Like a lot of families in the 1950s we didn’t have a car and had to rely instead on public transport. Dad leaned to drive in 1962 when he took lessons with Terry Branston’s school of motoring. Terry lived opposite to our house and well as being a driving instructor was a professional footballer who played for Northampton Town.
Once he had passed his test he bought his first car, an old fashioned white Austin Cambridge A55 registration number SWD 774. The Cambridge had been introduced in January 1957 and was in production for two years. It had a straight-4 pushrod B-Series engine with a maximum power output of 42 brake horse power and an alleged top speed of 71 miles per hour at 4,250 revs per minute, power was transmitted to the back wheels by means of a four speed gear box controlled with a column mounted lever.
It was a big heavy thing and by modern standards hopelessly inefficient, it only managed a disappointing thirty miles to the gallon or so but with a gallon of leaded petrol costing only five shillings (twenty-five new pence) this really didn’t matter too much. I can remember dad pulling into a garage where an attendant put four gallons in the tank and dad handed over a crisp green one pound note! I wish I could do that! Dad always insisted on buying Shell petrol because he thought it possessed some sort of magic ingredient but at one point we successfully nagged him to buy Esso so that we could get the gold and black striped tail to hang around the filler cap to show other motorists that the car had a tiger in the tank!
On the outside it had a lumpy bulbous body shape, chrome bumpers and grill, round bug-eye lights with chrome surrounds, the Austin badge in the middle of the bonnet and the flying A symbol on the nose at the front. It was a curious shade of white, a bit off-white really but not quite cream with ominous flecks of rust beginning to show through on the wing panels and the sills.
I would like to be able to get behind the wheel and take a drive in it now to fully appreciate how bad it must have been and with narrow cross ply tyres it must have been difficult to handle. Dad obviously had some problems in this department because he had two minor accidents in it. On the first occasion he misjudged his distances when overtaking a parked car and clipped a Midland Red bus coming the other way, he was upset about that especially when he got a bill to pay for the damage to the bus. The second occasion was a bit more dangerous when a car pulled out on him from a side street somewhere in London and with inefficient brakes dad couldn’t stop the car in time and did a lot of damage to the front off side wing. Fortunately this wasn’t his fault and someone else had to pay for the repairs this time.
Having an accident like this in 1964 was potentially quite serious because cars didn’t have seat belts and in a crash passengers could be tossed around as though they were in a tombola drum. Drivers and front seat passengers were not compelled to wear seatbelts until 1st February 1983 by which time the Department of Transport estimated that thirty-thousand people a year were being killed or seriously injured in road accidents. It seems bizarre now to think that there had been a long running row over making front seatbelts compulsory which had been going on for fifteen years with eleven previously unsuccessful attempts to make it law.
And it wasn’t just seat belts that the A55 lacked because in the interior this was a car with few refinements and even lacking modern day basics such as a radio, air conditioning or satellite navigation! There were no carpets, just rubber mats and the seats were made of imitation red leather that were freezing cold in winter and if you weren’t especially careful burnt your arse in the summer if the car had stood out in the sun. For the driver there was a big skeletal steering wheel, column mounted gear stick and a hand brake that was adjacent to the steering column on the left hand side.
It didn’t have a heated rear window either so to tackle frost and condensation you had to buy a piece of plastic that we stuck onto the back window, about forty centimetres by twenty-five, which had to be wired up to the electrics somewhere under the dashboard and so long as nobody pulled the wires out when they were getting in and out of the car it then heated up and thawed the window.
For the controls there was a simple dashboard display with a basic speedometer and warning lights for oil and water, headlamps and indicators. The ignition key was in the middle of the dashboard alongside the manual choke and the knob to control the windscreen wipers. There were air vent controls for the driver and the front seat passenger, a long open shelf for keeping miscellaneous motoring clutter and a glove box for the AA book and important membership details.
Dad only had the A55 for a couple of years and after that he had a white Ford Anglia, 1870 NX, which I always thought was a bit chic and stylish with that raking back window and flashy chrome grill that looked like a permanent happy smile. Then he had a two tone blue and white Ford Cortina Mark I and he must have liked the Cortina because after that he had first a blue one and then a white one. Sometime in the early 1970s he traded up from a Mark I to a Mark II and had a model in a curious duck egg green. These were all second hand cars of course but then in 1975 he had his first brand new car when he paid £800 for a metallic gold Vauxhall Viva, which he kept for four years before selling it to me. After that he had a succession of red Escorts before finally downsizing to Fiestas, and back to blue again.