Updated: Jun 15, 2021
My 18-year-old daughter recently passed her driving test at the first attempt in what was a long drawn out affair caused by the delays with the driver testing centres being closed due to the COVID-19 lockdowns. She is now fully certified in reversing around corners and parallel parking whilst wearing either a face mask or a plastic visor so she has skills I never had to learn.
And as she now excitedly takes to the road as a novice driver the inevitable thoughts are cast back to my own days doing the same thing 30 years ago.
I wasn’t as fortunate as my daughter to have passed the test on my first attempt, albeit with no pandemic I was driving from even before I was officially an adult. I had a pretty disastrous first go at it in the middle of December when I stalled the car before it even left the test centre, and then again at the next junction. You see my technique at the time to avoid stalling in such situations was to simply drive through without stopping.
It’s very successful as long as there is no one coming on the road your are manoeuvring into, which wasn’t very often and I got used to the sound of aggressively blaring car horns as you can imagine.
Surprisingly it was not the stalling that caused the failure, it was looking in my rear view mirror before I would be indicating to move to the right to come off the North Way in Portadown and head back up to the Test Centre which was the correct thing to do but not if at the same time you turn the steering wheel to the left and hit the low kerb and nearly take to the air into the abyss below. Even though I rescued it, the examiner had had enough.
Undaunted though I was very much anxious to get a driving licence and I immediately re-applied for a test and I got a new date a month later on the 14th of January 1992.
I still stalled once during this attempt but I didn’t nearly kill myself and my clipboard wielding passenger and so happy days I got my permission to drive.
At the time my father had a automatic Mercedes 190 C with a full body kit that was perfect for the boy racer in me.
I have a friend who is car repairer who has recently began a sideline of importing car body kits for prestige cars and I reckon from my experience that it is the perfect ruse for increasing future business because it seemed like no one who drove that car - and many people did because it looked so cool - avoided hitting it in some way. I remember the first time I seriously damaged it -yes thats a deliberate distinction between serious and minor impacts - I was visiting a friend and had driven straight in to the driveway of his semi-detached home. When reversing out of their driveway at a sharp angle and waving to them with a cheery smug smile I did not notice that there was a small wall about a foot high that divided the two properties. I heard a strange scraping noise and as I continued my movement I wondered what it was. I looked at the dashboard for a warning light but there was none. I tried to listen to see was it the engine but it was not. And of course I continued to drive for for five more feet until I realised that the sound was the fibreglass trim the whole length of the car being ripped to shreds.
It was pretty embarrassing to say the least. I mean if you’re going to hit the car better to do it somewhere discreet rather than in front of your mates, but thank goodness there was no camera phones in them days to record it all!
There was obviously apprehension when ringing my father, who generally was in London 4 days a week with work, to tell him the good news. In fairness he had badly damaged the car a few months earlier and it was probably no longer classed as his pride and joy and therefore he was probably not as upset as he may have been otherwise. He just told me to go and get it sorted.
I took the car to the nearest prestige vehicle repairer, a person I was to became quite familiar with over the next few months and had my first experience of the dreaded ‘courtesy car’ that you are supplied with when your own vehicle is off the road. Three decades later the core business service that we supply and ensure our customers and clients have deals with the exact problem I was now faced with. What I was given to keep me mobile was a plum-coloured Ford Fiesta in replacement for the exciting slick Mercedes sports car. I know the owner of the company in question reads this blog - so I ask after all these years - ‘Jim, what were you thinking?’ It was perhaps the ugliest car, bar perhaps a Reliant Robin, I’d ever seen. What was worse for my novice driving abilities was the fact that it was a manual car not an automatic like I had become used to after passing my test. There was many a stall between Portadown and Lurgan as I tried to get used to this unusually clunky vehicle with no power steering.
When I thought that I was going to be driving something impressive I had said I would pick up a couple of friends and take us to the local nightclub on the Thursday night. I had great visions of parking it out the front in a prime position and it garnering a lot of attention. Instead, after a remarkably stall free trip, my friends insisted that I park around the back in the furthest away parking spot.
At the end of the night, that decision proved to be a mistake because when you leave you still have to drive out the main entrance, an inclined road now choked with departing vehicles and so under immense pressure I had to carry out a hill-start in front of a lot of spectators.
Well, in fairness they weren’t spectators initially, but they did become such as the show got going.
I have no idea how many times I screwed-up the attempts to get the car going, but not unlike ‘Clarice Starling’ in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ the screaming of the gear box and the kangarooing of the vehicle was something that was just a prelude to the horror of what was coming after.
The by now huge crowd had mostly turned to watch the spectacle before it, laughing and pointing and we were truly the centre of now unwanted attention. My face felt like it was the same colour as the car as the heat inside me rose and the perspiration started in earnest with the beeping from the impatient vehicles behind me.
I didn’t know what to do and then I heard the two passenger-side doors open and my friends got out, one of them saying ‘Sorry, I just can’t sit here for this’ and they ran up the street, hiding their faces as they went, to leave me in my ignominy. I closed my eyes and thought for a moment the way you’ve seen a million times on television and this time I executed the move more or less the way it was supposed to be done and I slightly spun the wheels I was flooring the throttle that much but at least I was away. And of course I caught up with my friends and stopped and let them in and they laughed for the rest of the journey home.
After a few months more of small accidents befalling the vehicle my father had had enough and he replaced the 190 with a new tank-like 230E. It was still fast but didn’t look like it.
The deal we had over shared use of the vehicle was still going to operate though in that I could leave him to the airport at the start of the week and have full access to the vehicle until he returned at the end of it.
The first occasion involved a very early start one fine summer’s morning where he drove to Belfast International Airport with me as the passenger and I had my first drive of the vehicle and so was very much looking forward to taking full advantage of the quiet road from Nutts Corner to Moira to max the speed.
As I was doing so I noticed an odd setting on the automatic gearbox, where as well as the letters P-N-D-R there was also the figures 2 and 3. And in a decision reminiscent of that told in my blog ‘Mr Fingers’, I thought - I wonder what they do - I must find out by moving the gear stick into those settings - I’m sure they must blast the car to even higher speeds.
Far from increasing the speed of the vehicle nothing seemed to be happening and the speedometer gradually started to reduce from its peak and I started the countdown through the major numbers and I realised that the car was was slowing down and stopping. I was in a free wheel and mentally a free-fall for quite awhile before the car came to a stop and I was just able to pull it up onto the side of the road and out of danger.
I don’t remember panicking but I certainly remember thinking that it was very weird that an engine would just stop and turning on and off the ignition wasn’t doing anything. I also knew that my singular lack of mechanical knowledge was such that there was no point in opening the bonnet to try to figure it out.
Unfortunately this was the era before mobile phones so I was going to have to sort this situation on my own. I looked around to see if there anyone who could help on this ungodly hour of the morning and saw a petrol station across the road but it didn’t look like it was going to be open for a few hours.
It was a fairly remote place other than that that where I was stopped and I tried to think logically and laterally about what to do. And I thought that in these rural areas there is always a ‘Fred in the Shed’ type mechanic on hand to fix tractors and the like and I thought I’ll just walk around and try to find somebody with such a premises, how hard could that be.
I started walking down the road for about half an hour before I came to the first turning to the left which I took walking along passed empty fields without houses before another half hour and another left-hand turn arose which I took. And about half an hour later I came across the first property which as predicted had a large shed out the back of the house which to me looked clearly like a car mechanics garage. It was about 7 am at this time and I rather arrogantly thought ‘well he should be getting up soon anyway and who doesn’t mind being woken up for a bit of unexpected new business - it’ll be fine.’ So I went and knocked on the door of course the master of the house was still in bed but he came eventually to the door and opened it looking very confused at my pleading expression for help. I explained my predicament and where I was and he said ‘Okay you go on. I’ll meet you there.’
I wasn’t quite sure if I should walk back the way I came or continue on looking for the next left to take me back onto the main road so I did the latter and of course as my luck would have it it was about five minutes to the left hand turn and another five minutes to the main road and another two minutes to the car. I had obviously walked completely the wrong way originally but actually if I’d arrived at my saviour’s home 90 minutes earlier he might have told me to try elsewhere!
I waited in the car listening to the radio and trying to kill time with no ability to sit on my phone and googling things like ‘how to fix a car that’s broken down’.
The man arrived in his recovery truck and checked over the car and it was clear to him that he wasn’t sure how to fix it but it was certainly not moving anywhere. As he began to load the car up onto the recovery truck I sat and watched and the thought did cross my mind as to how I was going to get home.
And at that moment a car stopped on the other side of the road and the blonde haired man who was driving got out of the car and came over to me and said he could see I had some car trouble as he was driving passed and he had double backed to ask me if I needed a lift home.
Bearing in mind that I lived about twenty miles away this was odd but then he said, ‘I just live across the road from you and I’m heading back home now.’
And you can tell that it was clearly a different time than we now live in because I said ‘Oh that’s absolutely fine. Thanks very much.’ and I got in the car with him. With this complete stranger who was telling me he recognised me and lived down the street but still a stranger who I’d never seen before in my life. And it was all fine, and he was who he said he was, and he brought me to my house and there was no problem.
Can you imagine if your child of any age did that now? You’d say they were crazy to take such a risk, but I was 18 and I thought it was all fine. I think finding the mechanic had subconsciously conditioned me to feel the serendipity in the situation and so asking myself how I was going to get home was naturally going to lead to a neighbour stopping and picking me up.
I then did have the deja vu of calling my father to explain what had happened and as he was away for the week I reassured him it would probably all be sorted by the time he was to get back it’ll be no problem.
As it turned out the car mechanic who picked me up was unable to fix the problem and the car had to be returned back to the main dealership it had been bought from for assessment.
I got a call from my father telling me that the dealer wanted to speak to the driver of the vehicle to help with diagnosing the issue.
When I spoke to the service manager he said well this car is very new so we’re not sure if this is a manufacturing problem or driver error.
“What our guys are saying is that it looks like the car was being driven at high speed and then the driver has put the gears into third and second which obviously is a ridiculous thing to do and it has blown out all of the pistons in the engine.
But our guys are saying that no one would be that stupid to do that so they don’t think that that’s possible. So they’ve asked me to check with you. Now can you just tell me are you stupid?”
It was one of those weird things where I didn’t know if he was trying to tell me the answer that he wanted but I certainly got the impression that he was deliberately not asking me if I had done the stupid thing - merely he was asking if ‘I’ was ‘stupid’.
There is a truism in the law that you don’t allow someone to be asked a question you don’t know the answer to, and I think this was my first example of that and indeed the ‘leading question’ where the outcome was pretty much pre-determined - I mean who is ever going to give an affirmative answer to that request?
And so I said ‘No, sir. No I’m not stupid.’ And he said, ‘Oh that’s good thats what I thought. It must just be a problem with the car then, we’ll get it fixed no cost.’
I’m pretty sure now that there was a cost it was just we weren’t being asked to pay it. I was relieved that everything was going to be sorted.
And that is how much of life goes, yes there are crises from time-to-time that test us, but very few times are things really irreversibly destroyed. Most situations we get ourselves into we can get out of by ourselves with or without our friends and some we need a bit of external guidance - you just have to stop your restricted thinking and get rid of the R plates.