Cars were relatively few at the end of the 50s and early sixties, but I can still remember several incidents that have stuck with me all these years. Some of these I have mentioned before, but others tell of how engineering, public safety and awareness have changed, and of the folly of youth.
For those of us old enough to remember, the road layout at Oakwood used to be very different, partially because trams used to run. The Oakwood Clock used to stand at the very edge of where Princes Avenue joined Roundhay Road. The road took the shortest sweep around the clock and avoided the current lights with Weatherby Road, near the library. The bend around the clock was interesting as it had a camber away from the turn and, to make it more interesting, originally the tram lines used to run behind the clock leaving it in an island, where the car park is now. (See photograph) I clearly remember one day, I must have been at Roundhay and the trams had long since gone, sitting at the clock when a Morris Minor came tearing down the road from Roundhay Park and taking the bend around the clock tower. There was a screech of brakes, a sudden tearing of metal and sparks flew as the front wheel of the Morris just bent over and the front of the car tilted, came into contact with the road amidst a fountain of sparks. Luckily there were no pedestrians in the way and no other vehicles, and the car skidded and eventually came to a standstill. It certainly grabbed the attention of those of us waiting at the clock and others. Some adults ran over to check on the driver and after a bit of ogling someone’s misfortune, we got back to whatever we were doing.
I used to walk to Roundhay School via Oakwood and one morning I remember reaching Oakwood and was just passing the clock when I noticed a grey squirrel. I can’t remember if it was startled by a car backfiring or some such incident, but I clearly remember watching it run across Gledhow Lane. This wasn’t particularly noteworthy as there were a lot of grey squirrels at Oakwood in the trees near the clock and the public toilets, but what it did was. The squirrel ran past a double-decker bus going up Gledhow Lane and suddenly jumped onto the open platform at the back of the bus. It all happened quickly and I think the squirrel was as surprised as the conductor and passengers and it turned and then fell backwards and lay on the road. There were lots of Roundhay boys about and one of my classmates, Roger, went over and picked the squirrel up and put it into his hold-all. This was an altruistic gesture and he meant well, but grey squirrels were frowned upon for putting their red brothers in danger of extinction. I believe he carried it to school, probably to seek assistance, but when he opened the bag up the creature had recovered and as his hand went in, the squirrel’s large, sharp teeth, went into his thumb. The squirrel beat a hasty retreat and probably returned to tell a tale that the others wouldn’t believe, whilst Roger had to seek medical assistance as he was losing a lot of blood. He was taken to hospital, given a tetanus injection and several stitches and carried a bandaged thumb as proof of his ordeal. I imagine that both he and the squirrel learned from their encounter.
I luckily passed my driving test at seventeen after about twelve weeks of learning and, as I have mentioned before, much to the thanks of Mr Waites and his skill as a teacher. When I passed my test my mother allowed me the use of her car. Her car was a Morris Minor and it was a tremendously reliable, if not fancy car. The steering wheel was very large and the gear stick long, and changing gear was quite a challenge. The interior was very sparse with a metal dashboard and the seats very upright, but when my mum allowed me to take it out on my own, the evening I passed, I couldn’t have been happier or more elated.
I set off to visit my brother in Seacroft and it was a real shock to be driving with no one giving instructions. I now had to learn to make all the decisions, as well as picking my route, but I managed it though and also got back home again afterwards. As I have recounted in a previous tale, I was very quickly employed as the van driver and general dogsbody for Wraggs Motor Cycles. This was only part-time holiday work, but it was a crash course for my driving skills, and luckily didn’t involve any crashing. Having use of a car and the ability to drive provided a wonderful amount of freedom. I no longer had to wait for buses, or cadge lifts off my parents and it is something I have never taken for granted. I love to drive and I know that many share that feeling, but I also know that many struggle to drive and are not confident drivers.
Some of my friends were older than me and they already had licences, but many were in the process of learning. At the time I must have driven long enough to supervise learners. A friend of mine, John L, had bought a car, a mini I recall, and he wanted me to supervise him driving. Now on this particular occasion a group of us were going for a day trip to the Yorkshire Dales and there were three cars, I believe. Another friend called John had a new Ford Capri with a brown vinyl covered roof and he and his girlfriend had maybe another couple in the back, Peter I think had his own car and I was accompanying John L in his mini with David G in the back. There was one particular feature about minis in these days and that was that the sub-frames tended to rot and the suspensions come adrift. I had never seen his car before and certainly never been in it, or I might well have refused.
The three of us squeezed in and John got in the driver’s seat and, I think it had front seat belts, so we put them on. I don’t remember David G in the back having one though and as he was tall, he had to sit sideways and had his head of tight curls bent down. I think he chain-smoked most of the journey, for reasons you will understand. John started the car and we set off. He jumped the clutch and there was a bit of kangaroo bouncing, but eventually he got going. He over-revved the engine and when we approached a junction of a slight hill he informed me that the handbrake didn’t work so could I put my leg over to the foot brake whilst he got the car to hold on the clutch. Now this came as a bit of a shock and was certainly nothing I had been taught, but at this point there was no alternative. The tangle of legs was interesting and David in the back had no means of escaping as the car began to roll backwards. Another cigarette was instantly lit which didn’t help us in the front. I held the brake down and when the lights changed, John heavily revved and slipped the clutch and I withdrew my foot. It may not have been orthodox, but it worked. We followed our friends in the other two cars and headed out of Leeds along Harrogate Road and soon we were in the countryside. John had clearly grasped the basics of driving, but his car seemed to have given up on most of them. Every bump in the road produced a loud bang from one shock-absorber and David’s and my comfort and security weren’t helped when we looked down at the floor and could spot a few areas of light where we could see the road below us. David G lit another cigarette, hands shaking in the back seat.
I must say that the car would have failed any MOT test, but I don’t think they had been introduced. If they had, someone must have been bribed to get it through. We were managing quite well at this point. I had perfected with John the ability to reach over to hold the car on the brake whilst he put it into first and controlled it on the clutch. We were well out into rural Yorkshire and the views were stunning, but the roads were narrow, twisting and bordered by drystone walls. It was a warm sunny day and we were beginning to relax. Life was good! John, I must tell you, was always interested in the girls and he had earned a nickname of ‘Screwer’. I can’t say why, but he had and I can only guess it was because he was good at woodworking. Anyway, we were approaching a sharp turn that rose then up a steep hill. There was a stile in the wall and, on the far side, a wood. A group of hikers was trekking down the hill and some were climbing over the stile. One of the party was a teenage girl wearing short shorts and clearly John had noticed this too. But he failed to notice that the road bent at ninety degrees and carried straight on, eyes glued to the revealed young female flesh. Luckily I was not so distracted, as I just managed to grab the steering wheel and yank it over so that we continued on the road, avoiding ploughing into the group, the wall and the trees. David in the back was equally aware and hurriedly lit another cigarette, but John’s eyes and head just turned following the girl’s legs. I am sure that the girl in question has never known how close to death she had been.
“Screwer!” I yelled. “You have to watch the road!” I think he just smiled as if nothing had happened. The rest of the trip continued and, despite the unorthodox gear changing technique, we eventually returned to John’s house. The car was left on the road, in gear and with the wheels turned into the kerb so that it couldn’t run down the hill. We piled out, David climbed out of the back and he lit another cigarette. I don’t think he ever volunteered to go with John L again. Leaving the car, we headed up to Moortown Corner and to the Chained Bull where we enjoyed a pint to steady our nerves and David lit another cigarette.