Car

The Austin 7 was a car with idiosyncracies. A harsher critic would have called it a death trap. One problem was that there were no hydraulics. Clutch and brakes operated on cables, similar to the brake system on a bicycle. This was fine except for the fact that the cables tended to stretch. Over two or three months the clutch gradually stopped disengaging when I pressed the pedal. Its tendency to grab was compensated for by the worn clutch plate but it still began to graunch painfully. I solved the problem by teaching myself the gentle art of double-declutching – press the pedal, slip the gear into neutral, release the pedal and press the accelerator to get the revs up, press the pedal again and slip into the new gear. I am not entirely sure how this works but it seems to or it did on my car.

The brakes were another matter as I found out when I went for a warrant of fitness. Back then, in smaller centres like Papakura, there were no specialised testing systems and the warrant was based on a visual inspection and a test drive. I was worried that the bloke doing the test wouldn’t be able to manage the clutch but he did all right with that. A graunch or two and he got the car moving and took off down the road, leaving me waiting anxiously for his return. He was back in about five minutes, driving quite slowly, I noticed. When he got out of the car he was white and shaking.

‘It’s got no brakes!’ he gasped.

I guess I hadn’t noticed how bad they were because I had got into the habit of braking on the gears. I drove home and jacked the car up and managed to tighten the cables. I was too embarrassed to take it back to the same garage (there was no coordinated system back then so no one knew I went to a different place). The bloke I took it to finished the test by accelerating across his gravel forecourt and slamming on the brakes. He then got out and examined the resulting skid marks. The length of these seemed to satisfy him and he gave me the warrant.

A less dangerous peculiarity of the Austin was its engine, which had the size and power of a large sewing machine. The compression was so low that I could easily turn the permanent crank handle attached to the front with one hand. At one period in our relationship the car took to stalling whenever it went into idle. This was okay until the battery, too, started to give up. At traffic lights, I had to wait for the green and then leap out, run to the front, swing the crank and then dash back to scramble in behind the wheel and take off before it stalled again. Once or twice I didn’t make it.

None of this constituted the biggest embarrassment I suffered with the car, though. That came as a result of the headlights, which were the size of soup plates but had all the luminance of a couple of candles held at arm’s length. They were effective enough at showing the presence of the car to other people but useless at lighting the way for the driver. Most of the time this didn’t matter because there was enough other light around but one night they got me into trouble.

I had been at a flat somewhere near Western Springs and I lost myself around Fowlds Park on my way home. Trusting to my unerring sense of direction, I headed up what looked like a small side street. The area around the car was pitch black but up ahead of me the roadway was clear and well lit. I kept on towards it. Suddenly there was great thump and the front of the car dropped down six inches or more. Before I could stop, the rear followed it. Puzzled, I headed on towards the lights. Another thump and the front wheels lifted again. Unfortunately, the rear could not be persuaded to do likewise. I backed down and tried again. No luck. More shuffling around in a rising panic quickly convinced me that, wherever I was, I wasn’t going to get out so I did the only thing a craven coward could do under the circumstances; I fled. I took a bus into town and another one out to Papakura. I arrived home ten minutes before the cops.

It seemed I had inadvertently driven onto the Rocky Nook Womens’ Bowling Green and one of the members who lived nearby had heard my performance and called the police.

The consequences were milder than I felt I deserved. I was taken down to the local police station where I made a statement in circumstances that were rife with cliche – an old Imperial typewriter with keys like coat buttons, a constable who typed vigorously with two fingers and who, in his report, used words like ‘proceeded’. There were no legal consequences, though. I had to pay to get the car towed home but it wasn’t damaged beyond a few loosened joints. The biggest problem was the mess I’d made of the bowling green, an estimated 25pounds damage – several hundred dollars in today’s money. I was lucky with that too, though. One of the bowling club ladies took pity on a poor student and paid it for me.

Thought you might like this one, Maggie

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