The Driving Test – 1950-style
Upon leaving the Royal Air Force in October 1949 at the age of 20, I applied for my job back at the Bristol Aeroplane Company under the terms of the then government’s Conscription Plan. After learning that offer was Is Id per hour I had to turn it down, as by then I was married with a baby daughter and it
would not have been sufficient to keep a family. I recall the employment officer telling me: “Come back when you’re 21, then you can get a man’s rate.”
So off I went down to the local labour exchange to see what they could offer. I tried several jobs, but they were either not to my liking or didn’t pay enough. Then came a turn for the better when my father-in-law, who was a postman at
Westbury-on-T rym, came home and said they were looking for a bread roundsman at Clake’s Bakery in Westbury. As we were living in one room at his house he was helpful with various job suggestions.
As I’d never driven anything except a dodgem at the fair, I thought it would be a waste of time, but father-in-law insisted. He delivered letters to the manager there, so I was told to go and see him.
In due course I turned up at the bakery for an interview. Mr. Walters, the manager, agreed that if I put in for a driving test as quickly as possible he’d take me on. The wages would be £4 per week and £5 if I passed my test. I turned up at the bakery at 7am with great expectations as I was to start my learning with Tom Cahill, the senior driver. Off to the garage we went, to be confronted by a Morrison electric van which we had to load with various types of bread and cakes. Tom drove the van out to the first customer on the hill in Falcondale Road.
After a few deliveries, it was my turn. I thought I could master it, as the controls consisted only of a foot brake, an accelerator pedal and a hand brake for parking. When you put your foot down on the accelerator it took the van through three series of breakers until you reached the optimum speed of around 20-25mph
on the flat. Going uphill was about 5mph! I mastered this, and had become quite proficient by the end of the day.
Tom insisted that on our half day I make a personal appearance at the driving test office at Beacon House, Whiteladies Road, Bristol, to see if I could push for an early test. Upon arrival I pleaded that I’d get the sack if I couldn’t get a test promptly. I was given a cancellation one week ahead for a fee of 10s 6d. For the rest of the week I studied The Highway Code, which cost sixpence.
When the Thursday came, at only 20 I thought I’d fly through the test. Tom and I left Westbury for Elton Road, Redland, Bristol, near the university in the centre of town. Driving around the quiet back roads of Westbury was one thing, but what I was confronted with in town was quite another. I must have caused a traffic jam with my electric van, as I think it took nearly an hour to get there.
The examiner turned up and we went out to the van. Looking at it with an amazed look on his face, he asked me to read the number plate of a car parked along the road. As the test centre was a house on a hill in Elton Road we’d made sure we were facing downhill to start, giving me an advantage, or so I thought.
Once we had made ourselves comfortable the examiner instructed me to go down the road and turn left, saying he’d give me further instructions later.
When I let the handbrake off the van shot forward at breakneck speed, with the examiner hanging on for dear life. Not a very good start, I thought, bearing in mind that there was no gearbox to control the motor. We plodded on down the steep hill of Park Street, around the Tramway Centre and back to Park Street. People going up the hill on the pavement were near enough keeping up with us. It was then that the examiner decided he’d had enough and called it a day. We made our way back to the test centre without getting round to a reverse test.
Upon arrival there, he asked me various questions which I think I answered pretty well. He sat there with a stern look filling out the necessary form, which was yellow, indicating that I’d failed the test, various sections which I had to swot up on being ticked. That was it, I thought. After six days as a rookie driver I expected to be back at the labour exchange!
The manager at Westbury must have had
a soft spot for me though, for instead of collecting my cards he said I could stay on the round and put in for another test. I was reprieved! Back at the test centre I managed to get another test in three weeks’ time.
Once more, in earlyjanuary, Tom and I set off for the test centre again. It was the same routine, but this time I had more confidence. There was a different examiner and a slower start down the hill. I even got round to doing a reverse turn -perfect, I thought. All went well until it was decided, on our way back up the hill, that we would turn off to go up Great George Street, which is even steeper than Park Street. All of a sudden the examiner said he could smell smoke. The back of the van was full of it, and he got out like greased lightning! Apparently the climb had proved too much for the poor old van’s electric motor, which must have overheated with all the hills it had to climb. Another test came to an end – but at least I hadn’t failed this time: the test was merely postponed. A tow back to Westbury was the climax of the day.
It was mid-February before another test could be organised. Off we went again -the same journey, but this time we didn’t go up Great George Street: perhaps the examiner knew about the last time! As I’d had to wait 30 minutes before starting the test, which had been due at 12 noon, the examiner started looking at his watch after ten minutes and said we’d better make our way back to the office. He told me I could do a reverse turn on the way back. A nice quiet cul-de-sac was chosen and all went well until I just touched the kerb of the narrow pavement, but then there was a loud bang: the end of the van had hit the wall! As the van was empty it sounded like a bomb going off. I thought I’d blown it then.
Back at the office I was asked three or four questions, one of which I shall always remember was: “What is a filtration sign?”. Apparently it was to give access at traffic lights for filtering off to the left. By coincidence I’d read it only the day before in The Highway Code. This time the pink slip came out, which signified a pass.
With a stiff warning from the examiner about what to watch out for, the whole test was over in about 40 minutes. I went back to Westbury full of triumph!
After that, I went on to have my own bread round covering Stoke Bishop and district, trundling along in my little van. The passing of my driving test in 1950 gave me the licence to drive cars and bigger lorries, as there was no separate heavy goods licence then – you just had to be over 21. The ironic part about this was that one morning the driver who did the Severn Beach district was sick, so the manager asked if I’d do his round. This entailed driving a light Ford petrol van, so I had to go on a crash course on how to drive it. Once again Tom was my instructor, but after a lot of gear-grinding I mastered it. I was glad to get back to my old electric van, though.
I stayed at Clake’s Bakery until April 1951, when I started at the Bristol Aeroplane Company as a fireman. I went to drive fire engines and a crash tender after some rigorous training. It was to remain like this for many years until the government brought in a rigid test for driving heavy goods vehicles, from which I was excluded due to promotion. I must be almost unique in that I never actually passed a driving test in a car – just an electric van. There cannot be many of us around!
Traffic in 1950 was very light, meaning not such a stiff driving test. A few years afterwards I had to put in for a test to ride my motorised bicycle, and this seemed much more of an ordeal than the test with the electric van. Once I passed this test, it gave me a licence to ride all motorcycles from a moped to a l,000cc Ariel Square Four!
Well, all this was 50 years ago. I don’t know whether I’d pass a test today, but I’d like to think that, with all those years of experience, I am a reasonable driver. At least the insurance companies think so, as I get a reduced premium for being classed as a low-risk driver.