You never forget the registration number of your first car. Mine was TTO 414 on a secondhand (sorry, pre-owned) green mini that cost me all of £60. It had racing seats, but in truth it had exactly the same ralling qualities as my dad’s Morris Minor.
For a start, changing gear was a lottery. It had that gear stick that started where it should do, then disappeared under the dashboard and had all the precision of a blind man peeing prompting calls from the back seat of, “Pick a gear, any gear.”
And one of the things you did at that age was to fiddle with things under the bonnet when the car wasn’t running well, which was most of the time. I say ‘fiddle’ because that’s what you did. Armed with your trust Haynes manual, you’d follow the instructions, but mostly it was twiddling with the sparkplugs and the points, spraying WD-40 over the distributor cap etc and slapping petroleum jelly on the battery terminals.
The reality is that I am not, and never have been, what you’d call a mechanic. But fiddling’ mostly did the job. And if all else failed, tipping some Red-X into the carburetor always produced a satisfying white plume of smoke from the exhaust and the feeling that it was ‘doing the engine good.’
That doesn’t happen today, as illustrated tonight. I was leaving work when I spotted a knot of colleagues stood by a VW parked at an awkward angle. I wandered over and discovered female colleague’s battery was flat as a fluke, the result of having been stood for three weeks while they were on holiday.
“Have you got some jump leads?” one of them asked.
The younger me would have nodded and opened the boot of the Mini to reveal jump leads, socket set, hydraulic jack, bag of spanners etc. The older me looked incredulous, as if I’d been asked if I had a Faberge egg in the glove compartment.
They’d tried bump starting it by pushing it down the hill that is our car park, to no effect. One of said colleagues (a director no less) volunteered to nip to the nearby Argos to buy a set and zoomed off in his Mercedes. Well, I did say he was a director.
We stood around, gossiping and bemoaning the state of our shared world when someone came out of the building, saying that he had a set of leads and would get them for us. I rang the director to cancel the order. Unfortunately, he had just completed the deal, but would have a stab a returning the goods.
That left me and stranded colleague and I thought it was probably a good idea to find out where my battery was to work out how to position it alongside her car. Big test.
I opened the bonnet on my Ford and hadn’t a clue. I got the maker’s manual out which was vague in the extreme when it came to the gubbins. I eventually worked out that the battery lurked underneath a cover which never happened in my day — a battery was a battery, standing proud and unmistakable.
So I drove alongside and we prepared to consummate the marriage, as it were. Except that when I lifted the cover, there was nothing to indicate which was the +/- terminal of my battery. We were not sure what the consequences might be of getting the choice wrong. Well, the younger me wouldn’t have given a toss and just got on with it. My older me was chewing his nails over the consequences for the onboard computers.
Then the mobbie rang and the Argos-shopping director asked if we were okay. “Not really,” I said, explaining the situation, and he gallantly turned round to try his car’s battery.
And wouldn’t you know it, he had my problem — where the hell is the battery? He opened the bonnet and it was a mystery. I mean, if you own a Merc, you don’t look under the bonnet, you have a man to do it for you, even if it’s just to fill the washer bottle.
And like me, he started flicking through the owner’s manual and we finally spotted the battery underneath a bit of the air-con system.
Top and bottom of it is that we got the car going with advice such as, “Give it a good blast on the motorway,” and I got home going on 8pm in the sure knowledge that it is something I lack when it comes to modern cars.
Vorsprung durch technik indeed.