Learning to drive can happen on many levels. My first insights into the art perhaps came when my folks started buying me those fabulous ‘Matchbox’ cardboard, ‘glue and play’ roadways, with realistic details printed onto them, such as dotted lines and directive markings. Manoeuvring my toy cars and commercials about the printed vistas without clipping kerbs, etc, became something of an art.
Moving on, timewise, the next stage in training was a Matchbox ‘Steer n Go’, a plastic contoured revolving roadway disc with a magnet attached to a spring-loaded arm pressing against the underside. This arm could be moved in an arc by using the dash-mounted steering wheel. Another magnet was supplied to be attached to the underside of the Matchbox car of choice, which was then placed on the roadway under the influence of the magnet below. A turn of the ‘ignition’ key started the disc revolving, with the player now tasked to guide the car along the three-dimensional roadway. A gearshift, in actuality a motor speed changer, gave the ‘Steer n Go’ driver the chance to prove high speed prowess, the objective being to keep the car on the road…well, actually, connected to the magnet below. It was a great game, giving the seven years old me and my chums a taste of good times to come.
Of course, the next step toward piloting a proper, driving car came in the form of ‘Scalextric’ slot racing. Understanding the different characteristics of front and rear wheel driven cars , the influence of speed on cornering and all kinds of other fun, such as a spot of oil on the track, all helped to train the budding driver’s mind in the ways of motorised propulsion.
Riding bicycles throughout Sutton Coldfield’s huge parklands brought the understanding of the relationship between surface and tyre, while cycling proficiency badge training brought about a greater understanding of road users’ regulations and rights.
Charge of the family’s petrol-powered lawnmower gave that first, delicious experience of operating something with an internal combustion engine, followed by a ‘tip-racer’ motorbike, which added the thrill and skill of using gears.
Sister, brother, cousin all had me driving actual cars on private land from the age of twelve upwards, so by the time I hit seventeen I’d been in training for around fifteen and a half years.
My first practice drives out on the roads were under the tutelage of family members, but a block of six ‘official’ driving lessons was booked with local, Mere Green based Rob. On the allotted day, Rob duly turned up in his nearly new, 1981 Austin Metro and, as I resided in a cul-de-sac, the first lesson commenced right outside my front door.
My years of training stood me in good stead, for Rob very soon relaxed and had me driving all over the local area. Before the third lesson, I telephoned Rob to ask if I could use what was soon to become my own car, a 1979 Ford Fiesta Mk1, 1.1L. he was fine with this and, by the time of my fourth lesson, had booked me in for my test. Lessons five and six were on the day of my test, forming a last practice and a mock test, closely followed by the actual test, all of which were done using the Fiesta.
“Mr Townshend, you will need to brush up on your Highway Code” said the examiner. Crestfallen, I awaited the failure notice.
“However, your driving was excellent and so I’m going to award you with a pass. I hope that you don’t become one of those young driving hooligans.”
Jubilant, I dropped Rob back at his base and then set off to pick up my girlfriend. On the way, two small children ran straight out of a private school’s driveway and into the path of my car. An emergency brake application followed by swallowing my heart back down into my chest cavity as the metallic taste of fear dissipated provided me with my first true driving lesson.
Swerving my Fiesta around a pair of crashing cars on M5 was another. Being showered in still-airborne plastic and glass was a lucky escape, but even luckier was the fact that I don’t recall checking in my right-side door mirror to check that the coast was clear for my avoiding manoeuvre, which when made saw me fit into a small, neat gap between two cars speeding down the overtaking lane. Cue that metallic taste once again.
One of many driving lessons I’ve had since then again came at the wheel of the Fiesta. As I pulled up to traffic lights at Bromford Lane, Erdington, Birmingham, one evening in the autumn of 1982, a Reliant Robin pulled up in the lane next to the one that I was occupying. ‘Bloody cheek’ thought I to myself, ‘I’ll see him off.’ The lights changed from red to green, I dropped the clutch and gave the little Ford the beans, only to see the diminutive three-wheeler pull ahead, its tail-lights disappearing into the distance at a speed far greater than I dared to travel at in a built-up area.
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