Driven to Write recalls his early forays into motoring.
Starting procedure: Insert key into ignition. Turn key clockwise. Lift floor mounted enrichment (choke) lever fully. Engage clutch. Lift spring-loaded, floor mounted starter (mounted behind gear lever next to choke). Hold until engine fires. Ignore the shaking of the engine on its mountings as it settles into life. On no account touch the throttle until the lateral shaking ceases, or else engine will cut out and the process will have to be restarted in its entirety.
In 1979 a pale blue Fiat 126 entered our life, replacing my mother’s Ford Ang Deluxe. When our black 105E left Cork’s Marina plant in 1967 it was of course identified by its proper Anglia nomenclature, but one bored summer afternoon in 1976 my brother slid off the bootlid, whereupon he had been sitting, taking with him the last three letters of the chromed nameplate. A matter which didn’t exactly endear him to my mother.
The Anglia was only twelve years old when it left us, but while it was mechanically hale, the perennial damp of Ireland’s climate, combined with Ford’s likely non-existent rustproofing ensured the body was fed to the swine.
Ecce Bambino! Despite it being something of a tight squeeze for a mother and four gangly teenagers, the family as one fell in love with the diminutive Fiat. Once the ‘ignore at your peril’ starting procedure was mastered and the engine fully warmed up, it was a flyer – even more so after my father detected a faulty exhaust valve and having removed the engine, replaced and ground in a replacement, Giacosa’s little two cylinder really sang.
The author was some way off legal driving age at the time of its arrival, but a lengthy and determined campaign of persuasion saw my dad agreeing to take my brother and I to a local shopping centre car park in the dead of night to learn the basics. But while endless circuits of the empty facility were instructive, it wasn’t long before they ceased buttering much in the way of turnips.
So we took to the roads, and once again (illegal) nocturnal forays were the order of business. I learned the fundamentals of roadcraft in the 126, which in retrospect was an ideal novice’s car. Compact, with easy to judge extremities, great outward visibility, narrow width, quick steering and insufficient power to get oneself into serious trouble. I adored that car.
The Bambino left us under something of a cloud. One evening the throttle jammed wide open while my mother was driving home in busy evening traffic – the 126 ploughing into the rear of a stationary Lancia. The Fiat was drivable (the Lancia was not), but both my mother and sister were injured and somewhat traumatised. We later discovered this was a known fault of the 126 model and was said to have led to at least one fatality.
I put up an impassioned defence of the car, but to no avail. A Renault 5 GTL (like so many of our automotive waifs and strays) arrived on the back of a tow rope, and once returned to life (it had suffered fire damage and required a new interior and a replacement wiring loom – all completed during evenings and weekends by my former mechanic father), the 126 departed. Tears were shed.
I never warmed to the R5, firstly because it usurped the much-loved Fiat and secondly, because I was young, impressionable and simply didn’t understand it. In its defence, it was probably wasn’t in its first flush of youth, so the vague steering, even vaguer gearchange and understeering handling characteristics probably weren’t quite as it was when it left Douai in 1977.
By comparison with the 126, it was a somewhat ponderous device and while it rode the frost-scarred local roads with remarkable compliance, I was not in the market to be cosseted. Youth is wasted on the young.
It is however the car in which I later passed my driving test – at first attempt. Proud was not the word. I drove straight from the test centre to the car park which had been the scene of my earliest forays into powered transport and theatrically tore up the learner plates I had hastily affixed to the Renault’s nose and tail that morning. After all, symbolism matters, to say nothing of ritual.