Everyone remembers their first time. The experience stays forever a part of you; a tile in the mosaic of your mind, and this is especially so when it comes to cars. You never forget your first car, even if you are not a petrol-headed Top Gear aficionado.
In my case I can add my first pedal bike and my first motorbike to the line-up, as I was in my late teens when mechanical mobility and I collided. Thus began the steepest of life-threatening learning curves over 6 years from the age of 17 to 23.
My mother was a nervous nelly and I wasn't allowed a bike until I reached 17, when I rebelled, as you do, and bought an old bone-shaker from a friend of my mate Charlie. This tatty old bike cost me £2, and to celebrate my new-found freedom of the road, Charlie and I set off one Sunday to cycle to the Wrekin and back from our homes in Stoke-on-Trent, an ambitious round trip of 70 miles. I had never ridden a bike before, but had all the unfounded confidence of youth. Before the war, my mother had cycled from Stoke-on-Trent to Blackpool and back in a day, covering over 190 miles on an old Hercules bike, so I trusted that my share of her DNA would do its stuff, and off we went.
An hour into the pumping, gasping, alarmingly wobbly trip the first disaster struck. My rear tyre suffered what I can only describe as a hernia. As we stopped for a brief rest at the top of a hill, I looked down and to my horror saw a great pinky-brown rubber bubble emerge between the wheel rim and the bead of the rear tyre. Charlie and I looked on, aghast, as the inner-tube ballooned up like bubblegum in semi-transparent glory, then burst with an earsplitting bang, releasing a faint cloud of talcum powder which drifted away on the summer breeze.
I was shocked and speechless. Charlie curled up with hysterical laughter, toppling slowly into the grass verge, clutching his stomach, tears rolling down his red cheeks,gasping for breath. Stony-faced, I waited until he pulled himself together,and we got to grips with the puncture.
An hour later, having replaced the inner-tube with a spare from Charlie's saddlebags, using two of his mother's best silver forks as tyre levers, we set off again. Only 65 miles to go, and the joy of cycling was already wearing thin. The unaccustomed agony of a narrow racing saddle helped to imprint this experience indelibly into my memory.
As my French teacher was wont to say, wielding a deadly wooden board-rubber,
"If the lesson doesn't go in one end, it'll have to go in the other".
We rode on without incident for a few more miles, and I had just recovered my sense of humour when the mischievous gods struck again. My right pedal rubbers shot off into the road, leaving only the bare spindle. Wobbling to a halt, I retrieved the offending parts, and realised at once that we could not mend the broken pedal.
Charlie was an experienced cyclist, and delving into his well stocked saddle bags he triumphantly brought out the answer to our problem; pink corset laces.
"I always carry these" he said, "it's amazing what you can do with them. They're my mother's, but she doesn't know I nicked them." Trying hard not to imagine Charlie's mum in pink corsets, I waited for him to demonstrate the use of the versatile laces. At his command, I got back on my bike with my right foot resting on the slippery, oily pedal spindle.
"Now keep still and watch Uncle Charlie", he said confidently, lashing my foot to the pedal with a series of complex knots. When he'd finished, my foot was bound tightly to the spindle, and we set off again, problem solved. Only another 60 miles to go.
Within 200 yards, the corset lace had wound itself into the pedal mechanism, and tightened up to the point where it threatened to amputate my toes. I fell shrieking with pain into the ditch, doing a passable imitation of a man diving through a deckchair whilst trying to mend an umbrella. Blood, mud, snot, spokes and pink corset lace were all in unholy conjunction, and my recently mended sense of humour fractured abruptly once again.
Charlie cut me free, and there was nothing for it but to soldier on, pedalling like a one-legged cyclist, which was a new and terrible experience. Eventually, a lifetime later, with creaking knees, groin afire from the razor-thin saddle, and mad-eyed with fatigue, I performed the 'deckchair and umbrella' routine, dismounting in style in the middle of a small village.
Lying in the road, bruised and with blood oozing from extensive gravel-rash, I looked up and there before us was a sight for sore eyes; a garage, with a workshop and definite signs of cycling spares for sale. Better still it was open for business, although it was Sunday. Throughout all this, Charlie was quite unruffled, as his bike was fine, and he'd cycled for many years. The bastard. He helped me up and we went inside.
We explained the problem to the friendly mechanic, and with a smile he hoisted the bike onto the workbench. In a matter of minutes he expertly fitted a new pedal.
"That'll be eight bob, mate" said the mechanic, and with a sigh of relief and despair I handed over every penny I had in all the world, which came to exactly eight shillings (40p today).
It was now 4pm, and we had been on the road for 8 hours, averaging about one and a half miles per hour; much less than normal walking speed. The gods had spoken, saying in effect "Go home. Now. Do not pass 'GO'. Do not collect £200."
Heeding this divine advice, home we went without further incident, arriving some 12 hours after we had set off. We had travelled about 20 miles, the equivalent of a good walk with none of the pleasure.
With my freshly formed deep and abiding hatred of the bicycle, I decided to save myself for automotive bliss later in life. This was still some way off, and my second de-flowering was to be as traumatic as the first. The gods were lying in wait, as ever, and three years later with fire and sword they returned.
At university, basking in new-found freedom, far away from parental control, I resolved to buy a motor bike. My father and grandfather had been keen motorcyclists, but were dead set against my having one, as they were 'too dangerous for today's roads'. Huh! what did they know?
Taking half my entire term's food money, I bought an ancient and peculiar motor scooter for £15, plus a few quid for insurance, licence and a crash helmet. £1 worth of two-stroke fuel and I was ready for my automotive education to begin in earnest.
The bike was a misbegotten love-child, or chimera more likely. A blend of motor cycle and scooter, with big 16" wire spoked wheels, bathtub bodywork, welded tubular frame, 12-volt electrics and weighing in at about 250lbs, it was a beast. I've never seen one like it before or since, and I hope I never shall. It was made by Sachs, a German company owned by Gunther Sachs, a wealthy jet-set playboy at that time. I have cursed his name down the ages since.
After a very quick introduction to the controls, the bike shop man started up the engine for me with a series of loud bangs and much smoke and flame shooting from the exhaust. This was very thrilling, so I leapt aboard and wobbled off down the road in a welter of crunching gears and more flame and smoke. Brilliant!
Settling in to the joy of motorcycling, I hurtled down the hill like a knight of the road towards the crossroads, where a junction with a four-lane dual carriageway beckoned.
Fumbling anxiously with feet and hands for front and rear brakes, I found neither, so shot across the road, through four streams of busy traffic, and up the hill on the opposite side, on the wrong side of the road, neatly missing an oncoming Jaguar by inches. Behind me at the crossroads I heard the screech of brakes and tooting of many horns, so thought it best to keep going.
Over the next year the fright of this magnificent debut faded, and the reality of a beastly monster with a bad attitude and deep unreliability became my lot.
The damned thing wouldn't start without my endlessly pushing it uphill, then coasting down and engaging gear, in an effort to 'bump start' it. After a dozen such attempts, I was usually worn out, as it was so heavy, and it would then burst into life and leap forward at huge speed with me hanging weakly on, too bushed to steer properly. In this way, I found myself one day hurtling along through the newly planted university rose gardens. When at last I got the machine under control I looked back to see a tyre track imprinted in the soil, running dead straight through a row of rose bushes, with every bush neatly split in two and lying splayed out like so much kindling. The forensic evidence was overwhelming and led straight to me, so since the engine was now running, the beast and I fled the scene at speed.
The final straw came when I rode the bike home at the end of term, from Norwich to Stoke-on-Trent. This 200 mile journey, through wind, rain and hail, took me 13 hours non-stop. My father was underwhelmed, but prising my frozen fingers from the handlebars and muttering about my long hair and strange clothes, he took his prodigal son indoors for a hot bath and some supper. The malevolent bike stayed out in the rain, ticking gently to itself with an evil snicker as it cooled.
Next morning we got the beast into the garage and set about checking it over, as I had found that the brakes were a tad feeble. When we uncovered the brake cable, we found that it had frayed down to three hair-thin strands, which was all that stood between me and a serious encounter with something unyielding. I was deeply alarmed, although a bit late in the day, as ever, and decided to sell it at once having first fixed the brakes.
Heading for the local motorcycle auction rooms, I got about 3 miles from home and the beast's engine died and refused to re-start. I pushed it into a muddy car park next to a garage and spent all day there, in the rain, borrowing tools from the garage, and trying everything I knew. At 5pm, having been dead all day, the engine started, sweet as a nut.
Climbing aboard, tired,cold, wet and filthy with oil and grime, I rode home, fuming. Next day I tried again, with exactly the same result. I realised that there was some evil afoot here, so looked around for a mug who might buy this monster.
The mug of choice turned out to be my younger brother, whose first ride was a spectacular progress down the road, barely missing parked cars, accompanied by his long drawn out "Aaaaaaarrghhhhhh, nooooooooo!" The finale was him and the beast crashing straight through a neighbour's hedge into their front garden.
Woozy with deja vu, I left him to make his own arrangements with the gods of the road, the evil bike and the outraged neighbours. At this point I thought I should save myself for another time, when I could buy a car.
Two years later, I became a motorist, and once again lost my virginity in major style with my 'passion wagon', the first of 24 cars up to the present day that I have owned or been owned by.
My first job on graduation was in a Veterinary medical research station, on a decent starting salary. I wanted a car as soon as possible, and luckily one of the lab technicians, a lovely girl called Gilly, offered hers for sale. It was a 1954 Austin A35 van, in two-tone blue. A nicely rounded, comfortable, chumbly little number, just like Gilly.
In the back of the van she proudly showed me the carpet and collection of large cushions nicked from her auntie's old sofa. This was her 'passion wagon', she said with an encouraging smile.
What could I say? We agreed the sale, and for £30 the van was mine, paid for in six monthly instalments of £5.00 and a steamy night or three at the local flicks. Bargain! The cushions and carpet proved their worth in those days, and I grew to understand the concept of automotive bliss...
Late one night, having parked in a farm gateway, post cinema, the wheels became stuck in the mud, and I had to put bits of carpet under the back wheels to gain purchase. As we shot forward onto the tarmac, the carpets went whizzing off into the darkness, and that was the end of them. I still had the cushions, though. On another similar occasion I was forced to use my tennis shoes in a similar manner, but was able to retrieve them afterwards.
Although the van was basically reliable, it was 'high maintenance' in that I spent at least as much time under it as in it. In addition to the cost of petrol and oil, every week I had to scrape together half a crown (12.5p) to buy my car mechanics magazines.
These had a wealth of articles and tips for the impoverished DIY motorist, always with astonishing alliterative headlines like 'Wheel wheezes' and 'Tappet tips', not to mention 'Big end bother', and other suggestive matters. This time spent steeped in advanced mechanical ingenuity was priceless, and eventually it seemed possible to fix almost anything with a hammer, screwdriver and piece of string (or corset lace!).
I realised that the van's time had come when I drove to Cornwall on honeymoon. Apart from taking 12 slow, exhausting hours to get to Portloe from Tunbridge Wells, disaster loomed on arrival at our hotel, The Lugger. This is an old hotel which stands adjacent to the boat slipway, and at high tide the sea comes almost up to the walls of the building.
We approached down the very steep main street, a gradient of about 1 in 4, and needed to turn sharp left into the car park behind the Lugger. To overshoot would have put us into the sea, some 20 yards further down.
I braked as hard as I could, but the van simply continued to slide down the hill, towards a large and spiffy silver Mercedes waiting to turn out of the car park. Oh horrors!
With legs rigid and trembling with effort, I stood on the brakes, heaving with all my might on the handbrake, and moaning faintly with dread. My wife shrank back in terror, and everything seemed to slow as we rolled inexorably towards catastrophe. "Get out of the waaaaay!" I implored the old fart in the Merc. who simply stared myopically at impending doom in two-tone blue.
At the last minute I yanked the steering wheel left, and we shuddered, slithered and skittered into the car park in a cloud of burning brake and tyre smoke and sheer terror, hearts pumping like the hammers of Hell. How we missed the other car and didn't roll over I will never know.
To add to our discomfiture, exhaust gases leaking in through a hole in the floor for many hours had given us red faces, blinding headaches and sore, runny eyes, which put rather a frost on our frolics. This was no way to begin a honeymoon; the passion wagon had to go.
On our return home I sold the van and bought a souped-up Mini from another rather yummy girl technician. Of course as I was now married, this came without the 'comfort package'.
No longer an automotive virgin, I had another twenty-two cars to look forward to over the years, but I'll never forget my first time.
By Mike Biggs
March 29th, 2014