1974, I’m 17 and my provisional driving licence has arrived. But I didn’t rush at learning to drive.
It was like getting the chance to meet your hero. You just know it’s bound to be a disappointment. And with learning to drive you have to face a real test at the end – that most people fail, at least once.
But the day came when Dad pushed me behind the wheel. I’ve always liked the idea of ‘steering’ and years later couldn’t wait to buy son Jamie a clip-on steering wheel for him in the back seat of the car. The Herald’s steering was renowned for a very tight turning circle. You didn’t really need to do a three point turn. On a wide road, a zero point was enough.
With its real wood dashboard and stately lines, the Triumph was already feeling old. Elderly engineering meant it had no synchromesh on 1st and 2nd gears. This made gearchanges a teeth-grinding challenge for both my teeth and those in the gearbox. Pulling away cleanly would prove to be my greatest fear and weakness . There’s nothing quite so embarrassing as stalling.
The manual gearbox… Why on earth have we had to change our own gears for so long?
Americans embraced the automatic as standard equipment decades ago – and however basically engineered their cars were in the 60s and 70s, they have always been easy to drive. Electric windows and central locking arrived as standard fitments in Europe long ago. Yet many cars still come with manual gears as standard. But beware, to get a full licence you are still required to take your test in a car with a gear lever!
Like most cars of its era, the family Herald had a standard 4 speed manual gearbox. For Christmas the previous year, I’d bought Dad a nice wooden gear knob to match that shiny wooden dashboard. I managed to fit the knob for him, but didn’t feel any more confident about changing gears with it.
Using a traditional clutch is more like playing a musical instrument than operating a machine . Finding the clutch ‘bite point’ is all about feel – there are no visual markers to guide you. Likewise, with no rev counter (on the Herald), gauging the ‘right’ engine speed is all about listening for the ‘right’ amount of noise. Too few revs and the car stalls, too many and you take off with a ‘yelp’ from the tyres, and from your anxious parent/instructor and even yourself!
Get it ‘Goldilocks’ right and away you go. But losing confidence once moving, you are tempted to reduce the amount of pressure on the accelerator. The sudden loss of power introduces the embarrassment of ‘kangaroo petrol’. The car threatens to stall – but somehow keeps going in a series of j-j-jerks. This advertises your novice driver status far more effectively than your ‘L’ plates.
At my first proper lessons, my professional instructor made it clear that, while Dad’s instruction got the mechanical stuff right, he had also taught me a lot of bad habits. We’d be starting all over again.
I made fair progress and many weeks of lessons passed. I applied for my test as advised, but when the day came I felt I was nowhere near ready.
I failed – badly.
I remember my examiner’s name was Bowie. He could not have been less like his namesake. The test went quite well until my foot slipped off the brake pedal during the emergency stop! The school rumour mill grew this story into a near disaster – involving missing the brake pedal altogether and hitting the accelerator instead. The shame of it.
Failing once is just a normal rite of passage – or so I told myself. Most of my friends had done no better. To try and stay committed, I applied for my next test quickly.
A few weeks of lessons later, I felt a lot more confident about my driving – but was just as nervous on the day. I arrived at the test centre to find my examiner’s name was… Bowie. The chances of there being three people called Bowie, two of whom were driving test examiners in Birmingham, were slim.
I failed – again.
No major disasters, but I did manage a particularly inept ‘reverse turn’. I either mounted the pavement or left enough room for someone to drive between me and the kerb… I can’t remember which.
I arrived back at school, greeting enquiries with a grim shake of the head. Reactions ranged from well-faked sympathy to ribbing. But anyone who had yet to pass themselves? Well, they kept quiet.
The run up to test number three presented a major bump in the road.
Mum & Dad had decided to part exchange the Herald for a much more modern car, the Austin Maxi. The design of this car took literally the idea that styling was irrelevant. Instead form should simply follow function. Its tiny sibling, the Mini, inspired both its name and approach. It was indeed ‘maxi’ – a hugely roomy five-door hatchback.
Unlike the Mini, the Maxi was ungainly and plain, very slow, unpleasant to drive and had all the agility of an old sofa. The steering was unassisted and as heavy as driving an old bus. The gearbox was terrible: it felt like stirring a bag of nails with a stick. Change up gently and it would shriek with displeasure. I learned to do this very slowly – and it would accept my instruction with slightly fewer complaints.
I felt more lessons with the instructor would not be worthwhile. But I had plenty of evening practice with Dad. I really did not want to fail – three failures would be a trend…
My mood was helped when the examiner, who was not Mr Bowie, walked in to the test centre waiting room.
Readers, I passed!
In the end, I think the recalcitrant Maxi helped me. I had to concentrate so hard to get the gear changes right, that I couldn’t overthink anything else. And I’m sure the examiner was sorry for me – having such a large and difficult car to drive.
A few days after the test, a mechanic told me that that the trick to play with the car was to change gears really aggressively and quickly. This brutal technique frightened the poor thing into submission and the shrieking stopped. I only wish I’d known. But then maybe I wouldn’t have passed.
For my first day flying solo, Dad let me take the Maxi to school. I parked the car proudly on the hill outside the school gates. I had completed a perfect 3-point turn ready for the drive back up the hill.
At the end of the day, I ‘casually’ offered four friends a ride home. The Maxi was in its element as it coped easily with the quartet of teenagers climbing aboard. I felt very smug.
I looked in the mirror, signalled, felt the bitepoint, released the handbrake and… stalled.
Next time: American excess!