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When driving was fun

Vic Howard

If you are a driver you will know that driving is no longer something you do for the fun of it. That famous line in the Beatles’ song about retirement: "  ... Sunday morning, go for a drive" is no longer applicable to a happy retirement. How did that come about?

When I finished my National Service in 1958 I was in my early twenties with little money and a desire for some adventure yet little idea of how to go about getting it. I was born with a love of boats. Heaven knows why. Nobody in my family ever owned one  and the sea was miles away, but that’s how it was. I suppose I must have been a sailor in an earlier life. I had heard that there was a boat for sale for £75 on a canal in London. It was an old wooden pinace and was moored in a dock somewhere  in the East End. I arranged to go and view it and asked my Dad to take me there in his car. He took one look at the boat, nearly fainted and asked me why I didn’t buy a car instead. "I haven’t the money to buy one" was the simple answer.  "How much would one cost that you would like to own?" he then asked me. "I’ve seen a lovely little sports car for £500," I told him. "OK", he said. "If you don’t buy this boat, I will lend you the money to buy a car, but whatever you  do, DON’T BUY THAT BOAT!"

For the time being, then, my interest in boats suddenly vanished and a few weeks later I became the proud owner of my first car. Fortunately, I had taken the opportunity of learning to drive during my National Service so I was well prepared – or  thought I was – but that’s another story. The important thing is that I was now mobile and could drive around the streets of London and lanes of the countryside whenever I felt like it. I had a good job and was well paid so the loan was  soon paid off and I could easily afford the upkeep and fuel bills. Petrol was about 5/- a gallon at the time, (25p), which sounds pretty cheap, doesn’t it? Was it really though?  Let’s say that the average wage for a man then was about £10  per week. Today petrol costs about £5 on average per gallon and a weekly wage might be about £500. That makes the price of petrol in 1960 more than double the price it is today. You might remember that the next time you complain when filling the  tank. Having said that, I am still amazed every time I pay for petrol and think that I could once have bought a second hand Austin Seven from 1935 for less.

Whenever I see an old British film from the early sixties I am usually amazed at how few cars there were on the roads then. We tend to forget how much fun it was to drive. You could still see policemen on ‘point duty’, standing in the middle  of crossroads directing traffic; and hand signals were still used by drivers to indicate their intentions. This is little more than fifty years ago. Cars did not have supercharged engines or disk brakes and drivers like my Dad tended to keep a decent  distance from the car in front. A normal speed on a main road was about 45 – 50 mph. In fact a common expression at the time for somebody going fast was to say that: "He must have been doing sixty miles an hour!" I have to admit  that I didn’t always keep a decent distance or drive as sedately as my father. I did, unfortunately, make use of the spaces between cars to overtake and particularly enjoyed the road holding of my little wagon that allowed me to accelerate round  cars slowing to enter roundabouts when they had to start braking. I did say that I wasn’t as prepared for driving as I thought I was, didn’t I?

The main joy of driving though was the freedom to travel far and wide. Traffic jams were unusual and confined to holiday weekends. There was only one motorway when I first started driving: the M1 and that stopped at Coventry. A-roads were the main routes.  They had yet to be straightened so still wound around the countryside along routes that had not changed for generations. A trip of a hundred miles provided an interesting panorama of changing countryside and a variety of bends and road surfaces that stopped  you falling asleep at the wheel. Driving was never boring.

One Sunday outing, I and my friend Denis made several times around 1960, was to drive up the M1 as far as Coventry to see how they were getting on with building the new Coventry Cathedral. There was a good view from the motorway as one approached the  city and I was always fascinated by the great maze of scaffolding that filled the space between the two sides of the building. When the place was eventually finished and opened, I have to admit that I thought the scaffolding interior had been far more  interesting than the finished product; but that was then and I was a Philistine. I gradually learned to appreciate some of the artwork, though never fully approved of the alter tapestry by Graham Sutherland.

From Coventry we would drive across to Stratford-on-Avon for a drink at the Mucky Duck and maybe a sandwich lunch; then continue down through the Cotswolds to an old coaching inn at Gloucester called, oddly, the New Inn, though it had one of those courtyards  with balconies that once acted as a theatre space for travelling players; perhaps even for Shakespeare’s own. At the end of the afternoon we would arrive at a favourite Chinese restaurant near Bath in time for dinner before driving home along the  A4 back to Barking. This little outing usually took no more than 12 hours. Just three years later I tried making the same trip to impress a new girlfriend and got no further than North London before giving up in frustration at the dense traffic that had  developed in the intervening years.

A common sight on the country roads of Essex at that time were car rallies. Sometimes they took the form of competitions in which one had to search for clues and answer questions. This activity was short lived, however, because it became a nuisance to  local residents and was also dangerous to traffic. More common was the one-model rally. On one occasion I met an Armstrong Siddley Hurricane dhc on a country lane. This was an unusual model even in those days. It  was that model with a long bonnet, two seats, a soft top and a ‘dickey’ seat in the boot at the back. That car was followed by sixteen others of the same model, but in different colours, that appeared one after another around every bend  in the road. If you drove an unusual car and met a similar one on the road, the drivers would often wave to each other. And AA motorcycle riders always saluted if they saw that you had an AA badge mounted on the front bumper to show you were a member.  Being a car driver then was like belonging to a fraternity.

Little wonder, then, that grey haired wrinklies like me mutter and scowl when faced with the prospect of having to drive anywhere today. We are really counting our blessings for having been so fortunate to have enjoyed the days when driving was fun.

Vic Howard

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