The day my first car sparked a bomb scare!

In today’s Throwback Thursday, JO KERRIGAN enjoys another chug down memory lane as she discusses people’s first ever cars
The day my first car sparked a bomb scare!

CHERISHED MOTOR: Richard’ Mills's Fiat 1500 parked up beside his tent while he was camping in the south of France almost 50 years ago, in May, 1971. Picture: Richard Mills

THAT theme of the very first car we owned certainly touched a chord last week!

The memories have been flooding in, and in incredible detail. Every little cable and plug, every single scratch or bump, each disaster, great or small, is held in there in your mental libraries, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice.

“Mine was a Cortina Mark II, with a 1500cc pre-crossflow engine,” says Michael Murphy. “I remember the colour was Goodwood Green. I bought it from a place on the Kilumney road, and I think it cost me about £300.”

It was an English import, he recalls, and had been parked in a garage for quite a while.

“I think the owner must have passed away before he could re-register it. That UK plate was UEV 513E. Unfortunately, the import documents went missing in Customs, so I had to drive around on that plate for several months.”

As luck would have it, this was the time of the Troubles, and potential car bombs were suspected everywhere.

Michael recalls: “I was usually stopped going home at night after work, and the Guards always wanted to look in the back.”

The starter was flaky, he explains, and the ignition key was well worn, so he just pulled the key out each time, with the engine still running, and obediently opened the boot.

“Because of the missing import documentation, I couldn’t register it here. And of course that meant I couldn’t tax it either! Customs kept nagging me, but in the end they just gave up and granted me an Irish number: TZF 183.”

Prior to that yielding on the part of Customs, though, says Michael, he used to park it every day in the yard at his place of work.

“Most people there were aware of the UK plate, and knew it was mine. One day, though, I was late for going on an urgent trip to Limerick with some colleagues, and parked my Cortina up towards the front of the yard, with the rear facing towards the manager’s office. Off I went to Limerick with the others for our meeting, and thought no more about it.

“When the office crowd came back from lunch, somebody spotted that UK plate, and I suppose you could say the sh*t hit the fan!”

But how come they didn’t know it was Michael’s vehicle?

“Well, the people in the office always had a feeling that they were sort of above us underlings who did all the hard work, and they didn’t mix with us. Hence nobody up there had an idea that it might belong to one of the lads.”

So what did they do?

“Of course they rang the cops, who came roaring up to the works yard, together with the fire brigade for good measure. The whole place was cordoned off.

CLASSIC: A Ford Cortina Mark II similar to the one owned by Michael Murphy which prompted a bomb scare
CLASSIC: A Ford Cortina Mark II similar to the one owned by Michael Murphy which prompted a bomb scare

“Eventually, when one lad coming back was stopped at the gate, and couldn’t get in, he asked the reason for all the fuss. Of course then he told them who owned the car. I got a call in Limerick, and confirmed it was mine, and everybody was happy. Or happy-ish anyway.”

Michael was hauled into the manager’s office the next day for an official bawling-out. But he was having none of that. Did anyone think of asking security about it? No. Well, he could have told them straight away. “I had made sure he was aware that I owned the car with the telltale English plate.”

Shortly after that lively episode, Michael managed to get the new Irish plate for his Cortina. “So I drafted a note to my manager, informing him of the change in registration number. Do you know, he wasn’t in the least impressed, and even told me I was being insubordinate! I was just trying to be helpful.”

Among Michael’s happy memories of his first car is a holiday trip up the west coast.

“Because the battery was flaky, I always had to find a hill to park it on overnight, so it would start in the morning on a downhill run. Gosh yes, I learned a lot mechanically from that car.

“I sold it to a pal about 18 months later, and got the same I had paid for it. He ran it for 12 months and sold it on again. You could do that back then. If you knew your way round the engine, you could keep it running for ever.”

The great thing then, explains Michael, is that parts were so interchangeable between all Fords, that you could easily find a spare.

“Unlike now, where even a simple thing like a bulb can be specific to a single model of a manufacturer.

“For example, the 2010 era Focus has a brake/tail light bulb that is unique to that model alone. That is one thing I find really exasperating.”

Richard vividly recalls his first attempts at learning to drive.

“It was in a clapped-out old van down in Crookhaven in West Cork with my pal Joe O’Sullivan, who used to borrow the ‘company’ vehicle for deliveries, dances or whatever,” recalls Richard.

“My father never had the patience to teach me and was probably too nervous, despite giving me some good tips, but my mother taught me most of what she knew, and that was in an old French Peugeot 203.

“I’m proud to say that I actually passed my driving test in that left-hand drive car down in Skibbereen. It was probably a first for the driving instructor too!”

After starting work in 1968, Richard’s first car was a second-hand Fiat 1500, bought in the Lee Garage on South Terrace in Cork, probably in 1969/70.

“GPI 788,” says Richard, instantly remembering its registration. “It was red, and I loved it. Instant freedom and the ability to go anywhere in your own time.”

Like all cars of its time, it wasn’t without its faults, he admits, and it especially didn’t like starting on cold wet mornings.

“I soon became fully equipped with spark plug removers and those flat multi-bladed thingies for adjusting the gaps in the points,” says Richard.

“I never knew what were the correct spacings and it didn’t seem to make much difference anyway. Cleaning out carburettors and fiddling with float switches was also fun. Oil change was a doddle.”

PRIDE AND JOY: Gilbert’s first car, a 1947 Standard 8 convertible, which the Corkman owned while he lived in Cornwall and worked for the RAF
PRIDE AND JOY: Gilbert’s first car, a 1947 Standard 8 convertible, which the Corkman owned while he lived in Cornwall and worked for the RAF

That Fiat, he recalls, even came equipped with an early ‘hi-tech’ cruise control, which consisted of a wire down by your right foot that would lock the accelerator pedal so that you kept going at the same speed. A simple tap on the brake pedal would disengage it — or was supposed to.

“I didn’t trust it and very seldom if ever used it. In any case, there weren’t enough long straight roads here to test it!”

But long straight roads were beckoning elsewhere almost 50 years ago for Richard.

“In May, 1971, I decided to drive down to the south of France on a birdwatching trip. Somewhere south of Paris, the poor car soon started emitting thick clouds of white smoke from the exhaust, and with a semi-permanent warning red light, I had to fill it up with oil at every available opportunity.

“It was getting expensive and soon became apparent that the head gasket was gone and needed replacing, so in broken French I managed to find a suitable garage and got that done and all was well afterwards.”

As he was solo camping, he remembers boiling a kettle on one of those small camping gas stoves propped up on the passenger side floor while hurtling down the motorway south.

“No problem on those lovely smooth roads! With the wonderful Camargue as my destination, I couldn’t waste any time sitting on the side of the road waiting for the water to boil for soup or coffee.

“I had originally tried a cigarette lighter 12 volt immersion heater for that purpose, but on the first occasion it jammed in the socket and no way could I get it out.

“As the socket was permanently live, I couldn’t switch it off and it was getting hotter and hotter. I finally had to frantically dismantle the socket from the console and disconnect it, without shorting the fuse or burning myself. Gas was safer!”

Cars generally didn’t come with radio as standard back then, but Richard had a Sony cassette player/recorder that he connected up to the car battery.

“As it ran on four batteries, i.e. 6 volts, I figured out that if I wired in a 6 volt bulb in series, it would work fine, and it did.

“The tail light bulb I used was salvaged from a very old car wreck that apparently ran on six volts. So whenever I turned up the volume, the bulb would pulse in time with the music. Wonderful!

“I can still remember playing Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, having hurriedly escaped from a torrential thunder and lighting downpour that collapsed the tent around 4am. I drove around for a while the next day with the tent draped over the roof rack to dry out in the Mediterranean sunshine.”

Eventually, Richard traded in his beloved first car for another Fiat 1500, this one with the number TPI 732.

“That one did a fair bit of travelling — to England, France, Spain and Portugal, before returning by ferry.”

Nevertheless, he admits, those cars of his youth were nothing like the modern reliable leak-proof start-anytime models.

“Far less trouble, today’s cars. Although it maddens me that you can hardly fix a thing on them yourself, let alone change a simple light bulb, without having degrees in electronics and mechanical engineering, plus a dedicated laptop.”

Gilbert, who realised a long-held ambition when he joined the RAF almost straight from school, says that as a result nobody in his family back in Cork ever saw his first car.

“It was a 1947 Standard 8 convertible, which I had in Cornwall. The number plate was JRL 748.

“I had it for about a year; drove all over the countryside in it, never had trouble. I used to go to local dances at the weekends, and often took more people home than came with me in the first place.”

He has an abiding memory of sitting on the beach with a group at 4am in the morning, with the moon making it almost as bright as day, “then driving back to camp, getting up at six to catch the train to Par, the local train to St Austell, the ‘Cornish Riviera’ to Bristol, then the train to Cardiff, and a wait for the Fishguard train.

“Finally, 26 hours after starting, arriving home in Cork.”

Happy days!

Let’s hear your memories of that beloved first car — or indeed, your family’s first car. Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com

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