History in Cars – Rituals and Symbols

The editor recalls his early forays into motoring.

Image: FIAT Publicity via the author.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on DTW on 29 September 2018. Owing to the poor quality of the originals, stock photos have been used.

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, otherwise 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.

Image: autoevolution

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.

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 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.

The family Renault 5 GTL. Image: The author

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 really 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 126 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, ‘aided’ by myself.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

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

  1. Good morning, Eóin. I tried to start my parents Peugeot 504 GR when I was about eight years old. The car was still in gear so it jumped forward, half a meter or so and didn’t start. Mom and dad weren’t pleased.

    I got my first illegal driving lessons from my dad in his E34 when I was sixteen. At the time you had to be eighteen to drive a car. Immediately when I got my driving license I drove my dad to a few appointments in the E34. I think I did about 400 kilometers that day. At one point he fell asleep and I couldn’t resist flooring it. When he woke up he was surprised by how much distance was covered, but he didn’t reprimand me. The E34 in Calypso red metallic was my dad’s pride and joy, but he let me use it quite often.

    My mom had an Alfa 33 at the time and I washed and polished it all the time and drove it more than she did. The car had a choke but with two double carburetors it was best left alone. Press the accelerator twice and start was the best way to get in going. Keeping the engine running wasn’t easy when the car had been stationary for a while and it was cold outside. It’s a car that I very rarely see these days, but mom’s 33 gave me lots of happy memories.

  2. Good morning Eóin. Your reminiscences reminded my of my earliest driving experiences, on Dollymount strand in Dublin with my dad in his VW Beetle. The strand is a three-mile long stretch of flat, wide beach that, in inclement weather, was often almost deserted, so the perfect place for practicing clutch control and gear-changing:

    In the image above, one can see in the far distance the iconic twin chimneys of the Pigeon House former power station, which are now, I understand, a protected monument.

    My dad was a great fan of VW’s simple, robust and reliable engineering, so it was inevitable that my first car was also a Beetle:

    The Beetle passed to my elder sister and was replaced by a Mazda 323:

    The Mazda was Irish-assembled and, thanks to similar standards of anti-corrosion measures as the Doyle family Anglia, it quickly started rusting. Both front wings and the tailgate needed replacing at just three years old. Suitably chastened, I returned to the VW fold with my first new car:

    The Polo is, of course, pictured on Dollymount strand!

  3. My first driving lessions were not driving exercises, but pure child slave labour.

    During my entire school years, we spent a large part of our summerholidays on a remote farm in the Allgäu (the foothills of the Alps in the south of Baden-Würtemberg).
    We were “allowed” to bring the cows to pasture with the farmer’s children in the morning and back to the barn in the evening. And things like that.
    And of course the farmer used us children for the haymaking and other work. I must have been about 9 or 10 years old when the farmer put me on the tractor, explained the accelerator, brake, clutch and gear shift and I was “allowed” to drive the tractor with the hay tedder or trailer across the field. Later also the (short) way from the field to the farm and back. What was child labour in the true sense of the word, I of course didn’t feel that way at all, I was proud as hell to be allowed (and able) to do it.

    On Saturdays, I washed my father’s car to supplement my pocket money. And when my aunt came with her Fiat 600, I offered to wash her car too.
    One day, I had just finished polishing her car and was cleaning the interior, I thought, hm, accelerator, brake, clutch, gearstick, actually (almost) like a tractor.
    The key was in the ignition. What could possibly go wrong?
    I looked to see if it was in neutral, turned the ignition key, the engine started.
    Pressed the clutch, engaged first gear.
    Let the clutch come in slowly, accelerate slightly.
    The car moved slowly forward. Great.
    I drove forward for about 50 metres and actually wanted to go back. Pressed the clutch, braked to a stop, looked at the gear lever: where the hell is reverse gear?!
    To avoid the embarrassment of pushing the car back again, I drove once around the whole block and parked the car in the same place where I had started.
    I hoped no one had seen me drive and would tell my parents and of course I kept quiet about my trip – probably there would have been anything but commendation, it was different times.

    From that day on, whenever I drove a new/unfamiliar car, the first thing I did was check where reverse was – the experience of that first ride had “burnt itself” into my memory.

    1. At least the Italian made 126s I know had one like most Italian cars until the Eighties.

  4. Fabulous reminiscing from both editor and commentators; a splendid way to open up the afternoon.

    My rusty red (more filler than flier) Mk2 Escort had a similar starting procedure and I’d end up flooding the engine causing catastrophic delays (missing dates and worse still, the pub but never drinking and driving – soft drinks until a designated driver could be found) which was part of the car’s character. A steep learning curve and Eóin’s account is a delightful example.

    Modern stuff is so characterless. Even my S90 only needs the key nearby (at least the on/off switch is suitably knurled) but no histrionics, coughing or spluttering – from me or the car – and the ev brigade simply hop in and set off. The few youngsters I know of learner driver ages just don’t care for driving. Whilst the few that do go straight in for several hundred quid a month route where everything works and there’s back up of it suddenly doesn’t. Apart from classic car enthusiasts, when did you last see someone repairing (or extracting) their engine at the roadside? Probably for the best, mind…

  5. Great tales, Gentlemen – thank you for a trip down memory lane on my birthday! But another school day, too – I never knew that child labour tractor driving was practiced outside of England…. In my case it was a Fordson (the one with an oval petrol tank above the engine) on a farm in Devon and I would have happily done it all day every day. Best of all was the following year when I was taught how to reverse a trailer loaded with hay into the barn. Those were the days…..

    As for starting procedures – I had a starter solenoid fail to function the other day (turned out to only be a loose connection) but a sharp upward swing of the starting handle and the engine burst into life.

  6. I was somewhat privileged as my Grandfather had an agricultural equipment business and as he really liked my interest in everything with an engine even as a small boy I was encouraged to drive Hanomag tractors when I was about ten years old.
    My favourites were the ATK 55 monster tractors of the naval airforce used to pull their F104 Starfighters and for which my Granddad held a service contract.

  7. Put an electric drivetrain and a decent battery in that 126 and I would be first in line to buy one.

  8. My chainsaw has an interesting starting ritual. Six + pumps on the “tickler”, pull out the choke, pull the start handle once, push the choke in, then pull the handle again until she fires. My current lawnmower, in contrast, has no tickler or choke – just pull the handle and she goes.

  9. Automatic chokes had long been the norm by the time I learned to drive (at least on US-market cars); actually, EFI was on new ones but in the early ’90s most of what I had access to was worn-out malaise machines from a decade or so before with the unhappy combination of cat and carb (with various types of vacuum- and computer controls and “tamper proofing” features, the latter usually defeated since the car was well past the mileage it was permissible to do so, but sometimes intact despite the increasing detriment to driveability). Each required a slightly different rain dance to start, with between 2 and 5 pumps of the accelerator before starting – not enough and you’d under-enrich and might as well have no choke at all, too much and you’d flood the engine – and I suspect so many people said a little prayer first that the widespread introduction of EFI was a contributor to the excess religious fervor that’s been sloshing around ever since.

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