I seem to remember clearly that the year before I left Leeds to go to Borough Road College in Isleworth, London, the summer was long, hot and dry. I am talking about 1973. The reason why I believe this was so is that the activities we got up to during this period were mainly outdoors. I did have a holiday job and it was a much more successful time than my experience at Wraggs Motor Cycles and the whole way that it came about was by accident and reflected my good luck and my older brother, Andrew’s bad luck.
Andrew was looking for work, I think he was also a student at the time, whilst being married. Job Centres at this time actually helped you find work and on this occasion Andrew was provided with details that Budget Rent a Car on Hunslet Road wanted a temporary car cleaner and driver for the holidays. The position was casual and was for three days a week. This was not sufficient for my brother and he handed the details over to me. Three days would be fine for me and so I telephoned and they invited me down for an interview. Now the car hire was part of WASS Wallace Arnold Sales and Service, but was run independently, but cars were bought through the main dealership and they serviced them. I arrived for the interview and was shown into a modern glass-windowed office and was welcomed by two late twenties, attractive women. They asked me a few questions about myself, explained that the job would involve cleaning cars after they had been hired, delivering some and also that they hired trucks up to three tons and that drivers on a normal licence could drive them. I was asked if I would have any problems and I said I didn’t think so and that I had driven the van at Wraggs. I was told I would be working under the supervision of an elderly gentleman and I was then taken around to the workshop where he was busy vacuuming out a car. I was left with him and we had a long chat and he explained what I would have to do and we seemed to hit it off alright.
With his approval I was told I had the job and started the next day. The manageress was a confident go-getter type and she was heavily into squash. She was single and the other managers always seemed happy to hang around and chat with her. I saw her at 8.00am the next day and was taken around to the workshop and the elderly, quite short gentleman showed me the tools of the trade and I was set to fetch a car from the parking lot and to vacuum it out, dust the dashboards and then wash and prepare it for going out that afternoon. It was a relaxed time and there were no incidents of note. The second day was much like the first and at morning tea time I was sent out to get bacon bread rolls for the two ladies and my co-worker. I was told where to go and what to order. The main orders were bacon and tomato dip rolls. They were produced in a pretty basic cafe, but by the queues and size of the orders, they did a roaring trade. Whilst I worked there I became addicted to the rolls and ended having three every morning. Luckily I must have burnt up the calories, as I didn’t put weight on.
At the end of the day I was called into the office and I was asked if I could work every day that week. I said that I could and that was it. I was full-time from then on. The manageress said I should speak to my co-worker. I believe he was Tom and he would sort a car out for me. I had no idea what she was talking about, but Tom gave me some car keys and told me that the car was in the lot and that I could take it home with me and that there was petrol in it. I was flabbergasted. This was a hell of a perk. I worked every holiday for the whole of my time as a student and I never failed to be provided with a free car. My mum was delighted, but my older brother less so, as he would never have given up the job if he had known what the conditions were.
The first time I had to drive the large three tonne truck I was escorted by the other office lady and it was actually easier to drive from high up in a large vehicle than in a car. She was satisfied and that was it. I was delivering cars and vans to addresses around Yorkshire and Tom would come in a car to bring me home. It was busy, physical work, but I loved it. We saw all sorts of people hiring cars. I remember an American late middle-aged couple hiring a car and driving to Scotland. Of course they didn’t listen to some of the directions they were given about driving, as they were overconfident. I heard later that they had had to call out the breakdown service as they drove the whole way in second gear believing it was an automatic. Goodness only knows what they thought the screaming engine was doing, or the massive fuel consumption, but it takes all sorts, and this incident served to reinforce the reputation of Yankees had at the time.
One morning I got a call on the phone in the workshop asking me to come to the reception. I arrived to see a young couple waiting for a car. “Just watch them.” I was told quietly. “The Police will be here in a while.” True enough, within ten minutes a police car arrived and the couple were taken into the office. This was the time of green folded driving licences that were in plastic wallets and lasted until you reached 70. I still have mine and it is valid until 2024. You could cut off the date of birth from the bottom at first, but as you can see on mine the date wasn’t shown. What most people didn’t realise was that the licence number showed your date of birth. The first and last numbers were your year of birth. Now the car hire staff knew this and they took notice when someone applied to hire a car. The young couple obviously didn’t and it turned out that the lad was using his brother’s licence and he gave the wrong date of birth. You had to be at least 19 years old and even then there was a surcharge. I felt a bit sorry for the couple as they were led away, but the rest of the staff didn’t. They were right really, as you were going away with a very valuable new car.
Sometimes bands would hire our vans to transport their gear to gigs. This was particularly the case with up-and-coming bands who found the bigger they got the more equipment they needed. One such band was Smokey. They were from Bradford and they hit the big time in 1974 under the Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn stable of performers. Their biggest hit was Living Next Door to Alice in 1977, but when we hired the van to them it was early days and Let the Good Times Roll was getting radio airplay. I can’t say I was a fan, but they are still on the go, but with a number of personnel changes.
The pay wasn’t great whilst I worked there, but it was decent and the addition of a free new car every evening and weekend was a real bonus. It certainly was better than driving my mum’s Morris Minor or being in John’s clapped-out Mini.
I didn’t like most of the Vauxhall cars, but beggars can’t be choosers. My favourite was the Opel Ascona and I always liked having one of those. The Viva was the most common car and the bigger Victor always struck me as a bit of a tank. I have two tales of incidents with cars I was allowed to use. One involved a new Viva and Alwoodley Club. I drove a few friends there and one or two had had a bit to drink. One, Dave B, was half soaked in the back and we arrived at the car park. The park was gravelled and there was a low stone wall that edged the club. I reversed in and asked Dave to let me know when to stop. He agreed, and back I carefully reversed. This was a brand new car, 16 miles on the clock. Back we came. “Are we clear, Dave?” “Yes, keep going!” I did, and then bang! I couldn’t believe it. I was out and inspecting the damage. I was furious and I don’t know what stopped me exacting revenge upon a highly amused friend. I was terrified what would happen when I returned to work the next day. Luckily, the dint was about two inches across and was in the panel below the rear bumper, so no one ever noticed and if they ultimately did they would have suspected it was someone hiring the car.
The second incident involved another brand new car. It was a champagne coloured Vauxhall Vixen. An ugly brute of a car, but it had 14 miles on the clock and this story involved another friend, Nick. Nick had a broken ankle at this time as he had fallen out of the window of the Dragonara Hotel where he worked as a chef, but that is another story. For some reason the two of us were out for a few drinks and we drove to the pub at East Keswick. He was on crutches, but this wasn’t going to stop him having a good time. I think he was well oiled before we arrived at the pub, but he had a few pints there. I remember him going to the loo and going into the ladies by mistake and on coming out, not the least embarrassed, he turned to a lad waiting there and said, “You have a lovely girlfriend there!” The other lad was not amused, but I managed to pacify him and suggested to Nick that we should leave. We made it out to the carpark and he decided it was easier for him to fit in the back. I manoeuvred him in and threw the crutches into him. I wasn’t particularly pleased with him, but worse was to come. I set off and he started telling me he didn’t feel very well. I said that he’d manage and there was nowhere to stop on a country lane. Finally he said he was going to be sick. I told him to wind down the windows and stick his head out. This was a major error on my part. I did not know it, but because of the wheel arch, the window in the back only wound down about three inches. True to his word, Nick was violently ill. I can tell you that he had obviously had a large meal of spaghetti, as it trickled down the window both inside and out. There was nothing I could do but get him home. Safely deposited with sobbing tales of how good I was to him and how he loved me like a brother, a feeling I certainly didn’t share at the time, I left him and drove home, worried about how I was going to clean up the car and get rid of the smell.
Once home, I got a bucket of soapy water and set about cleaning up the car, hoping I could perform a miracle. Somehow I did a decent job and with a squirt or two of air-spray I successfully hid most of the damage. I even managed a little extra cleaning back at work. The car was hired for the next few days, but when it was returned I had the job of getting it prepared for rehiring. It still had an interesting piquant aroma, but I tried to ignore that and I thought no one would ever notice, but I wound the rear windows down to let some fresh air circulate. It was only when it came to winding back up the one that Nick’s head had been against that the true legacy of his night became apparent. As the window wound up it revealed strings of spaghetti stuck to the glass. I panicked and cleaned the glass and wound it down again and then back up. Once again, proof of his diet became apparent. There was nothing to do but hope no one would ever wind the window up and down. I felt pretty safe as no one would ever link it to me. The car stayed at Budget for twelve months before being sold off, and I tried the window a couple of further times and there must have been an inexhaustible reservoir of spaghetti as it would keep raising its ugly head to leave a reminder of Nick’s night out.
I loved working with the staff and company at WASS and I will return at some time with further tales.