.
The Morris lasted for a couple of years before heading off to the inevitable, being replaced by what was then becoming something of a ‘scene’ car, a 1973 Volkswagen Beetle 1303S. I drove this after I had passed my test and thought it a terrible thing, with pedals coming up through the floor at my size 12 feet. It was, quite simply, uncomfortable. The Beetle hung around for a number of years, being restored partway through its ownership, but less exotic machines and sensibility leached in and my sister gave up on ridiculous machines. My brother, Douglas, had an altogether different experience with cars. For much of the first half of the 1970s, when at home from university, he would grind away the internal components of the family car’s gearbox. He was not naturally at home behind the wheel. Eventually, on his fifth attempt, he passed his driving test, by now being around 24 years of age and so this young management professional went out and bought his first car, a splendid grey, 1967 Triumph Herald, complete with Webasto sunroof. The car was in great order and I assisted in its maintenance as best I could, as I’d had some experience in my cousin’s garage.
Then came the news that Douglas had been involved in an accident. I never knew the full details, suffice to say that it involved the car leaving the road and ending up, and I mean up, in the branches of a tree. Luckily, Douglas escaped with cuts and bruises, amply displayed on his return home for a few days rest and recuperation, but the car was not so lucky. The sunroof had aided his rapid ejection from the car during the incident, but the Herald was a total loss.
His next purchase was a 1965, 1500cc Ford Cortina Mk1, which certainly looked ropey and proved to be rather unreliable. On 23rd December 1978 I was despatched by Midland Red bus to my brother’s place in Tewkesbury. That evening was spent in his local pub with his chums. The folks behind the bar seemed to have no problems in serving me with the rounds I was sent to fetch and pay for, including pints for squeaky-voiced, fresh-faced 14 years old me.
Dropped back at Douglas’ place in a Ford Anglia, the room spinning away, I fell asleep. The following morning, we awoke to the news that my foster dad, his own father, had passed away and so, with tear-streaked faces, we set out for home in the old Cortina, which continuously broke down. The journey took what seemed to be hours, but the car eventually delivered us into what became one of the most miserable periods of our lives, having given us something to take our minds off things in the interim.
The Cortina was deposited in the garage, never to turn another wheel in use, awaiting collection for scrap. My brother inherited the old man’s Ford Escort Mk1, 1300L, TON638N, complete with Dunlop Denovo tyres with ROstyle wheels. Our dad had been the deputy training manager at Fort Dunlop up until his death and the wheels and tyres had been part of an in-house evaluation, but with his passing, they were removed, with standard issue replacements being fitted, making the Sahara beige car look dreadfully ordinary. TON’ lasted in his possession for another three or so years and in it I did an awful lot of my pre-test driving practice.
The Escort was rusting rapidly and so was replaced by a dashing Triumph Dolomite 1850. Rather rapidly, the Triumph revealed itself to have head gasket issues and as I was by then a second year bus engineering apprentice, I was charged with the remedial work alongside my then girlfriend’s father. Man, we struggled to remove the cylinder head, which had corroded solidly onto the studs. Once removed, we found the head so corroded, due to incorrect coolant having been used, that its repair or replacement put the car beyond economical viability. Its replacement was a brand new Talbot Samba, a car now entirely justifiable as a bona-fide classic, but back in 1982, a distinct disappointment.
Marriage ensued for my brother, but despite his wife’s car credentials (she was the niece of BL’s George Turnbull) she took command of the Talbot and Douglas, now with a family in prospect, took delivery of his first company car, an Austin Montego. Oh, how I marvelled at the thinness of the steel panels, my wonder borne out with time at the type’s propensity to rot.
Since the mid-1980s there has been nothing of note in my siblings’ fleets. Being driven by my sister remains a delight, but a trip with Douglas ‘five tests’ at the wheel still sees me searching involuntarily for a passenger-side brake pedal.
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