My old car, the movie star
Few pretensions, lots of fun; that's why Wallace and Gromit - and Nigel Pollitt - chose to drive A35s
Tuesday 23 January 2007
If, as a result of writing this article, I get a postcard from my first car - a photo of itself parked next to the Eiffel Tower or the Kremlin, like the globetrotting garden gnome in the film Amélie - I will not be surprised. While most modern cars look like flustered robots, with their tight lips and glassy stares, the A35 looks as if it's puckering for a snog. It's got personality. No wonder Wallace and Gromit acquired one - a 1964 van version - for their 2005 adventure, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
James Hunt, the racing driver, was another famous A35 van owner. He used it for his prize budgies.
My A35 was the two-door saloon, pale blue and registered 210 AYB in January 1956, the year the car was launched - very shortly before I checked in myself.
Ayby Baby, as my car with its BMC A-series engine and top speed of 75mph became known, cost me £100 back in 1979. Its ancestor at Longbridge was the very similar Austin A30 Seven, unveiled in 1951. The new Seven, the first monocoque Austin, had been created to rival the Morris Minor.
In 1952, the two makers merged, and the following year the Seven became simply the A30. It kept its 803cc engine, tiny flat-glass rear window and semaphore trafficators. There were also van and countryman A30s.
The A35 rolled up in 1956 in saloon, van and countryman formats, along with a batch of utility trucks. The saloon had a proper curved rear window, 948cc engine and winking conical indicators. Wing-mounted sidelights (removed by Wallace and Gromit), completed the air of charm.
A "bird beak" of something like Bakelite sat in the middle of the dashboard. To indicate, you turned it left or right. It lit up and clicked - gee-gah, gee-gah - until you stopped it.
Mid-century, the domestic motor car had come a long way, but the A35 still bore fossil remnants of automotive prehistory, such as a crude, flat windscreen and a hole in the front bumper through which you put the starting handle. Quite often. Door windows had to be pushed up and down. Rods operated the rear brakes. Well, at least it had a roof, and its front brakes were fully hydraulic.
Modern saloons and hatches are road-huggers. The A35 drove and cornered more like a tall butler carrying a tray of gin- and-tonics. But that tilt, born out of a less than optimal height to wheelbase-width ratio, kept me on my toes - you just couldn't do anything extreme without being scared off. Just as well; I bought Ayby when I was 23, an ideal age for acting daft with four wheels and the equivalent power of 34 horses.
Happily, I did manage some daftness - notably the first time I drove Ayby home to Essex from Exeter, where I'd been at university. Lost up the A10 late at night, I suddenly, unaccountably, wondered whether the brakes were working properly. Perhaps it was the Were-Rabbit. Anyway, the four teenage girls, whose car rammed 210 AYB after I practised an emergency stop near Palmers Green, weren't interested in dialogue and buggered off, giggling. A35s were made like tanks, but my boot was stoved in proper.
Once, I drove Ayby Baby under the influence. Two days after drinking some Nescafé laced with hash, I was still hallucinating mildly. My spine was a column of molten steel. The very stiff, upright front seats boosted this disturbing impression at 8.30 in the morning, and the fact that I managed my 20-minute commute from Maida Vale to Holborn without incident is probably down to Red Ken. As leader of the Greater London Council, Livingstone's "Fare's Fair" policy had cut traffic and accidents in the capital by making public transport cheap. (Hey, Ken, what about that for an idea?)
At some point in my stewardship of Ayby, I managed to break the back of the driver's seat, which meant a trip to a breaker's. It is surprisingly uncomfortable driving a car when the seat is backless.
And, to be truthful, for all its cute looks, discomfort is something I remember well from my A35 years. There I was, lying on my back, socket tool in hand, ripping my flared jeans years before that was fashionable, while attempting to fit a new wishbone. What? Don't ask. Today, you wouldn't go near that part of a car unless you had a physics degree.
But the A35, to a handy chap who'd been building gerbil cages and greasing bike bearings for longer than was socially advisable, was engineered with transparency, and I was suckered into it. And there are better ways to start conversations than by mentioning the Haynes manual.
Except when talking to the Men Who Know. I spent many hours waiting for them, then riding in their snug AA Relay truck cabins, hammering down the M5 as the sodium glow of Exeter pooled before us. Behind us, strapped as if it were of unstable mind, was a draughty old car suffering from an unstable Fifties innard. Why didn't I drive a Ford Escort?
When it was working, my A35 did 40 or so to a gallon - rubbish compared with modern cars of its size-class, but better than many saloons, and at least equal to some "green" hybrids. Nearly 130,000 A35 saloons were built. They were taken out of production in 1959, bowing to the newly pressed Mini, without which the Sixties could not have happened. The van continued to be made until 1968.
The end for me and Ayby Baby came when I was working for an impoverished radical magazine in London in the early 1980s. I retired the car to a great-aunt's garage. Later, I sold him (or her?). But, according to the register on an owners website, Ayby is still around. So maybe I will get that postcard. The Parthenon and a bemused-looking, pale-blue Austin.
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