History in Cars – Rituals and Symbols

The editor recalls his early forays into motoring.

Owing to the poor quality of the originals, stock photos have been used. Image: autoevolution

The starting procedure: Insert key into ignition slot. Twist key. Lift floor mounted enrichment (choke) lever fully[1]. Engage clutch. Lift spring-loaded, floor mounted starter lever. Hold until engine fires. Ignore the intense vibration of the little twin cylinder engine on its mountings as it settles into life. On no account touch the throttle or choke lever until this lateral shaking ceases, or else engine will cut out and the process will have to be restarted in its entirety. Modulate choke lever until engine has reached operating temperature.

In 1979 a pale blue, Tipperary-registered Fiat 126 entered our lives, replacing my mother’s 1967 Ford Ang Deluxe. When our jet-black 105E left Cork’s Marina plant 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, and while mechanically hale, the perennial damp of Ireland’s climate, combined with Ford of Cork’s excuse for rustproofing ensured that what was left of 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 baby Fiat. Once the ignore at your peril starting procedure was mastered and the engine fully warmed, it was a flyer – even more so after my father diagnosed a burnt out exhaust valve and having removed the engine[2], replaced and ground in a replacement (he was good at that sort of thing), Cordiano’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 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 with my long-suffering father were the order of business. I learned the fundamentals of roadcraft in the 126, which in retrospect was the ideal novice’s car. Compact, with easy to judge extremities, great outward visibility, narrow width, quick steering and insufficient power to get oneself into trouble. I adored that car.

The Bambino left us under something of a cloud. One wet evening (It always seemed to be wet in Cork) the throttle jammed open while my mother was driving home in evening traffic – the 126 ploughing into the rear of a stationary Lancia Beta. The 126 was drivable (the Lancia was not), but both my mother and sister were injured and somewhat traumatised. It took some time to diagnose the cause, which again happened quite by accident[3].

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[4], the 126 departed. Tears were shed.

Our R5. Image: The author

I never fully warmed to the 5, 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 entirely 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 host to 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.

[1] Both choke control and starter levers were mounted on the central tunnel directly behind the gear lever.

[2] Removing and refitting the 126’s engine was a matter of supreme ease – even in a suburban home garage.

[3] The cause of the accident was a mystery until the throttle jammed again, when I was parking it. It was, were were later informed, a known issue.  

[4] The R5 had suffered fire damage and required a new interior and a replacement wiring loom – all completed during evenings and weekends by my father and ‘supervised‘ by myself.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

17 thoughts on “History in Cars – Rituals and Symbols”

  1. A lovely reminiscence, thank you, Eóin. It reminded me of my first tentative moves behind the wheel, driving up and down Dollymount Strand in Dublin with my dad in his beloved Beetle. Inevitably, my first car was also one of VW’s finest:

  2. I leaned to drive (unofficially) in a friends family’s VW Transporter, well-before I was legally allowed on roads. I became quite adept at driving around the local country park at night with its twisting lanes. When ‘proper’ lessons commenced in a Datsun Cherry in 1986, the instructor couldn’t understand why I didn’t start turning corners until almost into the next one. I don’t think I ever admitted the truth.

  3. I suspect there is an entire article to be devoted to the starting rituals of pre solid state injection controlled cars.

    The right amount of choke (ignore the indents that no longer correlate to the engines requirements), the precise amount of throttle at exactly the right time, understanding the difference between a stall inducing shudder or just a request for a bit less choke.

    No wonder people under 35 no longer think cars have character beyond the ability to have Apple Car Play

    1. Not forgetting the dark period of electric chokes and ‘Automatic Enrichment Devices’ which never improved matters but introduced a whole new area of unpredictability to the ritual.

      As a young boy I could never understand why my Dad always pushed the manual choke in too early, causing is to lurch and splutter away from the house towards the oncoming traffic, yet I now do exactly the same on my old cars. Dedication to the state of ones spark plugs must be total.

    2. The last car I had with a manual choke was a Peugeot 205. I used to forget to close it sometimes. Was it great fun? No, not really but these days I´d find it amusing much as I have got back into the habit of having a separate camera and mobile telephone.

      One had to fiddle with the choke a bit as one drove offf, guessing when it was not needed and sometimes opening it if I had judged it wrong: one slows down and senses the engine needing more juice and quickly pull the choke out a tad.

      Next I´ll be roasting my own coffee beans.

    3. Until the late Seventies most Italian cars not only had manual chokes but also manual throttle controls, the Italian version of cruise control. These manual throttle devices were very funny when somebody else drove the car and inadvertently pulled the wrong lever…

      Old Alfas (Giulia et al.) were started without using the choke. You just turned on the ignition and waited until the electrical fuel pump had primed the standard fit ‘Malpassi Filter King’ filter and fuel pressure regulator. Once fuel pressure had built up you stabbed on the throttle to activate the accelerator pumps, three times in summer, six times in winter. You then used the starter and massaged the engine into live using the accelerator pumps. Once the engine had woken up, manual throttle control was used to set idle speed at 1,500 rpm and the engine was run for about a minute to warm it up a bit.

  4. The Beetle was one of those few cars with an automatic choke back in the 1970’s. As I recall, it worked pretty well and the car never failed to start. My first experience of a choke was on the car that replaced it:

    These were assembled in Ireland by the same company that imported Volkswagen Group cars. Build quality was a world away from Japanese standards, to the extent that front wings and tailgate rusted through from inside after 18 months, necessitating their replacement, and I had to stump up the labour cost for this work! This notwithstanding, the Mazda was sweet to drive and rather more comfortable than the Beetle.

    1. Daniel: I remember those early 323’s well. Almost overnight they were everywhere, and with some justification. They did rust with staggering enthusiasm though – albeit, just about everything locally assembled did. Interestingly, the Fiat wasn’t that bad in this regard. Rust was nibbling at the body seams, but nothing of too drastic a measure. Mind you, it was garaged.

      The Renault rusted in odd places. I recall one of the door bottoms starting to go, but only on one side. Of more concern, the area around the hatchback hinges began to rot, eventually causing the tailgate counterbalance to give up the ghost – prompting us to prop it up with a broomhandle.

      This ultimately proved to be my leverage against the cinq, arguing that the unsupported (and really heavy) tailgate would come crashing down upon my poor unsuspecting mother’s head one day. I got my way that time (the first of several pyrrhic victories) and the Five departed. I don’t think my mother has ever quite forgiven me.

      Robin/Richard: Choke management. A lost art.

    2. That photo has a very evokative cast. It probably isn´t Kodakcrome but reminds me of that. My understanding of photographic paper and inks is that they are not as stable as printed photographs found in books and magazines. Some are more stable than others and, as I understand it, the benchmark was something called Cibachrome which is very much not what most people get from their local photography shop then or now. The instability of the inks explains, in part, why photos from that period look the way they do. Photos I printed from film to paper via analogue processes in 2002/2003/2004 are already acquiring a slightly blurry look, as if the little droplets of ink that were once separate start bleeding into one another.

    3. Yes, some electric chokes worked – probably simpler was better, and the Beetle was a pretty simple setup. Rover dabbled with a more complex system on the P5B in 1969/70, but finally had to offer a dealer refit back to a manual setup, as even the factory couldn’t get the thing to work reliably.

  5. My Dad bought one of those 323s, it must have been about 1979/80. It was a yellow estate, affectionately nicknamed The Wasp. He was the first person in our family to buy a Japanese car and caught a bit of stick from his brothers for it. Ironically a few years later they went on to own far more Japanese cars than he ever did.

    I think he bought it because his previous car was a Morris Marina and he got fed up with its unreliability. I don’t remember it rusting particularly, but I wasn’t very old at the time. I never knew they were locally assembled. He replaced it with the following generation 323, which was a lot more angular and had a great toolkit.

  6. Richard, both photos above were taken by an analogue SLR camera on 35mm film. They were “digitised” using the simple expedient of photographing the print using my tablet. This has exaggerated the sepia tone somewhat.

    Eóin and John, I remember at the time hearing that VW were unhappy with the quality of Irish assembled Beetles and wanted to terminate the arrangement, so the importer did the assembly deal with Mazda instead and then imported fully built VWs. Yes, these 323s were very popular. They were certainly pleasant cars to drive and better appointed than, for example, the contemporary Escort.

    I returned to the VW fold with my next, and first new, car:

    The Polo felt much more substantial and modern, if rather austere after the Mazda. It didn’t even come with a radio as standard. I fitted a rather nice Pioneer radio cassette player, which was promptly stolen when the car was parked in Merrion Square while I was at work. Happy days!

    1. One of these was the only car I ever bought new. Mine was a 1.1 Formel E. High-geared, but 50bhp goes a long way with 13cwt to haul, especially if you mainly use the first three gears. It was my Poor Man’s Golf GTI, and managed better journey times than the real thing when I graduated to it five years later.

      I’m intrigued by the Japanese-style pillar aerial. Mine had a narrow base black anodised telescopic item to fit the pre-formed hole in the very slim top surface of the front wing. The radio cassette was a Ford branded Blaupunkt Hamburg obtained at an agreeable price from a local speedshop.

  7. Yes, Richard, the photo was taken by my sister on Dolymount Strand, Dublin. The location of the Mazda photograph is, I think, Carlingford Lough.

  8. Hi Robertas, the A-pillar aerial was my doing, although I’m not entirely sure why I chose this over one fitted on the nearside front wing in the hole provided. I seem to recall that it was quite common at the time in Dublin for raised car aerials to be snapped off in acts of mindless vandalism. Perhaps the offside A-Pillar fitment was more easily remembered and lowered when parking the car?

    Incidentally, on the subject of car aerials, does anyone remember those long fibreglass “whip” aerials that were briefly fashionable in the 1970’s? They were typically fitted to the front wing and stretched back in an arc to a clip fitted to the roof gutter towards the rear of the car.

  9. Ah, the 126p (the version built in Poland, using the Italian licence) was a car that pretty much single handedly motorised Poland. Probably 80% of cars on the road were “Maluchs” (noone called it by its badge name, “maluch” means “the little one” in Polish). My mum’s first car was one very similar to the one in your photo, a “banana yellow” first generation. She got it after her father moved on to his Skoda Favorit (which he drives to this day).

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