How I learnt to drive: Rene the Austin A30 and me

Rene was not a woman, Rene was a blue Austin A30 and the first three letters on her number plates read RNE, hence Rene which my Dad pronounced Reen.

Rene was his first car and was second hand in 1960 and his “pride and joy” in a deep blue with four doors and amazing indicators – semaphore arms that came out of the pillar between the doors to show that you were turning left or right.

The Austin A30, similar to Pauline’s. Image: SG2012, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1960 I was too young to drive or even learn to drive, and I still remember Rene taking us to France in the summer of 1961.

After landing in Cherbourg and driving through Normandy and Brittany, we stayed in Les Routiers for food and lodgings and then we went to our final destination of Paris and a hotel just off the Champs Elysees before my Dad drove us all back home.

Luckily my Dad spoke fluent French, a language I struggled with at school, yet went on to speak fluently in my 30s.

In 1965 I was old enough to learn to drive and Rene was very patient as I crunched the gears as I tried hard to understand the basics of changing gear whilst steering and pressing the brake pedal or the accelerator.

My Dad, without the advantages of dual controls, managed to teach me the basics without me crashing Rene, steering off the road or mangling the gearbox and he never lost his temper with me.

The dashboard of the Austin A30 was basic 1950s technology, with a central speedometer, a very large steering wheel, a long gear lever and lastly a large black lever on the top of the metal dashboard. No padding or safety features.

The large lever is to work the indicators; when you turned it left the semaphore arm on the left side of the car came out so the vehicles behind knew which direction you were planning to take, and vice versa to show you are turning right.

Austin A30 with trafficator deployed. Credit: www.badobadop.co.uk CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Having instructed me on the basics of driving, taught me the rules of the road and tested me on my Highway Code, Dad thought I was ready to sit my test. There was no theory test for driving in the late 1960s – only the test examiner giving you an eyesight test to read a number plate about 30 yards away and two or three questions about the Highway Code at the end of the driving test.

The driving test involved starting from a stationary position with the engine switched off. Luckily Rene wasn’t playing up that day and I didn’t have to use the starting handle as there was enough power in the battery that morning in May to start the car…and then I listened as the examiner told me where to go.

You had to look over your right shoulder to ensure no traffic was passing, give a hand signal out of the open window to show you were pulling away and then engage the clutch and first gear and pull away. During the test, you had to reverse around a corner, drive in traffic, do a hill start, perform a three-point turn in a quiet road and then at some stage an emergency stop when the examiner tapped the dashboard with his clipboard.

Then back to the test centre when he asked me some questions, and then he informed me that I had failed (from memory, for not stopping fast enough). Naturally, I was very disappointed, and my parents rallied round and said that I should sit it again, as this is a lifetime skill… and that they would pay for you to have six driving lessons.

My driving instructor, found through a friend of my Mum’s, was Paddy Fagan, an ex-Manchester City player who had to retire because of knee ligaments.

Paddy and I swapped stories about knee injuries and he taught me how to pass the test and to be more confident in my driving abilities. With his dual control front-wheel drive Austin 1100, he also taught me how to do really smooth hill starts, by watching the front of the car rise and then letting out the clutch slowly.

Rather ironic looking back on all the cars I owned as they were all, except for three, rear-wheel drive. However, Paddy was as good an instructor as he was a winger (he played in the 1955 FA Cup Final) and I used his car to sit my second driving test and passed it before the age of 18.

Truly though, it was my dad and faithful old Rene who taught me the basics of driving.

These days I no longer drive and have happy memories of my own first car – a turquoise Hillman Imp, later on, my Triumph Spitfire convertible and then a series of different BMWs over nearly 30 years.

Rene will always be special to me, she was slow and reliable and was a Ronseal car.

Sadly around 1966 when my dad was driving to night college in Sale he was hit by a lorry and she was no more. However, he kept the AA metal badge that was attached to the radiator grille and that was transferred to subsequent cars he owned.

Do you have memories that you’d like to share with our readers? Drop us an email at [email protected]

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