The first car my family had in the mid 1960s was a split windscreen Morris Minor. Now rare and venerable antiquities, whose owners salute each other as they cough slowly by, they were common as muck at the time. The first British manufactured car ever to sell a million vehicles, the millionth unit (or as near as they could estimate) was painted a fetching shade of lilac. Nothing so spring like for us: ours was in a shade of grim battleship grey; possibly surplus Royal Navy issue left over from HMS Vanguard. Instead of tail lights, its indicators were little illuminated flags that popped out between the front and back seat windows like a cyclist indicating with an arm but a lot harder to see. With a lot of people at the time thinking that driving drunk was a human right, its a wonder any of us are still here.
It had a 1930s model 930cc engine which gave off a determined throaty purr* – although it was only about four and a bit times stronger than a motorised lawn mower – and, when fully laden with my Dad, Mum, me, my brother and as as much luggage as could be got in the boot, had to be willed up hills during our Summer expeditions to “the country”. We would all lean forward and mentally push. It was as small as most first generation affordable family cars, like the Baby Austin, Ford Popular, or the 2CV or Fiat 500 on the continent**; and my dad, who was 6 foot one at the time, had to fold himself up like a concertina to get into the front seat.
We called it “Ada”.
After several years of hard service, it started wheezing and chugging beyond the point that constant tinkering by my dad and uncle could patch up; and so was sold for scrap. My dad said that on the way to the scrapyard it ran like a dream. “It was as if it knew“. And he walked away and got the bus feeling “like a traitor”.
I feel much the same way about our fridge. We have had it since we moved in 25 years ago. It does not work as well as it did. On Monday we have a newer, more ecologically efficient, version arriving and old faithful is being consigned to scrap. Its odd to anthropomorphise a piece of white goods, but somehow impossible not to. Every time I look at it, I feel guilty, like I am letting it down after a quarter of a century of service, without even a gold watch.
One of the books I used to use to teach children to read was called “Chug the Tractor” – PM Books, Reading Recovery Level 10 – which in many ways was dealing with intimations of mortality for six year olds. The battered old tractor can’t make it up the hill. The big, shiny, new model arrives with the comforting words “You are too old. You are going to the dump!” Brutal stuff. So, the farmer puts the old tractor on the back of his truck and takes it to the dump…then drives on past to a Park in town – a kind of vision of heaven, or an afterlife – or possibly retirement – and Chug becomes a “Play Tractor” for the local kids. I’m not sure about the risk assessment on that one, but the subliminal message for kids to relate to “olds” is mutually beneficial I feel.
- This feature of older technology having its power more overtly expressed is even more the case with trains. I saw the Flying Scotsman pulling out of York station once; and while electric trains hum and glide – and diesel trains fart and smut – the steamer was like a barely restrained dragon, deafening explosions of force slowly gathering rhythm vibrating under our feet, chuffing out huge gouts of steam from every orifice, invading our nostrils, making our clothes smell of cinders and scalded water. Just a glimpse of it was an adventure, a wonder at forces barely tamed.
** The notable exception to this was the VW Beetle. Conceived in the 1930s as a mass vehicle for the master race of a Thousand Year Reich – it had a bit more internal liebensraum. An unease with this association – not helped either by the term Volk, nor the false rumour that Hitler had designed it (when it was actually Ferdinand Porsche working up an original idea from Josef Ganz, a Jewish designer arrested by the Gestapo) – made the Beetle and anyone driving it a bit suspect at least until the release of the Disney Film “The Love Bug” in 1968 – which completely rewrote its character and associations as Hippy and quirky. The name “Herbie” a clue as to what its writers may have been smoking when they made a talking VW Beetle the main supporting character.