When driving was fun
If you are a driver you will know that driving is no longer something you do for the fun of it. That famous line in the Beatles’ song about retirement: " ... Sunday morning, go for a drive" is no longer applicable to a happy retirement. How did that come about?
When I finished my National Service in 1958 I was in my early twenties with little money and a desire for some adventure yet little idea of how to go about getting it. I was born with a love of boats. Heaven knows why. Nobody in my family ever owned one and the sea was miles away, but that’s how it was. I suppose I must have been a sailor in an earlier life. I had heard that there was a boat for sale for £75 on a canal in London. It was an old wooden pinace and was moored in a dock somewhere in the East End. I arranged to go and view it and asked my Dad to take me there in his car. He took one look at the boat, nearly fainted and asked me why I didn’t buy a car instead. "I haven’t the money to buy one" was the simple answer. "How much would one cost that you would like to own?" he then asked me. "I’ve seen a lovely little sports car for £500," I told him. "OK", he said. "If you don’t buy this boat, I will lend you the money to buy a car, but whatever you do, DON’T BUY THAT BOAT!"
For the time being, then, my interest in boats suddenly vanished and a few weeks later I became the proud owner of my first car. Fortunately, I had taken the opportunity of learning to drive during my National Service so I was well prepared – or thought I was – but that’s another story. The important thing is that I was now mobile and could drive around the streets of London and lanes of the countryside whenever I felt like it. I had a good job and was well paid so the loan was soon paid off and I could easily afford the upkeep and fuel bills. Petrol was about 5/-
Whenever I see an old British film from the early sixties I am usually amazed at how few cars there were on the roads then. We tend to forget how much fun it was to drive. You could still see policemen on ‘point duty’, standing in the middle of crossroads directing traffic; and hand signals were still used by drivers to indicate their intentions. This is little more than fifty years ago. Cars did not have supercharged engines or disk brakes and drivers like my Dad tended to keep a decent distance from the car in front. A normal speed on a main road was about 45 – 50 mph. In fact a common expression at the time for somebody going fast was to say that: "He must have been doing sixty miles an hour!" I have to admit that I didn’t always keep a decent distance or drive as sedately as my father. I did, unfortunately, make use of the spaces between cars to overtake and particularly enjoyed the road holding of my little wagon that allowed me to accelerate round cars slowing to enter roundabouts when they had to start braking. I did say that I wasn’t as prepared for driving as I thought I was, didn’t I?
The main joy of driving though was the freedom to travel far and wide. Traffic jams were unusual and confined to holiday weekends. There was only one motorway when I first started driving: the M1 and that stopped at Coventry. A-
One Sunday outing, I and my friend Denis made several times around 1960, was to drive up the M1 as far as Coventry to see how they were getting on with building the new Coventry Cathedral. There was a good view from the motorway as one approached the city and I was always fascinated by the great maze of scaffolding that filled the space between the two sides of the building. When the place was eventually finished and opened, I have to admit that I thought the scaffolding interior had been far more interesting than the finished product; but that was then and I was a Philistine. I gradually learned to appreciate some of the artwork, though never fully approved of the alter tapestry by Graham Sutherland.
From Coventry we would drive across to Stratford-
A common sight on the country roads of Essex at that time were car rallies. Sometimes they took the form of competitions in which one had to search for clues and answer questions. This activity was short lived, however, because it became a nuisance to local residents and was also dangerous to traffic. More common was the one-
Little wonder, then, that grey haired wrinklies like me mutter and scowl when faced with the prospect of having to drive anywhere today. We are really counting our blessings for having been so fortunate to have enjoyed the days when driving was fun.