June 25, 2006

Cars in my life

John Ray

I have always been a demon driver. People who get into my car often emerge shaking. So I buy very small cars -- which enable me to flash through traffic down lanes that are not supposed to be there. I remember one occasion when I upset some guy in a big Ford without being aware of it and he decided to chase me to remonstrate with me. I was just driving in my normal way but it still stretched him to chase me. By the time he caught up with me he was too exhausted to say much to me. If I had been aware of him chasing me, he would never have caught up.

But the cars I drive are not powerful ones. Not at all ones that rev-heads like The Good Blair would approve of.

The first car I owned I bought new in 1964 with the aid of a personal loan from the Bank of N.S.W. (now Westpac). It was a base-model Volkswagen Type 1 ("beetle"). It cost 799 pounds. It was sky-blue because that was the only colour in stock at the time. I would have preferred red.

I was living in Quay St, Paddington, near the Brisbane S.D.A church at the time and was working for Customs. I don't know how I kept up the payments after I became a full-time student. I think I must have had enough savings to pay out the loan.

I was always a good saver. I recollect that I had a deposit of around three hundred in the first place. I really gave it a thrashing the way I used it but it never faltered. I drove it down to Sydney (Alex Barnes came with me) when I left Brisbane and it was still going as well as new when I wrote it off in a collision five years after having bought it. I was exceeding the speed limit while going the wrong way (inadvertently) down a one-way Sydney street at the time. Up until then it always started at the first touch of the key.

Janet Coomber and I had kept in periodic contact since we split up and I used occasionally to drive back in the V.W. to Brisbane to "see" her. Such visits also helped me to keep in touch with Alex Barnes. So I really burned up the miles in the V.W.

My next car was another beetle -- an old one with a pretty clapped-out motor. The motor eventually expired so I went out and bought a V.W. Kombi van for $70. It was cheap because it was nearly out of registration and had bad body rust that would cost a lot to fix so would not be able to be re-registered. Its motor was O.K., however, so I had the motor transplanted into my beetle -- where it was fine.

That got written off less than a year later when someone ploughed into the back of me on a wet night. I then bought another beetle (white this time) that had been "hotted up". It did have more power but the motor eventually blew up after about 6 months. It was not worth fixing so I abandoned it outside the John Fairfax building in Sydney -- much to Henningham's bemusement. He worked there at the time and gave me daily reports on whether it had been towed away yet.

I then got another personal loan and bought a new yellow Mazda 1300 2 door sedan. I was at the time sharing a house at Wentworth Park Rd., Glebe with Henningham and Croucher. They were at the time both car nuts. Henningham had an Alfa Romeo and Croucher had a Volvo which he used to race. Croucher even used to buy regularly a monthly magazine called "Wheels" which told you all about the various cars on the market.

Mazda above

In our usual bantering way, both Henningham and Croucher were quite contemptuous of my purchase. They told me it was very poor value and a foolish buy from their informed and sophisticated point of view. I of course just continued on my merry way untroubled. I pointed out the various advantages of that model at that time - a lot of power for the money etc. -- and said that they were being misled by glamour rather than looking realistically at where real value lay.

They of course rejected all that. Lo and behold, however, when Croucher bought his next "Wheels" magazine it featured the Mazda 1300 as "Car of the year". Henningham and Croucher were so completely hoist with their own petard that they actually hid that issue of the magazine from me (not that I usually read it) and it was only two or three years later that they told me of it.

Years later in Brisbane when Henningham bought an XD Falcon I was rather critical of his buying a Falcon on the grounds that a much smaller Japanese car with a much lower fuel consumption rate could have carried as many people. He seemed rather sensitive about my criticism which I put down at the time to his wife Helen's influence -- i.e. he had adopted her very serious attitude and longer took criticism as good sport. But maybe he also remembered the "Wheels" episode and suspected that his view of what is a good thing in cars might have been less prudent than mine once again!

The Mazda went like a dream for about 8 years. Only then did it begin to need some work, even then only minor. I ended up pranging it and writing it off too. My most serious prang was when I rolled my first V.W. but even then I was not injured.

After the Mazda I bought an old Morris MiniİMinor K. The K was an Australian version with an 1100cc motor. It went like a bat out of hell and was great fun to drive. It was so narrow it could often create an extra lane for itself -- a bit like a motorbike. It tended to need a lot of mechanical work, however, so I eventually sold it when the clutch was getting dodgy.

I then bought an Isuzu Gemini from a N.S.W. government auction. It was a very civilized vehicle but did have problems with overheating on long trips. It was a white automatic wagon. I had it for about 4 years before I decided it was a bit gutless for me and sold it.

Gemini above

I then (in 1985) got the Jade green Ford Laser hatch (actually a Mazda 323) which I had until the end of 1995. The Laser certainly is a very well balanced and zippy car, though I had got terminally bored with it by the time I got rid of it.

Laser above

I also bought Jenny her yellow Daihatsu Charade van. It was a great car to drive -- as much fun as a Morris Mini-Minor. I also had for a time while I was living at Faversham St a white 1973 V.W. miniİbus that I greatly enjoyed driving. I originally bought it to fit everyone in on Sunday drives but ended up driving it almost everywhere because I liked to. I liked being up above the other traffic mostly, I guess. I felt more relaxed driving it, somehow. It cost me a fortune to keep it going, however, so I eventually sold it for much less than I spent on it.

After I got rid of the Laser (I gave it to big Kath), I bought a 1995 white Daihatsu Charade TS. I had never before had a car that is so easy to drive and it certainly goes like a rocket with me behind the wheel.

At the beginning of 2005, I had two cars -- an old 1991 Ford Festiva (really a Korean-made Kia) and the 1995 Daihatsu Charade.

Daihatsu Charade

The Festiva was as near as I had come to a Mini in terms of fun to drive. It was a real Go-Kart. But my son Joe was just starting university so I gave him the choice of which car he wanted to drive and he chose the Festiva. It was a VERY old car as small cars go, however, so at the beginning of this year the motor blew up and I reluctantly gave it away and gave Joe the Daihatsu instead.

I then bought a one-year-old ex-hire Toyota Echo off Hertz for myself.


I had always thought that my Daihatsu was the easiest car to drive ever made but the Echo was even easier. If you see them being driven around the place they are almost always flying and that is because they are such a Swiss-watch of a car. They feel like a single thing to drive rather than a mechanical device.

But that was not enough. I have always wanted a really old car as well, and now that age has slowed me down I thought it was time. Vintage cars are of course wonderful but you virtually need to be a mechanic to keep them going so I have compromised on a veteran car -- and not such a veteran one at that. I have just bought a 1963 Humber Super Snipe off a family who had been driving it since new. It is a big old English car and, as such, bound to need lots of work to keep it going but I have a mechanic friend living just over the road so I think I can afford it! I remember that when they were new the Humbers were being advertised as being able to cruise on the open road at 100 mph but I am not going to try that. I am sure it would blow up if I tried it at this stage in its life.

The difference in handling of the two cars is of course enormous but I used to be a cab-driver many years ago so I am not bothered by big clumsy cars. The style of the Humber makes up for all else, in my view, particularly as the car has been very well-maintained and looks immaculate.

I have posted some photos of the Humber here

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