The cars of happiest memory are the first
I can go for weeks without bumping into the electricity man. And then our paths will cross three or four times in a row. He is always walking his two King Charleses; I am walking our two breed-unspecifieds.
We call him "the electricity man." He has in fact retired some years ago, but "electricity man" certainly wouldn't have done justice to his lofty status as a former executive of Scottish Power, the organization that sees to it that we have an endless supply with which to run our spotlights, freezers, and computers.
Cars, not electricity, were our topic of conversation tonight. Some evenings the electricity man and I become so interested in our exchanges that we extend our walk by a block or two to make sure we have fully exhausted the theme. When, on this night, I returned home much later than usual, my wife was getting ready for bed.
"So who did you meet tonight?" - her voice wafted from the depths of the bathroom.
"The electricity man. Do you know that his very first car cost him £15!"
Laughter from the bathroom.
Think of it - £15. The electricity man and I confessed to one another that we couldn't quite keep up with today's monetary values. What would £15 buy today? A modest book. A main course in an unpretentious restaurant. Parking at an airport for a day or two.
"Mind you, it was a Jowett Bradford truck," he'd told me, "and I spent a lot of time trying to make it work."
I could see Tony (the electricity man's real name) was enjoying our conversation. Sometimes when I see him approaching down a local avenue, he reminds me of Keats's knight: "alone and palely loitering." This misleading appearance of melancholy may have some connection with his not being a Yorkshire man (as I am), but a Lancashire man. Not that this is his fault. However, he palpably cheers up if our chat gets hold of him.
"Oh, Jowett!" I exclaimed. "Oh, yes!"
Four of us from university once made a rather cramped, very warm five-week tour of Italy and France one summer in a Jowett Javelin. It belonged to the only one of us with any real sense of style (not me). This car, shaped like a small dark whale, was not only British built, it was Yorkshire built. It was very sturdy, as a Yorkshire car should be, but it had not forgotten that a car ought to be streamlined.
These were the days when it was still feasible for a provincial car manufacturer to survive. The global situation of today, when German car companies own British companies, and British companies build Japanese cars, and Vauxhall Motors belongs to General Motors, was as yet in the unimaginable future.
The Jowett Javelin stood up to the strain of our cultural European trail pretty well. Only one awkward occurrence sticks in my mind. We were on the way to Bologna, Italy, and a tire went flat on us. None of us could turn a single one of the bolts holding the wheel in place. A massive Italian truck driver drew up and offered to help. But all he managed to do was break the wrench. He shrugged apologetically and drove away. We now had even less leverage. Those sturdy, Yorkshire-built bolts were not going to give in that easily!
'Eventually, one by one, though, they finally loosened," I told Tony, "which explains why we are not still stranded on that dusty hillside and also how we managed to reach Bologna in time to persuade a trattoria to serve us spaghetti Bolognese before midnight."
"Were you camping?" he asked.
"No. Youth hosteling."
"Ah," he said, Keats's sad knight exuberantly banished now, "Great days!"
I didn't want to spoil things by becoming too critically philosophical about days that I frankly recall as having fairly dire ups and downs, so I turned the subject back to cars.
"My first car was a Mini," I said.
The whole subject of first cars brings out something extraordinarily fond and foolish. Minis, built by the British Motor Corporation, were special. Their advent and popularity coincided happily with my father's great generosity as I finished college. I could never have found the £600 plus that a new Mini cost; the salary I received as a starting-out schoolteacher was less than £40 a month. That first car was the pride of my life. I was forever polishing every inch of its surface. The slightest mark - a spot of tar thrown up from the road, a fly on the windscreen - was a blemish that could not be tolerated. Since then, as car has succeeded car, my enthusiasm for car washing has subsided somewhat. Or, to put it another way, vanished.
Minis were small - they had tiny 10-inch wheels - but in those days small was beautiful. Unlike the parental car, it felt like a one-person vehicle, although it was amazing how many passengers and how much junk could be squashed into it. In my Mini I felt like someone who had been given the freedom of a city - only it was the freedom of the whole country, of the world!
"You could buy one of today's Minis," Tony said.
These 2003 cars, surprisingly bulky looking, with enormous wheels, have a top speed of well over 100 miles per hour. They cost £10,000 or more. They seem to me as much like a true Mini as a horse is like a Shetland pony. No doubt they are much more comfortable, better sprung, and so forth. But Minis were truly minimal. You were excitingly close to the road and the seats were surprisingly not as uncomfortable as you might think. As I charged up the only British highway then (only partially) built, the M1 from London to Northamptonshire where I worked, the engine would scream in high-pitched protest as I lead-footed it up to 60 mph, or even a straining 65 downhill.
"They were brilliant little cars," I laughed. Tony agreed wholeheartedly. But I suspect that neither of us would actually want to own one today. He has a VW Golf in his garage. In our driveway, when I walked the dogs round to the back door, I passed a Honda Civic. Jowetts and Minis, of happiest memory, sit in museums.