I was nicked for speeding on the M73 round Glasgow a couple of years ago. I was on my Bonneville, hurrying home after arranging my sister’s funeral. My mind was elsewhere. If it hadn’t been, I’d have probably have kept to the speed limit or at least have noticed the police car which had been following me for the last few miles. In my defence (there isn’t one: Ed) it was a Sunday evening, the roads were quiet and I was in a hurry. I didn’t play the sympathy card, just held my hands up and apologised. The policemen initially threw the book at me – quite rightly, I was fairly flying when they pulled me over – but, after realising that I wasn’t a knucklehead recklessly burning the miles for the sake of it, they eased up on the severity of the offence and I was able to keep my licence.
I paid the fine, signed up for an Advanced Motorcyclist’s course and decided to rediscover the joys of life in the slow lane. So these days, when I can’t be bothered to boot and suit for the bike, I travel to the Post Office on my daily book-posting run in an old Austin Seven. I’d been looking for a classic car in a half-hearted way for some time. I hankered for my Series 1 Land Rover which I’d sold in a moment of poverty a decade ago. It was an old friend who suggested an Austin Chummy, after I’d been complaining about the price of Land Rovers and my fears that I wouldn’t have any space left in the shed if I bought one. A baby Austin made sense, I thought. They’re ridiculously small, refreshingly simple and not outrageously expensive. I measured out the dimensions on the shed floor. Good Grief! I could get one in as well as my motorbike, rather than instead of it. I could tinker with it indoors, instead of having to wheel it out over the gravel (from which no dropped washer has ever been recovered). After a few weeks research, I found a 1933 Austin 7 tourer which, although not strictly a Chummy, was just as charming and a lot cheaper. She was advertised on the website of a classic Land Rover restorer down south. She looked (suspiciously) good in the pictures and seemed to trundle along nicely in the video. A deal was done, a transport company contacted – this was all happening in the middle of a Covid lockdown - and she arrived at the house a few days later. Soon christened Frances because “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”, (Dirty Dancing reference apparently) my first thoughts, as I took her for a spin around the back roads, was that I would be dead by teatime. She bounced around the road like a dice made of Potty Putty. Whenever I met a car coming in the opposite direction, it felt like a high stakes video game – like a pre-war version of Carmageddon. Braking required significant forward planning and superhuman leg strength. It was impossible to stop the car in the same postcode in which pressure was first applied to the pedal.
Something wasn’t right but, regardless of how much I scratched my head while studying the underbits, I didn’t know what it might be. It turns out that the front suspension and brakes were upside down, back to front and inside out. After some expert help from Alba Austins in Bearsden, she steered in a straight line again. And she stopped - not just stopped but did so fairly soon after being asked. The engine still smoked like Arbroath and leaked oil like a soggy fish supper but, once all that was sorted out, I was able to sally forth on vintage wheels with some degree of confidence. I haven’t dared go very far yet and always travel with a tow rope under the seat but life in the slow lane has a lot to recommend it. The wee car is marvellously cheap to run and goes further on a gallon of fuel than the Bonneville. Open the bonnet and you’ll find an engine the size of a shoebox and wiring which is about as complicated as a bicycle torch. In many ways, it’s quite like riding a motorbike; she runs on sidecar tyres and there are so many drafts I might just as well be on the bike. There’s always a conversation to be had when bikers meet and (mostly) we acknowledge each other on the road with a friendly wave, a nod of the head or a quick flash of the lights. You can multiply that by ten when you drive an Austin 7. I have to factor in time allowed for conversations when I stop – there’s always someone who learned to drive in a Seven, or who’s Grandad used to fetch the coal in one.
The Austin has twice as many wheels as the bike (and about half the cubic capacity) but she makes people smile in a way that a motorbike never will. I’ve come to realise why people love these little cars so much. I still love my motorbike but I’m finding that life in the slow lane is almost as much fun.
NOTE: The cartoon was drawn by David McNeil who designed the layout of The Motorcyclist’s Guide to Scotland. I’d kept the driving offence secret from my wife, lest she withdraw biking privileges. The cartoon, which arrived as a Christmas present, let the cat out of the bag. BTW. She tops out at 44mph quite enough to pick up some more points.