Remembering who Hertz put in the passenger’s seat
In the mid Seventies, living in London, fresh from college, unsure of myself and facing a stagnant economy, I took employment doing something I knew I’d be capable of. I became a Hertz delivery driver. Back then, Hertz were the envy of Avis. All car hire chains end up with too many, or the wrong type of cars in one place, and not enough in another. Avis solved this by loading cars onto a big transporter and dropping them off where needed, imagining that one guy driving 6 cars around would be cheaper than six drivers. Hertz knew differently.
The Hertz scheme was simple and old-fashioned. They employed drivers on a casual basis. You signed on with them, showing a clean licence. There were three shifts, and you could only attend one a day. You turned up at Hertz in Marble Arch and signed in. The dispatcher would start at the top of the list and call out as many names as he had drives for. If your name wasn’t called you could hang about on the off-chance, but you probably went home. If you had a drive, you would normally be part of a team of two or more. One person was appointed Lead Driver – he was the lucky one. If there were, say, four Cortinas to be brought down from Birmingham, yet they were short one Escort, three of you and the lead driver squeezed into an Escort and drove up to Birmingham. Up there the Escort was dropped off and you, all four, drove the Cortinas back down to London. You only got paid when you were driving, and it was by the journey, not the hour, with a simple list showing a city to city rate. So the lead driver got paid for going up and down, but the other three only got paid for coming down. In extreme cases, there was a rate for recompensing for huge delays or special trips, but it was rarely given. In the time I was there, I don’t think I ever earned more that 50p an hour, which was poor money even then. There were mythical tales of three people taking three Cortinas up to Manchester, one taking an Escort back down to London whilst the other two took a Granada and a Capri down to Cardiff, both returning to London in another Cortina of different specification. Big money all round – but I never saw it.
But don’t think there was ever any resentment from me, or for that matter most of my colleagues. We needed the money yet might have been no worse off on the dole (though in those un-networked days some were aiming to get away with both). But we had other reasons for being there. For some it was self-respect, just having a job, for others an excuse to get out of the house, for some it was a chance to socialise and for others the chance to drive cars, fast. For me it was probably all four. Also, since I read On The Road at an impressionable age (probably the only time you should read it), there will always be something romantic about shifting cars around at odd hours of the day. Sure, Central London to Leicester is hardly Nashville to Albuquerque and might not qualify as a real road trip, but it’s the best we’ve got over here.
In my short time at Hertz I probably had more passengers than I’ve ever had since and was passenger to more drivers than ever since. Some of the drivers were good, some were horrific, most of the passengers were interesting. Because it was piece work, we drove as quickly as we could. No-one ever seemed to say ‘slow down I want to live’ rather more likely was ‘speed up, I want to take home 20 quid this week’. There were accidents. One guy was very lucky when a truck forced his car into the central reservation near Cardiff, writing it off. Another one lost a 2 litre Granada in the rain, joining the M1 from the M6. Climbing from the battered car, he stuck a penknife in a rear tyre. Why? Because if you even scratched a car you were dismissed, but if you had an accident not your fault, that was OK. So a bit of bad car control became heroic survival of a blowout.
Forget the legendary black and gold Hertz special Shelby Mustang above, used only to attract your attention to this piece, our cars were drawn from Ford’s mid-Seventies UK range. Escort 1.1 and 1.3, Cortina 1.6 and 2.0, Granada 2.0 and 3.0 Ghia and the odd 1.6 and 2.0 Capri. Also, very rarely, a Daimler Sovereign appeared from the VIP fleet. Whilst I was there they were still deciding whether the fancy front drive Fiesta was too left-field for the rental market, and the Mark III Cortina got replaced by the Mark IV. So I drove a lot of then current Fords and can say, with authority, that most were rubbish, despite the cosy nostalgia some people seem to have. The rudimentary suspension of the Escort nearly put me sideways going up onto Hammersmith flyover one rainy night, the Cortina Mark III was a tacky 2/3 scale Yank Tank, cheap with vague controls whose slop I can feel to this day. Why anyone has fond memories of any Capri that isn’t a 2.8 injection I have no idea. The only Fords that emerged with my respect were the Cortina Mark IV – which in comparison with its dreadful predecessor seemed at least half good – and the Granada. In 3 litre Ghia form, with auto and power steering, it was actually a might stodgy, but the basic manual 2 litre you could throw around with abandon. Oh yes, the fabulous Granny, for this was the time of The Sweeney on TV and we were well lairy and up for it My Son.
I became more friendly with Geoff * than anyone. On first view I took against him for some reason, but he turned out to be an interesting guy and I liked him. He’d joined the Army as a boy soldier, had served in Cyprus where he’d saved a busload of people from a terrorist attack and had then raced motorcycles. I always find it polite to believe anything I’m told, unless it involves me parting with money, but his story was given credence by the fact that he willingly volunteered that his last job had been as a pub landlord and he had, since then, been inside for fraud.
Billy came from Scotland. He was of pre-diet Meat Loaf proportions and not too careful with personal hygiene. He had a lot of stories of sexual exploits which were both so unlikely and so unsavoury that I put aside my default credulity. He was fine with me, though obviously thought I was an effete fool, an attitude reinforced by us giving a female art student hitch hiker a lift back from an interview in London all the way to Swansea and me sitting in the back with her politely discussing what other courses she was applying to. His repeating of my “And what other courses have you applied for?” in a strong Glasgow accent, mixed somehow with a lisping Home Counties overlay, still rings in my head.
Doug was not a team player, friendly but never where he should be. He once kept a car load of us waiting, our hourly rate tumbling still further, whilst he carried out some endless banking business and, when I had to go and rescue him broken down in an M4 Service Area one night, he’d left having hitched a ride with someone else. He didn’t miss anything though – when I slipped my ID tag in my pocket when driving a Daimler Sovereign, he teased me mercilessly.
There was Phil, young but at the tail end of Notting Hill Hippydom with a Zapata moustache explaining with good humour that 1976 had been a crappy year – having bought in a batch of thick wooly Afghan coats at a knock down price to sell down Portobello, London had experienced record heat waves. Nevertheless, he impressed me by having managed to transport more people by 2CV than I had, by virtue of putting one on the roof.
There were other frustrated or would-be entrepreneurs. I had a long trip back down to London with Dermot, who outlined his plans for selling the most realistic looking artificial flowers that he’d found in Spain to Harrods – arriving back at Marble Arch too late for buses, he borrowed £5 from me to stay at a Paddington hotel. I never saw him again, which is probably why when I think of him now, I see the image of Father Ted. Anyway, I guess his financial head was sewn on. What was it I said above about parting with money?
The only person I met who I had real concerns for, possibly because I feared I might be seeing my own future, was Mr Jennings – he never revealed his first name. He was probably in his mid 50s, respectably dressed but threadbare and colourless, and somehow both distracted and nervous. I assumed he must have had some sort of breakdown and, if so, he wasn’t over it. He seemed hardly to be there at all, his driving was dangerously bad, pulling in front of approaching traffic and going over kerbs on nearly every city corner. In the end, if he was lead driver, we just took the keys from him and let him sit in the back earning the bonus, whilst someone else drove. At least we survived. I hope that he did.
Jeremy was from the Cavalry barracks across the Park. He was one of three chums who joined at the same time. We didn’t take them seriously assuming, possibly unjustly, that with their plummy tones they didn’t need the work. On one occasion, as he was hurrying to pick up the keys to the Holy Grail, a Granada Ghia, The huge Billy tripped him up and took them for himself.
Another chastening warning for my possible future was Bert, a retired pensioner. Just after Christmas, we did a run together and, to my polite enquiry about his Christmas he replied “Well, we had Christmas dinner and I said to the missus, I’ll pop down to Hertz and see what they’ve got. Had a nice run up to Birmingham and I was back home by seven for some cold turkey”. He was definitely one of the ‘gets me out of the house’ bunch
James was about my age, but far more self-assured and urbane. I got the feeling he had seen so much more of life than me but maybe that was because he was a resting actor and was just playing another part. A few years later, he got fictional notoriety as a caddish rapist in a TV soap.
Mick and a couple of mates had just arrived from New Zealand. As guests and probably a bit nervous, I felt they should benefit from my huge experience of UK roads. Taking four brand new Cortinas straight from the dealers to Gatwick, I managed to get us lost. On explaining to the Kiwis the correct way we should be going, Mick gave me a pitying look and jumped back in his car, despite my instructions apparently driving off in the wrong direction followed by his compatriots. However, that was just to get enough momentum for the three of them to execute a formation handbrake turn and disappear into the distance, leaving me, the so-called Lead Driver, to puff in last.
It was fortunate that I was paired with Ronnie when I ran someone down. He was a distinguished looking guy in his 50s, pleasant to talk to and very sensible. As I was driving a Capri up the inside lane of slow moving traffic through Streatham, a girl ran straight in front of us. Despite prompt braking she rolled up over our bonnet, then back onto the road. By the time we’d got out of the car she was already on her feet looking for a lost shoe, which we found sitting decorously on top of a truckload of beer crates. She said she was OK but Ronnie asked her how old she was and, on finding her underaged, insisted we took her back to her parents to get their assurance that everything was OK.
Mike was the head dispatcher and, like a hard schoolmaster, he treated us all as wayward kids and was pretty unapproachable. We sighed with disappointment when, phoning from some distant Hertz office and hoping for a lucrative return trip, we heard his trademark nasal “Just back to Marbles (Marble Arch), lads!”. One day he beckoned me into his office for a ‘special’. Asking if I knew how to let down a car’s tyres without using a knife I said yes, assuming it wasn’t a trick question and that I could work something out. I was then sent out to a London suburb to disable the company car of a Hertz employee, who had obviously left acrimoniously. Fortunately, since by the time I got there I still hadn’t worked out how to do it without constant application of a pointed object to each valve in turn, the car was nowhere to be found. Is it still missing?
As mentioned above, the TV cop series The Sweeney was in its pomp and, four up in a big Ford, I think some of my companions thought they were Jack Regan or George Carter, off mob-handed to deal with a bunch of blaggers, even if the toughest fight we ever had was persuading the staff of Watford Gap Services that we were ‘transport’ and thus permitted to have bigger cups of tea and bacon sandwiches.
National Service stopped in the UK nine years before I would have reached the relevant age, but I often feared it would be brought back by those who felt that we wayward youth ‘needed a bit of discipline’. However one benefit grudgingly cited by many of those who experienced conscription is that it caused you to meet a wider range of people than from your own background. I had gone from being a highly introverted, middle-class schoolboy to a sort of London arty bohemianism, where I became more outgoing, but only really in the company of people I knew. My time at Hertz was fortuitous and, even at less that 50p an hour, better value than therapy and maybe less traumatic than a spell in the forces.
I also had some memorable drives. Bringing an accident damaged Capri up the M3, pulling nastily to the left was challenging. Picking up a Cortina from a hotel, I found the passenger seat coated with an interesting looking white substance which, disappointingly, turned out to be soap powder. Being stopped en route to Liverpool in an Escort by a young cop and told ‘If I catch you driving in Runcorn like that again …’ has kept me in the South ever since. Geoff and I did a reasonably lucrative special on country roads down to Weymouth to pick up an abandoned Cortina, with one of the finest bacon sandwiches en route. Shuttling new cars from a dealer in Essex one foggy night was challenging but eerily pretty.
But the best drive was a solo one up to Manchester on a December night. It started snowing on Edgware Road and as I got onto the M1 it was beginning to lay. Had I been in a Mark III, I’d have been more circumspect, but I had enough confidence in the dark blue Mark IV Cortina 2.0 GL (memory is a funny thing) to enter the third lane to overtake – being less used this is always the first lane to get slippery. By the time I came off onto the M6 it was snowing heavily, but as the road was near empty and the surface was still OK, I was travelling at about 80 mph. At this speed, the snowflakes were coming at me near horizontally. I accelerated to 100 at which point, in the light of full beam headlamps, the whole effect became reminiscent of the stargate sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. It was entrancing. In hindsight I’m sure I was a twitch away from disaster but I was young and John Peel was playing The Ramones on the radio.
Fortunately, after 3 months, Hertz dismissed me. Not that I’d done anything bad but, just as they told all their casual drivers at the start they would, in order to avoid us getting any long-term employment rights. I say fortunately because, for all I know, I might still be there otherwise. I could have gone back after another 3 months but, by then, I’d found another job. Thanks Hertz, it was OK.
* Needless to say, all names have been changed, partly to protect both the innocent and the guilty, partly because I have forgotten some.