Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Cars of Our Youth

My Mini Cooper S outside Stocks, with Annette and a Fiat 2300

Cars played an enormous part in our youth; wanting them, getting them, driving them and looking after them. They probably occupy the same part of boys' minds as ponies do in girls'....

I was incredibly lucky in that I could drive on the farm at Stocks at an early age. I expect I drove cars before tractors, but tractors were an early source of fun and as they were far heavier and more difficult to control, one leaned a lot from them. But when I was about ten, Patrick got an old Willis Jeep which was used to run all over the farm. Naturally, we drove it too and loved it. It was started - as in sporting cars today - by pushing a button on the dashboard. I don't think it even had a key. It had four-wheel drive and heavy-duty tyres which mean it could go anywhere - even straight up Old Winchester Hill or along the muddiest tracks. It was open and had no doors and the windscreen could be laid flat on the bonnet, which made it pretty exhilarating to drive. At night, we used to shoot rabbits from it, driving round the fields and seeing their eyes in the headlights.

Then there were tbe farm cars - mostly Morris or Austin vans or shooting brakes with animal or pheasant feed and bales of hay in the back. I remember that at one time we had seven cars at Stocks, and they were usually full of dogs. I drove them on the fields of course, but even sometimes on the road as the Stocks Lane was pretty quiet and one soon reached the road up to the 'cottages' on the Down which was private and therefore legal for us to drive on.

My first car, on the lane leading up to the cottages - which can be seen in the background

On my 17th birthday my parents were kind enough to surprise me with a car of my own, which they hid on a lawn at the back of the house. It was a Mini van, new, costing in those day £515 (about £8000 today). There were seats in the back, but no windows (as that was cheaper to tax and insure). I loved it of course and quickly passed my test - and later my Advanced Motorists' Test. It gave me great freedom as my parents no longer had to drive me to and pick me up from friends' houses and parties and naturally I lavished much time and not a little money on it.

Fortunately petrol wasn't a problem, as we used the cheap petrol from the farm pump (it attracted lower duty as it was for farm use) and I didn't drink, so there was really no restriction on my driving. I was soon taking the car with Charlie Skipwith and Tony Ashforth to Torquay (where Charlie was working in an hotel), on summer holidays to stay with the Courtaulds in Polzeath and also to Wales, where my brother Fuff and his wife Belinda had bought a farm.

I don't know when the Mini van disappeared, but in my first year at university, I drove a Humber Super Snipe, which was somehow surplus to requirements at Stocks. It was wonderful for transporting large numbers of friends around but it of course I wanted something a bit sportier, and my parents were kind enough to get me a Mini Coper S. It came from the famous race car garage of Jan Oder - Janspeed - at Downton near Salisbury. [Click here for the fascinating story of Downtown Engineering and Janspeed]. I had a 1100cc 'S' - an unusual engine size developed by the firm. I remember racing Nick Duke and Charlie Skipwith (in Nick's hot 1500cc Anglia) back from Downton in it. It was originally green with a white top, but I had it resprayed white with a black top. My mother kindly gave me a special racing seat to put in it, and much time was spent at Laddie Taylor's Garage in Droxford where Graham the mechanic was induced to coax the last drop of power out of it. It was this car that I up and down to and from London when I was at university and which took me to the White Horse during the holidays, with an early portable 45rpm record player on the back seat. I even did some light rally driving in it and entered a Brands Hatch open day when one could drive round the racetrack and frighten oneself on the corners.

Nick Duke had his hot 1500cc Anglia and, when he was lucky, he could also drive his father's Aston Martin DB5 Vantage. Amazingly, I used to drive it quite often as well, and once even drove it up to London and back. Charlie Skipwith had a 1500cc Wolsley; quite a quick car, but he stuck white racing decals on the side which tended to attract the attention of the local police. We called it the 'racing sheep'. Nick then graduated to a Triumph Stag and a Reliant Scimitar, while Charlie, after borrowing his mother's lovely yellow drophead Ford Consul (which he managed to get stuck on top of a silage heap at Belin Wallis's farm), had a Lotus Cortina (sadly stolen from outside Shouldham St one night) and a Marcos.

I had a couple of non-serious accidents in the Mini Cooper; one in Florence where it was hit by an even smaller Fiat, and one in Queen's Gate, and once I had to be towed out of a ditch beside the road at Baddersley when I went to sleep after playing Scalextric all night with Charlie Skipwith and Tony Ashforth. Fortunately I avoided the Itchen, flowing fast along the other side of the road....There was also a bicyclist who ran into it when I edged forward at a traffic lights in Windsor and cut his knee. That time I was accompanied by Frances Duke and we helped the man home, only to have the police become involved because I had 'left the scene of an accident'. However in the early years I was never stopped for speeding and had a clean record (apart from the Windsor accident) right up until my first speeding ticket from a camera in about 2002.

After the Mini Cooper, I had an Austin 1800 - known as the 'landcrab' because it was almost as wide as it was long. Actually a friendly and practical car, it had front-wheel drive and a 'bench' front seat and could carry a lot of people comfortably.

When I got engaged to Prue, it was time to get something a bit more sporting again and we bought Cilla Clemson's Alfa Romeo Spider, a lovely white drophead 'Graduate' model with a superb exhaust note and an eight track tape player. This lasted us very well until we were married and used to borrow Mel Watson's Rover 3500 V8 which he left in England. Thereafter we got first a BMW 2002tii and then a more family-sized 2500, which, when we sold it, ended up on Fuff's farm in Wales with one of his girlfriends.

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