• Brian Simmons

My First Drive

There are many moments in life that one always remembers and in my case one of the most memorable was my first driving lesson.

Of course, there had been the sessions with the old van at school which undoubtedly helped a bit with the basics like clutch control but I’m now talking about driving officially and on the public road.

Once again I have my father to thank because he had promised that on my seventeenth birthday he would give me my first driving lesson. The year was 1961 and the family car was a blue and cream 1958 Hillman Minx with a bench seat in the front and the gear change lever mounted on the side of the steering column.

On went the L plates and after a pretty brief verbal description and demonstration by Dad it was my turn. Well kangaroos had nothing on me. We leapt and lurched and zig-zagged off down our road – yes the public road – watched and waved off by Mum, my sister, my mates, and it seemed to me almost all the neighbours. Such was the community in those days that rites of passage like this were a big deal and went round the bush-telegraph like wildfire.

We were thankfully soon out of sight and I settled down to driving ‘straight and level’ after a fashion until after a couple of miles we arrived in Leatherhead and Dad said “Ok son. Turn left here and stop”. As soon as we made the turn I knew what he was up to. The road was Park Rise, the steepest hill in the area.

I looked at him and said, “You must be joking”. He said, “Am I laughing? If you can do a hill start here you can do it anywhere and we’re not going anywhere else until you can”

“Feel the engine slowing” he said. “Gradually ease the clutch until it starts to bite. A gentle squeeze on the throttle, handbrake off and Bob’s your uncle”

Engine screaming – lurch – stop.

“Ok start it again,” he says calmly for what seemed like the hundredth time “and this time very gently”

Yes! We’re rolling and I’m set to wave goodbye to Park Rise when he says, “Ok stop again”. “What?”

“Once is no good. You’ve got to be able to do it every time and no rolling back into the bloke in the posh car behind. Hang on a minute.”

At this point he started fishing about in his pocket. Out came his Woodbines and I thought, “He’s going to give me fag as a reward.”

In my dreams!

Now he had a box of matches and he said. “They used to do this in the army. I’m going to stick it behind the wheel so you’ll crush it if you roll back even a fraction”

“OK” he said. “Off you go”

A few seconds later as we turned out of Park Rise onto the level, he said “Stop”

“What now Dad?” I said and glared at him impatiently as I yanked the handbrake on. He said “I’m going to check the match box.”

Getting back in the car he said, “I should think you need a cigarette now don’t you?”

This really was a first and as he lit my cigarette I smiled at the perfect un-marked match-box.

We drove miles together over the next few weeks, often with Mum and Angela on board as we explored the back roads of Surrey and Sussex and all the time I grew in confidence. Too much as it turned out.

Dad had learnt to drive in the army but never taken a state driving test and was so indignant when I failed mine. It was like a reflection on his driving and his teaching but obviously he didn’t know the finer points that the examiner was looking for. Basically, he’d done too good a job because I was too confident and as a result drove too fast and according to the examiner with insufficient caution.

I had six lessons with a local driving instructor, passed the test and the door opened to what has become one of the loves of my life; the world of cars, motor sport and driving in general.

The instructor was a former police sergeant and we chatted quite a bit about his time in the job and, who knows, that may have been where the seeds of a future career were sown.

The evening after I passed the test, I was due to go to college and Mum said, “I suppose you’ll want to drive now won’t you?” Naturally I did.

I shall never forget that day and I have always believed it is ‘going solo’ for the first time that either makes or breaks a driver and possibly for the rest of their motoring life. A bad experience on that important occasion could so damage one’s self-confidence that it might be hard to recover. Happily, in my case it was fine. I drove off up the road grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat and I’m sure if anyone had seen me, they’d have thought I was some kind of nutter.

Of course, the problem for me now was that I didn’t have my own car and not much hope of saving enough in the short term to buy one.

Although Dad allowed me to use the family car to go to college, he drew the line at allowing me to take it over as my own so for the time being friends’ cars or my trusty bike remained my principal means of transport.

By this time, Dad’s working life had moved on a bit too. The old grocery shop he had managed in Ashtead village was closed when it was bought out by Key Markets a new supermarket chain and Dad was transferred to their branch in Epsom as provisions manager. Within quite a short time it seemed, he was offered the job of branch manager which he held for a couple of years before he was promoted again to area manager for what sounded like most of the south-east. In addition to financial rewards the job came with a car, a brand new Triumph Herald.

I don’t really know why my parents decided to hang on to the old Hillman Minx apart from the fact that whilst old it was in fact more spacious and comfortable for family outings than the new Herald. In any event it was this that became the focus of my plan to impress Sue the current girlfriend and object of my lustful affections.

At the time most people on the estate that owned cars either parked in the street, in the estate car park just around the corner from our house or had rented a garage in the same car park which was what my parents had done. So, the old Hillman Minx was tucked away in the garage while Dad was using the firm’s car.

I arranged to meet Sue on a day when I knew my parents wouldn’t be around to ask so in their absence I simply went to the garage and took the Hillman. She was well impressed when I turned up with the ‘wheels’ and off we went, to Box Hill if I remember correctly. Well, we had a lovely walk then stopped off for a drink at a pub on the way home before pulling into a layby not far from Sue’s house to say our ‘goodnights’ and I must say the old Minx with its bench seat was a great deal more comfortable than the places we'd had to resort to previously.

In fact, this turned into the hottest experience I’d ever had with a girl and only stopped short of full sex because neither of us really knew how. On reflection this was just as well because I hadn’t given a thought to any form of protection.

Both somewhat surprised and exhilarated by the intensity of what had happened neither of us knew quite what to say so we kissed goodnight and I saw her to her house. I then set off to return the car with the idea that what Mum and Dad didn’t know about me borrowing the car wouldn’t harm them.

Driving into the car park I was furious to see that I’d left the garage doors wide open although the full import of this fact didn’t hit me immediately. I drove into the garage, locked the car and turned to leave then stopped dead.

Parked there right opposite the wide-open doors, was Dad’s Triumph Herald. He could not have failed to see the Hillman was gone. I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid and now what the hell was I going to say?

By the time I’d walked round to the house a few minutes later it was just before eleven o’clock and I’d decided that a straight cough and apology was going to be the best approach and then take whatever storm that unleashed.

My story was that the opportunity to take Sue out had come at the last minute and there had been no chance to ask permission to have the car. I knew it was thin but it was the best I could come up with.

Going in the front door I could see that there was still a light on in my parents’ room so any idea of sneaking furtively in and deferring the showdown until the morning clearly wasn’t an option. I climbed the stairs with my heart pounding but for very different reasons than an hour before.

Dad and Mum were both sitting up in bed. Dad reading a book and Mum her nightly prayers from a little pile of prayer cards that she kept beside the bed. Situation normal.

I was puzzled. They were obviously going to leave it to me.

“I’m so sorry Dad.” I blurted out. “I know I should have asked but you weren’t here.”

I was about to go on and develop the story and justification when Dad looked up and said “What on earth are you talking about Brian?”

“Oh SHIT!!!” I thought. “He didn’t notice. Shit! Shit! Shit!”

So then to my huge embarrassment I had to start again, confessing to what I’d done, how sorry I was etc. etc. I was blathering away when I suddenly realised that they were both smiling and suddenly the whole tension of the moment was broken because they were just so amused at the mess I’d got myself into and probably the worse mess I was making of getting myself out of it.

In the event apologies were accepted, we all agreed it was a daft, and worse, a dishonest thing to have done but so long as I understood that, then it was all over as far as they were concerned. Sometimes they really were quite amazing.

One thing the whole episode did do though was to emphasise how much I needed a car of my own, not just for one off occasions like this but also to be less dependent on friends. The problem was that on the paltry amount I was earning at McMurdos this was going to be a very long haul.

Meanwhile, and probably because my mind was focused on other things mainly below my belt, I was falling further behind with my college course and wondering how I might extricate myself when I ran into Dave. He was the one who had left McMurdo’s to go to sea and was home between trips. It was when he told me of the exotic places he’d already seen in just a few short months that an idea began to germinate.

If you’re wondering what happened to Sue, I did see her for quite a while longer. But for the same reasons as previously – lack of location and therefore opportunity – we never did manage to recreate the passion and magic of the night in the Hillman and eventually went our separate ways.

In common with previous posts, the above is an extract from my first memoir, Stepping Out from Ashtead which is published on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions. If you are interested to perhaps read a few pages the following is a link


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