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On cars I’ve had and other strange memories

The other day someone sent me an e-mail story with photos of an amazing car: a 1907 Rolls Royce.. so elegant! So old-world! Such a luxurious interior! Anyway, it sold at auction for over four million dollars.

It was from that era, circa 1907, that Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger and all the rest of the dwellers on the riverbank were brought to our attention in Kenneth Graham’s beautiful book, The Wind in the Willows – still my favourite novel. Toad, who lived in the palatial Toad Hall, was (briefly) the celebrated and famous car thief, would love to have stolen something like that 1907 Roller and taken it for  joyride but the very thought of seeing it destroyed through the Toad’s reckless driving, is horrifying. All  the same, I sometimes tell Janet that I am going back to the riverbank to live – bunk in with Ratty and Mole, or grab one of Toad’s rooms, or even ‘Mole End’, as far away as possible from this sad and sordid world which depresses me deeply from time to time.

On a cheerier note, cars are always connected with memories that belong to them.  Think of a car you’ve had, or a car that was part of your childhood and immediately the memories stir… (Not now, Toady! We know all about YOUR exploits! Your parents would be utterly shocked!)

I have always loved cars. To my better half, they are simply a means of getting from A to S (ALDI to Spotlight).

The other day on our way into Toronto, Janet was chatting away when suddenly I interrupted her. ‘Did you see that?’

‘See what?’ asked Janet, looking nervously about her.

‘The car that just passed us, going the other way!’

‘No. What about it?’

‘It was a Morgan! British racing green! Surely you saw it?’

‘How spiffing! Sorry – no, I didn’t see it’.

Even if Janet had seen it, there was no way it would have set her heart going pitter-patter, as it did mine.

Reflecting, as I am now, I must say that not all cars bring happy memories – especially a particular Austin A70 that the local Catholic priest in Leeton was driving, the evening he ran over me. I was aged 16, riding my pushbike on the way to Church. He put me in hospital for a month. I was very fortunate. I lived. Amazingly, a couple of years ago I had an X-ray that revealed a compressed fracture of the vertebrae, up high on the back. ‘An old injury,’ I was told. I never knew I had it, but suspect it was the result of instantly travelling from about 8kmph to 110kph, thrown into the air and glued to the windscreen of Fr Wright’s A70 before being thrown off onto the side of the road… bit of a shock for Fr Wright!

Other memories are happier. Back in the old days, just after WW2 when it was almost impossible to buy cars, my father had a T Model Ford, which we used to drive into town from the farm. I can still hear the old folk, and us kids, singing ‘O good Lord, how we roared, in that old fashioned Ford, along the road to Leeton town!’

Dad tried vainly to teach mum to drive. I once saw mum behind the wheel, with dad beside her, as the old Ford rocketed around a corner on two wheels. Finally dad gave up, to the relief of every one of us – none more so than mum.

After my motorbike passion (still lurking) a friend and I bought a 1926 Chevrolet (big wooden wheels. The wipers were hand-worked). It was the ‘Archie and Jughead’ era and we emulated Archie by painting up the Chev and writing messages on it such as “Don’t laugh Mother – your daughter might be in here!” Mother need not have worried. No girl would have been seen dead in it. The Chev was followed by a lovely little 1948 Morris 8 soft-top.

I was between vehicles when Janet and I first began ‘stepping out’ as they used to say, so borrowed a friend’s ancient Austin A40 ute to go anywhere. The pistons slapped around loosely in the bores and there were holes in the cabin floor around which one had to  manoeuvre to avoid going through. Wherever we went the road ahead was obscured by volumes of blue smoke that blew up into the cabin through holes in the rusted manifold.

My first  new car was a little Renault Dauphine – so French! So chic! Unfortunately, it was not made for Australian conditions and the engine, mounted in the rear, regularly overheated. It was only 800cc which, tied to an ineffectual three-speed gearbox, made going up hills a nightmare. Memories of our parting are not painful.

After Janet and I married we went off to Dorrigo in an elderly Morris Major. I was a young Presbyterian minister, still in my twenties. The Morris was a good little car, and as we were childless at the time, space was not an issue.  It was a tough little car – but the accelerator had a nasty habit on occasion of sticking. One evening, on my way down the notorious Dorrigo Mountain road to Bellingen to conduct a church service, the accelerator stuck just before an S bend. In less than a breath the S bend claimed me. I can recall every fraction of a second of that two-hundred-foot plunge. The Morris plummeted fifty feet before it hit a ledge and bounced off into space again. I know it was two hundred feet because the firm that retrieved the destroyed Morris used that length of cable. Unlike today’s cars, it was made of steel, and I think went a long way toward saving my life. For a long time afterwards there was a sign on the S bend that read ‘Lang’s Leap’.  I still have a clipping from the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Minister in Mountain Gap Plunge’ and a cartoon in the local Bellingen paper: a fellow with wings holding a steering wheel and saying to the editor, ‘Guess what? I just discovered a short cut down the Dorrigo Mountain!’

The replacement of the Morris was bought at the local garage in Dorrigo. Ray Cork, the proprietor and shire clerk, was a great bloke – honest as the day, whose thoughts were concentrated largely on cars. When we arrived in Dorrigo people were still laughing about a visit some time before by the State Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, the Right Rev. Robert Cruikshank. Ray thought that a visit by such an important person required a civic reception, which was arranged and went beautifully – except for the fact that Ray, his mind never far from his cars, referred to Mr Cruikshank throughout the ceremony as ‘the Right Reverend Robert Crankshaft’.

Anyway, Ray sold me a brand new, indescribably beautiful, sporty Hillman Gazelle. It was lovely: dark green, grey comfortable bucket seats with a real walnut veneer dash. I loved that car.

Beloved Hillman Gazelle

There was the occasional church car over the years but the next one we owned was a 1972 Holden HQ. It was silver, with mags and looked a million dollars – but it had a bench seat and ‘three on the tree’ (gearstick on steering column). As well, the one of our five children who sat in the front middle had no air vent, and the quarter vents had been removed from that model, on. There was no air-conditioning. In all, it was a mundane vehicle – but as I got into it once, wearing a clerical collar, I heard a couple of kids remark, ‘What’s HE doing in a car like that? As I said, it looked a million dollars – on the outside.

Then there was a superb, if elderly, Audi Super 90, but as it had five seats and we had seven backsides it was not practical.

Common sense prevailed, and the vehicle that remains in our memories is the new VW Microbus I bought in Deniliquin when we lived in Finley. It cost $4,000 on the road. ‘Everybody lean forward!’ I’d call as the VW’s underpowered 1600cc air-cooled engine gasped its way up over some hill … and I can still hear us, singing as we drove, ‘We’re all going on a summer holiday …’

Years passed and we still had the VW. I was in the Regular Army as a chaplain and away a lot. Janet needed a little car, for she’d gone back to some part-time nursing. One day corporal English told me she was going to sell her 1974 Mazda RX4, which had a new 13B rotary engine, and she wanted $1200 for it. I grabbed it! The German company NSU had produced the first mass produced rotary engined car, the Ro80. NSU was short for Neckarsulm, a  town in Germany where the car was manufactured.

They were beautiful to look at and really performed, and I’d admired a few in Australia. Now Mazda was the only company producing rotary engined cars. The RX4 was a delight to drive and I loved driving it – but I never forgot the original NSU.

One day I was counselling a soldier – a real problem soldier who kept leaving his wife and going off with other women, but she kept having him back.

‘Last month,’ he told me glumly, ‘I gave my wife my NSU’.

My ears pricked up at that.‘She’d love that,’ I commented. ‘Is it in good condition? I’d love an NSU myself. What colour is it? I rather fancy red.’

The soldier regarded me oddly. Finally he said, ‘It’s the pox, padre. NSU is pox. I gave my wife the pox and no, I can’t say she’s at all happy about it. In fact she’s thrown me out again…’

Later I learned that in medical health terms NSU stands for ‘non-specific urethritis’.

Funny – how car lovers can have one-track minds. I’d like to talk to dear old Ray Cork in Dorrigo about that …