I have spoken about the early cars that the family had: the Austin, the Ford Prefect and these were followed by an Anglia, Cortina, Mini and various Escorts. When my mother learned to drive then additional models appeared: the Morris Minor, Fiat 500, Hillman Imp and finally her mini. Cars were such wonders in their time, they saved the need to wait for buses or to use trains and opened up Leeds, the countryside and the coast to families in a way that would have been impossible, or much more difficult before. Of course people did travel, but with cars day trips and holidays further afield became the norm.
One major difference to cars then and today was the safety features. Seat belts did not exist in the early models and the interiors of cars were hard, unforgiving metal. Indicators were quite charming with little wing flags that stuck out of the side to indicate that you wanted to turn, but these were quite quickly replaced with lights to indicate turning. The first couple of cars we had had starting handles and required strength to get them started. Bit-by-bit they began to improve in comfort, safety, reliability. Heaters were soon developed and car radios became the norm, but they were medium wave and needed adjustment to the tuning. Probably the biggest difference at the time was the lack of cars on the roads. As a child I could play out in the streets and seldom see a car, but now the same streets are full of parked cars on the pavements and there is a constant stream of cars up and down the road. Gipton Wood Crescent, which was the second house we lived in, was originally cobbled and I remember them laying tarmac down the middle to provide a smooth ride for the cars, but leaving the gutters still cobbled. None of the houses were built with garages on the street and none had driveways. I remember my dad working like a slave to remove the trees along the edge to the neighbours’ property and digging out the drive. My mother always felt that that was one of the causes of his early heart attack at just 37 years. Once he had cleared it, workmen came to lay gravel as the foundation and then marble chip asphalt was laid and we had a driveway for dad’s car, even though it had a steep rise. A garage was then built in concrete prefab form and it still stands there today. As seems to be the case with most English garages, it rarely, if ever, housed the car and was full of tools, pieces of wood, tins of paint, the lawnmower and our toys and bikes.
One thing that the garage and drive did provide was a place for us to play cricket. The doors became the means of stopping the ball disappearing behind, handy when there are only two of you and it took us off the road. As I have mentioned, it wasn’t the traffic that was the problem, it was the old lady, Miss Ellis, who lived opposite. She seemed to hate children having fun, or at least that’s how we saw it. If we hit a ball into her garden that was the end of the game. She wouldn’t ever give them back and the fear of sneaking in to fetch the ball and being caught by her was too much for my older brother or me. Once caught was once too many times. So the driveway was a godsend and Mr and Mrs Wynn, the neighbours, were a totally different case. They were pleasant and didn’t seem to mind us just jumping the fence to fetch the tennis ball. If we drove the ball out of the garden on the full, it was six and out, but it was still match over if it sailed across the road into Miss Ellis’ garden.
My father worked at Catton’s Foundry on Black Bull Street and he was doing well. He was the Chief Inspector of Steel Castings and was a young man going places and he bought good family cars at the time. I even remember his looking at buying a new house at East Keswick, but his heart attack and others hungry for his position put an end to that. The cars were great, though, as young lads. They enabled us to go to the cinema with dad on a Saturday, whilst mum had time on her own or with grandma who would come and visit. We went all over Leeds to the Shaftsbury, the Clock, the Dominion, the Cottage Road, the Hyde Park, the Harehills and the Lounge. He would check the newspapers after doing the pools and find a film that would be suitable: a cowboy, swashbuckler or war film, and off we would go. He never seemed worried about when films started and we would usually arrive mid-film, watch the second half and then stay and watch the beginning. Crazy, but I think it was quite common at the time. My wife had similar experiences in Stoke on Trent, but they had more excuse as they didn’t have a car. Often there would be two movies, an A and B movie, and we would stay quite late. I remember falling sleep lying down on the back seat of the car. Of course there was the added benefit of maybe a Kiaora drink, ice-cream tub or perhaps popcorn (Butterkist) but only in tiny amounts compared to the giant bags and sizes of today. Occasionally we would stop to get fish and chips, with scraps, wrapped in newspaper to take home. I can still smell the distinct aroma of hot grease, newspaper and the astringent vinegar that filled the car.
My mother worked during most of my childhood and in the sixties she started having driving lessons. I love my mother, but a natural driver she wasn’t. She started at a very modern driving school called Drivotrainer, run by a man called Mr Waites. I think it was near the Queens Hall or the Majestic and it had very modern driving simulators for you to start off on. My mother looked forward to the lessons on the simulators but when she moved into the real cars, she found it much more challenging. For anyone not from this time, driving lessons were much simpler than they are today. There was a practical test and then a test on the Highway Code. It wasn’t unusual for people to have a dozen lessons and pass the test. Unfortunately, my mother wasn’t one of those. I think she had two lessons a week and they were quite expensive at the time. My mother had various instructors, but none felt she was ready for her test, but finally she was entered, more out of desperation, I feel. The day was a massive one for her. She suffered terrible anxiety on test day and we all knew to avoid her until it was over. Anyway she returned and unfortunately for her, but not the motoring public, she had failed. Somehow she thought it was all my father’s fault and he suffered stoically. Next week she was back at the lessons. I believe she took her test again and again she failed. In the end, Mr Waites, the owner, took her on as a challenge to his reputation of getting everyone to pass. His business was based on the belief that they could teach anyone to drive. Clearly, they had not met anyone of my mother’s calibre.
Mr Waites was a middle-aged man with Brylcreemed hair and not an astute business man. I believe he had to shut down the large school eventually and just work for himself. He had the patience of a saint and he worked hard with my mother until she became a reasonable driver. The problem was that she got in such a state before a test and this got worse with each test she took. On one occasion she had half a quart bottle of brandy to calm her nerves, but that, for obvious reasons, did not do the trick. One time she failed because of a mechanical problem with the car. I seem to remember that the gear stick came out, but finally after several years of lessons and a small fortune in lesson fees, she passed. The stars must have been aligned that day and she came back home delighted. I don’t think dad ever allowed her to drive his car, but she had saved up from her wages enough to buy a second hand one. The instructor was so well known by the family that he went with her to buy one and she returned with a Morris Minor. It was a grey one and had proper indicators rather that the little flag ones. I loved it as I was Mr Waites next challenge as I was just becoming seventeen and it would be the car that I would eventually borrow when I had passed my test.
Believe it or not, Mr Waites eventually became a family friend and would visit our house regularly to play cards and drink whiskey with my mum and dad, until my father died many years later. Anyway, my mother drove for the rest of her life and was never involved in an accident, which is quite a remarkable achievement.
Flamborough Head on a beautiful day. What could be more spectacular. Just the place to watch the waves roll in.
The audiobook version of my first novel in The Moondial series can be listened to omn the Soundcloud player below.. Book 4 of the Series, Blaze, will be available in ebook and paperback forms in the near future.