I’m no petrolhead . . .

Petrolhead? Me? Am I a car enthusiast, or even someone who is overly reliant on the use of my car, resisting any suggestion to use other means of transport? Never! (But I am a secret Top Gear fan).

But, as with most folks, I do have a car – a sensible Peugeot 308 1.6 Sport HDi, which we bought just prior to returning to the UK in 2010 (but that’s another story).

I started to learn to drive just after my 17th birthday – 18 November 1965 (a Thursday), so it must have been a few days later at the weekend, maybe the 21st. The family had just returned a couple of weeks earlier from my eldest brother Martin’s wedding to Pauline in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, in northeast Scotland. And it was my sister Margaret, a few years older than me who gave me my first driving lesson – along a straight and quiet lane, Devil’s Lane, above Leek in north Staffordshire. The whole lesson consisted of me trying to rid the vehicle of ‘kangaroo petrol’, i.e., learning to control the clutch smoothly, instead of lurching along as I applied the accelerator while letting the clutch out. I was also instructed to wear a pair of leather-soled shoes, not rubber, so that I would be better able to feel the vehicle responding. I asked Margaret to give me my first lessons since I thought she’d handle me better than maybe my Dad would have (I found to my cost, many years later, when letting Hannah and Philippa behind the wheel of our car at IRRI, and driving around the IRRI farm, that my patience – not very good at the best of times – was particularly strained when assuming the role of driving instructor).

In 1964, my father had an Austin A35 van, similar to that illustrated here. As you can see, there were no rear windows, apart from that on the rear door, so I had to learn very quickly how to use the wing mirrors properly – and safely while manoeuvering the vehicle, especially reversing. As I gained more experience, and before I passed my driving test, I would often go out with my Dad, and since he often had to drive into Hanley (in the Potteries) about once a week, he’d let me drive to school in Trent Vale, drop me off, and then go about his business, usually picking up photographic supplies for his retail business or dropping off photographs for publication in the local north Staffordshire newspaper, The Sentinel.

I failed my driving test at the first attempt in April/May 1966. In those days there was no written test on the Highway Code, just a few questions asked by the examiner at the end of the driving session. I was failed on my three-point turn, but as he’d chosen a road frequented by trucks returning to the local butter distributor, Adams Butter, I sort of panicked when straddled across the road, attempting to reverse, and seeing this juggernaut heading towards me. Feeling rather deflated, I immediately applied to take my test again, and was surprised when allocated a new date, just three weeks later in May. Today you have to wait weeks because of the pressure of applications. But at my second attempt, I passed! Over the next couple of years I gained more driving experience before I went off to university in Southampton in 1967, and by then my father had acquired a secondhand Ford Anglia (I don’t remember if it was a 2- or 4-door saloon), but one was grey and maroon, and a second a little later on, maroon.

I didn’t have my own wheels at university – I couldn’t afford a car or the running costs, and didn’t get my first car (a maroon Ford Anglia), bought from my Dad, until I’d completed my MSc degree at Birmingham in September 1971. It was a bit of a rust-bucket, but it generally ran well, but eventually had to be pensioned off because of bodywork (and chassis) rust problems.

For a few months I inherited an old dark blue Renault 4 from my Dad in mid-1972. By then, however, I was already scheduled to leave for a new life in Peru from January 1973, and as part of my contract with the International Potato Center (CIP), I was allowed to import a brand new car (shipping costs being met by CIP).

After taking some advice on what vehicles and makes were available in Lima, I opted for a Volkswagen Variant station wagon 1.6, similar to the one shown here, but a rather bright (not lurid) green, and my first new car.

I bought it through the VW dealership in central Birmingham that had to specially import it from Germany (left-hand drive, of course). I remember having an appointment with my bank manager at Barclays in Leek to ask for a loan, £1,200, to purchase this vehicle. I had no assets, just a firm contract – but that was enough to secure the loan I needed.

I had the opportunity of using it for about six weeks in the UK before it was collected for shipping to Lima-Callao from Liverpool. In those six weeks I made two trips to Edinburgh: the first to take Steph up there with all her belongings as she was starting a new job at the then Scottish Plant Breeding Station at Pentlandfield, just south of Edinburgh, and a few weeks later for a visit, just before it was collected for shipping. It took a couple of months or more before my car arrived in Lima, with one of the rear lights smashed and the bodywork dented. But that was quickly repaired, and we used this car until May 1975 when we returned to Birmingham for a few months for me to complete and submit my PhD thesis.

The Variant was a great car – well-built, sturdy (I eventually replaced the shock absorbers with heavy duty ones) and we took it all over the Andes, mostly on rather rough dirt roads. We only had one serious problem, during a trip with our friends John and Marian Vessey to Huaraz in the Callejón de Huaylas in central Peru, Chavín de Huántar, and then over the Cordillera Negra to the coast, and north to Cajamarca. On the trip to Chavín I’d hit a rather large boulder lying in the road. I checked for damage but didn’t see any, so we continued with our journey, and returned to Huaraz that afternoon. The following day, as we were climbing out of the Callejón de Huaylas from Huaraz, I could hear some creaking from the rear. Checking underneath I saw that one of the shock absorber supports was cracked. Returning to Huaraz, we found a local mechanic who jacked the car in the air, whereupon the shock support just fell off! With some judicious welding, it was made secure and safe again, and our trip was delayed by only a few hours.

During the six months or so we were back in Birmingham in 1975 we had a secondhand Mini estate (a sort of dirty mustard color) that my parents had ‘reserved’ for us through a local mechanic dealer in Leek. It did us fine, but there was nearly a disaster shortly after we took possession of it. Steph had gone down to Southend to stay with her parents (presumably on the train), and I set off the following weekend by road. Incidentally although Steph and I had been married since mid-October 1973, this visit to Southend would be the first time I’d met her parents! Anyway, to get back to the Mini. Traveling down the M6 towards the M1, just east of Birmingham I heard a funny whirring noise coming, as far as I could tell, from one of the front wheels. I pulled over, did some rudimentary checks, couldn’t find anything untoward, and carried on my way. Arriving in Southend I decided it would be wise to have a further check, and removing the hub cap, noticed that the castle nut holding the front wheel on was about to fall off. A mechanic who had done some work on the brakes had replaced the castle nut but not the pin that secured it. So with the movement and vibration the nut had worked itself loose, and I hate to think what might have happened on the motorway had it – and the wheel – come off.

When we returned to Lima just after Christmas 1975, we’d already sold our VW to CIP, and during the few months we stayed in Peru from January 1976 until moving to Costa Rica in April we were assigned whatever car was available in the center’s motorpool.

We lived in Turrialba in Costa Rica, about 75 km east-southeast of the capital San José. The research station CATIE was about 4 km from the town of Turrialba, and wheels were a necessity. Based on our Volkswagen experiences in Peru we immediately thought about another – the newly-released Golf, but that was not available in Costa Rica (all cars were imported). Instead we chose a VW Brasilia, white, 2-door hatchback.

I can hardly say it was a luxurious car – indeed, it was rather basic. It didn’t even have a radio, nor seat belts! Nevertheless, it was fine for a couple of years or so. But not long after Hannah was born in April 1978, we managed to sell the Brasilia and bought what has been – to  date – the most upmarket car we have ever owned – a Volvo 240 estate car, green. Now that was a solid car if ever there was. We bought it through the main Volvo dealer in San José. Since I was working for CIP in Costa Rica under the auspices of CATIE – at that time a semiautonomous dependent institute under the Organization of American States, we were permitted to import a new car every few years or so, and sell the old car on the open market. The Volvo cost me USD8,000 (about USD27,600 at today’s values), but I didn’t have to pay any shipping costs from Sweden. That was because Volvo had a regular route from Gothenburg in southern Sweden to Panama and Costa Rica, shipping trucks. So the odd car or so on board came gratis. We sold the Volvo just before we returned to Peru in November 1980.

In March 1981 we returned to the UK where I’d been appointed to a faculty position in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham. So our next car had to be a family car, hatchback, Hannah being almost three at this time. We bought a Ford Escort Mk III1.6GL, a sort of burnt sienna color. But after Philippa was born in May 1982 we began to think about a larger car. And from about 1984 until we moved to the Philippines in July 1991 we had a series of Rover Montego models, all saloons: a second hand white model, followed about two years later by a new dark blue metallic model, both 1.6 engines. I discovered that there had been an oil seal problem with early Montegos, and was finally able to persuade Rover to cover the engine overhaul that was needed. I had the blue model broken into one night while I was at a restaurant in Birmingham and had the radio ripped out and the door lock broken – all covered on the insurance fortunately. In August 1990 – and with no idea that I’d be moving abroad within a year – we bought a 2.0 diesel version, one of the best cars I’ve owned. It didn’t have great 0-60 mph speed, but once up to 70 mph in top gear, the Perkins engine was hardly ticking over and would just roll on and on. We sold this car at the end of our first home leave from the Philippines in summer 1992, having first taken it on a two week tour of Ireland.

During the 19 years I spent at IRRI, a car was provided by the institute. While IRRI itself was permitted to import cars, individual scientists did not have this particular privilege, although there were many other things that we could. All our cars had automatic transmission – a feature I’d never had before and which I grew to appreciate very much in the horrendous Manila traffic.

First of all I was assigned a Nissan Bluebird estate, rather battered and ill-used by previous ‘owners’, followed by a US-made Ford Escort station wagon – a nice comfortable car, but very low, and not really suited to the local roads, especially when we wanted to go off-road, as it was in the early days on our trips to Anilao for diving. Then we had a series of saloons: a Nissan, a Toyota (I can’t remember the models) and finally, from 2008, a Toyota Avensis for which – as a Director of the institute – I had full diplomatic licence plates! This was, by far, the best of the cars provided by IRRI – extremely solid on the road, comfortable, excellent hi-fi and aircon systems, and quite spacious. A pleasure to drive.

But now we are back in the UK, and have our Peugeot 308 to get around in. I do like diesel cars, and the fuel economy is great. It’s an outrage, however, that the cost of diesel is significantly higher than petrol, and even as I write this, there is an ongoing discussion in the media about the differential between both types of fuel, and why that should be.

Why did I settle on a Peugeot 308 when there are so many that we could have chosen? During our years at IRRI we would always hire a car during home leave, and it was always a lottery which make and model of car we would be allocated by the hire company. But in 2009, we were given a Peugeot 308, and made some lengthy journeys around the UK. And it was the first car in many that I found a really comfortable driving position, and never felt tired even after driving several hundred miles.

Before retiring, I’d done some further research about car deals, and towards the end of 2009, the government had reduced the VAT to 15%, but we had to order and pay for the vehicle before the end of March 2010. A few long phone calls from the Philippines, plus numerous emails, and we were able to fix the deal. So we opted for the 308 1.6 HDi model – Babylon Red (I’ve never had a red car until now – call it (late) mid-life crisis, perhaps), with cruise control and speed limiter, even aircon (which we enjoy on about three days each summer). I love the cruise control – just get up to speed on the motorway, engage cruise control, and more or less sit back. Because of the engine size and CO2 emissions, the road tax is in the lowest bracket, just £35 a year, and our insurance premium is also low. Since May 2010 we’ve clocked up only 7,100 miles.

So, as you can see, I can hardly claim to have brand loyalty over the years. Hopefully this Peugeot will do us for at least five years, probably more. Although once the dealers have their teeth into you, they’re always trying to sell a new model – as happened just a few days ago when I received a letter exhorting me to take advantage of a special deal for ‘valued customers’ and purchase a new 62 registration model. Hardly!

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