My early motoring life.
A Short Story by:
In 1976 I was 19 and working as a customs clearance clerk for a shipping company in the port.
Mostly my job was writing customs entries in the office, bringing them to the various landing stations around the docks, and picking up clearance slips.
For the first eight months working there I had had a company supplied Honda 50 which was fantastic (once I learnt how to change gear) because my girlfriend lived in Churchtown which was a two hour walk (once I learned that there was another shorter way than the bus route) from where I lived.
Having transport in those days was important because buses were notoriously unreliable, and taxis out of the question.
Unfortunately and fortunately that particular period of free transport came to an end after eight months when I was promoted to an office job, more money, but back to cycling, walking and buses.
With the new job I was doing alright.
Even after handing up half to Ma, I had enough left for going out, the odd LP and for fashion and accessories.
But walking and getting buses was a pain, particularly so after having a period of motorised transportation at my fingertips.
It was not long after my losing my Honda 50, that my older brother Bill and his friend Noel found a red hand painted with ordinary gloss paint, 1966 Opel Kadett saloon who’s engine was supposedly seized, they got it for nothing, all they had to do was tow it from Pearse House flats to our garage, with Bills crank start Morris Minor.
We had a very long garden and a private access lane at the back, so Da had built a big garage at the end of the garden, which held two cars and loads of other stuff comfortably. Bill and Noel brought the Opel Kadett there for a good coat of looking over.
Had its engine been in truth seized, I’m not sure if they had a plan as to the disposal of a dead car.
However within a very short time they discovered that there was no oil in its engine and that its battery was flat, but apart from those two issues, In terms of it starting, there was nothing else wrong.
It did not take long to oil the engine and once jumped from the Morris Minor the Opel Kadett sputtered into life in a cloud of thick grey smoke, like a conjurers trick.
After a few minutes the smoke went away sort of and the engine ran smoothly, sort of.
Bill had his Morris Minor and Noel had his own Honda 50, so they very kindly gave it to me.
For some time I had been learning how to drive on Saturday mornings with my da in the B & I car import compound in the North side ferry terminal.
There were hundreds of brand-new cars of every make parked in neat rows, keys in the Ignition waiting for customs clearance and distribution throughout Ireland.
Da had moved from stevedoring to head of security for B & I
In the early 1970s, so I would go to work with him early on Saturday morning, and he let me choose any car to drive around this massive car park. The only stipulation being that if I crashed one that I would commit ritual suicide by drowning myself in the river (That’s not actually true, although I am sure that there would have been ramifications if I had damaged one, thankfully I didn’t)
Having that facility open to me, meant that I learned to drive pretty well in Land Rovers, Opel Asconas, Opel Mantas, Ford Granada’s and once a huge automatic Volvo which had power steering, and which nearly caught me out when I spun the steering wheel a little too vigorously.
I avoided a collision by millimetres and by dint of the huge brake pedal which I couldn’t miss when I stamped down in my panic.
After a month or two of Saturday mornings, I felt quite confident and I asked da if I could drive his Volkswagen variant home after my morning driving lesson.
I got as far as the traffic on the north wall where I stalled the car and couldn’t ,within a reasonable time, get it going again.
Without a word Da got out and walked to the Liffey ferry at the Point, leaving me to my fate.
I then got out and pretended that the car was broken down and I was trying to push It in out of traffic.
Two drivers got out of their cars to help me, sympathising with my predicament as they did so.
Once I was not causing a traffic jam l managed to calm down, and after 15 minutes or so, was able to get going again and drive home without further incident.
I passed da near the police barracks in Irishtown, I didn’t risk pulling in to pick him up so I pretended that I didn’t see him, he was only two minutes from home anyway.
With that wealth of driver training, by the time I acquired the Opel Kadett, I could sort of drive and the car could sort of go, we were a perfect match.
I mentioned earlier that in terms of starting it, the only two things wrong were the lack of oil in the engine and a dead battery. These two issues stopped the car from starting, everything else that was wrong with it just made it difficult to drive, and by today’s standards, downright dangerous.
All five tires were bald to a greater or lesser extent, the brakes worked if pumped, and the handbrake did not work at all.
The clutch barely functioned and screamed like a banshee when the pedal was pressed down, Bill told me that the screaming was caused by a seized thrust bearing, (what is a thrust bearing? I wondered), the car started but the engine would not run unless a little weight was kept on the accelerator pedal.
Being stopped in traffic or at traffic lights on a hill was a nightmare requiring three feet, 1 to keep the accelerator pedal slightly pressed, 2 to keep the brake pedal down and 3 to keep what was left of the clutch engaged.
Only those who have been in such a situation know the horror of it as your body breaks out in prickly sweat while your feet dance a quick step over the 3 foot pedals, desperately trying to keep the engine running whilst not rolling back into the car behind.
The wipers didn’t wipe
None of the tail lights lit.
The oil dipstick was missing.
The interior fan didn’t blow, and the horn didn’t blow either.
Missing fuses were to blame in most of the electrical issues, so once I had discovered that cars have fuse boards and I found where it was, I was able to rectify that situation with the collection of fuses which I gathered free from all the wrecked Opel Kadett’s that I scavenged for parts over the next two years.
Rust on cars in those days was not the cause for concern that it would be now.
There was always a certain amount of it on my early cars.
Perhaps rust proofing techniques were not very good back then, but it seemed that all car bodies were rusting away quietly in the 60s and 70s.
This inadequate rust proofing was particularly evident on cars coming from Japan.
I worked with someone who had a five year old 70s era Datsun Cherry, where the metal attachment between the chassis and the body had rusted away completely, the only thing keeping the two together was the engine, still attached to the chassis and snugly fitting in the engine bay.
I was lucky that I actively boycotted Japanese goods because of their whaling Industry, so my cars were German which seemed to be quite a bit rust proofed and Fords which were made in England and so I suppose, were rust proofed to the greatest extent possible at that time because of the climate.
Even on German cars ‘a certain amount’ of rust was acceptable.
My Opel Kadett Saloon first car had some rust, but I painted directly over it with Hammerite, a tin of which I found in Da’s collection of almost empty paint tins, and any actual holes I filled with Isopon, and then half-heartedly sanded down, either leaving the dull blue grey colour of the filler, or more normally painting it over with the paint on proprietary rust treatment.
I liked the affect of the black anti rust paint so much that I painted the roof of the car with it, and then a black stripe down either side.
The truck drivers in my new job began to call my car the ‘Red Zebra’
I knew next to nothing about automobiles or the workings of the internal combustion engine when I became a motorist.
But the one thing I knew was that it needed insurance which I got for £10 for the year from PMPA. There was no NCT test’s in those days, and it is just as well.
I actually drove my new car into Wolfe Tone Square where PMPA had its offices.
I remember waiting my turn and looking down through the office window at my red and black car, sitting proudly amongst the typically all black, white and dark brown cars of that era on the road outside.
Once I had Insurance, I began to look critically at my car, there was so much wrong with it that if I had known anything about cars, I might well have been somewhat overwhelmed.
The previous owner had kindly left a Haynes workshop manual and an eight track stereo with tapes of Emmylou Harris, the Bee Gees, Neil Diamond, and Frankie Valli and a speaker, conveniently attached to the player,
There was also two short power cables complete with fuse holder plugged into the unit.
I knew enough from leaving cert Physics to be able to run two wires from the 12 V battery, through one of the many holes in the firewall between the engine bay and the interior, to extend the power cable, and once I had done this I was delighted to see the red power light come on.
So to the sound of the Bee Gees Frankie Valli Emmy Lou or Neil Diamond I spent many hours in the garage finding out about my car.
Initially my girlfriend was as an enthusiastic learner mechanic as I was, but after a few cold nights in the garage when we should have been at the pictures or in the pub, her enthusiasm waned, so we went back to doing boyfriend girlfriend things more and car things somewhat less.
Still, I was learning a lot and slowly fixing that which needed fixing.
The fact that there was so much wrong with the car did not stop me driving it, and marvelling, as I learned, that a critical breakdown did not occur as we drove around the country, oblivious to the prospect that a best case scenario could have been the car falling apart on the road, stranding us in the far west, like Achill Island, the far north, like Donegal, the far Midlands, Mullingar or Waterford.
In the months following my becoming the owner of the car I fixed the handbrake by replacing the cable. I replaced the brakes on all four wheels; I fitted a new clutch that was a job I just had to do if I wanted to keep driving.
I replaced all five wheels with wheels from scrap yards that had better tires on than mine, I found an oil dipstick and replaced my missing one along with an Opel hubcap, wiper motor, fuel cap, cracked distributor cap, points, jack and tire iron, all taken off wrecked cars.
I learned about the radiator, the water pump and how one of the rotary belts on that pump plays a critical role in the timing of the piston strokes which turn the drive shaft giving the car motion.
If I were to be absolutely honest, I didn’t really understand that bit at the time, because if I had I would’ve realised that probably in the lifetime of my car the timing belt had never been changed (or even looked at). if I had known the tenuous nature of the arrangement, and how close in all probability those pistons were to coming up on a down stroke and destroying themselves, rendering the zebra dead, I doubt that we could have driven around Ireland with such gaiety and youthful abandon.
I learned of the thermostat on the cooling system, the points, the H T leads, the distributor cap, and the spark plugs.
I discovered the profound difference that the gap on the points, the soot on the spark plugs, the newness of the air filter, the condition (or position) of a HT lead, the uniformity of the air in the tires, the balance of the wheels and the temperature of the engine, can make to the running of a car.
I found that I could keep the car idling without a foot on the accelerator by balancing the flow of air and fuel in the carburettor.
Some things I could fix immediately with reference to the workshop manual, others took longer and required parts, but there was a hell of a lot of stuff that needed fixing.
In fact the only things that worked normally when I took possession of the car was the eight track stereo, it’s tapes, the rear view mirror, the interior one, the ashtray, the fly windows and the seats, even the roll up windows and the two doors squeaked rattled and dropped when called into use and the door mirror was gone.
Ironically, one of the most difficult car jobs a DIY Mechanic can undertake is the changing of a clutch, the ironic part being that it was of necessity, the first one that I attempted.
The old clutch was hanging in there by the skin of its teeth, so I bought a new clutch plate from Reg Armstrong’s, in Ringsend, for the trade price because my brother-in-law worked there, and following the instructions in the Haynes workshop manual I got to work.
It took me ages, like a whole weekend, mostly freezing and covered with oil, under the car, but I eventually got everything back in place, only having one small cotter pin leftover
at the end, surely I thought to myself that couldn’t be a critical bit.
I reversed successfully into the lane, I selected first gear and moved off but I had no luck with second, third was okay and fourth was the same as second, un-selectable!
There was a very long and springy gear lever on the Kadett’s of that vintage, and I wondered was the problem something simple to do with that, however there were things called selectors in the gearbox and if they were jumbled about, the same thing happen.
I had been super careful to drop the gearbox gently onto my chest, and wriggle out from under the car without changing its orientation. However never having done it before, I didn’t know how much movement could cause a problem.
I got it back on the bench where everything looked as it had when it came out, and I checked meticulously to see if the cotter pin, ostensibly surplus to requirements, went anywhere obvious I was reasonably sure that it didn’t.
After a second gear box oil top up and reinstallation, the problem persisted so I really set out to find where it went.
After going through all the exploded diagrams in the manual, it turned out that it went around the base of the gear lever hidden under the rubber boot, where it kept the lever snug into the gearbox enabling its linkage to reach gears two and four.
It had taken probably two days more than it would have if I had known what I was doing, but I felt a great deal of satisfaction when I had the new clutch in and working sweetly.
The car was a work in progress from the moment it came to me it.
Every Saturday morning, two or three evenings during the week and numerous times by the roadside I worked on it, tinkering, carrying out running repairs and learning as I went.
My Opel Kadett was a basic machine, reasonably easy to understand and work on; there was no bells or whistles and if there had been they probably would not have worked.
Shortly before I moved onto my second car, my girlfriend and I took a 2 week motoring holiday in the west of Ireland basing ourselves in a tent on Achill Island.
There were no motorways in Ireland in those days, so driving from Dublin to Achill in a normal car could take five or six hours depending on traffic, and in my car, with a top speed of 50 mph, a whole day.
We started out on Friday morning so we navigated our way West through heavy weekday traffic on the main roads and bumper to bumper stuff in the towns
After three or four hours we were just past Mullingar on the Longford Road where it skirts picturesque Loch Ennell.
The famous roadside pub the Foxes Covert with their outdoor picnic benches overlooks the lake there, so it was the perfect place to stop for lunch on that lovely sunny day.
The huge car park out-front was empty, so I parked beside one of the tables, we got out and sat down relishing the view and the warmth of the air.
A lady came out and took our order and so we sat smoking, chatting and enjoying the sunshine.
I had applied this prismatic tape which was all the rage back then along one and a half sides of the car (there wasn’t enough on the roll to finish the second side) and it sparkled and glinted in the sun with all the colours of the rainbow.
It was interesting to look at and pass comment upon.
Our lunch arrived and as we ate, a funeral cortege, hearse, two funeral cars and a big long line of mourner’s vehicles came screeching in, if one can screech from a slow funereal speed, filling the car park in an instant.
The grieving widow (we assumed) was assisted inside, and as she passed us she nodded and smiled sadly in our direction , and we nodded and mouthed “sorry for your troubles” back, the rest of the crowd including the hearse and funeral car drivers, arranged themselves between indoors and out.
From having two customers in what was a decidedly languid atmosphere one moment, things went to pell mell pulling of pints and pouring shorts, from quiet to hubbub in a twinkling.
It lasted the same length of time it takes to drink a pint fast, then everyone jumped back in their cars, the chief mourners came out and remounted the funeral vehicles and in another twinkling they were gone and we were back to languid again.
We reckoned that funerals in the country might have quite a long way to drive from church the cemetery, and on a hot day people get thirsty.
The sunny day did not last very long unfortunately.
After lunch and back on the road again, by the time we got to Newport in Mayo the sky was heavy with dark clouds and the air had turned muggy.
We had a fish chowder and brown bread dinner in I think the name was, the Newport Inn.
It was around 6 pm and Achill will still an hour or so away.
It hadn’t yet rained, but it was looking like it.
We left Newport at about 8 o’clock and as we drove due west across the flat bog land, shafts of the Westering sun speared through the grey clouds lighting the way ahead with the light peculiar to the west of Ireland.
I’ll never forget the profusion of Fuchsia and rhododendron ,red wildflowers growing by the roadside, pressing in on us as we drove through Achill Sound, they crowded in from both sides giving the area a distinctly tropical feel.
Neither of us had been to Achill before, so we did not really know where we were going.
Once on the island we followed the coast until we got to Keel, where there was a sign telling the traveller that they were in fact in a place called Keel, a pub, a grassy area up from the beach protected from the wind by dunes, and a view of the Atlantic Ocean and the craggy coast to take the breath away, the memory of which will last a life time.
We pitched our tent and then walked up to the hotel/pub for a nightcap.
As I recall it now at a distance of almost 50 years, the bar was occupied by the rightful heirs to Ireland, the ancestors of the Tuatha de Dannan, the tribe of Danu.
Fine big golden men, with dark tanned faces and forearms like brown thick rope, wind tussled hair and deep brown eyes.
They lined the bar, some holding what looked like tiny pints of Guinness in their huge hands.
We were suddenly the centre of attention for all those dark eyes, not in a malevolent way but with interest in these two pale skeletons from another world. In truth I believe that it was my girlfriend who was the centre of attention for that exclusively male group.
They were Currach fisherman, hard men who made their living from the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean in the open rowing boats developed by Atlantic fishermen over centuries.
There was no huge tourist industry like we have now in these Wild Atlantic Way days back then.
1976 was only 40 years after the days of Peig and the islander and life moved to a different, a slower rhythmic pattern.
We nodded and smiled in general, and space was made for us at the bar with many failte’s and words of welcome.
Achill was and still is a Gaeltacht where only Irish is spoken.
I had had two weeks in the Galway Gaeltacht in Renvyle in my leaving cert year, but I was no more fluent in 1976 than I had been in 1975, but “Pionta go leith de Guinness le do thoil” is easy enough to get your tongue around.
This story is about the car, and before the end of the holiday it was to take centre stage again.
We did a lot of driving up and down the Mayo coast and out along the Atlantic Drive on Achill itself to the most beautiful beach at Keem, with its golden sand and crystal clear turquoise water. If sunshine was not a necessity for a ‘Sun’ holiday then Keem and the many similar treasures around the Irish coast, would make the country a premier destination.
The roads, particularly on the Atlantic Drive, included precipitous hills, which the car did not like at all. The scenery was stunning but driving up those hills, I just couldn’t enjoy it because on the up slopes, the engine would lose power and I had to be very careful about how I used the accelerator, too much gas and the engine would cut out, not enough and we wouldn’t get to the top.
After that the engine took to fluttering, each morning when I started the car it felt as if the choke was fully out and the carburettor was flooding.
As it turned out after we got back I found that the problem was with the carburettor, all those fine calibrations that I had made had upset the delicate balance of fuel and air and we were lucky to make it home without a major breakdown.
There was one last car issue on the holiday worthy of reporting.
On the way home we stopped somewhere for refreshment.
In those days there were absolutely no roadside diners or service areas, so the only place to stop was the pub.
I can’t remember where this particular pub was, probably around Carrick on Shannon I think.
During our holiday, the passenger-side door had begun to drop further than had been normal before, and this time when my girlfriend put her shoulder against it and pushed, it fell off into the car park.
Well that was a bit of a shock and a laugh, I stuck the door into the boot for the moment and we went in to have our coffee and sandwiches.
When we got back to the car, we looked for a solution to the issue.
We still had several hours drive to home, so leaving the door off was not an option.
Those were the days when I had no duct tape or tie wraps, but I did have half a reel of coax in the boot, so I lifted the door into position and while my girl friend held it there, I tied it from the door metalwork, because the panel trim was loose anyway and would have pulled off, around the base of the passenger seat,pulling as tight as I possibly could.
It wasn’t perfect and it was very draughty, but we got home.
I drove straight to the garage in my house and I fixed the door with two six inch nails, replacing whatever pins had corroded away in the hinges.
I got a new and better paid job In July 1978, and with the extra money I traded in MZL736, and bought a brown seven-year-old Opel Kadett Caravan (Estate) 6665IK for £700, £200 cash and the rest financed over two years.
All the faults that were endemic In my first car, such as bald tires, broken wipers, broken fan, missing petrol cap etc etc, were entirely missing on this almost new car, there was even a stereo radio Cassette player, with two speakers built in to the side panels of the driver and passenger door.
After about six months the radiator developed a leak, but because I had kept my first car running for nearly 2 years without having any automotive knowledge I was able to change the radiator for one from a scrap yard.
My first car had many issues, but I was delighted to get it and it served me well.
Keeping the car running gave me such a great grounding in car mechanics, that until cars became more computer than engine, I was never afraid to go rooting around under the bonnet of any that I have owned.