This week sees the 60th anniversary of the first Mini car. A celebratory article on the BBC website included reminiscences from past owners. They didn’t ask me for mine: but, uninvited, here they are anyway.
My first two dealings with Minis were not auspicious. Before I was seven I’d had my hand slammed in the door of one and been thrown through the windscreen of another. Undeterred, I acquired another when I was about 23. It was already in late middle age, a dull green thing which seemed to be lower to the ground than it ought to have been and which looked, even when it was clean – which wasn’t often – scrawny and unkept. It smelled of petrol and mould and sour milk. It became known as The Vulture; perhaps not the most optimistic of nicknames. Then again, I reasoned, I’d had all the bad luck with the brand already I might reasonably expect. What could possibly go wrong this time?
So many things went wrong that I hardly know where to start. Let’s kick off with the one that, by a short head, nearly had the highest death rate.
As I very soon discovered, The Vulture often didn’t start on cold mornings. The street I was living in was a cul-de-sac off Offord Road which ran downhill about 100 yards to the busy thoroughfare of Caledonian Road. I learned I could unpark it with muscle power and then bump start it down the hill. This rapidly became normal, so removing danger and caution from an activity that was full of one and demanded the other.
The event that would, were I few inches shorter, have been known as The Great Caledonian Road Disaster, took place on a bitter February morning. I did the usual back-and-forth number at the kerb and soon The Vulture was, as usual, trundling down the road in a straight line towards the junction. Then I saw that there was something terribly wrong with the situation. Apologies if you’ve seen this coming: what was wrong was, of course, that I wasn’t actually in the car.
It may help if I explained that directly opposite the turning into Offord Road was a bus stop thronged with people and, behind them, the plate-glass windows of the local Sainsburys. There seemed nothing that could stop the car from ploughing into both.
I ran after it. I’m no athlete but accomplished some sort of record. I managed to grab the door handle and, after being half dragged along for a few yards, opened it and threw myself in. Like a grizzled soldier in combat, habit kicked in and before I knew it I was bump-starting the car as if nothing had happened. The whole incident had lasted perhaps 15 seconds. To me it seemed vastly longer and was replayed in my mind, in a horrible slow motion, countless times afterwards. As I turned in to the Caledonian Road I discovered that the hand brake was still partly engaged, which explained why I’d been able to catch it. It was probably the only part of the car that worked properly.
You might think that a vehicle which didn’t like the cold would offer compensation by coping well with high temperatures. Nothing could be further from the truth. It would overheat in almost any circumstance, most spectacularly when the dial went from blue to red in about thirty seconds while I was driving up York Road. Familiar with this problem I kept a large bottle of water in the car and got out to fill up the radiator. What I’d forgotten – in fact, didn’t until that moment know – was that water in radiators is pressurised and so can be hotter than 100ºC. When the pressure is reduced the water turns to super-heated steam and roars out of the opening. It was a month before all the skin on my arms had grown back.
The heater also didn’t work, so in winter I had to wear gloves, an extra jumper and often another extra jumper.
The separate problem with the windscreen wipers probably dated from when the dashboard caught fire on the Shoreditch one-way system, the cause of which I was too cowardly to investigate properly. A car without reliable windscreen wipers is almost useless in England. The Vulture’s unreliability spanned the full range: both working, only the right working, only the left working or neither working were all possible options. The first two were the most common which, each time, led me into a fool’s paradise that the thing had somehow fixed itself or – this even less likely – that my own fumbling attempts at repairing it had succeeded. Specialist help and replacement parts were needed but I wasn’t very well off and anything spent on this car seemed like money down the drain.
One night I was driving back from a party with my flatmate Robbie, whom we’ll meet again in a minute. The rain was torrential. About half way down Regent’s Park Road the wipers stopped working altogether. Fortunately I was sober and the two o’clock streets were almost deserted. We were about three miles from home. We waited for ten minutes. The rain got heavier.
Eventually we decided that if Robbie leaned out of the passenger window and shouted directions at me, and if I drove very slowly, and if nothing unexpected happened, we could make it. We decided to give it a go. At 15mph the windscreen became completely opaque. There was now also thunder which made it hard to hear his directions. His head, you will remember, was out of the window.
“What?” I shouted.
“The road’s bending to the left…not that much – that’s it. There’s a traffic light coming up.”
“What colour is it?”
It was that bad. By the time we got to Camden the rain had eased and we made it home without further incident.
The Vulture had already given me a few shocks. It was now my turn to give it one.
I mentioned that I lived in a cul-de-sac. This was used to dump unwanted cars, something that caused irritation to Dave next door. He tried calling the council but nothing happened.
Robbie, who soon afterwards was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, had a more exciting theory about the cars. At the end of the cul-de-sac was the railway; and, beyond that, the back of Pentonville Prison. The cars, so Robbie’s logic ran, were getaway vehicles for a jailbreak. He would stay up late into the night, recording the switching on and off of lights in the prison which were, he claimed, relaying coded messages to the accomplices. He once sent copies of his finding to the Home Office but did not, so far as I’m, aware, receive a reply.
Whatever the cars were doing there they were certainly an irritation. One evening in the Hemingford Arms up the road, I, Dave, Robbie and a couple of other people hit upon what seemed the perfect solution. If we turned the cars over, the council would have to remove them. Full of beer and certainty, we stumbled out of the pub.
It’s surprising how easily five pissed young men can turn over a car once they set their minds to it. The first one, which had been there at least three months, was on its back in less than a minute. We moved on to the next. This was smaller and so should prove even easier. From side to side it went…
“Stop!” I shouted.
“Wassamatter?” Robbie said.
“Ish my car!”
The next day, as we had predicted, the turtled car had been removed.
I don’t know if it was because of this trauma but shortly afterwards The Vulture’s right indicators intermittently packed up. The exciting aspect of this was that, unlike with the windscreen wipers, I had no way of knowing if they were working or not. Often a horn blast from the vehicle behind me was the only clue. I got used to making hand signals. This was OK in the daylight and at simple junctions but worked less well on big roundabouts and in the dark.
That wasn’t the only problem that night brought. The Vulture’s headlights were feeble; but the rear ones were so pale as to be almost invisible from 30 yards away, and completely so from virtually any distance when it was foggy. Driving back from Cambridge on the A10 on such a night I saw a huge pair of headlights behind me, getting bigger all the time. There was no other traffic. It seemed certain that the lorry driver couldn’t see me. I was gripped with a palpable and mounting sense of fear. When he was about 50 yards away he still hadn’t slowed: but my guardian angel was alert and supplied a lay-by for me to pull into. I felt the leviathan thunder past and watched its tail lights – about 16 of them – recede into the fog while I waited for my heart rate to come down to the low 100s.
To add to the list, you couldn’t get it into first gear. Having for a few days used a car with no reverse and, on one mad New Year’s Eve, driven across central London in a car whose gearstick came off in your hand at every change, this wasn’t a huge problem; or, at least, it wasn’t on the flat. On a hill, however, particularly with passengers, the engine was so underpowered that once stopped it barely got going again.
All these problems severely reduced the journeys I could safely undertake. Darkness, rain, fog, heat, cold, hills and right turns all presented the car with serious or even insuperable obstacles. Despite this, it once got to the Forest of Dean (and back) and even as far as Edinburgh (and back), both times with the wonderfully-named Ian Heavens. If The Vulture’s flesh was weak, its spirit was certainly willing.
Perhaps The Vulture’s greatest moment was during what might have been known as the Hampstead Heath Shooting. Late at night (again) and with three drunk and disorganised passengers, I came across some police cars on the Heath. Confused by the flashing lights and the paranoid state-clampdown outbursts from my friends, I thought that the policeman was waving me round an accident. Having almost stopped, I started to pull away.
Suddenly there were spotlights and shouting and a voice in a megaphone telling the driver to slowly get out of the car.
“Put that joint out,” I said, “wind up the windows and don’t say anything.” I slowly got out. Two policemen came towards me. One had a gun. There were several others behind them. Just beyond the ring of light I could hear police dogs growling and straining at their leads.
I learned later that they were looking for four people in a Mini who’d just committed an armed robbery in Highgate. The officer questioning me must have realised quickly they’d got the wrong guys. I reflected that if the car had had a first gear and I’d been able to accelerate away at a normal speed we’d probably all now be dead. I doubt The Vulture’s bodywork would have stopped any bullets. It was intensely cold. I started to shake.
“Have you been drinking?”
I hadn’t. “No,” I said.”
He turned to car. “Has this thing got an MOT?”
It had. “Yes,” I said.
Amazingly, he accepted both these statements. He walked round the car a couple of times, shining his torch through the windows. The frightened faces of Paul, Patrick and Mark peered back. I was glad they had had the sense to keep quiet. Having a bright light shone in your face by an armed policeman takes a lot of the bounce out of you.
“Are you sure this has an MOT?” the policeman was saying.
He gave the front bumper a kick. Amazingly it didn’t budge. “Who’s a clever boy, then?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to this.
He flashed his torch around a bit more, ending up with it on my face. “On your way, son,” he said at last.
We drove off, slowly.
The last Vulture incident I can remember took place in Hyde Park one baking Sunday morning. For some reason I’d removed the front seat a few weeks before and then lost the bolts which fixed it back in place. I felt the gap added to The Vulture’s odd charm as well as offering extra rear-seat legroom. The only passenger was my friend Patrick who was, on account of the heat, stripped to the waist and drinking a can of beer. A policeman stopped us near the Serpentine. He took in the missing seat, the fire-damaged dashboard, the half-naked man, the lager. Were any of these things illegal, in a Royal Park or elsewhere? I could see his mind searching for precedents or certainties, but finding none. No words were exchanged before he waved me on.
It seems odd but I can’t recall what happened to the car eventually. Like a cat that decided to adopt me, it drifted into my life and then, a year or so later, vanished into the darkness. Maybe it’s still sitting in the side street off Offord Road, waiting for the jailbreak.
When I started writing this I imagined it was going to be a savage critique of Minis in general and that one in particular. Now that I’ve finished I feel differently. I can’t say that I miss it but I now feel a certain respect; even fondness. It was involved in – indeed was often the author of – many of the memorable incidents of those slightly crazy couple of years; but I see now that I was complicit in many of these and that The Vulture was not entirely to blame. Writing about it has made me remember these times and, more importantly, the friends and fellow travellers, many now dead or no longer known to me. Finally, it’s a useful reminder that sometimes objects don’t work as they should and you just have to cope. I’m not pretending this has made me a better man. Certainly, and despite the myriad opportunities for self-improvement The Vulture presented to me, it didn’t make me a better mechanic.
So, you BBC journos, is this the kind of recollection you were expecting (assuming you’d asked me to write one, which you didn’t)? No? Oh well: it’s done now. Smelly green Vulture and all who sailed in you, I salute you.
The image at the top is not of The Vulture but from a US website appropriately enough called Mini Mania. This is pretty much how I remember mine, though it didn’t have a white roof. Where this car has the edge over The Vulture is that in 2016 it was sold for $43,000.