Bench seats, the ‘belly button’ and Hattie the Hillman Hunter – an ode to first cars.
First cars mark such a momentous time in our lives. They meant freedom, independence, adulthood, bills! YourLifeChoices writers relive their first car experiences.
My first car was a red XE Falcon and it saved my life! I bought the car second hand from a car yard for around $3000, I think. It was an absolute jet with electronic fuel injection, which would make the car take off when you planted your foot. Because I was young and stupid, I once got the thing flying on a country road. The aftermath of this was that when I stopped to put petrol in the car it wouldn’t restart. The engine had vibrated so much it had worked the connections from the battery terminal loose.
That was easily fixed, but the other problem was a loose connection holding the bench seat in place. Occasionally the catch would give way, propelling the seat backwards. I would just roll the seat forward after it fell back and click the lever back into position.
One day I was driving to meet my girlfriend and the road was wet and slippery. I drove over the crest of a steep hill and was confronted with a cyclist I hadn’t been expecting, I swerved to avoid him, lost control of the car and it flipped over and crashed into a power pole. Fortunately for me, the faulty catch on the bench seat gave way and propelled the seat backwards, away from what would have been a potentially fatal collision. I walked away with barely a scratch on me, despite the fact that there wasn’t one straight panel left on the car. The car wasn’t with me for long, but I will never forget it.
The Seat 600. That was my first car. Not many in Australia would recognise the brand, but in mid-1970s Spain, a car rolled off the line in Barcelona and the nation fell in love with it.
In my neighbourhood, we called her La Pelota, the ball. In other neighbourhoods, they called her El Ombligo, the belly button. Others called her El Garbanzo, the chickpea.
She was oddly shaped. Round mostly, a bit of a hunchback. Nothing like that voluptuous VW Beetle.
But more importantly, it was the era in which she was let loose onto the streets of Spain that made La Pelota so special. It was the end of a dictatorship, the beginning of hope. And suddenly there was this odd-looking, but mighty useful cheap little car. Every working and new middle-class family had one.
I was in my first year of university when my parents upgraded to a four-door Seat model, and handed La Pelota over to me. We crammed ourselves into it, four friends and I, and took off. We first roamed the dark, smoky alleyways of Madrid, then tested the new highways around our suburb. The Pope came to Madrid and to escape the religious frenzy, we headed to the mountains. Eventually, La Pelota took us all over Spain, along the cobbled streets of historic cities, along pilgrim dust roads, dropped us off near ghostly Moorish castles, at abandoned stone villages, and by idyllic rivers where we played, fought and slept.
Every time I had to head back to university in England, it was La Pelota that I would miss. Thanks to my father, who I now realise also loved her, she was always freshly oiled and shiny clean on my return.
A few years later, I had outgrown La Pelota. I let her go with an eager young mechanic for the equivalent of $30 today. And a couple of decades later in Australia, it all came flooding back when I picked up Monsignor Quixote, a book by Graham Greene. It was about a man who travelled around Spain in his beloved Seat 600 during the post-dictatorship years to learn about the world, faith and love.
It’s 1978. I’ve landed my first job – journalist at the Proserpine Guardian – about 700 kilometres away. I needed a car. Enter my Hungarian brother-in-law who had plenty of connections but few you’d want to get too close to. However … he found me Hattie the Hillman Hunter, complete with sticker that read ‘Your passport to adventure’.
She was white, a manual of course, solid and dependable – until she wasn’t. I loaded all my worldly goods into her and headed north – to adventure.
Back in the day, the road from Miriam Vale to Proserpine had some long desolate stretches, such as the 170-kilometre ‘Marlborough Stretch’ between Marlborough and Sarina, north of Rockhampton. Locals had dubbed it the Murder Highway after a spate of murders, robberies and assaults that started in the late 1960s. Hattie and I powered through there in daylight.
She was a fine companion on many long drives in north Queensland – Proserpine to Mackay, Proserpine to Townsville – and only gave up the ghost when she was almost in mothballs. I’d landed a job in Perth and she wasn’t coming. She did a series of radiator hoses – or some such thing – 12 kilometres from home. Dear old girl. RIP.
I loathed my first car. Dad had surprised me by buying it without consulting me, and then saying that I had to repay him. That was just like Dad. Having turned 18 and with my driver’s licence finally earned after three attempts, I felt empowered. And entitled to make my own choice of first car, paid for by my hard-earned cash as a receptionist.
Dad thought otherwise and could not understand why I was not thrilled. I spared him the details, but the colour of that second-hand, two-door E20 Toyota Corolla made me nauseous. It was a dirty, swamp green … a hue I imagined resembled the sludge at Werribee’s sewage farm. Despite being hailed as an automotive gem, I found it clunky to drive and believed it looked so outdated, even though in 1978 when Dad got it, it was probably less than half a dozen years old. It looked and felt like a mini army tank.
My cousins had been able to choose their own first cars and had zippy little Hondas in electric blues and reds.
Anyway, I used to park my unloved Corolla at an empty lot in the city a few minutes’ walk from work. The gravelly, unsealed site was very steep. One morning, after having stopped the engine and pulled up the parking brake, I stepped out of the car to adjust my coat. In a split second, the car started to roll away, towards a big brick wall. I attempted (half-heartedly) to lean back in and pull the snapped brake up again. It was to no avail. The car rolled on and crashed mightily. It was a write-off. I was delighted!
I chose my second car. It was a pristine white, Mazda RX2 Capella with a rotary motor that had more grunt than a herd of charging wild boars. Great for the highway driving to far-flung country locations, which was a pastime most weekends. And, oh, so comfy to sit in and steer.
I was working at the local BP Community Service Station, in a time well before self-service everything, when my first Holden came into my life. In those days, the servo ran a lot of accounts, including one for a local doctor and his family. One day, while engaged in a typical conversation with the good doctor, he mentioned that he would be selling his grey and off-white two-tone FB. He was relocating to Perth and they would only take his wife’s much newer car. The ageing FB was on the market. This was the era of tail-fins and chrome as our tastes in cars moved from Europe to the US.
I had the drop on any other potential buyers. The car wasn’t being advertised, its service history was known to all at the servo and our mechanic was happy to accompany me the few blocks to the doctor’s house.
Looking back, it was one of the quickest, smoothest and best decisions I’ve ever made. After coughing up £150, the FB was mine and I couldn’t wait to show it off to my mates. The power, for a straight six, was extraordinary, as was the carrying capacity. With the bench front seat and in the pre-seat belt era, there was many a night when three couples could cosy-up heading home from a ball or whatever.
Sadly, dazzled by a Ford GT Cortina, I didn’t retain the FB for long. But apart from the obvious running expenses, it only cost me £10 for a steel plate under the driver’s feet to replace the rusted pan. And that two-tone FB never, ever let me down or stood me up!
I was a sensible lad, so when it came to buying my first car, I put reliability and practicality ahead of looks, speed or what I really wanted. That’s how I explain buying perhaps the ugliest car ever made – a Datsun 120Y. And it was bright yellow.
It was practical because, if I curled up, I could just sleep in the back. This proved very handy at parties. While others were paying for taxis to get home, I slept in my car.
My Datsun was automatic, but I have no recollection why because I had a manual licence and enjoyed driving manuals.
Every weekday I would drive to uni where I was spectacularly failing an arts degree.
I had a sound system sitting in the back. It was really just a large tape recorder but it belted out the tunes – Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull.
One day, at a party on a friend’s farm, somebody backed into my car and left a massive dent in the driver’s door. He paid me cash for the damage and I used the money for something else, so that dent stayed in my door and then I sold the Datsun to my sister.
I ripped her off and I’d like to apologise to her for that. With her money I bought the irresponsible car I’d always wanted – an MGB. British racing green and it kept me poor, but that’s another story.
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