It just occurred to me that I have been driving for fifty years this year. I passed my driving test at the second attempt, in March 1969. At the time, I had a 1963 car, bought for me by my Dad, and I was insured on his policy. I stayed on at school just long enough to drive into the car park a few times, after a fifteen-mile commute in heavy traffic. I could buy three gallons of petrol for less than ten shillings, (50p) and finally take my girlfriend out in a car, after two years on buses and trains.
The car represented freedom to me, and I would drive anywhere, anytime, just to experience the thrill of not being dependent on timetables and bus arrivals.
Over the following decades, I drove just about anything that went on a road. Heavy trucks, vans of all types and sizes, motorcycles, mopeds, and small scooters. I owned all sorts of cars too, everything from unreliable rat-traps, to brand new luxury saloons. I towed trailers, used 4-wheel drive vehicles off road, and managed to drive a few amazing sports cars too. I was a driver, in every sense, oblivious to traffic, with an inbuilt sense of direction, and no fear of any road conditions. I drove in France, Belgium, and Greece, using hired left-hand drive vehicles, or my own right hand drive car, carried across The Channel on a car ferry. I could drive from breakfast to darkness, and think nothing of it.
I was used to ancient cars with non-syncromesh gearboxes, right up to the latest smooth-as-silk automatic transmissions. I had cars without heaters, and cars with air-conditioning. Some with sunroofs, and others with steering as heavy as a cart. I didn’t care, as long as I had access to something to drive, whether on four wheels or two. In some jobs, I was lucky to be given company cars. The latest models, changed every two years, all costs met by the company providing it for me. Going back to paying my own car bills in 1979 came as something of a shock after that.
Then I joined the Ambulance Service in London, as an EMT. I got specialist training, which I enjoyed, and very soon was out on the streets of the capital, rushing around at comparatively high speeds, with blue lights flashing, and sirens blaring. Most of the time, this was achieved on the wrong side of the road, to avoid the usually static traffic jams all over that city. I used elderly ambulances that still had electronic bells on the front, then progressed to the V8-powered vehicles that were introduced before I left, in 2001. Every other day, for almost twenty-two years, I pushed that ambulance around central London, oblivious to any personal danger, and driving as if it was second nature to me.
But driving in London can never really be described as a ‘pleasure’. As anyone who lives there can tell you, you have to learn a special way of driving there. The first thing is to become very skilled at parking. You usually have no more space than the actual size of your car to get into. And you have to be quick too, or lose the spot to someone behind. Once on the move, you must learn to be ruthless. Never hesitate at roundabouts or road junctions, or you will still be waiting to pull out at bedtime. Let anyone out, and they will be followed by a tidal flow of vehicles that leave you almost back where you started. Selfish driving is the only thing that works, in that vast city.
Fast forward to 2012, and I move to Norfolk. No traffic jams, polite drivers, (in the main) and roads that are often empty, away from the tourist season. I had to learn to drive all over again, at the age of 60. I don’t have to worry about parking anymore, as our driveway has enough room for three cars. I had to learn to be patient behind slow-moving farm machinery, and to be careful on the many small roads where the speed limit is far in excess of anything you can do in London. And I no longer enjoy driving, especially at night, when the oncoming car lights leave you dazzled, on the unlit country roads.
So after those fifty years, what are my conclusions?
Get a car with an automatic gearbox. Changing gear is tiring, and boring too.
Pay into a breakdown service. It is essential, with the electronic systems in modern cars.
Never forget to have enough fuel, especially if you live over five miles from the nearest petrol station.
Unless you live in a field, 4-wheel drive is unnecessary.
If you can afford it, sell the car, and get taxis.
Even better, if you are wealthy, employ a driver to drive your own car.
I have now got to the age where I actually look forward to the day when I won’t be driving at all.
But I have never forgotten the excitement of that first car, aged just 17.