The editor recalls his early forays into motoring.
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. 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, 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.
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, 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.
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.
 Both choke control and starter levers were mounted on the central tunnel directly behind the gear lever.
 Removing and refitting the 126’s engine was a matter of supreme ease – even in a suburban home garage.
 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.
 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.