The Cars of our Youth

Style and comfort were secondary. Due to lack of money, wheels in the McCleland household during our youth were all that were required as long as they worked. Now cue in the music of The Days of our Lives all saccharin and mulchy. None would win car of the year or the street mile, but we adored them nonetheless. This is their story as told mainly by my younger brother.

 Main picture: The first car that my father owned, an Austin A70. His previous vehicle had been a panelvan which was his employer – JJ Ruddy and Sons – company vehicle. As there is no extant photo of this vehicle, the best that Blaine could do was a stock photo off the internet.

Note: The paragraphs in italics relate to Blaine’s comments and the normal type face is mine. A joint endeavour.

My oldest memory of the family vehicle was the JJ Ruddy & Sons panel van. Instead of a back seat somebody had fastened a plank to the wheel arches at the back on which perched the three of us – Cheryl, Blaine and I. This was our family’s wheels. As Site Foreman for the small family construction company, dad was probably given this more from a tool-of-trade point of view rather than feeling pity on him. Whatever the motive, they gave us wheels.

 

Harry's van was similar to this one except that it did not have a wheel on the door

Clifford’s van was similar to this one except that it did not have a wheel on the door

The unsexy Austin A70

Finally the momentous day arrived. Dad had purchased a real car, an Austin A70. Let Blaine tell the story further:

Dad only had two cars in our lifetimes.  The first was a 1952 Austin A70.  Googling it I have just found out that it was called a Hereford.

It was a typically British attempt at regaining automobile pre-eminence.  It failed.  An extract from Wikipedia states its performance as thus:

An A70 tested by the British magazine The Motor in 1951 had a top speed of 80.5 mph (129.6 km/h) and could accelerate from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 21.4 seconds. A fuel consumption of 21.9 miles per imperial gallon (12.9 L/100 km; 18.2 mpg-US) was recorded. The test car cost £911 including taxes.

 Way to go!  Actually, now that I look at it again, it’s pretty cool.  I’d love to own one. All that I could say about it then was that it was big and strong.  One Sunday, Dad tootled out to the café to fetch the paper.  The parking was perpendicular to the pavement and on reversing out, some young dork in his Ford Cortina came whipping through a yield sign, round the corner and into the side of the boot.  He hit the car so hard that the Austin was pushed through 90° into the pavement.  The Austin had a dented boot while his car had to be towed away with the radiator smeared over the engine block.

This incident also illustrates the changing attitudes in the world.  Then, people were predominantly law abiding and Dad especially so.  I doubt if he got more than one traffic ticket in his life.  The upshot was that the police were called out and detailed statements taken.  Dad returned home later much vexed that he was now in trouble with the law as the police had intimated that there might be a criminal case to answer for.

I loved helping Dad fix his car.  I would always have my head under the bonnet with him, getting in the way.  One day the car couldn’t be fixed at all anymore.  The brakes would inexplicably fail, sometimes at moment critique and so the search started for a new car. 

He had his eyes on either a Ford Cortina or Corsair.  What evocative names for working men’s cars!  The salesmen could come to your house for a demo.  A Saturday morning was agreed with the explicit instructions that he did not want a yellow or a red car.  Yellow because it’s a hippie colour and red because it oxidises easily.  The Saturday morning duly arrived with the family eagerly awaiting the NEW CAR.  No more social embarrassments.  The Corsair arrived and it was yellow.  Needless to say, he didn’t make a sale.  We were consigned to another wait.

The underwhelming Vauxhall Victor

Vauxhall Victor

Vauxhall Victor

Soon after Dad came home with a second hand 1966 grey Vauxhall Victor.  We were underwhelmed.

 It was another unpretentious and unexciting British working man’s car.  Nevertheless, Dean and I managed to have two memorable escapades with that car.

There was a party at my uncle Redvers’s farm along the Kragga Kama Road.  I was probably 16 and dating this little number in standard 6.  I was a bit embarrassed to be seen with her but she was hot and there a very fair chance for me to get lucky.  After all, she was the only daughter of a single working mum.  Need I say more?  Dad was very anti-social and I don’t think he liked any of Mom’s family very much so he stayed at home and I got to take my little number along.  A few drinks later and it was time to impress.  I wheedled the car keys out of Dean and drove out into the moonset along the Kragga Kama Road to Cow’s Corner.  Approaching the tee junction, I depressed the clutch to change down and my life flashed before my eyes.  There was no clutch.  I pulled to the side and pondered my predicament.  I was well and truly screwed without the advantage of a screw.  I managed to push the car around in a U-turn and then freewheeled back downhill.  When the speed was right, I jammed it into 2nd, bump started the car and off I went.  I was out of luck but back in business.  Having a mechanical aptitude I decided to test the efficacy of synchromesh.  Judging the speed carefully I successfully changed up to 3rd and then 4th.  I even managed the down changes to 2nd so that I could negotiate the track between the road and the farmhouse.  Dean with his four years extra maturity decided not to do what I implored him to do as he was responsible for four passengers and would have to deal with traffic.  To my gratitude he agreed to say nothing about my escapade, probably because he was also culpable.  We agreed that he would just say that the clutch broke when we tried to leave.  Mom was always a pushover and Cheryl didn’t care. 

The downside was that I hadn’t impressed the girlfriend one little bit and we drifted apart.  She will remain nameless because I’ve forgotten her name. [I do remember but promise not to tell] I sometimes wistfully think about her because she would have been my first and, more importantly, I thought she was hot.  I wonder what she is like today. 

A little while and a girlfriend later, Dean and I took dancing lessons at Arthur Murray in Main Street, Port Elizabeth together with two sisters, one of whom was my girlfriend.  It must have been a social because Dean took us in Dad’s car on a Saturday night.  We stopped at their house for a final coffee on the way home.  On returning to the car and opening the door we found it to be full of smoke.  Dad had removed all the ashtrays so there was nothing for it but to throw the cigarettes out of the window.  One had landed on the left hand side of the back seat and burnt through the blanket on top, the vinyl and melted a crater in the foam.  This was an absolute calamity as Dad hated smoking.  Just like the stupid criminals you see on Youtube we tried to disguise the damage by rearranging the cloth over the hole.  We aired the car on the way home and parked it in the driveway for the night.

Sunday morning was my hockey day and I slunk out of there really early in a craven and cowardly fashion.  Later that morning Dad wanted to fetch the paper and opened his car door.  The smell of burnt plastic alarmed him so he frantically searched for the source amongst the wires under the dash.  He must have pushed the cigarette lighter in with his shoulder so that when it expectantly popped out he pulled it out and, without thinking, pushed his thumb on the end to see if it was hot.  Yep, there were a lot of stupid people involved in this incident.  Meanwhile, Dean was observing and also elected the coward’s way out by not saying anything.  Eventually Dad traced the source.  Meanwhile back at the club I remained as long as possible after the match, drinking a number of beers to bolster my courage.  I remember walking in to a very subdued lunch time and a Dad with concentric rings burnt into the ball of his thumb.  Dean hadn’t come to the party for me this time but he was in just as much trouble. 

The almost derelict 1961 Beetle

After finishing my National Service, I signed five year Articles with Starling, Treasure and Blaker, a small auditing firm in Port Elizabeth. This job came with two conditions: one had to own a car and also one suit, neither of which I possessed.

used-1961-volkswagen-beetle-restored-145-5000097-1-640

With Michael Baker, a school friend for technical and negotiating advice, we scanned the Classifieds in the Evening Post. Somebody in Humewood was selling a 1961 Beetle for R 100. Off we went. What a bargain. A car for R100. Little did we realise that the little TLC required was actually a lobotomy, an engine-octomy, a transmission-nectomy and a complete rewiring. In short nothing worked. Now the problem was getting the car home. En route was the impossibly steep Brickmakerskloof. Between Michael Baker, myself, some pushing, some pulling it was brought home. Fortunately dad went to sleep early so I had the whole night to plan a strategy on how to explain that this derelict Beetle had landed in our driveway.

Dad never liked a confrontation but what he did say was that it was my problem. I would have to fix it up myself. What I required was a reliable experienced mechanic at minimal but preferably no cost. I hit upon a brilliant idea: Blaine. Surely after watching my father service his car and being old enough – 14 years old if I recall – he would tick most boxes such as cheap and reliable. At a push, the hours spent watching dad would quality him to perform an engine overhaul, rewire the car, bleed the brakes, install new brake disks and respray the car.

Nothing that an excellent motor mechanic could not do!

Good help is always so hard to find. Like all poor workmen, Blaine blamed his tools. It was absurd. He claimed that he could not skim the cylinder heads as dad did not possess the any tools to do the job. Desperate times called for desperate measure. It was either a case of organising a reconditioned engine or firing the only member of staff. I borrowed some money at usury rates of 0% per month and had the engine reconditioned.

The Beetle that wouldn't die

The Beetle that wouldn’t die

A valuable lesson was learnt. Employ unskilled untrained slave labour and get – well – unskilled untrained slave labour! I would just have to crack the whip harder.

After slaving on the Beetle, the expectation was that I would give it to him when he turned 18 in lieu of getting it operational at a King’s Ransom of gratis. That day came when my Cousin Gloria’s husband Paul wanted to sell his Vauxhall Viva for the princely sum of R 260. In recompense, Blaine was eventually given my 1961 Beetle.

Your Beetle was much loved but suffered an ignominious demise.  RIP.  On its final trip back to PE packed to the brim which Liz and all our stuff we headed out at about 22:00.  We struggled into the teeth of a Black South Easter.  At the final hairpin bend at the top of Sir Lowry’s pass, the car was suddenly exposed to the full force of the wind through the gap.  It ripped the bonnet loose and slammed it into the windscreen.  It was quite a hairy moment as we were doing about 80kph, it was pitch black and gouting down and in any case there was nothing to see out front.  I managed to bring the car to a stop on the corner by looking out the side window.  The window shaped imprint in the bonnet wasn’t that bad but the reaction at the pivots when the bonnet suddenly stopped against the windscreen pulled the dash down and left a gap across the bottom of the window.  This was serious panel beating and anyway I was off to the army.  Just before I left I phoned some scrap dealer to pick it up from the pavement.  I thought he would treat it with respect. He summarily smashed both side quarter windows, passed a chain through and dragged it onto the back of his lowbed.

I truly shed a tear.  We had come a long way together and we had both changed beyond recognition.  It was now quite sporty with a chopped back and a souped up flat VW Variant motor with dual carbs, adjustable shocks, stiffer anti roll bars, a special anti-sway system at the rear and a new paint job.  I too had changed but whereas I had a bright future, it only had the knacker’s yard to look forward to.

That VW was the single most important event which eventually led me to becoming a Mech Eng.  I did my apprenticeship on that and your subsequent Viva.  I probably cost you more money than I saved you.  I remember very well what colours we sprayed them.  A greeny  turquoise and royal blue.  Rodney Dicks was a great help. Ah – memories.

Blaine’s pride and joy: 175cc Yamaha off road bike:

PE was experiencing a shipping glut when I left matric and Uncle Bryce organised me a tally clerk job during the holidays.  I worked from straight after matric exams till the day before varsity.  I did 2 hours overtime most nights and worked many Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays because they were so lucrative.  Although the rate was low, the overtime hours and weekends allowed me to amass my stash.  The day was 8am – 6pm but one had to report at 7:30am to the office near the entrance for allocation to your berth for the day.  We took lunch but would forgo the allowable supper break when doing overtime so that we could reduce the length of the day.  The peculiar overtime work rules allowed us to work 5 minutes into the 3rd hour and still claim the full hour.  My day was hence 7:30 – 8:05.  Unfortunately the bus from the city left for Cape Road at 8:00pm and the next at 9:00pm and I would only walk into the house at 9:30 – 9:45pm, filthy dirty from a day on the wharves.  Dad would kindly wake me up at 6:00am with coffee and lunch sandwiches and I would leave home at 6:30am.  This was great motivation to get wheels of my own.

 

175cc Yamaha - Blaine's pride and joy

175cc Yamaha – Blaine’s pride and joy

I located my bike via the Classified Ads in the Evening Post – no Gumtree in those dark days – and arranged to see it one day during lunch as it was close by in Summerstrand.  I knew how to drive a car but had never driven a bike before except once briefly on Andrew Millers Suzuki TS 50cc in his backyard.  This represented a quantum leap in power and the gearing of a scrambler made for an interesting series of near wheelies down the road.  Suitably impressed I strenuously bargained down the asking price of R600, a king’s ransom as I think it equated to more than a full year’s tuition at UPE.  He capitulated to my superior negotiating skills and threw in the Helmet.  I drew the money out from United Building Society (another dinosaur) the following lunch time and concluded the deal the next day.  For two days I had been nervously walking around with this money on buses and wharves.  Heady times.  Even headier was picking up the bike and driving it home in the late evening traffic.  I had only ever been a passenger in traffic I before but I somehow managed to safely negotiate the back roads home.  I had only one sphincter tightening moment.  Nearing home I was getting cocky as I turned into the bottom of 2nd Ave, when a bloody dog rushed out straight at the bike.

Blaine's first car - make & model unknown. In worse condition than my first car

Blaine’s first car – make & model unknown. In worse condition than my first car

On the Road to Nowhere

Dad was not one to tootle off to some place for the holidays.  Dad was well grounded – to 57 Mowbray Street.  The furthest we got was The Willows, a holiday resort on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth.  Not for us the Katberg’s that our neighbours, the Stirks, regularly went to.  We only took three trips.  The one didn’t count as it was a day trip out Alexandria way and maybe as far as Kenton on Sea, a grand round trip distance of 260km.  I think it was a trip down memory lane for Dad as he was sent to boarding school there.  The other two were memorable.

Dad went to Louterwater to build fruit packing sheds for a few months.  He would come home every odd weekend or so.  Mom was left in charge and it was pandemonium.  “I’ll tell your dad when he comes back.” was about as good as it got.  If she really got angry she would try to chase us but we were smart and nimble and my plump mom was no match for us around the dining room table.  We nearly became feral during that period.  I recall that Dean and I used to gang up on Cheryl and, to escape, she also used to run around the table with the tweak that she used to pull the chairs out behind her.  Needless to say we stumbled over them and broke a number of the backs but that’s another story.  Sometimes I would also gang up with Cheryl against Dean.  I was a sort of a gun for hire.

25.vauxhallvictorfbbrochurev147010.63

One weekend Dad arranged a weekend holiday for the family in Louterwater at the building site.  This was dad’s definition of a dirty weekend.  We stayed in a rudimentary site hut which was dusty and had bare wooden floors and walls.  The furnishings were extremely frugal and rudimentary.  I swear a Benedictine monk lived in more luxury, well definitely cleaner.  Mom just accepted her lot in life and carried on.  I enjoyed myself as I always enjoyed Dad’s building sites.  There were always so many things happening with machinery chugging away and somehow a building was created out of chaos.

On the way there Dad said he had something astounding to demonstrate.  We were travelling along Cape Road, approaching the new Old Cape Road.  He said that we must listen to the road.  It was growling and grumbling under the Austin when all of a sudden there a beautiful quiet swishing noise as we got onto the new section.  I was astounded at the miracles of modern technology and was grateful that Dad had chosen to reveal this to us.  You might scoff but it was a big deal to me.  This was the start of my love affair with technology.

 

Apple packing sheds in Louterwater

Apple packing sheds in Louterwater

After the weekend we returned in the evening/night.  We had Joseph with us.  He was Dad’s Man Friday, his head boy.  He had been with Dad for years before and many still to come.  Dad trusted him completely but probably asked him to wash properly with one of those hard bars of sunlight soap.  I was lucky enough to have a window seat and must have been less talkative than normal so Dad eventually asked me what I was doing.  I told him that I was counting the culverts that we flashed over.  What a holiday!

The next journey came years later and it was epic.  In 1972 Dean went to the army in Oudtshoorn, about 450 km from Port Elizabeth.  As was usual he was given a 7 days pass in the mid-year.  When conscription was extended to 2 years, we then got an additional 14 days pass in our second year.  The other significant number was your 40 days which was 40 days to go from Elvis Presley’s song, ‘I’m gonna give you 40 days to get back’.  The English usage was interesting.  “I’m going on my 7 days.”  Or, “I’m in my 40 days.”  You get the idea.

Dad magnanimously decided to make it a family outing and off we went to pick up Dean in the ‘trusty’ Victor.  We were approaching Oudtshoorn late on the Saturday morning when the car started acting up.  The engine was pre-igniting like crazy and the temperature went through the roof.  Dad freewheeled downhill and dragged it up the next.  We spluttered into the main street and managed to find a garage who would sort it out after midday on a Saturday.  It was determined that the governor weights on the automatic advance in the distributor had flown off.  How they managed to scam up a new distributor for an unpopular model car in a little hick down can only be described a miracle.  We were soon good to go and returned to Port Elizabeth. 

The next Saturday we did it all over again.  The whole family went along as it was just so exciting being on the open road although we had just done it a week previously.  Driving in the gloaming back to P.E., about 250km out, the car suddenly went silent.  Dad immediately checked the distributor and found it not to be turning.  On removal he found that the pin fixing the pinion gear to the lower drive shaft had sheared off.  Now Dad was a practical man and kept a greasy box with tools and odds and sods in the boot.  With a broken hacksaw blade, he cut shaft off a key, pushed it through the gear and shaft and riveted the ends over.  We had not gone 10km when the engine fell silent again.  Undaunted Dad ripped the distributor out but his jury rigged repair was till good.  Further investigation revealed the timing shaft not to be rotating.  We found out later that the timing chain had broken!

 

Mom and Cheryl got squeezed into an already full car and taken to P.E. by a very kind family.  I stayed behind with Dad.  In Humansdorp they organised a garage owner to come out to tow us in.  That 80km journey was quite hair raising as we sped through the night on a short tow rope.  Although there was no TV in those days, we were still interfering with his Saturday’s drinking probably.  Uncle Bryce came out and brought us home after midnight.

 Maybe that was why Dad hated long journeys.

Vauxhall Viva to sunny Rhodesia

Of course my new – actually old – Vauxhall Viva was no better than my dad’s Vauxhall Victor except that instead of 250 kms, I planned a trip of 1500kms in an unreliable car. I had just written my Board exam in May 1977 and after four and a half years of study, I needed a break. Something completed different. As my Articles read under Area “anywhere in Southern Africa” I could complete them in Rhodesia.

Vauxhall Viva

Vauxhall Viva

I signed the contract and was off in an unroadworthy car. The trip would take 3 days: Day 1 to Joburg, Day 2 to Beit Bridge and Day 3 to Salisbury.

Apart from a dodgy vehicle, there was the issue of Fuel Restrictions. In terms of these fuel saving measures, the speed limit on the open roads was reduced to 100kph combined with no fuel sales on Sundays or at night. My plan was to leave on Sunday morning early, carry 50 litres of petrol and drive through to Joburg. On course the cops were out in force to enforce these regulations in those days but that was the least of my worries. The more pressing concern was whether the vehicle was capable to travelling so far.

Just past the Sundays River, my worst fears were realised. There was a huge road block with at least 10 cars already being searched with 2 still waiting in the queue. They were taking no prisoners as it was a 100% search. This trip was going to be longer than 3 days as it would involve a detour via the police holding cells and court. Travelling with fuel let alone 50 litres was a serious criminal offence.

I stopped behind car number 2. The front car was motioned to pull off the road. A squad of policemen in blue descended on the vehicle, unpacking it. Then it was the turn of the car in front of me. Again the same rigmarole.

Now it was my turn.

I sat and waited. And sat. And waited.

And nobody came to the vehicle.

Eventually in terror and sweating profusely, I decided that I would get this charade over with. I stepped out of the vehicle and sauntered as innocuously as possible to the group of policemen milling around about 50 metres away.

In my best Afrikaans I asked, “Wanneer gaan hulle my kar deursoek?”

The one policeman turned around incensed, “KAN JY NIE SIEN ONS IS BESIG OM TE EET

I wanted to sprint to my car. Instead I sauntered nonchalantly whilst attempting to impersonate somebody who was blasé. I climbed in and was off. It had been a close shave.

By the time the Viva reached the Orange Free State, it was overheating. This time I could not call on Blaine to resolve the issue so I would have to do it myself. Upon opening the bonnet lid, no close inspection was required as the problem was immediately evident. The radiator was cracked. Due to the fuel restrictions, at best the road over the Orange, now the Gariep River, only saw one vehicle per hour on it. I had to repair it myself. I rummaged through my off assortment of tools. Then it dawned on me. I would earn my spurs as a motor mechanic by applying Pratley’s Putty. It worked sort off. Every 100kms I had to apply some more.

In Joburg I stayed with my ex-boss from Price Waterhouse in PE, Trevor Wagener.

I left early with the intention of purchasing a number of boxes of Pratley Putty en route. At Potgietersrus I purchased the whole stock of Pratley Putty at a parts dealer. North of Pietersburg, the radiator sprang another leak. I seriously big one. I grabbed a whole box applied it to the hole. With water bubbling, steam rising and the metal of the radiator being almost at boiling point, I had to be fearless. I pushed and smoothed the Pratley on the surface. Finally there was no steam. But then I felt it. I right hand had been scalded.

I needed this bandaged up. I drove ever northward using the left hand to steer and change the gears. At some nondescript dorp I pulled up at a clinic / hospital. At the reception, I showed them my hand.

Ag nee, Meneer. Ons is gesluit

I drove northwards again reaching Messina at dusk.

Another extemporised repair of the radiator was required.

I left the Motel at 5am in order to be at the border at 6am when it opened. At 7am the convoy left Beit Bridge for Fort Victoria. While driving to the meeting place, the brakes felt mushy. Only if I pressed the pedal to the floor, would they “take.”

With suspect brakes, there was no way in which I could take a position anywhere near other vehicles in the convoy. The natural tendency in such a situation was for the line to concertina periodically. So I adopted a position of 100 metres behind the last vehicle, a truck. At least there was a margin of error.

But the car was getting hotter and hotter. The radiator needed more Pratley Putty before it overheated. The petrol cans had been converted into water containers. The problem was that the convey would not be stopping before Fort Vic. By now my maximum speed was 80 kph which was the average speed of the convey. I was falling behind. If I stopped to replenish the water, reapply Pratley Putty, I was unlikely to ever catch the convey up.

Fortunately some of the vehicles that were overloaded started slowing down to 60 kph.

In the nick of time we reached Fort Vic. It had been a close run thing. After some elegant repairs and water on the radiator, I was off to Salisbury.

When I failed my Board Exam, I had to return to South Africa.

It was time for a more reliable car, a Hillman Minx automatic.

Cathy Rijs leaning on my Hillman Vogue in 1979

Cathy Rijs leaning on my Hillman Vogue in 1979

Epilogue

When my dad died in 1983, he still owned that 1966 Vauxhall Victor. By then the 1961 Beetle had met its Maker and passed away peacefully. As for the 175cc Yamaha, Blaine sold it in 1977 as he was broke.

Never again would we have to struggle with unreliable vehicles.

Nevertheless these vehicles had added excitement both positive & negative to our lives, enriching them.

Appendices:

Cars during my life

 

Make and Model Years driven Other information
1961 VW Beetle Dec 1971 to 1977 Purchased for R 90. Required a major overhaul and rebuild. Blaine did most of the work apart from the engine overhaul
Vauxhall Viva 1977 – 1979 Purchased from Paul, Gloria Dix-Peek’s husband
Hillman Minx 1979 to 10th Feb 1980 Purchased from woman at Fidelity Bank while doing an audit at the Bank with Price Waterhouse
Ford Escort 1.6GT, then Golf GTI Feb 1980 to Dec 1981 Company car – Barlows Electronics in Halfway House. Cathy Rijs had an accident in it while I was doing an Army Camp at Lohatla in the Northern Cape
Ford Cortina 1.6L Jan 1982 – June 1985 Company car – worked at Barlow’s Head Office, CG Smith Sugar in Durban and at Barlow Park and at Barlows Heavy Engineering in Benoni
Ford Granada July 1985 – 1990 Company car – Financial Manager then Director at Monoweld Galvanisers
Audi 5SLE 1990 – 1995 Company car – Financial Director at Monoweld Galvanisers
VW Kombi 2.5L 1995 – 1999 Company car – Financial Director at Monoweld Galvanisers and then FD at Circle Domestic Freight. Vehicle stolen at Springs Striders 32km race. Recovered at Zeerust border post
VW Kombi 2.6L 1999- 2004 Company car – Project Manager – Brollo – stolen at 10km Night Race at KHOSA
BMW 318 2004 – 2010 Owned
BMW 320i 2010 – 2016 Owned

 

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