My father volunteered for the RAF in 1939, lying about his age to get in, and served as an aerial photographer in Singapore, Ceylon and India. He returned, as did many, profoundly altered by what he had seen, flirted briefly with Communism, converted to Catholicism, married my mother, went to night school to get himself a profession, had three kids and devoted himself to us for the rest of his life. He was a man of faultless integrity who never took a day off in a working life that lasted well over 50 years - a wise, gentle, loving man.
But, my goodness, he owned some crappy cars in his time - some of the worst ever built, in fact. My father's car-owning history started averagely enough with a Morris Oxford, but went horribly astray thereafter. Next came a Fiat 600 that looked like a dung beetle. That was the car that carried me home from hospital one sunny morning in the early 1970s (which is perhaps where my enduring obsession with rusty, unreliable, highly strung Italian classics began), but with a three-child family now bursting the Fiat at its seams, my father chose an Austin 1100 as its replacement.
Essentially an expanded Mini - with the same Hydrolastic suspension and mechanical layout but crisper Pininfarina styling - the 1100 was not a bad car (as the third child always forced to sit in the middle, I appreciated its flat rear bench), but someone had sought to repair ours by welding it together with a Morris version of the same car. We christened it the Mostin and, when it finally lost its battle with rust, sold it for £5 to the local wrecker.
A stream of automotive effluvia followed: a purple Morris Marina Coupé, an orange Talbot Alpine and a white Austin Ambassador with brown velour upholstery.
The Ambassador was a hastily tarted up Austin Princess (which was already a despicable waste of steel, glass and vinyl) and was probably the low point of all my father's cars, perhaps even of the British motor industry itself. Presumably named to appeal to people who thought Ferrero Roche were the height of sophistication, it was slow, badly made, noisy and looked like the lower part of an upright vacuum cleaner. If you wore shorts the seats itched terribly.
The drab, boxy, orthopaedic beige Vauxhall Carlton estate that replaced it - and which, to be fair to my father, was chosen, like all the other cars, from a desperately unimaginative company car list - was almost an improvement.
For a boy who lived and breathed cars, all of this was deeply troubling. When are the NSPCC going to intervene? I would wonder to myself as I scanned the pages of the Observer Book of Cars, memorising performance figures and technical specifications, and awarding cars marks out of 100 with the dedicated intent of Robert Parker evaluating the latest Vega Sicilia.
Still, rather than seeking to suppress what was clearly a wayward obsession that would be of no long term benefit to my development as a rounded human being, my father did all he could to facilitate my love of cars. He spent his weekends driving me around the country to race tracks, classic-car meets, auto-jumbles and garages. He funded my car magazine habit by paying me for endless, pointless odd jobs around the house. He paid for driving lessons too, of course, and bailed me out when the first car I bought, a lovely sky blue 1970 Peugeot 304 Convertible, lost its brakes and caused all manner of havoc in the high street. But he drew the line when I begged him to buy an Aston Martin DB5 (when they cost just £6,000), instead deciding to purchase a limited-edition Fiat Panda VIP for my mother - yet another car that we would end up watching oxidise on the driveway.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and I have children of my own. My father is gone. I have a strange yearning to own an orange Talbot Alpine. Despite my best attempts to distract him with the usual geegaws of contemporary boyhood - Playstations, football magazines, Uhu and a brown paper bag - my eldest son, who is four, has begun to take a keen interest in the test vehicles that mysteriously arrive at our house every week. He asks what they are and who makes them and pronounces them either "cool" (Nissan Murano) or silently dismisses them with a wrinkle of the nose (Golf Plus). All very worrying and hardly helped by last week's arrival: a malevolent upturned soap dish painted a glassy, bottomless black, with tyres the size of lawn rollers and a sharp-creased carapace like a stealth bomber. My son was out on his daily excursion with grandma to feed old, bendy carrots to the horses at the top of the road when the Lamborghini Gallardo arrived, so for him it could just as easily have landed from above. Actually, now I think of it, I may have played some part in convincing him it did just that: "Oh you should have seen it!" I said, gesturing behind the house, "It flew over that hill, stopped, and plopped down here!"
My son stood stock still, his eyes wide, his mouth opening and closing silently as he whirled through a mental Rolodex of a hundred possible questions.
"What's that for a car?" (he is half Danish so his grammar can go astray during moments of high excitement).
"It's a Lamborghini."
"Yes, that's right. It's from Italy."
"Chitty Bang Bang?"
"Chitty Bang Bang?"
"OK, it's Chitty Bang Bang."
We went for a drive and, truly, when you ride in a Lamborghini you do believe a car can fly. My son certainly did. "It tickles in my tummy!" he yelled above the screaming of the engine.Reuse content