Wednesday, February 25, 2015

LAST week, I happened on a comment which our eldest had posted on social media. She had scored 100% on one of those social media quiz things, which was proposing to test your knowledge of basic car parts. She commented that all the hours spent watching me tinkering with whichever Cortina we had at the time was not entirely wasted.

I viewed her comment while waiting for our car to have brake pads fitted, a job that I would have tackled myself (and often did) when I was driving any one of the many Ford Cortinas that we owned over time.

Years ago, it was a simpler time, when even the cars were simpler. Nowadays, you would nearly need a university degree to look under the bonnet. And as for the instruction manual which is supposed to decipher what the warning lights on the dashboard mean … well, I have given that up as a bad job. I just ring a man who knows.

Time was, there were only two lights on the dashboard. Indeed, I remember when the key just turned the car on and then you had to press or pull the starter button to actually fire the engine up. There was also a choke, which had to be pulled out. I also remember when the dip-switch for the lights was on the floor and you operated it with your foot. These are the things which I was taking note of as I watched my father driving our Ford Prefect, ensuring that I would be ready for the day when I would be allowed behind the wheel.

How many of you remember when a new car had to be ‘run-in’? That was the process where, in the case of a new car, you were restricted to driving at a slow speed for the first thousand miles, increasing slightly for the next thousand, and so on, until the engine was run-in. I can still remember the distinctive smell of a new engine as it heated up.

And who remembers a car having frost plugs? Well, I have good reason to remember them because, in the winter of 1961, our old Prefect froze solid. That poor old car didn’t like the cold weather and we cut our car maintenance teeth pushing it down the short avenue leading to the road.

My father was a powerfully strong man (there is still a little plaque at home from the time he took the honours at the 1956 Western Command Sports in the 56lb weight-throwing event). When it came to push-starting the frozen car, he would always start the ball rolling. With the driver’s door open, he would lean in to steer, with his shoulder against the door frame. The three lads and the two older girls would be lending our collective power at the boot end.

Once moving, my father would leap in, put the car in gear (second gear, of course) and we would wait for the shock as the clutch was let out. Between the time he leaped in and the time the clutch was let out, the car’s momentum suffered considerably, but it usually obliged by spluttering into life before we got to the road. And it was always a happy sight to see the car boot disappear away from us.

But one day in the winter of 1961, not even the added horsepower of Jim Jordan’s Ferguson tractor could coax the old Prefect into life. And by the time someone more knowledgeable in matters automotive came along, the car had been immobile for more than a week.

The pronouncement from the expert was that the block was frozen solid, so much so that the frost plugs had blown. These, we discovered, were small discs in the engine block, designed to blow out or, more properly, be forced out by expanding ice before it had a chance to crack the engine block.

The frost plugs had done their job and the poor old Prefect survived that winter. But the writing was on the wall and led to a very exciting event in our house. One very cold November day later that year, my mother and father went to Smith’s garage in Naas and came back in a Renault Gordini. It was a brand new car and quite sporty looking. I can still remember the reg – ZW 9587.

This car proved to be wholly unsuitable. The engine was in the back and, in the severe winter of 1962, ballast was required in the front. Neither was the car ever a fit for my father’s large frame. And two years and two further children later, the family had literally outgrown the car.

The Gordini was traded in against a brand new Mk 1 Cortina, CIO 45, which was a very roomy saloon. It needed to be, as the latest family addition, in the same year we acquired the Cortina, brought our family count to an uneven five boys and three girls. My parents would later rectify that to a very even five and five.

Later, we would possess at least one Mk II Cortina, and our old Mk III Cortina passed to me. With four remould tyres, it took us on our honeymoon. Mind you, it did need a charge of Radweld at the nearest garage to the ferry terminal at Holyhead.

And I seem to remember another occasion when the other half sacrificed a pair of tights, which provided a temporary fan belt. Now there’s an idea for a dashboard light! I wonder how many people on social media would get a perfect score with that one.

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By Tom Cox
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