Of course driving is intrinsic to a being a motor mechanic. There is no way even now for someone to be able to do the job properly, understanding the way a vehicle works and diagnosing faults if you can’t drive.
I was sixteen the week after I started in the job and I did not have too long to wait before one of the other young mechanics who was a qualified (he had passed his test) driver suggested that I have my first taste of the behind the wheel experience. I protested my innocence in such matters. I did not have any idea how to control a car but he was very persuasive and it was not long before I was sat in the driver’s seat of a Ford Popular (Pop). This was the model that Henry Ford produced for sale at the unbelievable price of £100.00 as long as you were happy with the choice of colour – black. No other choice was available!
Basic as it was, it was far too complicated for me to master. I need to explain the layout of the garage. Cars were repaired on the first floor and Trucks on the ground floor. To access the car workshop, there was a steep ramp that went up the side of the building. At the top there was a sharp left hand turn, straight again for a few yards and then another left turn into the workshop which was usually packed with cars but fortunately not at this time.
I still do not know how I made it! My ‘instructor’ gave me a quick run down on the controls then gave me my head. To get up the ramp with a vehicle of that type required a lot of throttle pedal. So we roared up the ramp and I somehow managed to negotiate the two left hand turns into the workshop area. Instruction must have been given to remove my right foot from the throttle pedal and I was told to park up into a space angling towards the rail that ran alongside the steps back down into the Truck workshop. The instruction to brake quite quickly became a command but I could not find the brake pedal. Fortunately I did not find the accelerator either so I quite gently rolled into the stair rail rather than through it.
I was horror-stricken and we both jumped out to survey the damage. The car was in very nice condition but I had managed to add a blemish. There was a kink in the left side front wing. My ‘instructor’ took on the responsibility of doing the repair and as it was Saturday afternoon and everyone had gone home, there were no witnesses. I had a scare but was unhurt and still in a job.
There are numerous incidents to relay and one of the funniest had occurred just before I started work. One of the first vehicles I saw when I entered the workshop on my first day was a Reliant Van (think only fools and horses). It was grey in colour. I was to find that it had just been fitted with a new body shell.
The story goes like this and again the layout of the building played a crucial part. The truck workshop had big doors at the entrance for access by the trucks. To the right of these doors was another bay where most of the lubrication was done. This bay had a pit that ran the length of the bay to allow access underneath vehicles by the lubrication worker Bryn Jones. On the day in question, there was no vehicle in the lube bay and the Truck foreman decided to take the Reliant from the Truck workshop onto the pit for Bryn to work on. Out of the big doors, a right U-turn into the lube bay. The hapless foreman forgot that the Reliant was a three-wheeler car, one at the front, two at the back. The front wheel dropped into the pit. The Reliant had a fibre glass body and fibre glass is very brittle. A huge crack appeared right across the middle of the roof. Not repairable so new body shell required!
My second driving experience was an altogether much more spectacular event!
This time it was a different ‘instructor’ but once again from the younger end of the employee spectrum and also as qualified as was necessary. I had been a passenger with Paul and he took no prisoners. I had never seen anyone drive as fast. He was enthusiastic in everything he did and to be fair to him, he would be a major factor in how my career shaped up in the long run. At this time, he wanted me to become a driver. It was only a couple of weeks after the first episode but no one knew about that!
He sat me behind the wheel of a two-tone blue, three-year old Hillman Minx and gave me the cursory instructions. The route he chose was exactly the same as my previous attempt so I could not get lost. I started off well enough and powered up the ramp. The Minx was significantly superior in power to the Ford Pop so as I approached the top of the ramp, Paul instructed me to slow down in preparation for the right angle left turn. I was concentrating on where I was going and how I was to steer round the bend. The slow down instructions became much more animated very quickly and slow became STOP! I still had no real idea how to carry out the instructions with the result that I was unable to get round the corner. There was a sickening crunch and the car climbed up the wall before becoming stalled. Just a few yards up the passageway the foremans’ office was full of mechanics signing off their work at the end of the day. They spilled out to survey the damage which was a quite severe mangling of the driver’s side front wing and bumper bar. Here I have to say that there was yet another example of chivalry. As soon as the car stopped moving, Paul instructed me to change seats with him. He wanted to take full responsibility for the incident to keep me out of trouble. Of course there was no time anyway as witnesses appeared immediately.
The works manager told me to report to him first thing next morning so that I had to spend the night stewing in guilt and fear for an early end to my career.
Next morning I duly went to see the boss and was given a mild rollicking. Paul was given a bigger one for encouraging me into action and the net result was a six month ban from driving. This was, for me an absolute blessing and release. A greater punishment would have been to make me drive another vehicle up the ramp. Looking forward, however, six months seemed an awful long time.
I satisfied myself by accepting the punishment, which could be considered lenient anyway, and turning down any offers of ‘lessons’ however well-intentioned. I did however spend some time whenever possible to acquaint myself with the controls. After a while and having gained a little knowledge, I did get a little bolder and would sit in cars that I was expected to be working on and practice pressing the clutch and the brake, finding neutral with the gear lever even, eventually starting the car and practicing the ‘bite point’ on the clutch without moving the car. this gradual self indoctrination worked wonders for my confidence. Finally, the works manager inadvertently asked me to move a car for him. I duly reminded him of my ‘ban’. He restored my driving permission and I never looked back; except when reversing of course. I had served about three months of the ban and I am pleased to say I never damaged another vehicle in my working career.
On the day of my seventeenth birthday, I was out on the road having claimed my ‘provisional driving licence. The company had a very benevolent attitude to learner drivers. There was a company vehicle, at the time a Commer pickup which would be the equivalent of a modern-day Ford Transit. It was probably not the best vehicle to learn in and there were no dual control assurance available in modern driving school vehicles but it was nearly new so everything worked well.
Who was to be the ‘instructor ‘ would depend upon who wanted to be out for some reason of their own and was not fussy about driving ability. So, if someone wanted to move some furniture, collect parts for a ‘guvvie’ job or simply wanted a change of scenery, you would have an ‘instructor’. The ‘lesson’ always took place at lunchtime and if the vehicle was not out on works business, it was available. There was no need to ask permission, it was implicit. The vehicle had three seats across the front and often another apprentice would come along for a ride but the qualified driver always sat alongside the learner driver so that he was able to reach the controls for any adjustments that might be necessary. Adjustments might require a bash on the hand if I was driving with my hand on the gear lever or a hard kick on the ankle if my left foot was resting on the clutch pedal when not changing gear! This was possible because the layout of the vehicle had all the controls and most of the seating accommodation forward of the front axle so there was no transmission tunnel. The qualified observer/ instructor/ passenger could not however reach the handbrake to use in emergency as it was positioned well down to the drivers right side.
I was pushed to apply for my driving test as soon as possible and, of course, I did as I was told. I took the test after about three months of driving and was comparatively confident of success. However when I sat in the vehicle, the company pickup, with the examiner alongside me my legs began to shake uncontrollably. This is not just a figure of speech, ‘shaking like a leaf’ does no justice to the situation.
Once on the road, I was feeling a little bit more confident and the actual driving felt good. It started to go wrong when I was given the signal to perform an emergency stop. I had not practiced this and was only told one thing, ‘all anchors on including the handbrake’. Anyone who has attempted a handbrake turn will have a rough idea of what happened. Fortunately we were travelling straight on a straight, wide road and although the pickup rear axle swerved, skidding to the right, there was no major problem. Of course to operate the handbrake I had to take my right hand from the steering wheel. Not recommended particularly when performing an emergency stop. The tester questioned me about the tactic and I confessed to be simply doing what I had been told to do. No more comment at that time.
Later on the test I was asked to do a right reverse into a junction that was pointed out to me. I moved safely to the right side of the road and as I came level with the target road, pointed out to the tester that there was a post box that affected my vision at the junction. He asked me to move to the next road on the right and again, as I came level with the road, I noticed a group of young children playing where I was to reverse. I explained again to the tester who instructed me to move onto the next entrance. This time there was no problem and I executed the procedure without problem. The tester congratulated me on taking the right decisions but unfortunately, at the end of the test, he informed me that I had not achieved the required standard citing the technical error at the emergency stop as the chief reason.
It was no fun going back to work with a failure. Most of my workmates passed first time and one individual had passed his test before lunch on his seventeenth birthday!
I applied to resit as soon as possible and passed next time with no problem other than the change of test vehicle on the morning of the test. The pickup was required for work purposes and with suitable apologies, the works manager passed me his company car keys and that was that. It was a much more comfortable vehicle and being a Hillman Minx was very familiar to me. I had had my licence for only six months so I was happy!
So I passed and the next day, I was the ‘instructor’ accompanying one of my more junior workmates who had recently acquired his provisional licence.
Among the highlights of driving opportunities, particularly for those not entitled to be on the road was driving around the workshop area. The company was a distributor of Renault vehicles for the Yorkshire region. This required receiving and storing a large number of cars which would be delivered regularly from the factory before being collected by other Renault dealers. So there could be about forty vehicles to be driven into the workshop, for security reasons, at the end of the day. One day, I had completed my quota and was chatting to workmates whilst some of the younger apprentices continued to finish the task. We heard a vehicle coming up the ramp to the first floor workshop, then the engine stopped, there was a short lull before a crunching scraping noise pervaded the silence. Another ,quiet period then a louder crashing noise. We ran to the top of the ramp to see Golden Wonder Boy standing about three-quarters of the way up the ramp with a car door in his hands. The rest of the car was at the bottom of the ramp, twisted around a brand new Renault chassis that was stored alongside the entrance to the ramp for want of a better spot!
The smashed car was a brand new, five miles on the clock, straight from the factory Renault 4. It was a special edition; bright yellow with pretend basket work around the lower half of the body. Golden Wonder had been driving up the ramp when it ran out of petrol, there was never large quantities in these cars from the factory. He had pulled on the handbrake to get out of the car but the handbrake was like an umbrella handle that emerged from the dashboard and simply required a little twist to release. Golden Wonder had already started to get out of the car when he accidentally caught the lever. The car started to roll down the steep ramp. the open drivers door caught on the wall alongside the ramp ripping the door off its flimsy hinges. The car continued assisted by the force of gravity until it expired against the bottom of the ramp. Golden Wonder Boy was left holding the door!