My First Car - Morris Mini-Minor
My first car was one of the world’s initial mass-produced, front wheel drive automobiles – the Morris Mini-Minor.
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In a colour that resembled something between a weathered Robin’s egg and battleship gray, my first car was one of the world’s initial mass-produced, front wheel drive automobiles – the Morris Mini-Minor. A veritable small tank with tiny wheels cased in bias-ply rubber. Who remembers tires like that?
Truth is, the car was more of a shared ownership situation between my Mum and me. In the interests of full disclosure, in 1972, around the time of my 17th birthday Mum actually bought this previously-owned 1963 or ‘64 (I do not recall the specific year – or the price) “eco-type” car while my contribution would be to fill it with gasoline – petrol. OK, if I’m being honest, I may have squirted in a gallon or two over the couple of years we had this wonderful little car in our possession, not exactly a regular and committed contributor to the car’s general upkeep, but it felt great – this was the beginning of my independence.
Powered by a gutsy and often noisy straight 4, 848cc cast iron alloy cylinder block engine generating a maximum of 33 horsepower and a mighty 44 lb-ft. of torque, this two door saloon was a contributing factor to huge changes in the automotive industry across the pond all those years ago. Engineered for the masses and priced accordingly, when this car first appeared in showrooms and garage floors back in 1959, people noticed, smiled – even laughed out loud.
It was generically referred to as “the Mini” mostly in deference to its size, regardless of whether it came with the Morris or Austin name, built by the British Motor Company – BMC.
Engineered for the masses and priced accordingly, when this car first appeared in showrooms and garage floors back in 1959, people noticed, smiled – even laughed out loud.
Naturally, the car had a manual transmission. The clutch was often an adventure when shifting up – or down, and a synchromesh in first gear was both non-existent – and never even a gleam in an engineer’s eye. The actual gear shift lever was long and black and not really suited for subtle short-throw changes on the fly – especially when incorporated with the clutch which often brought the driver’s left knee up to their chest before engaging.
The interior was, by any standard, sparse. The side windows were sliders and the doors closed with a reverberating tinny sound. The idea of using materials to deaden sound was never a consideration. It had a heater which was, at best, twitchy and unpredictable. It was safer not to turn it on and avoid becoming a mobile firework. Windshield wipers had two speeds – slow and even slower as they sucked juice from the battery. There was no defrost feature either and instrumentation was minimal: a speedometer, a petrol gauge and, if memory serves, an instrument that rarely worked and was supposed to indicate temperature. Of what, specifically, we never really figured out. The steering wheel was the size of a wagon wheel and the Mini’s wheels seemed no bigger than those seen on a Razor scooter today. Comfortable was never a word that would, back then, describe the seats and upholstery. No side bolsters or lumbar support and the mechanism to fold the seat back down to allow access to the back bench would often – well, fail is the word that best describes this.
While the above may not be inspiring and as far removed from safety, comfort or luxury as anything could be, do not doubt that this chariot was absolutely everything to a high school student struggling to create his own identity.
It was my first car.
In those days, a new driver who had yet to sit and pass the stringent UK driver’s test, had to prominently display two separate square white “signs” featuring a dead-centred red capital “L” like a character from a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. The “L” stood for “learner” and in this way, everyone including other drivers and pedestrians, could readily identify you as someone to be avoided.
So for the first few weeks, after my 17th birthday and applying for a learner’s permit, I would drive around the countryside of rural East Lothian in Scotland with the biggest grin on my face with some poor, reluctant yet licensed driver to my left, holding onto anything for dear life – seatbelts were not part of this driving lexicon!
Do not doubt that this chariot was absolutely everything to a high school student struggling to create his own identity.
There were many adventures over the next few weeks, including one involving my Mother, screaming at me to either turn, slow down or stop – maybe even all three – while I sped along a narrow winding road, imagining I was the legendary British rally driver Paddy Hopkirk. Eventually, the screaming resonated and I blinked and realized I was about to either careen into an enormous hedgerow – or enter a farmer’s yard and avoid prized dairy cattle entering a barn for their second milking of the day. For some reason, I chose the latter. How I managed to avoid hitting anything, let alone a cow was miraculous. I ended up stalling in a puddle of manure, feet from the aforementioned farmer who had what appeared to be the remains of an unfiltered cigarette, tattooed into the corner of his mouth. Both he and his elderly Border Collie stared at me – and never moved an inch. Embarrassed – but secretly pleased that no friends had borne witness, I slowly drove out the yard to the road and steered for home. My Mother chain-smoked nervously beside me until we reached our house, threw open her door and almost collapsed onto the pavement and the relative safety of Casa Taylor, her six children, husband and two dogs.
Not long after this, I broke my right arm and was in a cast beyond my elbow. My arm was fixed at a peculiar angle yet, I insisted on driving at any given opportunity, clutching the enormous steering wheel with my right hand and pecking out gears with my left. Not exactly safe. This was compounded further when one day, two friends and I decided to drive the forty minutes up the coast to the big smoke – Edinburgh. For those who have never been, Edinburgh is a delightful, historic town, Scotland’s’ capital city and has nothing but hills, it seemed. A colder Gaelic San Francisco, if you will.
You will recall earlier the clutch and transmission of this car.
Now imagine a relatively inexperienced driver, arm in a cast with a transmission situation a truck driver might find dodgy, even offensive, negotiating traffic in this fair city on a Saturday afternoon. It was on one such hill when the limitations of the clutch on this car became apparent. Stop-start on an incline, the steepness of which today would never be a deterrent, but to a novice driver, a nightmare quickly unfolded as we rolled inexorably backwards towards other vehicles. A glance in the rear view mirror presented images of people auditioning for Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch’s ”The Scream.”
My passenger sitting shotgun, almost pulled the handbrake from its cradle until we stalled. I sat red-faced, mortified, as my two friends, laughing loudly, fell from the Mini and pushed us up the hill, in neutral and the engine not engaged.
After the ignominy of that memorable afternoon, I eventually saved a few pounds and took an advanced driving course and learned to master biting points and other useful driving skills while I fearlessly conquered inclines and all manner of road surfaces the world over.
I had to. While it was my first car, it would not be my last.
Wheels.ca will take a journey back in time and ask our writers to tell us about their first cars and the memories that likely shaped who they are today. We will feature a new story every Thursday. #TBT.
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