Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Cars, MOT, and stuff

Had the car MOT'd yesterday (for those not of this country thats the Ministry of Transport annual examination for cars over three years old - ie a licence for a garage to steal your wallet and its contents), I never intended for this car to need an MOT for its only leased for three years so in theory they should have collected it from me yesterday.

But because I now have to keep it until they have half a clue when my new one will be ready (and as yet they aren't even in a position to have a wild guess at a delivery date) then the Nissan needed an MOT - which I have to pay for, £45 for a greasemonkey to stick a tube up its exhaust and tell me thats its OK.

And while I sat in there greasemonkey waiting room reading The Metro I got to thinking of all the vehicles that I drove shortly after I had passed my driving test back in 1975 and how those vehicles didn't seem to need to pass any sort of annual inspection, or if they did then it was a very lenient one.

I was working for an electrical contractor at the time and we operated a "fleet" policy, that is if a vehicle was in the yard you could drive it, and because I was the 18 year old gopher then I got to drive everything from one of a dozen Ford Escort Mk 1 vans to Transit vans, to a 3 ton pickup truck (not sure if that was legal though) and back to a mixture of Ford Cortina's, a Ford Granada, the first Audi 80 model in the country and a lethal Triumph Toledo.

Most of these vehicles, especially the vans, had seen better days, one of them had a clutch that was so heavy that you need to use both feet to force it to the floor and it was not unusual to find your left leg going into cramp if you sat holding the clutch down at traffic lights for too long, it was so bad that if I had to drive that van then I'd change gear without the clutch, as did everyone who drove it, hence the gearbox disintegrating one day on its 200,000th mile.

Another van had a decent enough clutch but no accelerator return spring, a simple enough thing to fix you may think but fixing it would mean taking it off the road for a few hours and more importantly paying a garage to fix it, so someone tied a piece of cable to the accelerator instead.

Having no accelerator return spring meant that said accelerator would always be flat to the floor, fine if you fancied yourself as the next James Hunt but in reality a Ford Escort van will only stand being revved at 8000 revs for a few short minutes, so you had to control the accelerator pedal somehow.

The cable tied to the pedal worked well enough but it meant that driving the van was like riding a horse as you clutched the cable with your right hand, constantly pulling it up to slow the van down and stop the engine from revving itself to a molten lump. All went well until you reached a roundabout at which point you had to pull the cable with your right hand to slow down, press the clutch with your left foot, change down a gear with your left hand, brake with your right foot, release the cable in your right hand to accelerate away, pull on the cable to regulate the revs, steer with your teeth, press the clutch with your left foot, change gear with your left hand, steer around the roundabout with your teeth, pull the cable with your right hand - it was easy to get it wrong, and I did, many times.

The Triumph Toledo was a car with a problem, unlike the vans there was nothing wrong with the Toledo other than the fact that the car was the one-off attempt by the sports car manufacturers Truimph to make a boring family saloon. It certainly looked boring in a very trendy 1970's brown colour scheme (who the hell buys a brown car ?) but the engine that they put in the thing was hopelessly mis-matched with the transmission and the drive to the rear wheels, which were as narrow as pram wheels.

The result was that even the faintest of breaths on the accelerator would result in the car standing still on the road while the back wheels spun around like mad going nowhere and making a noise akin to a million screeching banshees, very impressive if you thought that the totty stood at the bus stop over the road would be impressed with your James Hunt impression while you sat and smiled at them, one arm casually draped over the open window, but a bit embarrassing when you were still sat there three minutes later, tyres still screeching and pouring out clouds of rubberised smog and the queue of drivers behind you wondering if you were ever going to set off before the lights changed again.

It also meant the the car simply would not go around corners, you'd approach the corner at a reasonable speed, and a reasonable speed in the Toledo - once you got it going - meant something over 40mph above the speed limit, and you'd certainly turn the wheel to persuade the car to at least attempt a turn, and in fairness the front wheels would often attempt the turn, but the back wheels just didn't want to know - ever - and you'd quickly learn the art of driving sideways and using the kerbstones of opposing carriageways to bump you back on course.

It was a death trap of a car and I don't recall what happened to it but would not be at all suprised to learn that someone had abandoned it far from home having given up all hope of ever driving it in a manner that even slightly resembled the way described in HM Governments "Highway Code".

The finest example of a car that I ever saw that would not have a hope in hell's chance of passing any sort of Ministry examination though was the Riley Hornet which was owned by our storeman. It wasn't so much that it was a wreck when he bought it from a scrap yard - and for a car to be scrapped in the 1970's then it really did have to be a wreck for no-one disposed of a car until it was truly and utterly knackered, there was always a neighbour who would buy a shagged out car for a few pints "for my lad" - no, and it wasn't the fact that there was a huge hole in the floor on the passenger side so that you had to sit with feet astride said hole with a hell of a draught blowing up yoru trouser legs, it wasn't even the huge, and I mean huge aerowing that he attached to the roof to make it look like something that James Hunt would drive at Silverstone, it was none of that.

It was the ingenious method of rust protection that he employed that would make a Ministry inspector rip up his examination sheet nowadays.

In the 1970's cars would rust as soon as you bought them and drove them out of the showroom, you could normally expect to see little spots of rust on your front wings in the first year and by year three you'd be spending most Sundays out on the driveway with a tube of plastic padding and sandpaper filling the newest of your rust holes in what was rapidly becoming a front wing made of plastic padding rather than steel.

Our storemans answer to the eternal problems of rusting was to coat the whole of his Riley Hornet (a derivation of the original Mini) with tar, black tar, like the black tar that you would normally use to repair the roads with, in fact it was exactly like the black tar that you would normally repair the roads with, for thats what it was.

As you'd expect, the tar was not easy to apply, it had to be hot and molten when applied and it stuck to everything including the paint brush when he tried to paint it on, and so the new "paint" job wasn't very smooth when he'd finished, in fact it looked like one of those buns that your mother used to make out of melted chocolate and Rice Krispies, but he didn't care, "This fekker will never rust" he'd proudly boast whenever anyone took the piss, and he was right, it didn't rust, it just caught fire on the way home from a nightclub one night, the fire brigade had never seen a vehicle fire like it, you could see the flames from Bradford they said.

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