Sunday, 1 September 2013

Forty years of Vroom Vroom

Yesterday, 31 August 2013, was a Big Anniversary. I originally intended writing about it on the day, but the chance to do it in the morning slipped by, and it was so nice a day that I went instead down to the beach at Ferring in the afternoon. That left the evening, but then I was disinclined to tamely go home. It was, after all, a Saturday evening, it was still warm and sunny, I had nothing very special to do at home, and I was in the mood for good company. The upshot was that I ended up sharing wine and a meal for four at a friend's home. By ten-thirty however, I was pooped and being walked back to where I'd parked Fiona. Once home, I did not feel up to posting.

But I do today. The Big Anniversary is that forty years ago I passed my Driving Test. Believe me, this was hardest thing I ever did in my life. It's a complex blend of physical and mental skills, especially as I learned to drive on a manual-transmission car with a gear level and clutch, and not one with automatic transmission. My physical co-ordination was of course dreadful, and my reading of the traffic was hopeless. But after three years of assiduous practice (more on that below) I managed to get a pass - just - on my second attempt at the Test.

The only thing that compares with it for sheer hard work and difficulty (and colossal pride of achievement) is perfecting my female voice. And both things have given me astonishing freedom and self-confidence. Even in dark times, when I couldn't do anything right, when I was being told to shut up, when I was being told that I was a bad, bad person, it was never in doubt that I was a good driver. I clung to that fact.

Oddly enough, I found learning to drive fiendishly difficult. This was completely unexpected. I thought it would be so simple. You see, I'd always sat next to Dad in the car, even as a young child, Mum and my little brother being relegated to the back seat. I'd studied how Dad handled the controls. I was used to how cars behaved when in motion. Speed did not make me nervous. Nor lashing rain, nor any hazards really, especially not wild thunderstorms and floods. Driving seemed so terribly exciting! I longed to be old enough to do it for real. When the car was parked at home, I often got behind the steering wheel and imagined setting off on a drive somewhere. Once in my teens, I wished my life away so that I could be at least seventeen. Bikes and scooters? A waste of time. It had to be a car, my own if possible, although how to afford one remained a hazy mystery until I started work and car ownership via a bank loan became feasible. But the essential first thing was to pass my Test.

As it happened, I didn't actually begin driving lessons until 1971, when nearly nineteen. The serious business of passing my A-Level exams took priority. Only when that was done did I move onto the next objective. I got a Provisional Driving licence in March 1971, and booked a couple of lessons with an instructor who had been recommended to me. But after twenty-six lessons, I wasn't doing very well. It wasn't the instructor's fault. I just couldn't get the hang of it. I kept forgetting about the clutch, or would let it in too quickly, so that the car hopped down the road, revving insanely. Pedestrians, cyclists and other traffic usually saw the danger, and leapt clear, peddled furiously into the safety of side-roads, or steered frantically to avoid a collision. Poor Mr Everdell, my instructor! It was a bad reflection on him. But I was the pupil from Hell. Nevertheless, he didn't stop me going in for my first attempt at the Test. It was a chastening, humiliating fiasco for me. So much so, that I gave up my dreams of driving for a few months afterwards, and could hardly talk about it.

But Mum and Dad wouldn't let me give up forever. I'm glad they didn't. Dad got me behind the driving seat again, this time in the family car (by then a Mark II Ford Cortina, registration RPB 22E), and we embarked on a regular weekly practice session for the next two years. The routine would be that I'd drive us both out in the car on Wednesday evenings, most often to a pub in the New Forest - such as the Sir John Barleycorn at Cadnam - but making use of one or other of the disused airfields on the way for all kinds of manoeuvres. Such as the one at Stoney Cross, which was in a much better condition for learner-driving practice than it is now. Gradually I became more skilful. I went out with Dad on other occasions too. I renewed my provisional Licence annually. In those days, you had to go to a council building in town, and your red Licence book would have a little form stuck inside on payment of the fee. Do you remember those? Here's my own old-style Driving Licence with three years of stickers inside. I still have it in my archives:

When I finally felt confident enough to have a second stab at the Test in August 1973, I'd accumulated many hours of driving behind me and was as good as any young person on the open road. In town was another matter - I remained poor at parking, especially reversing into an awkward space. And I still wasn't using my mirrors as much as I should.

But I did well enough on the day. The Examiner called attention to two things: I had not glanced in my mirror every time I should have, and I was resting my left hand on the gear level knob too much, but nevertheless he gave me a pass. Of course, I was on air. Here is the document, or rather, here is a black-and-white version of a forty-year-old photocopy:

There now followed what I can only describe as an orgy of driving. Dad gave me access to the family Cortina, and I must have clocked up a couple of thousand miles in that. I remember that he let me take off for a drive when we were on holiday in Cornwall, while everyone else was sunning themselves on the beach. How fair and reasonable was that? Of course, if I drove us all around in the evenings, it meant that he could have a decent drink for once. In 1974 Dad traded the Ford Cortina in for a pale yellow Renault 12, registration JYF 844K. It was oddly-shaped, but (for its time) well-equipped and superbly comfortable. In 1975, he got himself a huge Citro├źn D Special, and I bought the Renault off him. It therefore became the first car I owned. Here it is in August 1975, on a trip to Wallington in South London (the girlfriend is Jenny):

And here it is in 1976, at Charmouth (the girlfriend is Edwina):

I drove that car until 1981, covering 103,500 miles in it. It gave me faithful service, but it was eventually slain at a crossroads near Botley in Hampshire, when a silly boy in his first car (a Ford Capri) misjudged my speed, pulled out in front of me, stalled, and we collided. There were several witnesses. I gave a statement to the Police. We were all shaken, but nobody was much hurt. Poor JYF was a write-off, its front hopelessly crumpled. I sadly unscrewed the back plate, which I still have. You save something of your first car if you possibly can. Well, you do if cars are special to you.

In the past forty years I've owned only seven cars, Fiona included. I tend to keep my cars a long time if they suit me and work well. Altogether, I have covered nearly 518,000 miles in them. That won't be a record by any means, but it does rather show how fond I am of driving, when you consider that most of the time I never used a car for travelling to work.


  1. Congratulations on that milestone Lucy. I have never found driving a difficult thing and when I first got behind the wheel my driving instructor thought I'd been driving for years, I was so good at it. Naturally I had been and still am very observant which is probably why I can turn my hand to most things. Unfortunately I was nervous at the thought of going through a test and I failed the first attempt. In reality my instructor advised I should apply but it was too soon. I should have passed the second time but I fancy the examiner was having a bad day because he failed me for inching out into a blind junction so I could see if anything was approaching from my right! How else was I to proceed? I passed the third time. When I sat a test for the electricity board in order to drive their vehicles I was commended for my skill and safe driving and was told by the examiner that he'd never seen a better driver. That was twelve months after I'd passed the MOT test. I've had six cars and two vans in the time since passing my test in 1967, 46 years now but I've never given it a thought that I should keep a memento of any kind. To me they were just a means of getting from A to B. I still think the same way but I do like the freedom driving gives me, I have always enjoyed driving for the sake of it. I have never owned a vehicle with an automatic box because I prefer driving using a manual box. For me that is an essential part of the driving experience, it's what driving is about. Why do you think racing and rally drivers enjoy their sport? An automatic box, though probably more efficient when they work properly take that enjoyment away. When using a manual box you feel the vehicle to be an extension of yourself.
    May you have many more years of enjoyable driving ahead Lucy.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. Thank you for wishing me many more years of driving, Shirley Anne, but I completely disagree that driving an automatic is an unexciting experience. At least not if one's car is powerful and the auto box is sophisticated and responsive.

    Besides, there are many reasons for having auto transmission. Three that matter to me are: (a) more control, as both hands are on the steering wheel most of the time; (b) you can drive with less physical effort and possibly pain - my dodgy knee ligaments wouldn't be able to cope with a clutch nowadays; and (c) you are always in gear, never in neutral, which aids traction - important when towing.


  3. A driving test is one of the hardest to pass because it is entirely up to the examiner wether you pass or fail, you know this when you get back a sheet of fail points non of which happened, if they had written "don't like longhaired youth" it would at least have been honest. I put the mirror right out of alignment so that I could not glance in it but had to make an obvious movement and believe me I knew of their trick of failing someone by that failure to use mirror but the creep still did it!

    A driving licence would have allowed me to build some kind of small business, something folk like us are often encouraged to do to gain independence from those who seem to be offended by us.

    When I went for my last test I had sworn that I would never take one again but my partner who I had taught to drive after she had been passed without any skill in use of the controls, she left her rusting hulk, with fungi growing in the wooden framework,at the front door of the test station from early morning and I cycled there in the late afternoon. My plan was to drive like an imbecile, crashing gears, hesitating and not driving smoothly and efficiently and certainly resisted the temptation to double declutch into first when asked to turn into an incredibly narrow and steep road to the left! I passed!

    Mortgage stopped me replacing the wreck at the end of the year and by then life on a bicycle suited me well enough...


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Lucy Melford