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TOM UTLEY: Driving seven of us in a sardine can was NOT the road to happiness 

Younger motorists may find it hard to believe what follows — and even my own jaw drops a little when I look back on it.

But some of my own generation (I’m 67) may have had similar experiences to a family holiday we took in the car in the mid-1960s, when I was about 12 years old.

I’m thinking of the time when no fewer than seven of us crammed into my parents’ Fiat 500 (pictured) — then, even tinier than today’s model — with our luggage for a fortnight in the West of Ireland piled on the roof-rack.

True, there were a mere six of us in that matchbox-sized car when we set off from London for the 300-mile drive to Anglesey for the ferry to Dublin: my mother at the wheel, my blind father chain-smoking beside her and the four of us siblings, aged eight to 14, sardine-packed into a back seat designed for a maximum of two toddlers.

But once in Dublin, we were joined in the car for the 130-mile drive to our rented Nissen hut in Sligo by my father’s twentysomething secretary, Thelma, who had travelled separately from London by train.

I’m thinking of the time when no fewer than seven of us crammed into my parents’ Fiat 500 (pictured)

This meant that my youngest sister had to sit on our father’s knee in the front, with the ten-year-old on Thelma’s in the back, head bent against the roof, and my 14-year-old brother and me squashed in beside them.

Crashes

With Thelma’s suitcase added to the mountain on the roof, the car looked as if it might topple over at the first puff of wind.

Naturally, none of us wore a seat belt. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1983 that these became compulsory — and then only for drivers and front-seat passengers.

   

More from Tom Utley for the Daily Mail…

These days, of course, my mother would have been pulled over and charged with driving a dangerously overloaded vehicle before we managed to travel half a mile.

But, back in that heady age before health and safety became a religion, we somehow managed to get all the way to Sligo — and back to London, this time via the Rosslare-Fishguard ferry — without mishap. That’s a round trip of 910 miles.

I was reminded of that less-than-luxurious journey when I read the survey of motoring memories commissioned to mark Sunday’s start of the 30th series of the BBC’s Top Gear (a pale shadow, I fear, of its former incarnation when Jeremy Clarkson and Co were at the wheel).

After interviewing 2,000 adults, the researchers ranked the most common car-related experiences of the past 40 years, now being consigned to the history books. Top of the list, cited by 54 per cent of respondents, was: ‘Unfurling of maps and arguments between parents over directions.’

Others included: ‘Using a coat hanger as a radio aerial’ (34 per cent); ‘Endless tuning to get a radio signal’ (34 per cent); and ‘Classic in-car games such as I Spy’ (also 34 per cent).

However, while all these experiences will have been familiar to millions of us, hardly any of my own most vivid memories of our family journeys feature among those most commonly cited.

The Fiat Nuova 500 two cylinder 470cc has ample space for four passengers or three along with luggage. (stock image pictured)

The Fiat Nuova 500 two cylinder 470cc has ample space for four passengers or three along with luggage. (stock image pictured)

Indeed, I was surprised that none of the top ten related to breakdowns, crashes, punctures, running out of petrol (a constant hazard in the austerity years of my childhood) or problems starting the engine. That’s not to mention the blithe disregard for safety shown by so many of my parents’ wartime generation.

I suppose it’s because I’m so old — or perhaps simply because my parents’ cars were a long succession of fifth-hand bangers — that I recall a childhood in which it was always touch and go whether the car would start.

Do you remember the fine art of getting the manual choke exactly right — too little and the petrol mixture wasn’t rich enough, too much and the engine would flood?

Fought

Each car my parents owned in turn, from the Hillman Husky to the Maigret-style Citroen Traction Avant and then an ancient battle-tank of a Peugeot estate, required a different technique to get it going.

As often as not on a winter morning, we’d have to crank the engine manually with the handle (remember them?) inserted at the bottom of the radiator grille. When this failed, as it often did, we’d all have to pile out and push.

While I was still in short trousers, it sometimes fell to me to sit behind the wheel as my mother and siblings pushed the car down the High Street, since I displayed an early gift for jump-starting.

As for safety considerations, our parents thought nothing of letting us travel in the boot of the Husky or Peugeot, rolling around at every bend. Indeed, this was a privilege for which we fought like cats. So much more exciting than sitting on a seat.

But the best fun of all came in the summer after that trip to Ireland, when we spent our holiday at a country house owned by friends of my parents.

Aged 13, I was allowed to drive the family Fiat 500, unsupervised, around the 100-acre park. I found that by setting the hand-throttle and opening the sunroof, I could zoom along, sitting on the roof and steering with my feet.

In the spirit of this more cautious age, I suppose I should now pull a solemn face and warn younger readers: ‘Don’t try this at home!’

Oh, and don’t get me started on my dear late mother’s attitude to the drink-driving laws. Enough to say that almost to the end of her days, she would say as she left after a convivial lunch: ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m protected by my grey hairs.’

She was talking, I’m sorry to say, about the risk that she might be stopped by the police. It never seemed to occur to her that she might harm herself or injure others.

Carefree

All of which brings me to perhaps the most surprising finding of the survey — the fact that as many as 68 per cent of those questioned said they cherished their childhood memories of car journeys.

I just wonder whether their memories might be playing tricks with them.

Yes, it was a more carefree age for motorists in the days before road humps, speed cameras, annual MoT tests, bus lanes, cycle lanes, red routes and exorbitant charges for parking.

And yes, I myself had moments of pure exhilaration in my childhood, as when I sat on the roof of the Fiat 500, tearing through that 100-acre park.

But why is it, I wonder, that when we look back at our childhoods, so many of us remember only the good bits — while forgetting about those miserable afternoons spent staring through the car window at the rain and the waves, when we finally arrived at the seaside?

Have those 68 per cent forgotten the sheer, mind-numbing boredom of being cooped up in a car with siblings for hours on end, playing I Spy or listening to the youngest whining: ‘Are we nearly there?’

Did they never have to endure furious rows between parents over whose fault it was that we missed our turning, eight miles back — or suffer the stench, all the way home, after a sister was copiously car-sick?

Were they fortunate enough never to have to get out and push on an icy morning, trudge miles to the nearest garage with a petrol can or wait for hours by the roadside for the AA to turn up, as steam belched from the car’s bonnet?

True, childhood motoring holidays had their moments. But give me satnav, a reliable audio system, a heater that actually works, a car that never breaks down — and an engine that starts, first time, every time, whatever the weather.

Where driving is concerned, you can keep the 1960s. Give me 2021.


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