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Spotting a Masterpiece

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In 1960, when motoring for the masses was still in its infancy, I was a car-besotted 10-year-old. I liked the hand-smoothed gloss of fine coachwork, the rough heat of a flint-spiked tyre, and even the eye-smarting chemicals of cheap uncured plastic dashboards. I liked everything about them. I liked everything about the people who liked them.

My family home in north London suburbia was on a minor road, at the lower end of a hill. The driver of a vehicle approaching from below would need to double declutch in order to tackle the climb. The consequent shift in engine note was the signal to grab my copy of The Observer’s Book of Automobiles, run to a window at the front of the house and watch the rare creature pass. On the dust-jacket it says, ‘From the concise descriptions the observer will be able to distinguish immediately any new car seen on the road today.’ The perfect volume, and it came in at a pocket-money-friendly 5 shillings.

As the vehicle met the gradient it would slow and strain on the first part of the climb. This was the ideal opportunity to make a mental note of its line and trim, the curve of its panels, the sweep and dip of its arches, the maker’s badge – and to check them against the volume’s 238 monochrome photographs, 88 line sketches and 55 maker’s badges. Incidentally, it was around this time that the spine of my copy took on an acute lean.

If you’re thinking it all sounds a little extreme – you’re right. I was a desperately lonely child. Cars were my elsewhere, my place of safety. My mother was a full-time housewife, no doubt wrestling with The Problem with No Name as she prepared yet another shopping list; my father barely spoke more than three words a day to me, and gave the impression that a pipe of good tobacco and a newspaper were infinitely preferable to the company of his only child. I ached for things to be different. Other than learning to drive in the Army, my father had never shown any inter

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In 1960, when motoring for the masses was still in its infancy, I was a car-besotted 10-year-old. I liked the hand-smoothed gloss of fine coachwork, the rough heat of a flint-spiked tyre, and even the eye-smarting chemicals of cheap uncured plastic dashboards. I liked everything about them. I liked everything about the people who liked them.

My family home in north London suburbia was on a minor road, at the lower end of a hill. The driver of a vehicle approaching from below would need to double declutch in order to tackle the climb. The consequent shift in engine note was the signal to grab my copy of The Observer’s Book of Automobiles, run to a window at the front of the house and watch the rare creature pass. On the dust-jacket it says, ‘From the concise descriptions the observer will be able to distinguish immediately any new car seen on the road today.’ The perfect volume, and it came in at a pocket-money-friendly 5 shillings. As the vehicle met the gradient it would slow and strain on the first part of the climb. This was the ideal opportunity to make a mental note of its line and trim, the curve of its panels, the sweep and dip of its arches, the maker’s badge – and to check them against the volume’s 238 monochrome photographs, 88 line sketches and 55 maker’s badges. Incidentally, it was around this time that the spine of my copy took on an acute lean. If you’re thinking it all sounds a little extreme – you’re right. I was a desperately lonely child. Cars were my elsewhere, my place of safety. My mother was a full-time housewife, no doubt wrestling with The Problem with No Name as she prepared yet another shopping list; my father barely spoke more than three words a day to me, and gave the impression that a pipe of good tobacco and a newspaper were infinitely preferable to the company of his only child. I ached for things to be different. Other than learning to drive in the Army, my father had never shown any interest in cars but, for a reason that still eludes me, I decided that cars should be our common pursuit – something we might actually talk about. Automobiles was then No. 21 of thirty titles in the Observer’s series, each published by Frederick Warne & Co Ltd. British Birds, the first title in the series, was published in 1937. Some titles are now highly collectable and prized, rare copies in mint condition are snapped up by completists for several hundred pounds, and the Internet is populated with sites dedicated to them. My 1960 edition is a delightfully personable 5 1⁄2 x 3 1⁄2 inches that sits comfortably in the palm, 288 pages bound with boards of soft light blue, and on the front panel of the jacket the Sunbeam Alpine Sports – beautiful smooth lines. Tail dips sharply. A smiling blonde woman rests on the bonnet in a distinctly non-ironic representation of something else I would have liked to talk about. When my father returned in the evening from work, I would tell him of the makes and models I’d seen that day, pointing to them in Automobiles. I gushed cubic capacities and compression ratios; spoke at pipe-chewing length about the Wolseley Fifteen Hundred 4-door saloon of compact appearance with deep one-piece windscreen; or the fabulously beautiful ivory-white Jaguar XK150 Roadster flowing, straight through wing line, rounded tail that passed the house so regularly every weekday afternoon that I used to stand and wait for it. Some months later my father announced that he was going to buy a car – his first. I was thrilled. This, at last, would be the source of our cross-generational bonding, the wellspring of our shared weekend moments of the kind I would read about fourteen years later in Robert Maynard Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We would wear matching one-piece overalls. Our hands would share the same dirt. The new vehicle would have to be suitable for a family of three, of course: an upright Rover 3-litre saloon perhaps, or a sturdy Humber Hawk. Then one afternoon I walked home from school and saw unusual rear roof line – note how rear window is raked forward – the opposite to most other automobiles. With my superior car-spotting skills I was able to tell immediately that my father’s first car was a bottom-of-the-range Ford Anglia 105E. He could afford more luxury, more status, but always resisted owning anything with the slightest whiff of aspiration. The car was chosen, purchased, taxed, insured and ready to use, and for my father nothing more was required. For my other male relatives however, the purchase of any car, let alone a new one, was an event of considerable significance, enough to warrant a visit to view. My father’s political-activist younger brother Royal Navy surplus duffel coat, black beret, aviator goggles loose about the neck arrived in an Isetta bubble car – a kind of giant motorized orange squashed on two sides, with a few Meccano wheels strategically attached. Unbubbled, he immediately accused my father of betraying the proletariat by not buying a vehicle made in the USSR. He then surreptitiously slipped into my palm – as he did every time I met him – some small promotional item extolling the benefits of class revolution: a quotation from Das Kapital; Trotsky on a lapel badge. While my father sat alone in the garden with a Daily Express and a blue-grey cloud of St Bruno Flake, his brother and I studied the Anglia; then joyously, communally, flipped through my copy of Automobiles. He was delighted to find listed Soviet makers and models, and was especially fulsome about the merits of the M.21 Volga 4-door saloon of modern appearance manufactured at the Molotov Works, Gorky. The Anglia’s mechanical parts were always serviced by the local main dealer, the service log always meticulously date-stamped and stored – with receipts – in a clear plastic wallet kept under the dashboard. I say ‘clear plastic’, but it was impossible actually to see through. Like the whole car itself, it was covered in sticky grime. I was gradually coming to realize that my father held everything to do with ‘car care’ in utter disdain. He never once cleaned, nor caused to be cleaned, any of its surfaces; never emptied Swan Vestas from an ashtray; never retrieved a fluff-covered Spangle from a door-well. All his cars met the same end. Each purchase was the lowest priced model in the range, each lived a life of neglect until, eventually – on its knees like some pathetic creature you might see during a fundraising campaign for a donkey sanctuary – the cost of repair was greater than its value. At this point it was replaced by a new model and the whole sorry process started again. However, my father’s lack of enthusiasm did nothing to diminish mine. It is late Sunday morning. I am alone on the back bench-seat of the Anglia, my father is driving and my mother is sitting next to him. This is what we do every late Sunday morning: we travel along the North Circular Road to my aunt’s house for Sunday lunch. Outside the car there is an assortment of moving motor vehicles, inside the car there is monotonous silence. So what better way of enlivening the journey and enthusing my father than by announcing, every time I spot a car, the city where it was registered? Unbeknown to my parents, my copy of Automobiles listed the British and International coded number plate prefix letters which would enable me to do just that. And as luck would have it, I had committed them to memory.

Singer Gazelle Saloon. Number plate prefix CE Cambridge.

Morris Minor 1000 Traveller. Number plate prefix H Southend-on-Sea.

Lotus Elite Grand Tourismo Coupé. Number plate prefix . . .

After some fifteen minutes of this expert car-spotting, my father opened his mouth as if to make a rare utterance, but my mother leant across and stoppered it with a blackcurrant Spangle. I chose strawberry. The rest of the journey I spent silently scanning the North Circular Road for the prefix letter V: Vatican City. Automobiles is not just a pocket-sized collection of illustrated lists. It features ‘The Changing Shape of the Automobile’, a chronological account which is mysteriously devoid of any illustrations whatsoever, relying entirely on the visual imagery created by a precise and wonderfully understated prose: 1957 ‘Fins’ – usually formed by extension of the rear wings – were very popular, especially in the United States. There is also the chapter ‘A Brief History of the Automobile’ which spans inventions from a steam-powered carriage of 1770 to the ‘Hovercar’ of the late 1950s. ‘One wonders’, writes the racing driver Stirling Moss in his Foreword, ‘if these queer vehicles will be seen in future years sweeping along the M1?’ Appealing to children and adults, with its clarity and consistently unpatronizing tone, this small volume is a masterpiece of the spotting genre, the remarkable ‘artless’ achievement of its editor L. A. Manwaring. Unfortunately, despite Manwaring’s editorial prowess and all my best efforts, my father never once showed any enthusiasm for cars. His interest in them remained untroubled and utilitarian: they should take him to where he needed to be when he needed to be there. With hindsight (oh! hindsight), my father’s difficulty with communication can be understood as a probable symptom of post-traumatic stress; an unidentified, insidious consequence of his involvement in the hand-to-hand, flame-throwing horror of Arnhem during the Second World War. No matter how I tried to construct a common interest, he was too damaged to engage. Silence was his elsewhere, his place of safety. Now, almost half a century on, it is my father’s attitude to cars that I occupy, and it’s his silences that speak to me. I recall them as I turn the pages.

* * *

When I was 13, into our customary one-way conversation I dropped the possibility of my getting a Saturday job to supplement my pocket money. As usual he didn’t reply. As usual I didn’t expect him to. A few weeks later, as we were sitting side by side in the Anglia, he pulled over and stopped by the kerb.

‘See that building?’ he said, using his briar as a pointer. I peered through the grime on the side-window and eventually focused on a gleamingly smart ultra-modern car showroom. ‘If you go in there and ask for Mr Whitten,’ he said, ‘he’ll have a Saturday job for you.’ ‘What sort of job?’ I said. ‘Car cleaner.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 25 © Laurence Scott 2010


About the contributor

Laurence Scott does not own a car, though he likes to be driven in one. His poems can be found in various magazines and journals.

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