Our first cars: Take a journey back in time

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, JO KERRIGAN asks you to throw your minds back to that joyful moment when you actually got a vehicle of your very own. The problems, the breakdowns, and the repairs were all lying on the bumpy road ahead...
Our first cars: Take a journey back in time

THE ROAD TO NOWHERE: A long line of cars queuing at a garage in Washington Street, Cork city, during a petrol shortage on May 31, 1947

WHATEVER else may pass from our memories over the years, it is very rarely that anyone ever forgets his or her first car.

There is something about that moment when you realise that now, at last, you have the freedom to make your own decisions, to go where you want, and break out of the limits imposed by foot-slog or bicycle pedals.

You saved up for it, yearned for it, and when you finally got it, hours were spent tinkering, fine-tuning, polishing, and loving the vehicle.

It was the most special car you would ever own, because it was the first.

Back then, as you stood beside it, resting your hand affectionately on its bonnet, how could you foresee a future when car after car would follow this one, each more advanced, more reliable, more changed in outline, in shape, with improvements and luxuries — electric windows, automatic choke anyone? — than you could imagine.

Ah. but the first car was the one you never forgot.

The 1960s were a time of swift change in car design, the old-style round-bodied Anglias and Prefects giving way to symbols of the rocket age in futuristic fins and sweeping lines.

FAST FASHION: The 1950s Ford Prefect
FAST FASHION: The 1950s Ford Prefect

America had had its gigantic Studebakers, Lincolns and Chevrolets for at least a decade before Ireland and England came out of the post-war gloom, but once we got the idea, we weren’t long in following, with Zodiacs being one of the most admired among teenage boys, who counted themselves lucky if their fathers allowed them to borrow it to take the girlfriend to a dance.

Denis O’Mahony remembers his own first car very well.

“It was a Ford Cortina Mark 2, 1600cc. My Dad sourced it for me in 1973 from a friend who was working in the Ford factory at the time.”

Apparently, the Ford legend held that when an employee ordered a car, it was treated extra carefully while being assembled.

“It was said that a lop (the old Irish penny with the hen and chickens on the front) would be welded to the chassis to indicate all along the assembly line that it was destined for a staff member, and thus required more than the standard treatment.”

Denis added: “It was a great car, and a joy to drive, although I have to say it handled like a bucket when cornering a any speed.”

But did he find the penny? “No, sad to say, I never did trace the lop.”

It was a minor detail that Denis couldn’t actually drive when he got the car.

“It was delivered to the yard at my place of work, where there was lots of space to practice. My Dad would come down every evening and we’d drive around the yard as practice and then park it there and walk home.

“After a week or two of this, I felt ready to do it on the open road.

“One evening, as we went to park it, I suggested that it was silly to walk home while we had a car unused. I drove out the gate and never looked back. I was a driver, I had the open road in front of me!”

Back then, it was taken for granted that all maintenance was done in the form of home DIY.

But cars were easier to work on then, explains Denis sadly. “There were simply no electronics. Spark plugs, contacts , oil filter and oil change were all a doddle. Brake shoes and pads were changed just as readily.

“We went to garages for petrol and air only. And occasionally we felt the need to get a new tyre or two. Bald tyres were not approved of, but we did run them in well before we were forced to buy new ones. No NCT then!”

Yes, we have come a long way since those DIY days.

MY PRIDE AND JOY: Tom with his beloved bubble car, which was in fact a BMW. The cat was called Rumpity, he tells us.
MY PRIDE AND JOY: Tom with his beloved bubble car, which was in fact a BMW. The cat was called Rumpity, he tells us.

Younger readers just won’t remember those damp mornings when you tried vainly to get your car started to make it on time to work, only to realise with a sinking heart that the plugs were damp — again — and that the points might have closed up.

The first problem could perhaps be solved by borrowing your sister’s hairdryer, or, if you were the forward-thinking type, by putting a hot water bottle in the engine the night before. Only thing there was that you had to remember to take it out before starting off next morning!

With the points, often the blade of a penknife inserted between the darn things — if you knew where to find them — might do the trick. Otherwise it was back to the good old push-and-put-it-in-gear technique of starting an obstinate car. That probably isn’t possible with today’s models.

Denis remembers nostalgically that after a few years, and many working trips from Cork to Dublin and back, his car began to show its age.

“Once, the bonnet flew up, blocking my vision, as I was driving. Yikes ! And slamming on the brakes didn’t make it go back down either. Luckily no collision occurred.

“On another occasion the exhaust became detached at the engine end around about Naas. I had to drive on despite the noise.”

On a night trip up to the capital city, the contacts packed up near Monasterevin. A few local enquiries turned up a mechanic’s address.

“Luckily he had a set of contacts, and I fitted them and adjusted them too, in complete darkness at the side of the road.”

You do wonder if you could find helpful local people with the requisite information these days, or indeed the co-operative mechanic. Front doors aren’t as open as they used to be in our Irish countryside. Of course we do have mobile phones now, with the AA or another road organisation at the end of the line, so perhaps things have got a bit better. Less social, but handier.

Other memories of Denis’s famous Cortina include carrying a five-gallon drum of water in the boot because a frost plug was leaking, dealing with overheating (“those radiators were never built to last”), fixing a jammed starter motor, and the fan belt slipping.

“Bearings and ball joints were always a problem. Alternators packed up and batteries went flat. The trick was to decide if it the battery was dud or the alternator. Invariably if you simply bought a new battery, it was the alternator that was faulty, and vice versa.”

Occasionally, by way of variety, the gear stick would come away from the gearbox, and changing up or down became impossible. Never a dull moment in fact.

Nevertheless, that Cortina, Denis says, lasted for well over 150,000 miles before a piston broke and it had to be towed away.

Subsequent cars were better, less trouble, but somehow less endearing. “Now I drive a BMW that has more brains than I do, and looks after itself!”

Drivers nowadays are spoilt, claims Denis. “Sure, cars are made to last and are much more reliable, but the downside is that DIY maintenance has become a lost skill. Who can diagnose a car fault without the main dealer’s complicated diagnostic gear? And if their computer says there isn’t anything wrong, then they can’t help you, despite the weird noises and bangings.

“And as for changing a light bulb — that can require an engineering degree!”

In many countries, it is now a requirement to carry spare light bulbs, but that isn’t much use if there is no way of getting at the trouble point without taking the entire chassis apart.

Somebody who knows plenty about DIY maintenance is Tom, whose first car, back in the early 1960s, was in fact a BMW — but emphatically not the kind of BMW that comes to your mind when you hear the famous name.

“It was the Isetta bubble car, a 1957 model, that ran on a two-cylinder motorbike engine,” explains Tom, who even remembers the registration number instantly: ZF 8650.

“This Cork chap had bought it and used it for a few months, and then just left it, parked up on Military Hill. I asked him if I could buy it and got it for £15!”

But it wouldn’t go. The car needed serious attention, and Tom took it over to the Crawford Tech where he was working at the time.

“Paddy Mac, who taught marine engineering, brought all his students down to help me. One did the lights, another the engine, a third one the wheels — they were great. And Paddy was pleased because they were getting good practical experience.”

The starter of the car never worked properly, though, so Tom fitted a small starting handle at the side to get the tiny engine humming.

“I took it everywhere! You could just fit three people in it at a pinch, and a couple of pals and myself went down to Crosshaven, Inchadoney, all over the place. I even brought a motorbike home in it once — took out the sun roof and stood the bike upright poking through.”

When eventually, and regretfully, Tom sold it on, the new owner was delighted, not just with the bubble car but with its number.

“I think he transferred it to a motorbike afterwards. These early numbers are very popular.”

So can Tom remember the number of every single car he has had since (and there were many)? “Well yes, of course. Can’t everybody?”

What do you recall about your first car? The joys, the problems, the disasters, the memorable moments? We know you remember them, so tell us all! Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com

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