My daughter Kat has been putting together some video/photo material for her brother Jamie’s 30th, coming up in early September. Never one to do things by halves, this meant persuading Dad to drive her around all the places we had lived – or that meant a lot – as Jamie grew up.
This leg of the journey meant driving in a 250 mile circle from London to Berkshire, then Hampshire, East & West Sussex and back to London. Not quite Easy Rider, but challenging enough in our congested little country.
So to the big question: which classic car to borrow for this odyssey? My original plan was a TVR Chimaera – a lovely, if rather unruly, 2 seater convertible built in Blackpool (until they went bust). All was well until the day scheduled to collect it, when Mike at the club rang to say they’d hit a major problem. They’d lost the keys. My previous two cars had broken down in my charge – this one wasn’t even going to let me open the door.
Somewhat embarrassed by this, Mike had come up with a great alternative. Kat had only just got back from working in San Francisco, and he accidentally selected the perfect car – a big American 1967 Ford Mustang. Given this ancient heap of Detroit iron was only 10 years younger than me, I had some misgivings about it’s ability to stay the course. But I can tell you now that there was no problem with this car stopping prematurely. However, there were problems with stopping it, full stop.
Let’s deal with the good stuff first. A true classic shape, powerful V8 engine, and – with a lazy automatic gearbox – very easy to drive. It sounded gorgeous. It had huge alloy wheels and black stripes giving a proper NASCAR race feel.
The interior though, reminded me of an old cheap plastic juke box with none of the switches where you would expect to find them. For example, the windscreen washer switch was on the floor, while the one for the windscreen wipers was hidden on the dashboard behind the steering wheel.
But there was a problem rather more fundamental than that – the brakes.
Most modern cars have disc brakes on all four wheels, assisted by powerful servos and controlled by an anti-locking system (ABS). A light touch on the pedal and a car today will stop very quickly indeed. Now this was an old car. but a very powerful one with around 250 brake horse power. I couldn’t resist finding out how fast it would accelerate. And then I discovered how unwilling it was to slow down. With drum brakes, no servo, and no ABS, stopping required stamping on the pedal and… hoping. Throughout my two odd days with the car, I constantly had to look as far up the road ahead as possible to be ready to begin the stopping process. A pedestrian testing my ability to do an emergency stop would live to regret it. Or rather they wouldn’t. Ah well at least the insurance would cover any damage to the Mustang. Except the excess I’d have to pay myself was a cool £5000. With puny period lap belts instead of proper seat belts I probably wouldn’t be around to pay the excess anyway.
Driving through London to the M4 west, the car won fans from pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers. The weather was Californian, so I had the window down with my arm resting on the top of the door. A chap in a new Mercedes shouted ‘You’ve made my day’. We were both queuing for the Blackwall Tunnel at the time, so it clearly hadn’t been a great day so far.
Visiting Shefford Woodlands, the Berkshire village where Jamie spent the first year of his life was a nostalgic moment. We had lunch in our local pub, which had gone from being a local’s retreat to a much enlarged gastro pub. Very nice but rather lacking in the atmosphere that Ernie the landlord gave it in the old days. Our little cottage looked as pretty as I remembered it and the tiny tree we’d planted in the garden was not quite grand. it still had the slate named we’d had made for it – Shefford Cottage.
Our neighbour, Jan, used to have a hairdressers in Newbury. So, needing a haircut, we then set off to find out if it was still there. It was and it was lovely to see an old friend again. And I had my best haircut in years.
I filled the huge fuel tank and the journey continued south to provide a reminder of visiting the farm where in-laws Bill and Doreen used to live. I hardly dared work out the fuel consumption of this gas guzzler, but it was another reminder of how much more efficient modern cars are.
Set in the beautiful Hampshire countryside, the old farm bungalow was still there, but the rest of Bill’s beef farm had been reduced to one forlorn barn. No animals, no people, no it didn’t feel the same. Kat remembered playing in the hay bails, along with Lucy the goat and Wonkey the donkey. All long gone.
We then pointed the Mustang’s long bonnet (sorry hood) north and drove up to Loxwood in West Sussex, where Jamie had lived from just after his first birthday to his 7th. I still know a few friends from that period and we called in on Phil & Judy Lynn. Sat in their beautiful garden drinking a glass of wine was another reminder of some lovely times in the Sussex countryside.
Kat and I booked into the Mucky Duck, just down from where we used to live. A massive mixed grill and three pints of the local bitter put me to sleep very easily.
The following morning we parked at the village hall where Kat went to her Playgroup. For old times sake she had a play on the swings. We then walked round to the primary school both she and Jamie attended. The row of little scooters in the bike shed was rather sweet. I noticed the school sign even sported a mission statement.
Taking photographs outside our old house attracted the attention of the occupants. Explaining our mission, they said. ‘You must be the Whites’ and even produced a couple of old playgroup photos to prove the connection to their own children. Walking around your home from 22 years earlier was strange for both of us. I was pleased how well looked after it was – our house had gone to a good home.
Walking back up the road to the car I noticed some old cutlery embedded in the tarmac. Yes, it was a fork in the road…
We had completed our mission and began the drive back to London. We stopped off for one more lovely lunch at an East Sussex country hotel called The Cat. The name had attracted my daughter, who is Kat by name and loves cats by nature.
I was very relieved to get the Mustang back to the club without a scratch. I had fallen in love with it’s easy effortless nature but this horse was better borrowed than owned. The mechanic asked how I got on and I naturally mentioned the brakes. ‘Oh yes’ he said, ‘We’ve put a lot of work into those – you won’t find better.’
I got back on my Brompton for the ride across Tower Bridge and felt considerably safer.
This machine doesn’t go very fast – but it stops.
Safe travelling y’all