A ‘heapful’ of memories

Whenever I look back all those years to my rosy courtship with my husband-to-be, I always think with nostalgia of our happy, not to say uneventful, travels in our old A35 van.

We’d been going steady for only a few weeks when he suggested pooling our resources and looking round for a little banger. Before I’d even spluttered “I’ll think about it”, he produced a large toffee jar full of threepenny bits. To my astonishment he carefully counted out £20 and thrust a newspaper advertisement under my nose;

‘1958 A35 van for sale. £37 Os. Od. o.n.o.

Good reason for sale. Apply… ’

My family had never owned a car, so anything on wheels was heaven to me. Ten minutes later we were knocking on the owner’s door. My boyfriend quickly shone his torch over the engine (the van was parked in a dark alleyway), glanced at the paperwork and handed over the deposit. I hadn’t realise until then how keen, and naive, he was about buying a second-hand car. His motorbike days were over.

The first obstacle came the next night when we handed over the rest of the money and my boyfriend gallantly offered to drive me home. Unfortunately the brakes were either not working or non-existent, and we ended up pushing it all the way back to my house which was at least two miles away.

Next night saw us inside, outside, underneath, bent double in the freezing cold trying to mend the brakes while Peter casually mentioned that two bald tyres would have to be replaced. Luckily there were no laws enforcing tread thickness in those days, because our funds had run dry and new tyres could not be substituted for several more weeks. Hadn’t we just drawn our last pennies from the bank to pay for the required three months’ road tax?

However, I didn’t despair at the heap of junk we had frittered our savings on. Peter had promised to drive me up to the Lakes
the following weekend, but a month passed and we’d barely crawled down the street in it. We decided to give it a complete overhaul. I spent my free time painting the grimy interior surfaces and scrubbing the dirty seats while my boyfriend pored over handbooks, taking bits out and putting them back in, and ending up more greasy than the engine itself.

Litde did I realise he knew less about car maintenance than I did. One major repair was to fill in a gap in the floor through which my left foot kept disappearing when I was cleaning the door panels. After removing the tatty carpet, Peter gleefully mended the hole with a flattened tin can and the stickiest glue!

One glorious Saturday afternoon he finally declared it roadworthy and we set off on our first trip to the seaside. Miraculously we got there and back in one piece along with plenty of grunts and groans, and Peter declared that we could safely book our summer holidays, some three months on, for Ilfracombe an intrepid 300 miles away.

The following weeks we were hardly seen on foot. Peter parked the car near his home, which was on a steep road, and many a time his poor mum and I had to give a hearty push down the incline before he got it started. In the two years we owned that banger, we never bought a new battery which it sadly needed. It existed on battery charges or a hefty shove from behind.

Nontheless he always arrived at my home on time for our dates. We lived a mere ten miles apart, and every weekend saw us off visiting some tourist attraction or remote coastline. Those were the happiest of days.

One evening, while trying to make progress in the thickest snow, we were horrified to see clouds of steam rising from the engine. My boyfriend carefully lifted the
bonnet and declared the radiator to be frozen up. I wasn’t surprised. The heater hadn’t worked since we’d bought the van many weeks before. On bitter cold days that winter we used to wrap a blanket round our legs to keep warm while travelling. What should we do? It was past midnight on a lonely road with the snow falling heavily and we estimated our position to be roughly four miles from our nearest home. Luckily we’d stopped 100 yards from where the parents of one of my ex-college friends lived, and her father gladly supplied us with ket-des of boiling water.

How we ever got to Ilfracombe and back I’ll never know. The only mishap was when the fan belt broke and my

boyfriend pleaded with me to disrobe my best and only pair of tights. To add to our discomfort, but at least it spared my embarrassment, we were suddenly enveloped in thick fog and it was two hours before we could get going again. Somehow my tights lasted until we reached a garage, where we were fixed up with a new fan belt, and we returned from holiday without needing any other repairs.

That summer was the longest one I can remember, and we made the most of it, riding off to the seaside at the crack of dawn and frying sausage and bacon on a primus stove in the back of the van with the doors wide open. We spent a small fortune buying petrol but it was well worth it when we totalled up the mileage.

Our families and friends, not to mention caustic neighbours, were amazed it ran so long for such a battered vehicle, but on and on it went for long and happy years, taking us on countless trips from one end of the country to another, and our photograph album is the proof.

That album also contains one rather sad picture, though, taken on the day our van had to be scrapped. Sentimentally me future husband took pictures inside and outside (to remind him of the happy hours spent in her). The crunch came when the gearbox gave up a last gasp and we could only use first gear. Incredibly we got it to the nearest scrap yard to spend its last days with the other veterans. The dealer there gave us £5 for it and Peter patted it on the bonnet before it was towed away.

Now, years later, we have a comfortable, warm and very reliable Micra, but how I long for a bit of excitement. Perhaps we should trade it in for another old banger!

Marian Bythell