Sitting on a bus yesterday afternoon, I had a sudden and completely inexplicable memory beach itself up. One of those snapshots of your own past that presents itself so vividly that you feel exactly the way you felt then, a bit like how smelling a perfume you haven’t encountered in years is always a bit peculiar because it hasn’t changed and you have. Perhaps it was something to do with the heat and humidity and a dampness down my spine, or maybe it was the Holloway grease monkey sitting somewhere behind me, smelling faintly of engine oil, though I can’t for a fact say that either of these factors were what made me remember a hot evening in 2003, sitting in gridlocked traffic on the Meanwood Road in a Citroen 2CV Special. All of a sudden I rather missed my old Dolly.
As first cars go, Tigger, as she was called, was the padre. (I am aware there is gender confusion here. Quite probably Tigger would have been better off being a bloke, but for some reason which has never been satisfactorily explained to me, cars, boats and other conveyances are always girls. Perhaps it is because sailors are mostly men) Be that as it may, what she lacked in acceleration, she made up for in style and practicality. No power steering, but a big bastard steering wheel like off a ship, and for all the ribbing about having a scooter engine, hills were only a problem 50 per cent of the time.
She was plum and custard coloured, with a soft canvas roof which you could roll right the way back in summer. If you were going slow enough, as I was on the evening in question, you could also loosen two slightly rusty clips at the top of the windscreen and fold it halfway back, letting driver and passenger bask in the sunshine. I used to like telling people I drove a convertible. There was air conditioning too, which basically involved turning a knob until a vent under the windscreen opened. You couldn’t use it when it was raining or the water would come through and drip onto your knee. Sometimes it did anyway.
An old teacher at my school once informed me that the bench seats in the front of a 2CV, coupled with the unusual rocking suspension, made it possible to catapult a pretty girl from the passenger seat into the driver’s lap, but to my shame I never tested the theory. I can say with near certainty that such an attempt would have ended in significant damage to all concerned, including the car.
She was at her best hurtling round narrow country roads in North Yorkshire, where driving took on an extra element of strategic planning. ‘It’s really good for your driver awareness, because once you get some speed up, you don’t want to lose it, so you’re always looking ahead’, said Simon, who sold her to me, and he was bang on. You stood little chance of making it round certain steep uphill bends without gunning that little 0.6 engine and cornering with commitment. There was no messing about. Sometimes you’d come across a bin lorry or a Sunday driver and that was that. Double de-clutch into first and crawl the next quarter mile at the speed of a mobility scooter.
There were the odd misadventures of course, but they were almost always my own fault. Christian took her out on a day trip once, and, ever watchful of his shekels, opted to put in the spare can instead of buying more petrol. Doing a quick run down the factory that same evening to pick up my pa from the works party I forgot to check the fuel gauge, and the two of us spent a couple of hours sitting sheepishly in the dark on Alwoodley Lane, waiting for the AA. This incompetence was very nearly outclassed by another journey from Stockton to Whitby with Dom, when during the course of an hour-long ride with approximately a teacup left in the tank we failed to pass a single petrol station. On this occasion there was a full fuel can in the boot, but no nozzle, and we spent much of the journey attempting to devise a method of decanting the petrol from bottle to tank by means of a condom Dom had in his wallet. Thankfully, Tigger’s fuel gauge was not of the most reliable, and she proceeded to do 20 miles with the needle firmly on empty until we finally found a garage.
Even sitting in traffic didn’t seem quite so bad when it was sunny and the working day was over, and the doors which I have been assiduously closing ever since still lay largely open. It was during one of the summers I worked at the family steel pressing factory: unavoidably hard work but also an oddly special time, my filthy blue boiler suit on a bin liner on the passenger seat and the undersides of my forearms deep, greasy grey. In front of me some other cars were getting bored and turning round to try and find another way through. A small red car, a Ford I think, passed in the other direction, and Peachy, the chargehand from the light press shop, grinned at me through the windscreen, the usual Regal extra-tar stuck on his lip.
All the snarl-up seemed to focus around a junction up ahead. As I finally got to it, there was a lot of hooting and cars from various different directions trying to wind round each other, and I realised with delight that all the lights were green. Funny what you remember.