Petrol head ? The Beginnings – Beetles and a Bike

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No, I do not consider myself to be an obsessive car fanatic.But I have spent a lot of time thinking about cars, dreaming about cars and, in fact, working on cars. My hands bear the scars.

I started driving when I was 12 so that puts the year at 1963 or thereabouts. The Beatles had burst on the scene and I went to my first party at Tiffy Murch’s house where I heard “Twist and Shout” for the first time.

My dad's work vehicle was like this
My dad’s work vehicle was like this

My dad took me driving in his work vehicle, which was a Land Rover Defender 90 (a short wheel base). We would go for driving lesson behind the Kopje of Gwelo, where there were dirt roads through the bush. In Rhodesia the legal driving age was 16 but most of my friends were learning to drive as well.

My dad loved Vauxhalls and owned at least 3 that I can remember. The first sedan I drove was his Vauxhall Victor, which he bought new and traded in after after about 5 years. It had benches in the front and was my teenage vehicle as soon as I had a license (and my dad was pretty liberal about lending it to me).

My dad thought nothing of bundu-bashing in a car like this - a normal sedan, Vauxhall Victor - and there we are, dad, Cathy, me and Anthony
My dad thought nothing of bundu-bashing in a car like this – a normal sedan, Vauxhall Victor – and there we are, dad, Cathy, me and Anthony
Another picture of a Vauxhall Victor like my dad's
Another picture of a Vauxhall Victor like my dad’s

But I didn’t have my own car until much later, in Durban and at the ripe age of 23. I was married with a son and was bussing and walking until a dear friend Wendy persuaded her mother to part with her beloved Wolsey 1500 for the sum of R200. I loved and slaved over that car. It was a 1959 model and so was already 15 years old.

1959 Wolsley
1959 Wolsley

We lived in a flat above a mechanic Vossie Vosloo and he tutored me in the arcane arts of mechanics. The car was solid, with walnut dashboard and leather bucket seats. If you thumped the body with your hand it hurt. But it was prone to overheating and I replaced a cylinder head on the pavement outside, going through several gasket sets over the years. I haunted spare shops in the search for elusive BMC parts. But “Lady Braxton-Hicks” got us to Rhodesia and down to Grahamstown and was very adept at putting the baby Paul to sleep. One turn around the block and he was out for the count.

There were no seat-belts and babies were housed either in a carrycot on the seat, completely untethered, or a very primitive baby seat which was more designed to stop the child from wriggling than any safety considerations.

My next venture into car purchase was brought about through a friend, Jolyon Wilson, whom we were visiting in White River. In the heady days of the 1970’s youth counter-revolution and search for alternative lifestyles there was an incredible nexus of elevated living around White River in Eastern Transvaal, now Mpumulanga. There was a flourishing colony of artists and craftsmen. Jolyon found me a VW Kombi 1600 for the sum of R600. He and some friends painted it yellow and it became a faithful and iconic symbol in our lives.

The Bread Bin - 1966 VW Kombi 1600
The Bread Bin – 1966 VW Kombi 1600

It is a bit galling to see what astronomical prices these Kombis are fetching. Mine was the original split-screen version, not the Brazilian made version which had an extra window at the rear. My school pupils at Queensburgh Boys High began calling it the ‘Bread Bin’.

I used the bed-board and a double bed mattrass which fitted across the benches in the back and ‘hey presto’ a playground for the kids and a place to sleep.  By today’s standards appallingly unsafe but one should also consider my Bread Bin travelled at an average 60 km/h on long trips and dropped down to 40 uphill. It was not a ball of fire.

I became well acquainted with the VW 1600 motor which could be removed with 4 nuts. I would balance the engine on a single jack under the sump and push the body forward. With a bit of luck but usually with some muscle grunt the drive shaft would slide out and the engine was out. It was customary to have the sub-assembly refurbished, there were firms that specialised in doing just that, and you could reassemble the whole thing in one weekend. I did that twice with the Kombi and with other Beetles in subsequent years.

An entire sub-culture built up around the Beetle and despite all its faults it brought power to the people! I could tune the timing by ear. You just had to loosen the distributor, switch on the ignition and rotate the distributor until you heard the spark and then advance it slightly – engine tuned! But it was a notoriously bad idler so one had to develop the technique of ‘heel-and-toe’ as you came to a halt you had to brake and pump the accelerator at the same time. It was also not the most stable of cars and would roll with very little persuasion.

As an impecunious teacher I had a series of Beetles in various stages of decrepitude. One of them had holes in the floor as Durban is Rust City and going through any puddle would shoot a jet of water at the passenger’s legs which caused a lot of amusement.  As the exhausts baffles rusted the car began to develop that asthmatic cough recognised by all Beetle fans. I was very fond of all the Beetles.  But I wasn’t so fond of my second Kombi which had been converted into a camper.

My Kombi on the way back from Zimbabwe
My Kombi on the way back from Zimbabwe

It was the 1800, twin carb motor – lovely to drive but a beast to maintain. The motor never ran well and I could never tune it properly.

At the same time I had a motor bike, a Honda CM400T which I used for daily transport. When I needed the Kombi I fetched it from the parking lot behind the Edward Hotel at the beach front. The year was about 1982 and I could safely leave an unattended vehicle the entire week and fully expect it to be there when I arrived. The same applied to the motor bike. I left it for the weekend and when I returned it was always there. Nowadays I feel apprehensive about parking there never mind leaving a car for days.

Honda CM400T 1982
Honda CM400T 1982

My introduction to riding a motor bike was not ideal. I had never ridden a motor bike in traffic. I bought it new from the Honda dealers in Pinetown for the sum of R2400, practised a little in the parking lot and then rode it to my home in Escombe. I arrived home sweating and shaking with fright, having survived the attentions of a fire-breathing green bus and several motorists who hated bikers – or so it seemed.  But I soon became a proficient rider as it was my main transport for 2 years, and I was commuting between Durban and Pietermaritzburg (80 kilometers on a busy freeway).  I didn’t ever fall off although I had a scare once at night when a truck dropped a load of poles onto the freeway and we became airborne going over one.

Although I suffered on cold, wet nights, caught bronchitis more times than I cared for, the joys of a bike made up for the painful aspects. There was nothing like purring along the road on a balmy summer night, smelling the aromas and feeling the temperature change as you  descended a hill. I was very attached to my bike and even took it on a long ride to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, together with my brother, Anthony. Neither of us had a bike license and we were stopped and threatened with arrest by cops at Warmbaths. I also baked my hands with sunburn, thinking it was too hot for gloves, and my hands never really recovered from that trauma.




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5 thoughts on “Petrol head ? The Beginnings – Beetles and a Bike”

  1. Really enjoyed this; so many blasts from the past for me. One of my first memories of your dad is of me standing on the running board (think that is what the step thingie outside the car was called) clutching onto the window frame while Uncle Colin drove slowly down a long driveway.

  2. Interesting reading, I never knew you had so many vehicles or that you were so involved with their maintenance .

    I think you should put all your writings in a book ( with embellishments to have extra appeal) about your experiences could do very well.

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