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. 

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.

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.