At 19 years of age I was an unworldly accomplished idiot, so much so that I purchased an object of ridicule, namely a 1948 Ford Popular – a vehicle that was older than I was! I had paid just a ‘tenner’ for what was, in essence, an ancient lump of shit. Whilst it was a ‘good runner’ the big negative was that in order to start the car I had to use a thing called a ‘starting handle.’
Let me commence with that wretched starting handle. Basically it was a lump of metal you stuck in a hole at the front of the car and turned with all your strength. Get it right, and pull away the hand you had used to effect the ignition in time, and all was well. Get it wrong and the handle would bounce back at you with impressive ferocity and break your wrist with the comparative ease of a mountain gorilla chewing bamboo. I got it wrong more often than not. I grew to hate that car with a vengeance. The thing was, it worked most times, and it was all I could afford.
I mislaid it once. For the best part of two weeks as it happens. As a student of a subject I could not understand in part or at all I had, as was my want, taken time out from my studies and managed to get both totally stoned and severely drunk the night previously. Barely fit to drive I had, nonetheless, managed, against my better judgement, to cease my slumber and arise from my pit. Bleary-eyed, my head still on a different planet and with a merciless, quite savage hangover I drove off to college, the vile rumblings of my gut drowning the usually excessive noise of the car engine. You didn’t have to worry about the breathalyser back then. I parked up, went into college – having, a little earlier kicked off the day by smoking my first joint on the way in. Having not had a vehicle for some little time I was still in the habit of catching a train home. At close of play that evening, forgetting completely that I had a car, and still somewhat ‘off my head,’ I took the train home. I gave my Ford Popular not even a passing thought. I had, in my now deliriously tired, yet blissful stupor, forgotten its very existence. That is, until the next day. I used to park on the wide frontage between the pavement and the main road outside our house. The thing was, quite sober and batteries recharged the next morning, when stepping out toward the spot I usually parked my horseless carriage I was a tad shocked to notice it not in its usual spot. Hands on hips, locks tangling in the crisp biting wind I gazed curiously about me. No car. Gone! I fought a long and tiresome battle with what brain cells remained active until it dawned upon me that I had stupidly left the car at my place of learning the previous evening. Furious with myself, I spent my last few precious pennies catching a train to college. I was nearly late so I had to rush. With the tutorials over for the day I sought out my car. I could not, however, remember for the life of me where I had left it. I walked all the usual places seeking it out to no avail. In the end I gave up and walked the couple of miles or so across parkland home. I told my mum that I thought the car had been nicked and blagged her for some money for fares and food for a few days until I could earn some more working the bar at a local pub. Everyone, at home and in the pub was sorry to learn of my loss.
A couple of weeks passed when, one day, quite by chance, a nerdy swot type from college walked up to me suggesting that if I left my car down the road where if it had been parked much longer the battery was likely to go flat. I didn’t realise that batteries, solid enough looking to me, could decompress in such a way. I wasn’t even sure if my car had a battery. Anyway, I enquired of said nerd where he had seen the car. He pointed to it, within spitting distance of the college gates. I must have walked passed it regularly since its loss, and, notwithstanding the fact that it stuck out like a sore thumb, it being so old fashioned looking, I had never noticed it. Probably it hadn’t helped that my head was in a different reality most of the time. Not for the first time in my life, I felt like a complete ‘twat.’
The only time I have ever (back then and including present times) undertaken vehicle maintenance was once when it wouldn’t start. I was working the bar bemoaning the bloody car and its unwillingness to function when an ex-soldier, a leftover from the Great War, and a man with knowledge of these things offered to take a look at it for me.
“Grit in the carburettor,” was his diagnosis, adding, “Got any spanners?”
“No,” almost saying, ‘what’s a spanner’.
He went back to the pub and returned with a toolkit he had purloined. Removing this mystical thing called a carburettor he handed it me, saying, “Has your mum got a big saucepan?” I had no idea whether she had any saucepans at all but simply nodded intimating she had.
“Well, what we did back in the war was boil’em up when they’re full of shit. They expand and all the grit falls out. Never fails. You get it boiled up and I’ll fix it back for you”.
Common sense should have told me mum would have this thing called a saucepan and indeed she did – a big one at that. Mum must have wondered why I was showing an interest in things culinary but said nothing. I now know she had little interest, or for that matter accomplishment, in the art of cooking herself and certainly a saucepan of this particular size would be a redundant item, from days, long ago, when she actually cooked.
And so it was that I boiled the lump of metal that was my carburettor, dried it off with a tea towel – she did get a bit miffed about that – and took it back over the pub. Incidentally, when the pan came to the boil the carburettor was bouncing around quite a bit and there was steam everywhere. That was the day, thinking ‘outside the box,’ I worked out that by turning the knob on the gas cooker anti-clockwise I could turn the flame at the ring down to a simmer. I let it simmer a good while. The old soldier duly re-fitted it and it started first time.
“You owe me a pint I think”.
Of course, I had no idea then that this one and only piece of car maintenance was unusual in the extreme. It was for that reason that I was totally baffled by the laughing hyenas that were my friends when I boasted about my mechanical prowess later. Many thought me a liar then, claiming that boiling a carburettor was ridiculous and in no way could it work. Some still think me a liar in this regard. Nonetheless I know it worked, and that I played some small part in a car repair.
My love hate relationship with the Ford Popular lasted a few more months before I murdered it. The day of the fatal wounding must have been in winter. I cannot exactly recall, although I do remember it being bitterly cold. The sort of day my Dad would go off to work mumbling about it being, “So cold they are laying men off at the brass foundry.” This was a remark he said with some regularity, and, I recall, was a twist on the then popular phrase of the day in respect of inclement weather, namely, “It’s so cold it could freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”
Moving on, I put the starting handle in, turned over the engine. It went; ‘fut.’ Did it again. Same thing, ‘fut.’ Time and time again, just, ‘fut.’ Anger consumed me. I wanted to head butt the bloody thing. I thought better of it as I didn’t know how to head butt properly anyway. I began, even on this cold and frosty morn to sweat profusely. First of all I beat it up a bit with said starting handle. I smashed it against the radiator grill twice, denting it a bit, not so you’d notice really. I thought that that might just teach it the lesson it deserved. I tried again to start the car. ‘Fut.’ The car was not going to start. I wanted it to start. We had an impasse. I thought it worth having a fag in order to contemplate my next move. I opened the driver’s door and reached over to the passenger seat for my cigarettes. I bashed the back of my head on the doorframe getting back out of the car. It hurt a lot.
“That’s it you f**king bastard.” Me, to the car!
With that I slammed the car door with all my strength. Cars built so very long ago didn’t have protective glass. My Ford Popular certainly didn’t as both the glass in the driver’s door and windscreen smashed into a million tiny shafts over me, the inside of the car and the pavement. The cold chill that wafted into my face, whistling through the exposed metallic skeleton of the old beast at that very moment was, I believed then, and still do now, its death rattle. The car is dead; long live the car – except I didn’t have another one!