Slow down

taxi

My late mother lost two front teeth in a car crash in South Africa during the 1930s. Ever since then, she was both a nervous driver and an apprehensive passenger.

In the early 1960s, my mother was one of the first drivers in the UK to have seat belts installed in our car, which, like all other cars at the time, was sold without seat belts.

When I used to go on holidays with my parents, we used taxis wherever we were: water taxis in Venice and automobiles elsewhere. The places we visited most often were Italy and Greece. In both places, drivers manoeuvred at higher speeds than in the UK and far more adventurously. I remember one occasion in Milan (Italy) in the 1960s where our taxi driver drove along the tram lines on the wrong side of the road, so that trams headed straight towards us. And, in Athens (Greece), if a driver saw a space on the road some hundred yards ahead, he would take all kinds of risks to reach it. In all the years that I travelled with my parents in taxis we were only involved in one accident – no injuries, fortunately.

Well, all this dangerous dashing about in dare-devil taxis did not do anything positive for my mother’s nerves. Consequently, wherever we went she made sure that she knew how to say ‘slow down’ in the local language. Whenever I am being driven in India, where traffic is very exciting to say the least, I often think that had my mother experienced it, she would have died of fright. Oh, by the way, the Hindustani word for ‘slow down’ is ‘aasthe‘.

Auto-biography

BAVARIA 87 Between Braunau and Munich Volvo

 

I passed my driving test in mid-1982, shortly after qualifying as a dentist. Like many dentists I have met, I went through a phase of fascination with cars.

My first car was second-hand. I was advised to buy something not to expensive just in case during my first months on the road I was to have had an accident. I bought an Austin Allegro from a local dealer. It seemed in great condition given its low price. However, it had at least one annoying defect: it would stop suddenly without warning. This defect was due to a loose connection in the ignition system.  After a very few months, the car began emitting blue smoke from its exhaust. This was due to some major defect in the engine, which would have cost more to repair than the car itself. When I confronted the dealer, who had sold me the Allegro, he reccommended that I bought a new car. I told him that I was not happy with his response because I had had the car for such a short time.

A local garage did something temporary to the engine to improve its part-exchange value, but also advised me to obtain another vehicle. To my great surprise, the local VW dealer offered me a very good part exchange price if I bought a VW. I bought a VW Polo Formel E. This was not a car for using on the Formula One racetracks, but a comfortable, very easy to drive, practical small car. The ‘Formel E’ related to the fact that the car had a gear setting that allowed low fuel consumotion. This car served me well and would have kept on going for many years, but I had my eyes on owning a Volvo.

The first Volvo I bought was a Volvo 340, a descendant of the Dutch DAF models. Like the Allegro, mine had a persistent problem. It also stopped suddenly and without warning. Despite many visits to the local Volvo dealer, no one could solve the problem. Eventually, Volvo recalled my car for a modification to rectify a design fault in the carburettor. After that, the 340 behaved well and survived a rear end shunt with very little damage. My lust for another car sent me back to the car showrooms after about two years.

I bought a Volvo 240 estate car. Though enormous and looking aerodynamically inefficient, this car was superb. It handled as easily as my relatively tiny VW Polo had done, and it could fly along if speed was needed. Once on the autobahn in West Germany, I managed to move the car at 105 mph uphill, and even then my foot had not completely pressed the accelerator pedal to its fullest extent.  This spacious, easily manoevrable car carried me right across Europe from Kent to Belgrade, and on another trip from Kent to Budapest. Why I traded in this Volvo 240 for a newer Volvo 240, I cannot recall. Both 240s were excellent, but a new model of Volvo had arrive on the market place.

I part exchanged my perfectly good Volvo 240 estate for a brand new Volvo 850 saloon. This was a complete disappointment after the 240 models. It looked good by Volvo standards but was not pleasurable to drive. When I took it to a Volvo dealer a couple of years later, I was offered a pathetic part-exchange price against a new Volvo. I was told that the 850 did not sell well second-hand.

Very disappointed with Volvo, I rang the local Saab dealership. When they learned my wife was pregnant, they offered to bring a model of the Saab (in our price range) to our home so that I could take it for a test-drive. As soon as I sat in the driving seat, I knew that we had to own a Saab. We bought a Saab 900, which lasted us well for a few years, and would have lasted us much longer had we not decided to trade it in for a newer model before its resale price dropped too far. We bought a Saab 9-3, which sadly lacked some of the quality of the first Saab we owned. 

Ten years ago, we set out to attend our friends’ golden wedding anniversary party in rural Kent. Before leaving London, we replaced our four tires as required after we had the results of our car’s official car inspection (MOT test). We arrived early and decided to visit a bonsai nursery that we had seen a few years earlier. When we returned to the car, ready to drive to the party, I turned the ignition key and all that happened was a grinding noise from the engine. We called the AA (roadside assistance), who arrived quickly. The engineer looked at the enging and discovered that the fan belt had slipped off its mountings. Worse than that, one of the parts of the engine thatrelied on the fan belt had a severely distorted metal part. We asked the enginner roughly how much it would cost to repair the fault. He said he thought it would be at least £300.

Now, when I had last visited the Saab garage, I had asked for a part-exchange quote for our now ageing car. I was told that £400 would be generous. Consequently, we decided not to replace the car, but to sell it to scrap dealers, who gave us a paltry sum for it. Since then, we have not owned an auto, and life has been, surprisingly, less stressful.

You may be wondering how we reached the party. The kind AA engineer took us to a local car hire place, and we picked up a car (paid for by the AA as part of our membership plan), and arrived quite late at the party. 

Disabled drivers

During our very recent stay in the Cochin/Ernakulam region of Kerala in the south of India, we encountered two drivers with disabilities.

The first was in central Ernakulam. He was the chauffeur working for a friend. His right arm was encased in surgical plaster of Paris from above his elbow to his finger tips. He drove well despite having only one functioning arm. Luckily for him, he was driving a car with automatic gear changing.

We met the second driver twice in picturesque Fort Cochin. He wore a surgical support collar around his neck. It was khaki in colour and matched his khaki autorickshaw driver’s uniform jacket.

The first time we were driven by him, we noticed his collar, but made no reference to it. The next time he stopped to pick us up, we asked him about the collar, guessing that he might have been involved in accident. We were not expecting his explanation.

The poor fellow related that when his wife had deserted him for reasons that he did not tell us, he had tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, his attempt failed because now his wife has returned to him.

Rules of the road

As in the UK, Japan, South Africa, and Ireland, the rule in India is that one drives on the left side of the road. The steering wheel in four (or more) wheeled vehicles is on the right side of the car, truck, bus etc. In the case of two or three wheeled vehicles, the driver is centrally located. So far so good.

Although the driving on the left rule exists in India, it is regularly ignored.

Unless there is an un-crossable median barrier, turning right is often done as follows in India. The driver eases his or her vehicle into the stream of traffic on the right (I.e. wrong) side of the road into which the turn is being made. With a sea of vehicles approaching in the opposite direction, the driver drifts carefully towards the middle of the road, and then joins the lanes of traffic moving in the same direction as his or her vehicle. Sounds hazardous, does it not?

If you are travelling in an autorickshaw, your driver will often drive down a one way street in the wrong direction in order to make the trip shorter.

On the dual carriageway highway, things get more exciting. The highway provides an opportunity to speed up. But beware; it is not uncommon to come across trucks and other vehicles driving in the wrong direction towards the traffic speeding in the correct direction. Once, I asked a professional driver about this. He told me that it was quite normal for this to happen. By driving down the incorrect lane, a driver can avoid having to travel in the direction opposite to that in which he wishes to travel in order to make a U-turn. That seems quite reasonable but rather dangerous. It is just as dangerous as the herdsmen who choose to move flocks of goats and other animals along the traffic filled lanes of a highway.

Whereas a driver in the UK would be startled by any of the above, Indian drivers take these curious practices in their stride. They expect the unexpected and understand that the rules of the road are, like rules in general, made to be broken.

Animal rights

Driving in India may seem somewhat chaotic to visitors from northern Europe including the UK. It might seem less so to visitors from the southern parts of Europe or from Egypt. However, there is some order in the apparent mayhem that can often be observed on Indian roads.

One unwritten rule is that it is advisable to give way to something bigger than you. If you are driving a car, it is best to yield to a lorry or a bus. If a cow or bullock or even an elephant wanders into your path, it is best to avoid it. If you collide with a large beast, your vehicle might suffer greater injury than the beast. Best to give the creature the right of way.

If you should happen to be an autorickshaw (‘tuk tuk’) driver, you are likely to have superbly fast reflexes, the courage of a lion, and nerves of steel. Drivers of these vehicles take risks on the road that sometimes seem suicidal, but overehelmingly they know what they are doing.

One autorickshaw driver in Bangalore once told me that he had been a truck driver before taking up his present occupation. He said that to drive an autorickshaw it was necessary to employ all of the senses. He said that his whole body had to be fully aware of what is going on around him.

However, even the skilfully adventurous autorickshaw drivers will give way to, or avoid cattle in the street. This is not because they hold the cow to be sacred nor because they are believers in animal rights, but because they have a sensible regard for self-preservation.

Two professions

We made several visits to Central Europe in our car during the mid-1990s.

CZECH

Twice during those years, we drove to the Czech Republic, entering it from the eastern edge of what had formerly been prosperous West Germany. The Western part of the Czech Republic, which had been the largely German-populated Sudetenland before 1945 is thickly forested with tall dark pine trees. We were dismayed to discover that for the first ten or so kilometres beyond the border, the roads through the Czech forests were lined with ‘gentleman’s’ clubs and prostitutes.

When we were in the middle of one forest, the rain began pouring down. At the corner of a road junction in the middle of the wood, we saw a young lady dressed in a shiny red jacket with matching short hot pants. Our three-year old child saw the woman, took pity on her, and said:

“Shouldn’t we offer her a lift.”

The innocence of our child was touching.

Hungary is south of the Czech Republic. In the late 1990s, we drove into it from Austria. For the first few kilometres of Hungarian territory, we saw no prostitutes, but numerous dental surgeries with signs both in Hungarian and German. Often the dental surgery was in a little compound that included a restaurant and a food shop. The presence of so many dentists offering their services so close to the border with Austria suggested that dentistry in Hungary was good value compared with that in Austria. And, while a member of an Austrian family is having his or her teeth repaired, the rest of the family could enjoy a good Hungarian meal and buy some tasty souvenirs to take back home.

Dental tourism is still popular in Hungary. English newspapers frequently contain adverts encouraging people to obtain supposedly cheaper dental treatment in Budapest.

The proximity of Bohemian prostitutes to the Czech border and Magyar dentists equally close the Hungarian border made me consider a possible uncomfortable comparison. I wondered whether people ever see some similarity between the two professions. I hoped not!

Learning from experience

Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing

[Oscar Wilde]

 Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.

[Jules Verne]

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing

[Henry Ford]

 

green and white tents near trees

Photo by ajay bhargav GUDURU on Pexels.com

In 1971, I spent about a fortnight driving around France with several friends including the now well-known journalist Matthew Parris. He was our driver, and we travelled in the car that he had driven through Africa and Europe from South Africa to England a year or two earlier.  We camped ‘wild’ wherever possible, avoiding official campsites.

The first night was a disaster for me. We had a canvas tent with an inner room, which had its own built-in groundsheet. The outer room was without its own one. I helped lay out the groundsheet for the outer room and decided (for no good reason at all) to leave its edges protruding beyond the outer wall of that part of the tent. I was one of those assigned to sleep in the outer part of the tent.

I laid out my sleeping bag on the ground sheet, and then crawled into it. To my surprise and horror, I could feel every pebble and stone beneath me. When I had bought the sleeping bag, I had naively believed that it lived up to its name; that it would help me to sleep. Nobody had advised me to buy a Li-Lo, an inflatable mattress which would have cushioned me from the ground beneath me and the misfortune that was about to befall me. 

During the night, there was a thunder storm. The rain came down heavily and before long, my sleeping bag was soaked; the water had crept into the tent via the groundsheet. Although I had a miserable sleepless night, I was not put off the idea of camping. Next day, we tied my soaking sleeping bag onto the roof rack above our car and it dried in the wind as we drove along. We also stopped in the aptly named town of Tonnerre (‘thunder’ in French) in France, where I purchased a Li-Lo. The rest of the holiday went swimmingly so to speak.

All ‘aggro’ : my Allegro

I passed my Driving Test in 1982. Naturally, I wanted a car after that. A good friend, a dental colleague who was keen on motor cars, suggested quite sensibly that it would be best if my first car was not brand new. He felt that as I was an inexperienced driver, I was more likely to damage it. With his assistance, I chose a second-hand Austin Allegro, which looked in good condition and had not done a huge mileage. Neither he nor I would have guessed what a challenge this vehicle would prove to be.

 

allegro 1

Austin Allegro [source: Wikipedia]

All went well at first. After a few weeks, I was driving along a motorway between the Medway Towns, where I worked, and London when suddenly the car lost power. I managed to steer the Allegro to the hard shoulder. The engine was not working. I turned the ignition key and the engine sprung back into life. I continued to London uneventfully.

The problem, the engine’s spontaneous and unexpected switching off, occurred on a number of other motorways and main roads, sometimes at night. I returned to the garage where I had bought the car, and their mechanics checked the car thoroughly (so they said). They could find nothing wrong. Reassured, I continued using it, but the same problem recurred regularly. I got to a point where I used to drive along the motorway with my hand holding the ignition key in the start position, so that the motor could not turn off.

After a few months in rented accommodation, I decided to buy a house when I discovered that the monthly mortgage repayments were the same as my monthly rental payments. After looking at about nine properties, I chose one. Before moving in, I used to visit its soon to be former owners in order to settle details of the house sale. On one visit, I parked my Allegro in front of the driveway where two of the occupants’ cars were parked. When I was ready to leave, the Allegro would not start. The owner’s son, a man in his twenties, came out to look at the car. Within minutes, he discovered what the garage mechanics had missed. The lock into which the ignition key fitted was loose: it did not engage firmly in the ‘on’ position. So, when the car vibrated, the key could be thrown out of the ‘on’ position into an ‘off’ position.

When the boy’s father, who was taking an interest in the proceedings, saw what his son had discovered, he fetched a wire, and touched its two ends to a couple of places in the engine. Suddenly, there was a blue flash followed by a strange smell and some white smoke.

“Aw, now look what you’ve gawn and done, Dad,” said the son, “I reckon you’ve blown a fuse.”

Almost as quick as a flash, the young man said that he would run up the road to buy a new fuse, which he did. He inserted it, and then carefully started my car.

I continued using the car for a while. Soon after the fuse incident, the car began belching black smoke instead of the normal exhaust. Once again, I returned to the dealer, who had sold me the car. After I told him what was wrong, he said:

“Sounds like you’ll need a new engine, my friend.”

“But,” I protested, “I’ve only had the car for four months.”

“Such is life, young man.”

 

I took the car to another repair shop. This was run by a wizened old man. He looked at the engine, and said:

“I can do something about that smoke, but it won’t last long. My advice to you is to sell it as soon as I’ve mended it and before the problem returns and the engine burns out.”

I took this wise man’s advice. The local Volkswagen dealership were happy to take my Allegro as part payment for my brand-new Polo vehicle.

 

allegro 2

Volkswagen Polo [source: Wikipedia]

Soon after taking possession of the Polo, I visited my aunt and uncle in London. Their reaction to my new car gave away something of what they had secretly thought about me in the thirty years they had known me. After spending a few hours with them, they accompanied me to the road. I had not told them about my purchase. When they saw me unlocking my pristine Polo, my aunt said:

“Is that yours, Adam?”

“Yes.”

Then my uncle said:

“I never imagined you would have ever bought a new car. It’s the first normal thing you have ever done.”

Riding along in my automobile

I was just nineteen when I took my first driving lesson. I was staying in Harlow (Essex) doing my first holiday job (at Beecham’s pharmaceutical research laboratories). I used to have the lessons after work during the early evenings when there was little or no traffic on the roads.

DRIVING

Driving in Bavaria: my car in 1986

I found it very difficult to coordinate hands and feet, so that gear changing presented me with quite a challenge. I drove slowly, especially when approaching traffic signals when they were turning red.  I could not face the palaver of foot brake, handbrake, clutch, and gear synchronisation that was needed when stopping at a red signal. Occasionally I drove so slowly that the car almost stopped moving. After about six lessons, the instructor said to me:

“You are my first pupil whom I have had to ask to drive faster.”

A couple of lessons later, he told me sadly:

“You are going to take much longer to learn to drive than most other young people.”

I knew he was right, and we agreed not to have any more lessons.

Twelve years after my summer job in Harlow, I began practising dentistry in the Medway Towns (in north Kent). I took up the job there in April 1982. I was still unable to drive. I rented ‘digs’ near the practice. In the evenings after work, there was little in the way of public transport in the area apart from the railway that connects the three main centres of the Medway Towns. I decided that life in this part of the world would be very dull if I did not learn to drive.

One of the dental nurses in the practice recommended a driving instructor, Mr B. I decided to take an intensive course of driving lessons, paying for three or four hours a week. Mr B’s method of instruction suited me well. I learnt in a car with dual controls. My instructor, who sat in the passenger seat beside me, had a clutch and brake pedal that he could operate if necessary. Occasionally, he would operate them, and I would say to him:

“I was just about to brake when you operated your controls.”

Mr B would reply:

“If I need to use the dual controls, then I feel that you did not make the right decision in time.”

After about six weeks, Mr B considered that I was ready to take the Driving Test, which I booked. The test was scheduled for ten o’clock one weekday morning. The Test involved driving the examiner along local roads. During the drive, the candidate is asked to perform several prescribed procedures, such as: reversing around a corner; a hill start; an emergency stop; and parking the car. At the time of day when I took the Test in Gillingham, one of the Medway Towns, there was almost no other traffic on the roads. This made things easier for me. Also, I was able to anticipate when the examiner was going to ask me to perform this or that prescribed manoeuvre. I passed the Test, the last important exam I have ever taken. I attribute my success to two factors. One of them was Mr B’s superb tuition. The other was dentistry. Let me explain.

During the five years prior to my Driving Test, I studied dentistry. Many of the clinical procedures I learnt involved using the dental handpiece (drill). The speed at which the bur (drill bit) rotates is controlled by a foot pedal. Where and how the drill cuts is controlled by hand movements. I had learnt to drive a dental drill. Driving a car, with the feet/hand coordination it involves, became simple for me after my dental training.

Soon after getting my Driving Licence, I bought a second-hand car. On the first day, a Thursday, I drove it to and from the Savacentre, the local supermarket, three miles from my flat. On the Friday evening, I drove through the countryside to Faversham, which was twenty miles from where I lived. On the Saturday, after finishing my morning clinic, I set off for north London, sixty miles away. It was the first time I had driven on a motorway. That was not too bad but driving across the metropolis of London felt like a bad dream. I had never driven in heavy traffic before. By the time I had crossed south London and the River Thames, I had developed a severe headache. When I reached a major, congested traffic intersection in Camden Town, I felt like getting out of the car and abandoning it. Things reached rock bottom, when the driver of a car near to mine leant out of his window and yelled at me:

“Bloody Sunday driver.”

Late on the Sunday night, I set off to drive back to Kent. Being late, there was less traffic than there had been in London on the Saturday afternoon. I had planned to cross the river using the Blackwall Tunnel. However, I missed the turning for it and found myself on a dual-carriageway that led inexorably eastwards away from London. Every now and then the road crossed intersections on steeply humped fly-over bridges. I knew that eventually I would reach the Dartford Tunnel that passes beneath the Thames, but I was getting cold and lonely as I drove through a darkened industrial landscape and then through countryside that seemed featureless late at night.

I drove through the long tunnel beneath the Thames. When I reached the toll-booth on the Kent shore, I paid the toll to a man sitting in a lighted booth and thanked him. It was a relief to be able to talk to someone, even for a few seconds, after the lonely journey I had just made.

The next few journeys I made to London always resulted in me getting a headache, but eventually I began to enjoy driving. I enjoyed it so much that later on I drove several times from England to Hungary and farther afield to the former Yugoslavia, often on my own and enjoyed every minute of the journeys.

It’s enough to drive you around the Benz

Of my attempts to learn to drive a car, I will write on this subject at another occasion. Suffice it to say that by the summer of 1982, when I had been practising dentistry for several months, I passed the Driving Test at the age of thirty years. I began to enjoy driving and cars in general. I changed my car often. Over a period of eleven years while I practised in Kent, I possessed (in the following order): an Austin Allegro, a Volkswagen Polo, a Volvo 340, then two Volvo 240s, and then a Volvo 850. The last two cars I owned after those were Saabs.

 

MERC 2

 

Some time during my eleven year stay in Kent, I fancied owning a Mercedes Benz. In my mind, this make of car rated above all others. Apart from the company’s long heritage (it started in the late 1880s), the cars it produced were reputed to be strong, reliable, and very roadworthy. It is of interest to note that Adolf Hitler rode around in Mercedes cars. I suppose he must have known that the Mercedes in the company’s name was chosen because Mercedes was a daughter of Emil Jellinek (1853-1918), a motor manufacturing entrepreneur who created the Mercedes trade mark in 1901. Emil, the son of a rabbi, was married to Mercedes’ mother Rachel Goggmann Cenrobert, who was of French-Sephardi descent. Therefore, the car Hitler enjoyed was named after a Jewish woman. But I digress.

A new Mercedes Benz dealership opened close to the practice, where I worked. One lunchtime, I drove to the dealership to test drive a Mercedes estate car. A salesman drove me about a mile, and then let me take the wheel on the way back. At a certain stage, I needed to operate the handbrake. I looked for it in the usual place on the central console that separates the two front sets, but it was not there.

“Where is the handbrake?” I asked the salesman.

“I have no idea,” he replied, “I have never driven this model before.”

He thought for a minute, and said:

“Try that handle beside your left leg.”

He was right, but my confidence in him diminished.

When I had driven the car back to the dealership, I asked to be shown some pre-owned cars, as the new ones were way beyond my price-range.

Another digression seems appropriate at this point. Many years after visiting the Mercedes dealership, I hired a car at Heathrow Airport. It was an up to the minute luxurious Vauxhall estate car. A charming young Asian lady handed me the keys and told me where to find the vehicle. I sat in the driver’s seat and started the engine. Immediately, I noticed a warning light telling me that the handbrake was engaged. I looked for the handbrake. It was neither on the central console nor was there a handle near the foot pedals. I was flummoxed. I returned to the car hire office feeling rather foolish and described my problem to the young lady. She smiled before explaining that the handbrake was operated by a small button on the central console near the gear change stick. After returning to the car, I found the button, which was no bigger than the surface of a dice such as is used in board games. It was flush with the rest of the console and looked like a decoration.

 

MERC 1

 

I was quite taken with a greenish Mercedes saloon car, which was almost favourably priced, but still some way beyond my reach. The salesman opened the vehicle and invited me to sit in the driver’s seat.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Very nice,” I replied, “but I’m not so keen on that plastic trim on the central console around the gear stick.”

“Sir,” he exclaimed, affronted, “that’s not plastic. It’s highly polished wood trim. The very best. This is a Mercedes, you know.”

“Sorry,” I replied, not totally convinced, and continuing, “I like the car. Are you prepared to lower the price?”

“Oh no, sir, that is totally against our company policy. The price we offer is the only price. Our company does not haggle.”

Lunchtime was nearly over, so I said that I would think about the car and would let him know my decision soon.

Twenty-four hours later, I was eating my lunch in the practice when the telephone rung. One of my colleagues answered it and then handed me the receiver. It was the salesman, whom I met the day before.

“Mr Yamey,” he said, “I have good news for you. I have spoken with my manager, and he says that we can offer you the car for £1000 less.”

“Thank you,” I replied, “let me think about that.”

Even with the discount, the car was still beyond my means.

 

merc 3

 

Twenty-four hours later, two days after visiting the Mercedes dealership, I received another call from the salesman, again whilst I was eating lunch.

“I have more good news for you, My Yamey,” he began, “my manager has authorised a further thousand-pound reduction in the cost of the car you are interested in. That’s a discount of two thousand pounds. Makes the motor very reasonable, don’t you think?”

I told him that I was not sure about buying at that moment, and that I would get back to him if I changed my mind. I had by then decided that not only was the car too expensive even with the unexpected discounts from a firm that never offered discounts, but, also, I was actually happy with the car I already owned.