Graham Reid | | 5 min read
A couple of weeks ago a strange sound came from our modest Mazda Demio so I confidently popped the bonnet. As I stood looking at the unfamiliar coils of metal and rubber it occurred to me it had been over a year since I had needed to peer into that mysterious engine -- and probably four decades since I knew what I was looking for in there.
When I was at school -- approximately the time between Life With Dexter on 1ZB and the first Led Zeppelin album -- I knew a lot about cars. I had learned to clean and reset spark plugs, adjust the timing, check the battery, siphon petrol from my Dad’s work car and put it into Mum’s, and every now and again I’d rotate the tyres.
These days I get in the reliable Demio and I haven’t called the AA --which I have been a member of for well over 30 years -- in maybe four years.
As I stared at the Demio’s compact and remarkable clean engine I realised just how much cars had meant to me in my youth.
I don’t recall the model of the black sedan we had when I was about six (the numberplate was RXC 178 however) but after that there was Mum’s Cortina Mark II then the A40 Countryman, and Dad’s various work cars which included an enormous Ford Customline with a bonnet you could have landed a chopper on.
Friends and neighbours also had memorable cars: a hulking Humber Super Snipe and lumbering Standard Vanguard, a sleek Zephyr Zodiac, a Sunbeam-Talbot . . .
Cars back then had memorable names -- but today can you be emotionally attached to something called a Nitra, Vetra, Cynos, Ceres, or Accent? Or Demio.
I’m for the Sunbeam-Talbot any day.
And yet, ironically, I wasn’t that interested in cars as a kid. In the late 60s I helped paint Alan Parson’s old Willys sedan with psychedelic designs and I certainly enjoyed my first fumble-finger and sticky-sweet sexual encounters in my Dad’s Zephyr Zodiac Mark II -- but really, I was more into pop and rock bands and reading magazines like Playdate, Rave and my sister’s Jackie comic.
I loved movies too and the Crystal Palace in Mt Eden was where we’d go to the Saturday matinee to see Hopalong Cassidy, the Three Stooges, Abbot and Costello and B-grade American gangster flicks. There were films like Merry Andrews and Pepe.
But then the Bensky’s got a television and one night we were invited to dinner. The first thing I saw was a production of Julius Caesar (compelling even to an eight-year old) and I was hooked: the puppet shows Torchy the Battery Boy and Twizzle which predated the wonderful Supercar and Thunderbirds, Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, Gumby, The Invisible Man, the hapless Hiram Holliday, The Flintstones and Top Cat, The Donna Reed Show, Peyton Place and Dr Kildare . . .
Television won me and I saw a lot of Coronation Street when Ena Sharples and Minnie Caldwell were in it. I clearly remember the death of Martha Longhurst in the snug at the Rovers Return. It was 1964, the year of Beatlemania but Coronation Street looked like it came from a much earlier time.
I was tuned to American pop shows (Shindig with Bobby Sherman and the Righteous Brothers, and Hullabaloo) and our local versions like Happen Inn and C’Mon with Mr Lee Grant, whose album I bought for $4 recently.
It seemed what sociologists now call “popular culture” had arrived and I was lucky enough to be the right age for it. I was 13 when the Beatles broke big, and that made all the difference.
Suddenly radio -- which I loved, from Big Bad John and Trini Lopez to Portia Faces Life and Round the Horn -- was a lifeline to a bigger world. Then the family radiogram opened even more avenues when I started buying singles and albums. I became addicted to smell of new vinyl.
Through the Beatles and the Rolling Stones I learned about Liverpool and London, by hearing the Supremes I became curious about Detroit. A little later I read Time magazine to find out about hippies and LSD and Jimi Hendrix.
I went to dances to see bands play. And for a while someone else had to drive me there.
I was never so attached to cars that I desperately wanted to get my driver’s licence. My parents trusted my friends and lent them the company car or Mum’s A40 to get us to rugby practice or dances. Would parents do that now?
But a day after my 16th birthday, a year behind all my friends, I went to the traffic department in Mt Eden. I passed my written test and an officer came out and said there had been a nose-to-tail up the road. I was to drive him there. I did while he fiddled with paperwork. On the way back 15 minutes later he filled out some forms as I drove nervously and when we got to the office he wrote out my license and handed it to me. I still have that little book. The short-lived paper version and the current credit card thing just don’t compare, do they?
And so I could drive myself to . . .
Where? Dances in the suburbs, taking girlfriends up to the Savage Memorial after a party, parking up in dark side streets while the windscreen steamed, sometimes to school, to the beach . . .
The first car I bought was an Austin A30. It cost $300 so I became very familiar with what happened beneath the bonnet. But as the years went by my secondhand cars got better -- a massive Leyland 20 van when the kids were small, the Morris 1100, a hardy Mazda 808, a Honda Civic or City I don’t remember which . . .
They were each slightly better than their predecessors so I lost the art of changing plugs and resetting the timer.
And I was more lazy. As with mowing lawns or painting houses with primer, undercoat and then two top coats -- which I seemed to spend much of my teenage years doing -- I simply took car-care out of my life.
These days I live in a maintenance-free town house with a garden we can weed in four minutes. Four years ago we bought the pocket-sized Demio which came with a CD player, the first time I had ever had that in a car. That was more important to me than what was under the bonnet.
And so as I stared into that piece of machinery and wondered how soon the guys at Eden Park Motors could get that hissing radiator fixed, I had this vision of me as the child who once collecting Matchbox toys and Formula 7 motor oil transfers to put on my Raleigh bicycle.
Later I thought about all the cars that had passed through my life, the music that I loved then and still do (I have The Hollies Greatest Hits on vinyl by the stereo next to the new CD by REM), and those magazines like the Eagle and Knowledge I used to devour.
I thought about that boy who listened to Night Beat and read Classic Comics and collected plastic cowboys and Indians that came in the Weetbix . . .
It seemed life was as good then as it is now.
Although these days I don’t get my hands greasy.
Am I missing something?