My first car ever was a grey 1948 Buick Special. I paid $30 for it in 1968 and criss crossed New South Wales many times in it. It wasn't pristine. I had to cut grooves in the tyres because it kept me so poor, but I loved it. However, about 6 months into its ownership I found a "like new" 1947 model" (the dark grey one on the left) and, after a stint working in a tin mine during uni holidays, I was able to bring it home. It was a wonderful old thing. I sold it eventually to a farmer at Booroowa. I wonder where it is now.
The Buick was "proof" of my powers, once sharply directed. I had dreamed of Buicks since being 7 years old when a friend of my father's arrived one day in a black, six wheel, 1938 model. I had acquired my own beautiful Buick and it had not taken me very long.
I had no technical knowledge of cars at this time. However, I had studied styling since I was very young. I recall deep conversations with myself about the relative merits of different designs when sitting on the steps at Grafton and watching the Redex Trial cars pass by. The Redex Trial was (I think) 1953 and we left Grafton when I was 4 (1954). So my interest in auto design had begun early.
Although I knew nothing of the Buick's technical features and I had no appreciation of its unusual straight eight engine, or the torque tube rear axle design, I did appreciate features of its styling, especially the disproportionate length of its low front guards and the soft curvature involving all the styling elements. To drive, it was slightly ponderous, but entirely predictable and easy. Its ride was smooth, soft and quiet over any kind of road. Already I had enough nostalgia operating to immerse myself in childhood memories about these great road liners and I lived the dreams I'd had as a youngster.
One night however, in late 1969, my flat mate, Brian tossed me the keys of his MG saying "Go and have some fun". At once, I found a picture in my memories. I recalled standing on the back seat of dad's 1934 Oldsmobile. It must have been about 1953. I was peering out through one of the small back windows studying the handsome restless lines of a pair of MGs, jockeying the corrugations to fix an overtaking line across the bends of the mountainous dirt road. They were both black, one with a red grill and one with a beige grill. How fast and exciting they seemed.
Now I scrambled into the tiny 2 seater and adjusted myself in the narrow cockpit. Pulling out that little starter knob I knew at once I NEEDED an MG! I released the clutch, a tiny movement, and the little car lunged forwards. I did not look back at the Buick. I had crossed an invisible line in reality.
Returning later that night, I made Brian an offer he couldn't refuse.
How the MG and I stayed alive through those years is a question I'm going to ask God one day. The MG became my best buddy. It brought me enduring friendships, adventures, thrills and spills. Noel and I resprayed it one weekend, bringing it back to its original deep carnation Red. Mike and I took it skiing before I was able to afford a new roof. Our beards were frozen hard by the time we reached Jindabyne. Another time we passed through a cyclone in far north Queensland despite boiling rivers, landslides and inundations full of swirling crocodiles. I learned to tune the engine so precisely it would accelerate all the way up High Street in Randwick. I learned to feel when it was off-song, by the timbre of the mechanical vibration and a slight change to the visceral sounds.
But what I remember the best is the early morning joy I felt each day when I pulled on that little starter knob and set out for uni, racing down the lane to my lectures.
Years later, my affection for those days was still strong and I bought the blue MGA 1600 below. Though never as much fun as the little red TD model, the MGA was a wonderfully competent thing with the looks to match. Even later there was an MGB too. But like the MGA before it, it only accentuated the feelings of lost innocence that parted from me the day the little TD was sold.
But, its a mysterious thing, even happy boys get curious about other things. One March morning about 1971, newly returned from another stint in the tin mine, my pockets jingling, I went browsing in my favourite sports car shop, Geoghans on Parramatta Road. I had been drawn there by a Jag which was handsomely parked among rows of Lotuses, MGs and Austin Healeys. I had no intention of buying it. But I knew my sports car history and the Jaguar XK120 was a hero of the mythology. There were very few good examples of XK120s in circulation by now: I suppose most had been trashed - Jags were never noteworthy for their reliability.
For those of you born in a later era, the XK120 was launched in 1949 as a sort of show car; it was never meant for production. In the clamor following its first motor show appearance however, several were made and sold. They quickly stunned the world by their speed. In an age when very few cars could achieve more than 70 mph (110 kph), XK120s were being clocked at 120 mph. About 1950 in a specially scrutinized timed run, one achieved over 170 mph on a Belgian motorway!
A few days later the Jag was at home beside the MG in the garage.
By now I had the sports car thing very badly. I couldn't be stopped. When a friend told me in 1971 he had decided to sell his Lotus, he had chosen his mark well. The Lotus was a tiny car, even by MG standards. Almost light enough for three men to lift. And it was capable of astonishing things. For a start, it was capable of speed within a whisker of the Jaguar's best. And it would do it all day at barely 4 1/2 litres of fuel per hundred kilometers. Today, 40 years on, manufacturers still cannot achieve that fuel efficiency, not even in micro cars barely quicker than a shopping trolley. The Lotus was not just incredibly pretty, it was as effective as a rapier. Stirling Moss described it as the best car in the world for a fast trip between any two points. At that time, there were only 8 of these cars in Australia. Most had been imported for racing.
I found the Lotus was almost too perfect to drive in Australia where the roads were primitive and Law enforcement is psychotic. Instead I packed it on a boat and sent it to England where I followed a short time later. In England I had it rebuilt by specialists and I used it for wonderful weekends of country touring. Later, when I moved to France, I took it with me and we made many fast trips from Paris to the south and back again.
Mk2 GTI 1991
There are few modern cars that have been as influential as Volkswagen's Golf GTI. Born out of a skunkworks project in the late 1970s, the GTI had no peers. Small, light, immensely agile and sure-footed, it was incredibly quick too. It was the car for young bloods to lust for.
By the late 1980s, the Volkswagen brand was all but dead in Australia. Unable to compete on price with the tsunamis of new models arriving from Japan, VW had packed up its toys, sold its Australian factory and gone home. A lone importer continued to bring in a handful of fully built up Combis that were expensive and appealed only to die hard enthusiasts with long memories (like me).
However, about 1990 the decision was made to come back, and by way of a fresh start, some 200 end-of-model right-hand-drive Mk2 Golf GTIs were diverted (it is said) from the Japanese market to Australia, in a brand building exercise. These were all 4 door, 8 valve models. However, to meet Australian smog rules they were crudely modified and the result was dismal. Owners reported their cars would not idle properly and were so underpowered they could not pull the skin off custard.
Nevertheless, there were still diehards. We bought the car pictured as a demonstrator in 1992.
In the fullness of time, in search of the authentic GTI character, I removed the exhaust system and fitted another one made by Remus. The result was astonishing. With one modification the car's character changed completely. Here suddenly was the little fireball with limpet-like grip I'd enviously watched being flung about all over Europe. It was suddenly plain what had been modified to achieve compliance with the local rules.
I enjoyed the GTI for more than 620,000 kilometers. Sadly my time with it ended when it was stolen from the street. Even more sadly, this was the work of Volkswagen enthusiasts.
Mk3 VR6 1995
When it was revealed in the early 1990s the Golf VR6 was something of an oddball, admired and hated. For the purists who had loved the lightweight agility of the Mk1 and Mk2 GTIs, all the Mk3 Golf varieties were said to be bloated and heavy. Certainly the Mk3s were heavier than the earlier cars, a consequence of the much greater structural rigidity built into the new shell, and more safety, more quietness and more of everything else people were demanding in the mid 90s.
But VW had their sights set on a much bigger game: expansion into markets that had traditionally belonged to Mercedes and BMW. To gain a foothold in those markets, they needed to expand their engineering capability and, in particular their engine line up. The VR6 engine was the first of these new engine designs. And what an engine it was!
Was it a Vee 6 with a single cylinder head instead of the usual two? Or was it a straight six, with the cylinders bored in a crooked line? No matter, it was a biggish engine at 2.8 liters but compact enough to fit sideways in the front of a small hatchback. And there it purred with a silky note, or screamed like an angry banshee, for it came with a personality for any mood. It wasn't a slow rev-ing stump puller of an engine either. It was high rev-ing stump puller of an engine. Wonderful power accompanied by a symphony of marvelous sounds and an appetite for action. Many Mk1 and Mk2 cars have been retro fitted by enthusiasts with VR6s, a testimony to the engine's virtue.
Nor was it a lightweight engine either; and when it appeared in the Golf, VW had not completely sorted out the suspension settings to control the boat anchor they had bolted up front. Early cars were described as being hinged in the middle. However, it wasn't long before these issues were resolved and VR6s soon became very formidable and desirable cars.
As much as I always loved our Mk2 GTI, stepping from it into the VR6 I was never in any doubt that the Mk3 VR6 was a quantum leap forward in every aspect of design, performance, handling, comfort and quietness. It had all the wonderful attributes of my old Jags: the long smooth legs of a powerful six cylinder engine and a certain coarseness that reminded you it was alive and liked to play hard. And it could sing a lullaby too. Dolche vita. It was pocket sized and it DANCED.
A friend who had numerous Holden GTS cars drove it once and I remember the joy in his voice when he got out and returned the keys to me. "Wow!" he said. "It goes like stink, doesn't it? I had no idea it would be so nimble too."
After twenty years of ownership, the other thing to say about this car is that it has been astonishingly dependable. Virtually everything still on the car was fitted by the factory. Only normal consumables have needed replacement (oils, filters, brake pads etc.)