I drive a Peugeot 106. It’s the sixth car I’ve owned in 35 years, so I don’t get through them very often. I don’t see the point. Buy a car second-hand, cheap, make sure it has a good reason to be sold (mine’s last owner was a Motability driver with a right to a new car after three years), and that the music system works, they’re my mottoes.
But, just as I don’t have the foggiest – a stupid phrase, since the foggiest is what I do have – about what happens inside a computer, so also I do not know what buzzes under my car’s bonnet. I probably would have fallen for the famous Candid Camera trap set up by the late Jonathan Routh. He freewheeled a car down a hill into a garage, and told the owner that he’d just come one hundred and fifty miles, and that the engine was playing up. The garage owner opened the bonnet to find a suitcase with a few wires sticking out of it. He scratched his head. ‘How far did you say you’ve come?’ he asked, hesitantly. Routh repeated the distance, and threw in a remark about not having a clue about what went on in engines, and that he never looked. The garage-owner looked bemused. Then a small light bulb went on, and he strode to the boot, and opened it, expecting it, Beetle-like, to have an engine at the back instead of the front. Nope: another suitcase with leads sticking out of it. Utterly flummoxed, he returned to Routh and started hesitantly to suggest that the car couldn’t have come all that way. The banter continued.
It’s like that with me and cars. Open up the bonnet (if I can remember where the gizmo is that opens the bonnet – in the footwell – why? – and if I can master the device for opening the bonnet – I can’t) and I cannot tell you anything except that a dipstick is a dipstick. It would have been good sense to teach me this at school, I think, even if cars have come (perhaps, I don’t really know) a long way since then.
I was taught to drive by an instructor who called me ‘Skipper’, and rehearsed by my mother (who had never passed a test, and was terrified, which she was right to be, of helping out). My father, a car-obsessive, gave me one lesson on Day One, and we then agreed to pack it in. He taught me, after how to put the key in and turn it, what he regarded were the two most essential, fundamental, absolutely necessary things about driving. They were, in this order, double-declutching, and the dangers of aquaplaning. Even in 1970, when I was 17 and learning to drive, you didn’t need to double declutch, and I doubt it had been necessary since 1950. He was just unable to get down to basics.
Driving tests themselves were, I suspect, a little easier. At the end of the runaround, during which I certainly messed up a turn left at a junction on the Chester Road in Sunderland, you were asked three questions, which you had to get right. Here is one of the questions, and the dialogue involved in my successful first attempt at passing a driving test.
EXAMINER: What comes after amber at a traffic lights?
EXAMINER: Are you sure?
And here is the transcript of the conversation I had with my mother from the bus station in Sunderland, in the aftermath of my success (made sweeter by the revelation that my father had actually failed his first test):
SELF: Hello, mum.
MOTHER: Never mind. I’m sure you’ll do better next time.
SELF: I’ve passed my test!
MOTHER: Never mind. All it takes is a bit of practice. I’m sure you weren’t to blame.
SELF: I’ve passed my test.
(Very, very long silence. Sound of information sinking in.)
May I borrow your car this afternoon?
(Sound of silent terror.)
Ah well, the biter may be about to get bit. There are only two weeks until my daughter is 17 (my son, who is 26, has long since helped out my equanimity by failing his driving tests. This time, I’m not so sure.)
I also wish I knew how a camera worked, and why an aeroplane stays up in the sky. But it is probably too late for me now.