A life in the cars of Eric BarrassI was nine years old when I first drove a car. It was a 1923 Morris Cowley with a splendid nickel radiator which I was allowed to polish.
The car lived in a slightly decrepit ex-stable behind the house in the little town of Exmouth in which we lived. On this occasion I was sitting in the drivers seat pretending, as only a nine year old can, to beat the legendary Count Zbolowski round Brooklands track. I pored over Autocar. Price fourpence, half-an-inch thick and larded with reports of the great racing men and their amazing feats.
Sitting in the car on a cushion, I could see below the top rim of the steering wheel, but could not reach the pedals. Emboldened by the fact that my father was temporarily away, stationed in Bristol, I experimented with the pedals - two big, one little. By pressing my upper back and neck firmly against the seat squab, I found I could reach each in turn. With thumping heart I followed my fathers routine. Switching on and firmly pressing the starter, I was rewarded with a few halting turns and then the engine fired. It sounded like thunder and I was terrified. After a few minutes fear was replaced by a sort of cocky confidence - all I had to do now was the bit with the levers and pedals. And I did. After a few desperate contortions of pushing and heaving, the lever with the knob ground backward and could no longer be wobbled about. I thought for a bit and realised that all I now needed to do was start the engine. I switched on and pressed the starter button. Need I say more? The car staggered forward, butted the wooden wall of the stable and shoved its nose into the yard beyond. The sound of crashing timber and the horror of what I had done is forever etched into my memory. The fact that I destroyed the stable I was parked in front of may have had something to do with the fact that the only example I had was from my father who simply had no sense of co-ordination.
In getting to grips with driving himself, my father employed the mechanic from the local garage to teach him by his usual method of instruction by numbers, like the born military man he was. The lessons went on for weeks, with me allowed to sit on the dicky seat to observe. My father finally managed to reach the road and we drove across Woodbury Common in a series of leaps and grinding gears. My fathers eyes followed every movement of hand and foot, thus leaving little time to observe the road. My mother refused to travel with us. The lessons continued. The climax was reached when, one evening, the garage man rang the front doorbell. I answered it. There he stood, cleanly and soberly dressed, leggings and brown boots agleam. He carried one of those lovely old business cheque books with a stiff cover. I led him to my father who greeted him cordially and offered a drink - respectfully refused. In agonized phrases he explained the purpose of his visit. "Sir, if you will let me off future driving lessons, I will buy the car back at the price you paid". My father carefully pondered a proposal he clearly could not understand. His confidence in driving was growing. The battered wings and shattered rear light was proof positive. Choosing his words with obvious care, he said, "My dear man, I had fully intended to tell you that I needed no further lessons and need trouble you no further".
It was a long time ago but I vividly remember the utter relief that flowed through that poor stricken man. It was as if he had received some kind of potent injection. He grew in stature.
My fathers driving never improved. He drove with brash determination and never changed gear until the engine was about to stall. Any examples of appalling driving and he was convinced that it was due to a fault in the design of the car.
At the age of 14, I discovered that one could hold a motorcycle licence. Thus armed I plagued my uncle, who housed me during the holidays from school when my parents were out of the country, until he bought me a very elderly Douglas motorcycle. A flat twin-engine laid fore and aft, with a lovely, shiny fly-wheel. On that old machine I chugged for miles. A dear old bike, to be replaced with a series of clapped-out machines culminating in a Scott Flying Squirrel. I never aspired to a new motorcycle or car until the generous 21st birthday present from my father - an Austin 65 in bright scarlet. The Scott - a twin-cylinder water-cooled two-stroke with an open frame and two-speed pedal-operated gearbox stole my heart. Does anything in my memory compare to that exclusive noise - the Scott yowl. How I loved it.
By now military involvement, designed to improve my warring qualities, sought
to prepare me for the conflict we knew to be inevitable. One Mechanical
Transport course at the old Royal tanks Depot at Bovington introduced
me formally to the Otto Cycle. We were told that the engine was a Rolls-Royce
40/50. It took me years to deduce that it had undoubtedly come from a
Roll-Royce armoured car, many of which were still in military use. Perhaps
that was where the seed was sown.
On the way to Grimsby, in Gloucestershire, the worst happened - we ran a big end bearing. The proprietor of the local garage sized up the job and said that it would not be ready that day. This created a problem. The current acceptance of casual night stops was not then even a light at the end of the tunnel and my companion made it clear that she would take all steps necessary to ensure that I acted like a gentleman. As she was holding a four-inch hatpin at the time, I took her at her word.
"Her indoors" in our Austin Seven Nippy
Following a succession of Austin Sevens, I found my first 3-litre Bentley in a local
garage after it had been pushed over the cliffs at Peranporth. I saw it
by accident and did a deal with a 14/40 Talbot fabric two-door coup.
Preparations for war were, by this time, hotting up and training became intense. My
final pre-war mount was a 41/4 litre Bentley in excellent order but expensive
at 50. On mobilization my company
was sent to defend Andover Aerodrome. From what, I was never quite sure.
Petrol was severely rationed and private cars forbidden - the car was
highly prized in ferrying RAF aircrews to happy debauchery at the Octagon
in Southampton. My CQMS discovered that the bowsers used to fuel the aircraft
always had a few gallons left in the tank which was a sort of perk. In
return for transport this was transferred to the Bentleys tank, together
with two gallons of paraffin to modify the explosive effect of 100 octane
fuel. Driving in the early hours through the New Forest with almost non-existent
light filtering through the war-time headlamp masks, carrying a crammed-in
load of young RAF officers in full song was a memorable experience. The
arrival of the ubiquitous, war-winner - the Jeep, brought a new dimension to my time in the services. Light,
manoeuvrable to a degree, the acquisition of a personal Jeep became an
obsessive ambition, happily achieved.
It was in 1959 that I heard about a Club for enthusiasts. A new phase started in
our lives - attending Club events. This frequently involved fairly long
trips and, as I often had to work on Saturdays, very early starts on Sundays
- not entirely popular with the rest of the family. However, it put the
smaller ones to sleep and allowed Grace and I the opportunity
to enjoy the delights of Rolls-Royce motoring. I was consumed. Never again
would I be my own man, I was owned by a motor car - the motor car. I wanted
The serene therapy of settling aboard, closing the doors on the world and gliding away - perhaps into the sunset - beyond which, one day we shall find the man who has brought us so much joy through his matchless creations - Henry Royce; I would be content with that.