If you read the last chapter of my ‘auto biography’, you’ll know I can’t remember a life before loving cars.
Childhood over, let’s start this chapter in my early teenage years. Not old enough to drive a car, but really too old to play with toy cars anymore. So the only other options for feeding my love for cars was to read about… and to clean them!
Let’s deal with the second of those options first.
Cleaning up the neighbourhood
Cleaning cars provided my first real paid employment. School pal, Ian Evans, and I hatched a plan to make some money. One Sunday morning, we set off down the road with buckets, sponge and leather. Wherever we saw a dirty car on the drive, we knocked on the front door and offered our services. We set out to create a car cleaning round. And by the end of the morning we had done it.
We did a decent job on half a dozen cars that morning – and were asked to come back the following Sunday. We were in business! Our customer’s neighbours gradually added their cars to the round as the weeks passed… When you live in suburbia, you notice what is on our neighbour’s driveway. And who doesn’t envy a sparkling clean car – achieved without personal effort?
Car cleaning gave an interesting insight into people’s lives. We tended to work the wealthier streets in our neighbourhood – bigger cars justified higher prices and generated bigger tips. Their owners tended to have bigger egos and were more confident too. We didn’t get much further into their homes than the utility room – to fill our buckets with soapy water. That experience was something new in itself – our own homes didn’t have utility rooms.
We had no problem cleaning the car exteriors – and for an extra payment we did the inside too. But interiors were a challenge. The window glass and surfaces would often be covered a sticky brown film. ‘Cigar’ lighters really were used as lighters back then. And of course the floors had an attractive carpet of ash too.
Cleaning cars meant I also learned – in close up – how well designed and made they really are. I remember how an untouched-up stone chip in the paint on the bonnet of an Audi or Mercedes still had no traces of rust weeks later. But the same damage to a Vauxhall, Ford or Fiat would develop into a deep festering hole before my very eyes.
My ‘business partner’ Ian, got a proper part time job and decided to move on from car cleaning. But in the absence of other opportunities, I kept going. Gradually, the car cleaning round extended into lawn mowing and other odd jobs, but it was never really more than pocket money. Taking the business public was not going to happen any time soon.
A proper job at last
I happily gave up the car cleaning round when the opportunity of a Saturday job at Sainsbury’s appeared. The fact that my Dad was a store manager in another Midlands town might have had something to do with it. But what are families for, if not some occasional nepotism? That wouldn’t actually happen so easily today – and quite right too.
My pay for 8 hours on a Saturday and 3 hours of late night opening (Friday until 8pm!) was just shy of £3. Not much, but I was already ahead of my car cleaning income. And it was enough to buy an LP.
While a lot of my extra cash went on music, my love for cars got a look in – in the form of buying motor magazines. Remember, this was my other teenage option for keeping the flame of my love for cars burning.
Not for me the weeklies like Motor and Autocar, which focused on family saloons like the then new Morris Marina (really), but the glossy monthlies with exotic sports cars, witty stories and great photography.
Some of these magazines, like Hot Car and Custom Car wrote about hot rods, beach buggies and customised American cars, all of which really appealed to a young teenager. The layouts featured psychedelic design and typography and rampant sexism. All of which looks so dated, or just plain wrong, today. At the time I thought they were so cool. But as a 14 year-old dreaming of the California Baja from a Birmingham suburb, what did I know about anything?
The only monthly car magazine that has really stood the test of time was called, very simply, Car. It was my choice once I’d grown out of Custom Car. Apart from magnificent art direction, it also bit the hand that fed it. Fiercely critical of the car industry itself, the copy was witty and confrontational. Its headline described the above-mentioned new Morris, enthusiastically reviewed by Motor of course, as a ‘Marina that holds no water’. That BL were paying for advertising space in the magazine – for that very car – did not stop the writers saying what they thought!
Car was the only magazine to get inside Sant ’Agata Bolognese – not a recipe, but the Italian home of supercar royalty, Lamborghini. Their tales of sneaking out onto the public roads in the new Countach prototype even had a political edge. The factories were constantly on strike – it seemed like Italian trade unions called the shots back then and the magazine didn’t ignore the implications.
The headline for the Lamborghini Countach launch story was ‘Cheap.. at £16,000’. While that sounds like nothing much now, this made it not only the fastest, but also the most expensive car… in the world. (That last sentence should of course be read in the style of the then unknown, teenage, Jeremy Clarkson.)
I was a loyal subscriber to Car for close on 40 years, and still have bound copies in the loft, but I finally lost interest around a decade ago. The magazine became more mainstream and the mainstream also caught up with it. In a fit of nostalgia, I bought a recent issue because it had a section chronicling the magazine’s history. Sadly, the rest of the pages were dull by comparison. Both the cars – and the stories about them – were about as exciting as a domestic appliance. And that’s no surprise, because the hot news today, the electric car, really is just that – a domestic appliance (with batteries included).
Enough of reading about and cleaning cars… I was now 17 and the time had come to actually learn to drive one. I knew I wouldn’t be able to have my own car for years, but Mum & Dad offered to pay for me to have lessons. And they would even trust me to drive their car. To be fair, how much trouble could I get into – burning down the boulevard in Dad’s 1969 Triumph Herald estate?
Next chapter: clear the runway, I’m ready for take off.