My father’s previous sports car was the Austin Healey Sprite, the frogeye model. We travelled all over Europe in that when I was five. I was a dainty child but my mother said I got heavier with a bonier bottom by the day – it was a two-seater and there were four of us, they put a little seat in the middle behind the seats for my sister, who was just eleven that spring and must have been quite uncomfortable, and I sat on my mother’s lap. That was the holiday we were about to leave for when we first got Simon. I don’t remember all that much about it, we visited several countries but I only really remember Austria. We stayed at the Sport Hotel which might have been in Innsbruck and I do remember liking Innsbruck very much. I also remember being overcome by the sight of all the snow with the sun shining on it and crying – little wuss – but afterwards eating oranges and enjoying the scenery. The next year, my parents went back to the hotel and the staff were very disappointed that I wasn’t there. “Where’s Alice?” they asked – I was often called Alice in my younger days, even when grown up, right up until the time I had my hair cut short, in my thirties.
I suspect that this car wasn’t fast enough for my father and that was the reason it was replaced by the Daimler Dart. My mother always had a second-hand Daimler and my father also had a small runabout for general getting about town. All our cars were always British, there was no question about that. My mother had learned to drive in a big car – I think it was a Lanchester – and there was no clutch but, as she told me, a “fluid flywheel and pre-selected gears” which was, I suppose, the precursor to the automatic gearbox and she never mastered the clutch. If she’d had to, she would have but she liked the feel of a big, coach-built car and didn’t mind how old it was. I have to say, I see her point – I used to like a nippy little car that was easy to park when I used to go to Norwich a lot, but I do like the weight and high seat of my present Landrover and I’m rather enjoying having an automatic again, though I don’t mind either way.
My parents’ first car was an elderly Landrover which was missing its back door. When they drove to London for a banquet at the Mansion House, they wedged a suitcase across the gap to stop everything from falling out of the back, and cheerily handed the keys over for it to be parked, not being a bit dismayed by having such a scruffy old car among the smart ones. I was born later the same year and my mother insisted on selling it because she was afraid of my carrycot falling out. Later they had a Morris Oxford – there would have been no question of an Austin Cambridge. The town was never mentioned in our house – as an Oxford graduate, he’d have referred contemptuously to ‘the other place.” I never even visited Cambridge – which is lovely, of course – until after he died.
I’ve been rambling on and I meant to tell you about the Daimler Dart. It was a marvellous car, very fast with a superb engine. However, as so often happens, there was a problem with the detail of manufacture. They had a reputation in the early days of a door flying open at speed. Worse was a fault that came to light when my parents were on that holiday they took without us.
We had been left with our Dutch au pair’s parents in the Hague and they left for another tour of Europe. They visited Nice, Chamonix, Capri, Innsbruck, Vienna – can’t think of other places at the moment, but it was a lovely tour. They had been driving across the Alps, up and down winding mountain roads with hairpin bends, then reached their overnight destination. When they set off again, my father drove down the road, braked for a junction and the brakes failed completely. He twisted the wheel to the right, turned the corner at some speed and, changing down gear, slowed the car with the wheel against the kerb and finally stopped it with the handbrake. When it was taken to the garage it transpired that the brake cable was too long and rubbed every time he put his foot on the brake – the mountain trip had finally caused it to wear through and all the brake fluid was lost. And if it had happened an hour’s drive earlier, they would have still been on the mountain and would certainly have left the road and been killed. When they arrived home, there was a letter from the garage calling the car in for the fault to be corrected.
But no matter, an accident that didn’t happen isn’t one to dwell on.
Some years ago, we visited the Haynes Motor Museum near Yeovil and it was a brilliant nostalgia trip. They had all the cars that my parents and the Sage’s parents and their friends had ever owned, large and small. What was particularly good was that it wasn’t just the big cars, like the Sage’s godfather’s Bentley, but the little Morrises, Austins, Rovers and so on that most people had. Few people had a foreign car in those days.