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If you were expecting a "mistletoe and wine" type seasonal tale wrapped around Great Uncle Bill and Auntie Gwen then I am sorry to disappoint you. That particular tale actually hit the stands some time back in the summer - I have recently brought it up the list, due to it already very appropriately bearing the word "Xmas" in its title.
The fact that I loath the word Xmas, yet was forced to use it, due to the "X is for" connection, will hopefully render this non Christmassy, "Christmas Special" rather more palatable for me to see listed during the coming months.
Uncle Bill was an unknown pioneer in many fields, maybe more in his own mind, than in actuality in later years, once the alcohol had fully taken its grip. He was a keen amateur sailor and motorboat skipper, years before either were as common a pursuit as they are today. Indeed he built his very own wooden sailing boat, and I'm not talking about a dinghy here, oh no this was around 28ft in length and had a fully fitted out cabin.
Those of you who know me, will be aware of my passion for cars and deeply rooted interest in engineering. For both of those, I believe I have to thank Great Uncle Bill. No, he was not a pioneer motorist, born half a generation (1905) too late for that, but even so he was on the roads at a time when a driving licence was granted "upon application" rather than by passing any form of driving test. He did, however, after the war take and pass a test under the banner of "The Institute of Advanced Motorists", maybe better known by their AIM acronym. One of his great "party lines" was that he had once driven at Brooklands…….
……which may mean absolutely nothing to the younger ones amongst you reading this.
Brooklands was a fearsome banked oval circuit, on which drivers diced with death at the wheel of open wheeled racing cars. Speeds by today's standards were pretty pedestrian, it was however an unforgiving, rough concrete surface, which claimed many a young man's life. I never knew if Uncle Bill had actually driven on the circuit, or just driven through that way at some time, it was one of the myths that became firmly attached to the man.
My short, and generally unconnected, tales that follow, mostly, but not exclusively, come from the final years, the last seventeen in fact, during which I had the honour of being part of his life……
…..well almost! My very first car accident took place at -2 months, yes, Uncle Bill decided to "loop the loop" in his Daimler Conquest with me still in the womb, my mother seated in the rear of the car. Richada Enterprises had enjoyed a successful showing at a trade exhibition at Olympia in London, Bill Had invited the young sales director of his company - my father - to accompany him to the exhibition. Unlike in today's' much more "sterile" business environment, Great Uncle Bill always made sure that there was plenty of socialising and that wives were very much included in this area of business life.
Bill, being Bill, of course knew how to throw a party, even if it was in the name of business. At Olympia the booze flowed - all day. His real reason for inviting my parents was so that he was assured of the services of a 'chauffeur' for the 50 mile journey home.
He absolutely HATED his wife, Gwen driving him anywhere - and with very good reason, she had failed six driving tests over several years, after the same examiner had risked death the third time, he reportedly asked her:
"You are not going to give this up are you? Driving that is?"
Gwen was a determined lady, Bill had spent hundreds of pounds (this in the late 1950's!) on his wife's driving lessons, her answer to the examiner had apparently been a curt:
"Regrettably in that case, I cannot go through THIS again, I have no choice but to pass you!"
And so Gwen hit the road, in more senses than one.
Consequently Bill never travelled far without a family relative in the car to see him home at the end of a long days', hum, "entertaining". More often than not that was my father or his brother, both of whom at some time had even travelled abroad with Bill's car - he flew and met them in various European capitals, toured locally before flying home again. Of course he always had a second car to use when he arrived home, not Gwen's car, oh no, he would not drive that, between the two of them, whilst he was still working, they always had three cars!
As a pioneer, Uncle Bill probably invented the concept of the "Company" or "Fleet car", come to think of it, the "Fleet" included the self-built sailing boat too!!!!!!!
All of which digresses from that return journey from Olympia. My father, who had presumably been "selling" rather than entertaining and drinking all day, drove the Daimler back from London, assuming that he would complete the journey, collecting his own car from Bill's house in a village, quite close to Brighton. Bill had other ideas.
Within sight of the village where he lived is another small village, nestling beneath the South Downs, that green and pleasant land, home to one of his favourite two country pubs. Yes, Bill wanted to stop for a drink! It was quite late, on a summers evening, as dusk was drawing in - and my 7 month pregnant mother was tired, my father persuaded his uncle to call it a day. In return for a now very drunken Bill relinquishing his bar stool, my father was instructed to hand over the Daimler's keys. A very short altercation
followed, with my father dismissing it with the throw away line:
"Oh what the hell, OK Bill, you drive then, there IS only one corner between here and home…….
…….and so there was!
Unfortunately, Bill failed to negotiate the one and only bend that he and the Daimler usually managed to round each day. Through the farmers' fence he ploughed, the large, heavy car nosedived into the ditch beyond before cart wheeling end over end, finishing up on its roof some distance into the field beyond.
His comment was not recorded upon this occurrence; suffice to say here, that knowing Uncle Bill as I later did, I can guess that the only word uttered would have been simply "Bugger!"
The year was 1962, the month July. Even if seatbelts had been invented at this time, the slippery, leather bench seats in the Daimler were not so fitted. That all four and seven ninths occupants climbed out unscathed, bar a few bruises, was miraculous indeed. Less miraculous was the condition of Bill's prized Daimler Conquest. A large, heavy and solidly built car, it was even by the standards of the day "old fashioned" in having a separate chassis. The car was a wreck and required totally re-building, at a cost to the company of around £800. That would in those days have purchased a mighty impressive new car, but Bill loved the Daimler and insisted that it was restored to its full glory.
Fortunately they had ended their journey less than 100 yards walk from Bill and Gwen's front door.
The next morning there was a knock on the door. My father had arranged to have the car recovered from the field, but the original accident, then winching the car out with a truck had caused considerable damage not only to the fence but also to the farmers' crop. Bill had not thought to report the accident and one of his neighbours had witnessed what had happened and contacted the farmer. Whilst he (the farmer) was a neighbour and drinking friend of Bill's, he quite rightly reasoned that an insurance claim would be in order. Bill was incensed that a man he saw as a friend should come knocking at his door seeking recompense!
Bill was even more upset over a car many years prior to this. Having driven an early 1930's American car - a Willy's Overland - throughout the war years, he finished up having to lay that particular vehicle to rest. Bill was an engineer, a realist by outlook, and yet he became strangely emotionally attached to his cars.
When I say "laid to rest", that is in the literal sense what happened to that particular car. As you may have read in a previous story about Bill, he firmly believed in decent burials - for cars as well as his destitute ex-staff! The Overland was beyond economic repair……the gearbox had seized, but the car would still have been worth good money as scrap value. Bill was not going to let, as he saw it, a faithful friend be "broken up". He dug a huge hole in his front garden and buried the car whole!
Now, you may not be asking yourself this, but I'll explain the reason for the gearbox seizing anyway………
……..my Great Uncle was not a 'natural' engineer. Engineering fascinated him, he had been merchanting engineering products, and before the Second World War decided that the money was in manufacturing, rather than merely buying and selling. He therefore went to night school in order to learn the technicalities of engineering. This was a very sensible approach as he had built up many business contacts to whom he could sell his "self made" products. However, when it came to engineering he always did everything by the "book", not necessarily using the correct pages in that book!
Through his studies, also partly due to the nature of the product he decided to set up to manufacture, Bill proudly proclaimed himself to be a "Precision Engineer", impressing all with his claims to manufacture items to infinitesimally tight tolerances.
OK, I can sense that I have lost you on two fronts now, you are: a) wondering what all this has to do with a gearbox, and: b) asking what on earth the phrase "infinitesimally tight tolerance" means.
Very conveniently Bill learned the true meaning of b) by applying it to a).
Before performing the automotive funeral, Bill had been cursing the noisy transmission on his faithful old American car. As an engineer, rather than 'paying through the nose' for a garage mechanic to repair the gearbox, he decided to pop it out and do it himself. After many nights, burning the midnight oil in his garage at home, after a full days work, his gearbox was fully re-conditioned. Bill was a proud man. He had cut new gears - a highly skilled job, machined the internal gearbox casing, hand cut new gaskets and re-assembled the whole unit. All of this he had done "by the book" according to the very tightest of "toolroom" tolerances. He told family, friends and neighbours that his new gearbox would last for ever - he had managed to hold the tolerances on all the parts to an almost incomprehensibly tight + 0.0000" / +0.0003".
Armed with the above detail, the engineers amongst you will not need to read on to discover what followed!
The last job, before mating the gearbox to the engine and prop shaft in the car, was to fill it with oil and bench test it. This was the most ambitious engineering task that Bill had undertaken; this was a proud day indeed! The gearlever attached, the change quality was apparently superb, absolutely precise with no slack at all. No car before, or since, ever had such a "perfect" gear change quality.
Back in the car and the moment of truth! Bill drives off down the road with a beaming smile on his face. Never had his car been so quiet, first, second, third, even reverse - all the gears worked like….well, clockwork you might say.
Bill's Overland ground to a final halt.
Eight minutes it took! Eight minutes of blissfully quiet driving! Eight minutes from ecstasy to something approaching agony.
Eight minutes for the gearbox oil to warm up and for all the newly machined components to expand. Bill's tolerances had allowed absolutely no room within the gearbox casing for any of this to take place. Not only did the post-mortem show that the gears were welded solidly together inside the 'box, never to be separated, but the ensuing seizure had completely destroyed all of the other transmission components.
Bill's faithful friend was beyond economic repair.
Bill couldn't even muster his usual "Bugger". He fell silent for ten days.
Nobody from that day on ever mentioned THE gearbox, or indeed his beloved Overland. It was the last time that Bill attempted to carry out any form of car maintenance, beyond the usual fuel, water and tyre checks, more often than not, requesting a petrol pump attendant (those were the days!) to do that for him.
As he became older and more affected by alcohol, he tended to drive less, especially in retirement. The problem was, even if his wife was not the driver, he was still the worst possible passenger to have in the car with you. His 'passengering' was equally as bad as Gwen's driving. Nobody EVER got into a car with the pair of them - and her driving!
Bill and Gwen were lucky enough to be able to spend their retirement years travelling widely around the world - again in the days (the early 1970's) when it was far more unusual and glamorous to do so, than in our modern day and age. We had many "airport runs" or "dock trips", taking them to Heathrow or to the then still massive London Dock complex. Driving through London with Bill in the passenger seat was quite an experience. At every junction or traffic light he would be issuing a stream of instructions along the lines of:
"Watch out, car approaching from the left" or "that light has turned red" - really useless information that the driver has already assessed and acted on maybe six seconds before the words had left Bill's mouth. The worst case was when he used to stamp both feet hard on the floor and shout "WATCH OUT!" for no apparent reason.
Even in his own home town Bill still tended to come unstuck when presented with motorised transport. You may read elsewhere here on Ciao about his exploits involving the police station and the unusual circumstances surrounding the loss of his driving licence.
During that year, without a licence, he was at his most impossible. Mind you consuming so much drink every day AND having to brave Gwen's driving in order to do so, I suppose he had a fair excuse. We used to visit them a couple of times a year, they lived in an idyllic seaside town in the South West, around 200 miles away from his remaining family. By this time his drinking had become so out of control that the house was almost filled with empty bottles. I was an innocent young teenager and remember thinking it strange to open the wardrobe in the guest bedroom and find half a dozen empty Scotch bottles in there.
Bill used to have a "nap" each afternoon having returned from the long morning and lunchtime drinking session at "The Club". On one particularly glorious sunny summer afternoon, my father offered to take Gwen out into the country for a drive. She said that it would be a good idea to take Bill's car as it had stood unused for a month; the battery could do with charging. With my father driving, Gwen in the passenger seat and myself in the back we reversed out of the driveway and at the bottom of the road had to stop. As the car came to a halt there was an unusual sound of tinkling glass. From under both front seats rolled around ten empty bottles! I remember the moment so clearly, not a word passed between Gwen and my father, we drove maybe fifty miles that afternoon with the bottles rolling merrily around - how my father managed to control that car with all those bottles under his feet I will never know!
At the end of the afternoon, the car was re-parked in Bill's garage, bottles still in-situ.
On another gloriously hot summers' day - during that same visit, we went with Bill to the Club on the Sunday lunchtime. The ritual was that he and Gwen always took their own cars, she would leave at 1.00 to go home to prepare lunch, whilst he stayed on drinking until being thrown out after 2.00. At the time my father had a rather unusual car - a Lancia Beta Spider. It was unusual in having a solid, but removable roof over the front seats and a folding canvas top over the rear seats. With both tops "off" you were left with a substantial roll bar, just behind the front seats. The three of us crossed the road to the car park, for some reason Bill, a good 5ft 10ins in height, decided that he was going to sit in the back. He was never in the habit of sitting in the back of a car, this one was particularly cramped, and, due to the roll bar, very difficult to climb into the rear of - even when sober!
I opened the passenger door and tilted the seat-back forwards. It folded to about 45 degrees, at which point the passenger had to contort themselves under the roll bar in order
Pictures of Everything that starts with R ...
This is what a Willys Overland looked like - Uncle Bill's wartime wheels........
to place their posterior on the rear seat. In Bill's case this was all so much easier said than done. He was sitting on the back of the folded passenger seat - facing out of the rear of the car! For some reason he had convinced himself that he was going to travel home in this most unconventional and extremely uncomfortable position! My father and I had the devil's own job firstly persuading Bill that he could not travel this way - there was nowhere for me to sit - and then getting him turned through 180degrees in order to sit properly in the rear of the car.One day Bill slipped and fell off of his boat, into the water, breaking his ankle on the way. Fear not, he felt nothing, it was two days indeed before he realised that his left leg was not supporting his weight and went to the doctor. He decided that he could only in future drive an automatic car. At the time he had a truly awful, first model, Austin Maxi (my how the mighty had fallen!) which was not very old. That was exchanged for an automatic Fiat 124. Whatever your opinion of Fiat's, especially those of the early '70's rust bucket variety, I am here to tell you that in Bill's hands that car was virtually indestructible. Emphasis on the word "virtually" - it was eventually destructed in the driverless car incident which you can read about elsewhere!
Gwen was only too happy to be driven, she loathed driving. Each journey she made was a battle of woman against the machine. She never did understand the concept of using the clutch to change gear and found it surprisingly easy to master the art of driving an automatic car - to her the type of transmission made no difference!
The destroyed 124 was replaced with a new automatic Fiat 131. By this time, following the breathalyser debacle, Bill's driving licence was being "Held at Her Majesty's Pleasure". He had another seven months to wait before regaining his license. We took Gwen to a huge supermarket car park in order to familiarise herself with the new car that she was to Taxi him around in. Now, naïve as I was at the time, I honestly thought that the partial cure to her appalling driving would be the use of an automatic car. Regrettably on the public road journey home I learned the invaluable lesson that the term "automatic" really does only refer to the gearbox. An automatic car cannot improve the road positioning, or on / off nature of the braking or indeed wrenching at the steering wheel in order to crash over the curbs on a roundabout!
The last time I saw Bill alive, about six weeks before his death, I am ashamed to say that it was not his sad state that left the lasting impression on me, but of the journey there to see him. I was on a Sixth Form College geography field trip; we were based no more than twenty minutes away from Bill and Gwen's house by road. Actually, make that 35 minutes with Gwen behind the wheel. "Her" car was a Mini, a manual gearbox one, bought new, five years earlier; it had only 1400 miles on the clock. Fourth gear had never been engaged, third too was almost as good as new. I had only before sampled her appalling driving in Bill's automatic Fiat.
Her driving was the stuff of legend and, as a non-driving seventeen year old, I was about to sample it!
As we set off, I enquired as to why she had collected me in her own car, rather than the company financed automatic Fiat. She explained that she was terrified of the "powerful" (a 1600cc 85bhp model) automatic Fiat and did not feel properly in control of it. Holding back on making the comment that she had never managed to properly control any car in the previous 25 years of driving experience, I hung onto the door handle for grim death, expecting the end to come at any minute. This is not a joke, in order to select second gear in the Mini's gearbox, she actually stopped the car on a steep hill, of course the burning clutch smell and kangaroo start that followed was almost unbearable. I actually asked her why she did that. Her reply was that Bill always says that she should change into second gear there - yes I said, from THIRD to SECOND to climb the hill, not stop the car in FIRST and then change UP!
Knowing that I was coming, Bill returned from The Club in a Taxi at around 8.00pm, it was a cold November evening and he offered me a "warmer" - port! Knowing that I had the return journey to make with Gwen at the controls I gratefully accepted, it was the only time that I ever got to actually "drink" with Bill, I am really glad that I did. I had no idea how ill he was at the time, I was the last member of the family to see him alive, ten days before Christmas he was dead.
A SEASONAL CAFÉ MESSAGE:
Finally, as this will be the last review, certainly the last café one, that I publish before Christmas, or indeed this side of the new year, may I take this opportunity to thank you all for reading, rating and commenting on my reviews over the last twelve months.
I have not only really enjoyed researching (OK, the Mars Bar one was an exception!) and writing them, but have taken particular pleasure in your response and comments on them. Through my experiences here on Ciao I have, during the last year, "met" an ever expanding circle of genuinely interesting, funny and generous people - a few of you all three in one!
We have even been fortunate enough on several occasions to have met some of you in person, most enjoyable experiences they were too. Hopefully our travels in 2006 will bring us into contact with a few more of you "in the flesh" so to speak.
All that is left for me to do, on behalf of Adrianna, my long suffering wife, and I, is to wish you and yours the very best and merriest of Christmases and a most happy and prosperous year to come.