Some things come and go but others remain constant. From the recent appearance of another vehicle in our neighbour’s driveway, belonging to their elder son, it appears that the allure of a first car shows no sign of diminishing. My first car entered my life as a direct result of a change of employment. Up to that point I’d always worked near enough to walk or cycle to and from work, something that kept me fitter and slimmer than I’ve been at any time before or after, but that’s another matter.
My new job was only seven miles from home but getting there involved travelling on three buses each way. In those days buses were packed to capacity during rush hours and it wasn’t unusual to see one’s bus sail past the stop at speed, packed to the gunwales with far in excess of the permitted five standing passengers. After some horrendous journeys, arriving home or at work soaked to the skin, I decided things couldn’t continue.
I’d learned to drive as soon as I was old enough to obtain a provisional licence but I’d never taken it very seriously. The prospect of car ownership and all that entailed for a nineteen-year-old concentrated my mind like nothing else could. In those days it was usual to be taught to drive by a relative; professional driving lessons were for rich people, not for lads who lived on council estates!
When I had exhausted my father’s patience, I turned to an uncle with considerably more understanding and a delightful 1940 Rover 12 P2 series saloon. The combination of these was sufficient for me to earn the coveted white slip. Within weeks of passing my test, my father and I were scouting for a suitable first vehicle. Thus, one Saturday morning in late 1963, I parted with £145 for a battleship grey 1955 Standard 10, registration number VTD 577.
Having my own transport and escaping the tyranny of the bus queue was an experience like no other. I could come and go as I pleased without reference to bus and train timetables. I could also go places where no public transport existed and, in the three years that I owned my Standard, I covered about 20,000 miles. In those days, before Chancellors of the Exchequer regarded motorists as milch-cows to fund their social engineering experiments, a £1 note filled its tank and provided me with about a week’s commuting and pleasure motoring.
My pride and joy took me to such far-flung places as Sheffield and Salisbury, where a friend and I went to see a gig by a rock band that we knew. We arrived to be told that the event was cancelled so, after a swift half of bitter, it was back on the road home!
Lines like “let me take you home in my car” worked wonders with prospective girlfriends. Suddenly I found myself with lots of new friends as, unsurprisingly, my popularity rose dramatically when people realised that I might give them a lift. At times it was hard to decide whom to oblige, so the problem was frequently solved by taking them all. In Kensington High Street late one night, one of the springs snapped under the weight of at least seven occupants.
Under my father’s tutelage I became a competent car mechanic, something that was to stand me in good stead for many years and saved me fortunes in routine servicing and repair costs. Cars of that era were basic, to say the least, though my one had the luxury of a heater! There was plenty of scope for fitting accessories and my car soon boasted spot and fog lamps, plus a radio that needed a rotary converter fitted under the bonnet to power its valves. It was on that set that I heard the first feint broadcasts from the pirate radio stations that sprouted off the Essex coast.
Today I lift my car’s bonnet and scratch my head at all the gadgetry that the manufacturers have shoehorned into the engine compartment. It’s said that they don’t make cars like they used to and for that I’m glad. Most weeks found me doing at least some minor maintenance or repairs on my Standard.
The worst mishap to occur in my first car was to have an engine hose burst while travelling at speed (well, as fast as the old girl would go) while travelling home along the infant M2. After putting in a call and waiting for an RAC patrol that never arrived I was rescued by an AA patrolman with a penchant for private enterprise. After paying for the replacement parts, I only had a ten-shilling note to give him for his troubles, somewhat less than he’d been expecting!
Just as one job change led to me buying my first car, another put me on the path to selling it. My new job was in Putney, diagonally across London from my home in Chigwell, and involved shift-work. Nowadays I wouldn’t dream of commuting across Central London with current traffic levels and journey times, even without the burden of Commissar Ken’s so-called congestion charging, but in those days I did, bringing in some useful help with the running costs in the form of paid lifts for colleagues.
By that time, my old Standard was starting to show her age and it was clear she wouldn’t be capable much longer of the daily schedule I’d set for her. A couple of unrelated events put the process into motion. A friend’s sister’s boyfriend was looking for his first car and my father had recently bought another car and wanted to dispose of his old one. It made sense for me to part company with my first car and use my father’s cast-off 1953 Rover 75 P4 saloon, albeit as a temporary measure.
The fateful day came and I delivered my Standard to its new owner, collecting four £10 notes in exchange. I never saw it again but eventually heard that its new owner’s neglect had resulted in VTD 577 becoming unroadworthy. Whether it was rescued or went to the scrap yard remains a mystery to this day.
I never owned another Standard car. The Standard 10 was replaced by the Pennant, after which Standard-Triumph ceased to make cars under the Standard name. Years later, my wife and I owned a pair of Triumphs; a Herald 13/60 Estate and a Spitfire Mk3 respectively, both direct descendants of the Standard 10 with a 1,300 cc version of the Standard’s 948cc four-cylinder engine.
I've had many cars since then. All of them have been faster and more luxurious, not surprisingly, given the basic specification of most mid-1950s cars, but nothing’s ever compared with the thrill of getting my first set of wheels, even one with a cold metal dashboard and plastic seats!
© Brian Smith 2003
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