Friday, October 23, 2009

My cars: a short guide. Part I — A Triumph Herald, the wreck which was my first car

My first car was a Triumph Herald. It was a complete wreck and a death-trap, although at the time I was as pleased as punch with it. I was 25 when I bought it and knew little of life or the wily ways of South Wales wideboys, and I knew even less about cars. I was working in South Wales as a reporter for a local weekly, and quite apart from wanting a car of my own because travelling up and down the Valleys was more convenient by car than by bus, I also wanted to boost my rather meagre wages with the oddly extremely generous mileage we were paid. (At one point, a little later in my career in South Wales and working for the South Wales Argus, the weekly's sister paper, I actually doubled my weekly wage by claiming bullshit mileage expenses. The odd thing was that the news editor who signed off those expenses every week must have been aware that Abertillery to Brynmawr and back was only about six miles, not the 20-odd miles I was claiming for, and surely he must have been puzzled that when I went on my rounds of police calls in Brymawr, Ebbw Vale and Tredegar, I didn't simply make a a round trip, but claimed that after each visit to a police station, I returned to Abertillery to start a new journey to a new location. But this is exactly what I claimed I was doing, and it was a simple ruse which usefully bumped up my expenses each week almost tenfold. Getting on top of how to claim expenses is the first vital lesson a reporter must learn. If you can't do that properly, you'll never do anything much properly).
The Herald I had set my heary on was for sale on a car lot a hundred feet or so off the
main road in Blaina, a real shithole between Abertillery and Brynmawr. What to my eyes looked like a rather down-at-heel car lot a was, in fact, more or less a junk yard. But I was a naive sort of chap in those days, very trusting. The Herald was like the one above, although mine was an indeterminate mid to dark grey and a lot, lot rustier. It was for sale for £95 (in today's money £597 according to http://www.measuringworth.com, though that does seem to me to be extraordinarily high), but I had only managed to save £65. I had been regularly looking in the classifieds for cars for sale and the prices being asked were always way beyond what I could afford. The Herald was the cheapest car I had yet come across by a long chalk and I had set my heart on it. However, even at the cheap price being asked, I was still £30 short.
'I've only got £65,' I told the 'salesman' plaintively, fearing that he would tell me to get on my bike.
'That'll do,' he said magnanimously, and I should, of course, there and then have smelled a rat. But I was so chuffed to have my first car. The salesman filled me in on its finer points and explained that I had to have a wire leading form one part of the engine to another to complete the circuit, but that this wire should be removed when the engine was not running or else the battery would be drained. So for the next few days, I conscientiously removed the wire whenever I parked it, and put it back in place when I wanted to drive some.
A weekend or so later, and proud as punch, I drove it my car from South Wales home to Henley-on-Thames to show my younger brother. It was a difficult journey because I got lost at Usk. Also the spring which was linked to the accelerator pedal to return it to the neutral position when it was not depressed had been lost and replaced with a heavy duty one from a lorry. Ten minutes after setting off my right foot ached like hell.
The following morning, I got up very early to drive back to South Wales and discovered I had forgotten to remove the wire, so the battery was flat. Mark, my brother, got up and gave me a push to the nearest hill, and I managed to bump start it. But I was still heavily in love with my 'car', so I didn't care. A week or two later, I parked it somewhere or other, crucially on a hill, and when I returned five minutes later, it had gone.
'Christ, it's been stolen!' I thought, but in my heart of hearts I knew that no one in their right mind would steal this heap of shit, and of course I was right. It hadn't been stolen, it had simply rolled away down the hill, turning right as it did so, and into the back of someone else's car. You see, every time I had applied the handbrake, nothing had actually happened, because it didn't have a handbrake. In fact, had I turned around when I had parked it a few minutes earlier, I would even have seen it rolling away.
The car was a write-off, but as so often happens in the South Wales valleys, as I was being interviewed by police over the absence of a handbrake, my insurance agent walked by, saw what had happened, and advised me that a garage he had visited earlier that day in Newport had for sale a Hillman Superminx which might suit me. So once all the boring business with the police was out of the way (which, naturally, led to a fine and three penalty points on my licence, the first of many), my girlfriend drove me to Newport and I bought the Superminx, for, I think, £200. It, too, was heap of shit, but not quite as bad as the Herald. However, the important thing was that I had a set of wheels again and could carry on creaming it on mileage expenses. The Superminx was identical to the one shown above, except that it was also a lot rustier. More about it in another post. And still to come: my Ford Corsair V8, my Austin 1300, my Datsun Cherry and my Triumph Toledo. Can you wait?

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