Saturday 8 September 2012

Grace space race

Thanks to my Dad having a good job which involved some dealings overseas, I was lucky enough as a kid to spend three weeks travelling around Germany in the back of a Jaguar Mk II. 

It was the Summer of ’69 and I was coming up to six.  Dad bought the car specially for the trip as we needed something more spacious and comfortable than the Triumph Herald he used for work.

The Jaguar was racing green, with dark red leather upholstery and walnut trim.  I remember getting in the back of it for the first time and, although my interest in cars didn’t extend beyond my sister’s purple ‘Hot Wheels’ toy (with its bright orange track), I was very excited about our new vehicle.  It had a special smell, for a start.  The back seat, where I’d be spending a lot of time, felt like a luxurious sofa, and the best part was that there were these little flip-down, wooden, semi-circular ‘trays’ inserted into the back of the front seats, a bit like you have in aeroplanes.  These alone made me want to always eat in it, just for the pleasure of pulling them out and enjoying the novelty of a little James Bond-style gadget (or so it seemed).

So we drove all over Germany in this lovely, characterful car, staying in a variety of houses and hotels along the way.  I remember one old Bed & Breakfast place in the middle of a busy town, maybe it was Nuremberg, and it was the first time I’d slept under a continental quilt.  I missed my English sheets and blanket.  There was a thunderstorm and I had a wobbly tooth.  My sister scared me with tales of how some people tied one end of a piece of string around a loose tooth and the other to a door handle and then slammed the door to pull it out.  In the background, as she explained this horrific extraction method, the skies rumbled and the lightning lit up the room like a camera flashcube.  That night I had bad dreams about teeth and doors and suffocating under demonic Deutsch duvets.  But a few days later my tooth fell out naturally and painlessly - and, amazingly, it turned out there was such a thing as a German tooth fairy, who kindly left a pfennig under my pillow the following morning. I was most impressed.

Some time after the German road trip the car started to play up and wasn’t practical to drive any more.  My Dad left it at the end of the road with the intention of doing a bit of weekend tinkering to get it back to roadworthy standard, but… ahem… he never got round to it. (A similar fate befell a rotting boat, a stringless violin, a valve TV and numerous other objects.  Our home was like a shrine to unfinished projects.)  After some months - or maybe years -  the Mk II became home to spiders and ivy and probably several families of mice.  When bits of it started falling off and the neighbours threatened to petition for its removal, he finally advertised it for sale in the local paper. Soon a bald man in a sheepskin jacket came round to the house, gave him a crisp blue five pound note and towed the Jaguar away.  He was going to use it for Banger Racing, he said.  We didn’t mind the idea of our poor neglected car getting a new lease of life on a muddy race track, with black and white numbers painted on its bonnet; it seemed quite thrilling.

It never turned up on the Banger Racing circuit, though.  That autumn we saw it being driven proudly around town, all resprayed paintwork and shiny chrome, by a bald man in a sheepskin jacket.  I bet he loved those flip-down trays too.  Maybe he’d even drive it round Germany one day?  If ever there was a car for the Autobahn, it was that one.

Mind you, my Mum had kept something from the car as a memento before we parted with it.  She unscrewed the beautiful silver jaguar ornament from the long bonnet and replaced the traditional handle on the inside of our front door with it.  It stayed there for years and was a great conversation piece: “What an unusual door handle!  It looks like one of those bonnet ornaments from a Jaguar car!”  “Yes - that’s exactly what it is….”   Luckily it never got used for pulling teeth.


  1. A Jaguar in a Crash-Up Derby? Flabbergasting!

    Those things are prized possessions in these least they were before Ford got hold of 'em. Lots of people drove BMWs and Mercedes but, the Jaguars were few and far between and more highly regarded as a result.

    My Daddy was up this weekend and he got to talkin' about the MGB he was drivin' when he met my Momma. "Impossible to flip"...he said, not for the first time, "the tighter the curb the closer it got to the ground." He loved that car but somebody had raced it before he owned it and it caused him no end of trouble but, "when it ran....." He always trails off at that point smiling.

    Besides those duvets...what about cold breakfasts? No culture should call itself civilized unless it eats a hot breakfast...preferablly fried.

    Lovely story usual and again your mother displays a peculiar genius.

  2. I hardly know where to start with this lovely post, so many little glimpses into your family's life, well-written, funny and with delightful turns of phrase, 'demonic Deutsch duvets' being my current favourite, this and the notion of the European Tooth Fairy Federation (German Branch) dishing out pfennigs hither and thither, started my day with a smile.

    When I was five we were on holiday in Jaywick and I was stretched out on the back seat of the family car (in those pre-seat-belt days, the back seat was my boat, space ship and submarine) when we were involved in a minor accident which left me, very suddenly, thrown into the foot-well behind my parents. No-one was hurt, but I must have cried for about a day and I still remember the shock of my imaginary world colliding (literally) with reality.

  3. My dad worked for a Ford dealership so we got a change of car about every six months, mostly run of the mill Cortinas and Escorts - we had a Capri MkII in yellow once but my mum complained that her (Marge Simpson style) hair touched the roof so we had to get rid of that. Then one day he bought home a genuine imported Mustang, complete with the horse hood ornament - brand new, I loved being taken about in that for the short time we had it.

    I'm no petrol head but something about the style of a car rather than the inner workings appealed to me from then on. So, e.f. I get your dad's smile with the MGB....foolishly I've just bought a 78 racing green Midget(my third...) and yep, he's right they do love the corners and they're impossible to flip - I hope.

    1. Excellent.

      The whole conversation started because an 71 MGB fastback...lime green, orange racing stripe across the top...that he humored me by looking at while we were car shopping for me when I was 18, is still in the same spot it was 21 years ago. I will own that car.

      Careful out there.

    2. Sometimes you just have to - I wasn't even really looking seriously and when I saw it I had to have it. Five weeks after buying it I had to put a new engine in it after an unfortunate problem whilst doing 70 on the motorway... but like anything you love they are bound to bring you tears as well as happiness, provided the balance stays right then it's worth it. I hope you get it one day, it sounds rather awesome. (and if you don't then I might have to come over and get it myself!)

  4. Lovely post, C. You certainly made me want to leap into a sports car and hit the highway to Germany (with Kraftwerk playing in the background). Thanks for the reminder about those orange Hot Wheels tracks - my mate had one and I was very envious. Those memories of so many different family cars come flooding back.

  5. Ah thanks all for your lovely comments, really appreciate that, glad you enjoyed the trip! I loved all your various car tales too - e.f. I can just imagine your Dad's wistfulness talking about his MGB and I have a funny feeling you may well end up with that lime green one, one of these days... tho' hopefully not in a 'Crash-Up Derby' capacity.
    The Swede - ah yes the backseat driving days, I loved that about your 'boat, spaceship and submarine' - without seatbelts they were like playgrounds! But very glad to know that nobody was hurt in the holiday crash.
    Bel Mondo - love that about your Mum's 'Marge Simpson' style hair, what a picture that conjures up now, in my mind it's turned into a beehive hairdo poking through an improvised sunroof... The Mustang musta been great! And I hope you have many miles of corner-loving and flip-free travelling in your Midget.
    SB- indeed I considered Kraftwerk as the soundtrack to this post, it was a toss-up between that and the Who song. My sister and I had many hours of fun with Hot Wheels but we only had the basic version of the orange track, not one of the fancy loop-the-loop ones sadly; I seem to remember we improvised with various props and somehow got it to loop round anyway, managing to make the little metal car travel upside down briefly a few times before it went flying off the track doubtless leaving many a scar in the paintwork of the nearest wall.

  6. Ah, there was nothing like a Jaguar back then. Posh cars were a rarity in themselves, but among their breed Jaguars had a certain rakish sexiness compared to the plummy restraint of the Roller or the Bentley. And to travel around Germany in such an iconically British vehicle...marvellous.

    The only thing I hated about leather car seats as a little girl was how hot they would get, and how your legs would stick to them on long summer journeys. Or perhaps I was just fobbed off with cheap vinyl imitations?

    1. Mmm, I like that, Kolley: "a certain rakish sexiness". Picturing my Dad behind the wheel ruins the image somewhat - but I'll just focus on the car. It WAS gorgeous.
      Yes I'm sure you're right about those sticky leather seats, then again it may have been from ice lolly drips or melted boiled sweets, sadly at that age I don't think my sister and I had any concept of respect for such classiness...


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