I have told the tale of learning to drive when I was 17 years old and I suppose we were the lucky ones as we only had a few lessons before passing and then were let loose. My mother promised me driving lessons after she passed her test, but I never imagined how many she would need. In defence of my mother, she never ever had an accident and drove until she was quite an elderly lady, despite having very poor eyesight and not very good road sense. I seem to remember her having about six tests and I don’t think that included the one that had to be cancelled, as the gear stick came out in her hand. Mr Waites, who owned the driving school, finally took over her training and eventually succeeded in getting her through it. Whether it was due to Mum becoming a sufficiently good driver, or whether it was the testers wanting to see the back of her, I’ll never know.
My mum then went and bought a car. She had saved the money and thought that a small, if not the smallest car would suit her, and as a result she came home with a Fiat 500. This was just a step up from a Bubble Car, but it had a small 500cc engine that was short in power. It was so short of power that it struggled to get over the kerb and then up the quite steep drive at our house. To help solve the problem, my dad brought home some wooden wedges that he had had made at Catton’s Foundry, that helped. Even so, Mum could not handle the narrow drive and within a few weeks, the Fiat went and a grey Morris Minor arrived. This was a much better car and despite being old, it managed the drive with ease. The problem was that my mother couldn’t handle the kerb and eventually they paid to have it lowered so that access was relatively easy. Prior to this, you had to rev heavily to get over the kerb and then slow it down to manage the slope and get through the gate posts that only allowed a few inches on either side.
Mum was true to her word, and I started my lessons with Mr Waites when she passed. I was booked in for a dozen lessons and started with two a week. As I have spoken about before, I had twenty-four in total and luckily passed first time. I think this hurt Mum’s ego, but she was pleased that she didn’t have to pay for extra lessons. I was sure I’d failed on the test, particularly when I forgot to use hand signals as I had been instructed to do and when I threw the driving instructor (not wearing seat belts) into the windscreen as I suddenly stopped when just approaching the zebra crossing at Harehills when the sun was directly in my eyes. I had been told you failed instantly if someone stood on the crossing and you drove on. I explained and he must have been in a good mood and when I finished, I was given the appropriate paperwork.I seem to remember that the first licence was a burgundy little book and a few years later this changed to the green folded paper in a plastic sleeve that I still have and still has a year or two to go before it expires.
Mr Waites drove me home and my Mum rushed out and seemed delighted. Later that evening, I was allowed to drive her Morris Minor over to my older brother’s house at Cross Gates. I must be honest and say that after so few lessons, where someone was telling you everything to do, it seemed strange to be in a car on your own. The other thing was that I had never driven the Morris and I had never driven to Crossgates. Anyway, off I set and as this was winter the sun had set and it was dark and a little wet. Andrew’s house was near the old Windmill that was converted into a hotel. I had to drive up Wellington Hill, along the Ring Road, turn along the road to York, before coming to some windy narrow roads in semi-countryside to where he lived in a maisonette. I remember, vividly, getting a bit lost and I was in a narrow country lane. I knew I had to go back, but wasn’t sure what to do. My choice was not a good one, and I performed the only three-point turn when not learning to drive. It was such a dangerous manoeuvre where I did it, but luckily I got away with it. The Morris seemed to have a good turning circle and I still remember the long gear stick that took some moving to get from one gear to another. It didn’t have the flick-up indicators, but it was still fairly basic. The dashboard was metal, I can’t remember if it had seat belts and there was a choke that you pulled out to get it to start. Finally, I arrived, more than a little shaken and after a short stay I returned home without any mishaps.
I got to love the Morris, and despite it having poor headlights and being incredibly difficult to see where you were going when it was raining and dark, the car was reliable and took me all over. Here in Perth, I know that learners have a long rigmarole to go through. After passing the written and practical test followed by many hours of supervised driving, there is a period of six months when they can’t drive after midnight and then a further six month probation when they can’t have any alcohol and there are other restrictions. My lack of experience led to my first accident that I realised later was my fault. I was driving up Wellington Hill, after just entering the slip road that linked with the road from Oakwood, and I had my then girlfriend with me. I had only been driving a week or two. A long truck was on Wellington Hill and roared past, overtaking me, as I was just filtering in and it pulled back in and clipped the side of the car. The Morris bounced a bit, but it came to a stop and the truck just drove off. Both of us were badly shaken, but unhurt, and there was just a bit of damage to the wheel arch, but not a lot, as it was built like a tank. The thing that hurt was going home to tell my mother. Luckily, I was not alone and the said girl spoke in my defence, which had a slight calming effect on my mother. The police were called, but weren’t really interested and after a bit of being in the dog house, I was allowed to drive it again. The damage was repaired and that, touch wood, was the only accident I have had that was my fault.
Mum rarely drove the car at night and so it became mine in the evenings for quite a while and it allowed my friends and I to venture further in the evenings to go to pubs. Some of my other friends had their own cars. John had a bronze Capri with a vinyl brown roof. It was very flash at the time and he was the envy of most of us who were still at school and he and Debbie drove in style. One of the pubs we started to going to was the Fox and Hounds at Bramhope. This was a country pub, with stone, wooden beams and quite popular. We used to play darts there and I think they may have had bar billiards. The freedom of being able to drive to such places wasn’t always matched by the common-sense of drivers not to drink, and I was a victim of this folly on several occasions. Part of the demise of country pubs has been the reluctance of people to drive and not drink, and so they have stayed nearer to home. I can remember having at least two pints and driving back with David G sitting next to me, and for at least quite a few minutes neither of us realised that I hadn’t put the car headlights on. Undaunted, we used to drive further afield to Otley and attended parties and visited pubs, but never did the Otley Run pub crawl, and we went to East Keswick to the Travellers Rest, the Old Star and the Duke of Wellington. The use of a car opened up a much wider area that we could explore and enjoy.
There was another occasion when I was driving from Alwoodley and it was an icy, foggy night. I was approaching Harrogate Road, down King Lane and the car had five in it. It was a bit cramped, but at least it helped warm the car a little as the heater was not a great deal of use. As I approached the junction, there was a sharp little bend and as I put the brakes on, the car skidded and spun around. I was obviously going too fast for the conditions and the effect was quite dramatic but I managed to avoid anything and just looked the wrong way back up the road. It was scary, but I learnt the lesson to drive to the conditions and the passengers probably learnt to try and get another lift after that.
The Morris was a treasure: not fancy, but reliable and efficient, but eventually my mother traded it in and bought a more modern Hillman Imp. I was away at college in London at the time, and when I was applying for teaching jobs, she bought the car. I had an interview for a position in Rotherham and she allowed me to borrow the Imp. Everything went well on the way down the M1 to the interview in Rotherham’s Education Offices, but on the return, the car lost power and steam poured out of the engine. I pulled over to the hard shoulder and used the emergency phone and eventually got towed away. The car was taken to a local garage and they had a look and said the head gasket had blown. Apparently, it was a common fault with the Imp. I caught a bus back and my mother was not pleased. Somehow, it was my fault, but I couldn’t quite see it myself. The car was repaired in a day or two, but before we could collect it, someone stole it from the garage yard and wrote it off. The garage claimed no responsibility, which again seemed to be my fault, and it had to be claimed on Mum’s insurance. The car that replaced it was a second hand Mini and Mum loved it. This was the car she always wanted and over time she had one or two more.
From this, you would think that I am not a good driver, but in reality, after the initial hiccup, I have driven all my life, and apart from other people hitting my car, usually whilst it was parked, I have never caused an accident. I have driven large school buses and large trucks at Budget Rent a Car, so I can’t be that bad a driver. The first car we ever owned after I got married was a 1500cc VW Beetle and it was orange and quite a beast. You never forget the cars that you have owned and each one has its own peculiarities and quirks, and they all have a story to tell.