Getting a drivers licence was a challenge for me, here in South Africa we were allowed to apply for our Learners Permit from the age of sixteen, and for a driver’s license at the age of eighteen, but my single-parent mother never owned a car in her life, so it became a case of having to first buy a car before I could apply for my driver’s license.
I would love to tell a story of how I held out and saved to buy a Ford as my first car, the truth however was that I would’ve taken anything I could’ve afforded. But it was my then girlfriend’s father who got hold of an Escort in Cape Town and offered it to me.
A few days later he arrived in a very worn and rusted light brown sedan, not exactly the most exciting looking car I’d ever seen, but R 1,600.00 divided into 4 monthly payments of R 400.00 suited my budget, after all I was earning the princely sum or R 450.00pm!
10 days after taking possession of the Escort, I passed my driver’s license on the second attempt, yes, things were far simpler in 1988. And that worn Escort released into the hands of a testosterone fuelled youngster suffered! It didn’t take very long before the sparkplugs were fouled with oil faster than I could clean them, and an ominous grating vibration emanated somewhere under my seat, and Betsie was retired to the parking lot and I was back to walking everywhere.
She stood for months, forlorn and almost forgotten while I scrimped and saved to afford the cost of an overhaul, by the time I could afford to make a start I quite literally had a lush lawn growing in each footwell
My only brother is 20 years my senior, and growing up, I was daunted by him, but he was, and is, a True-Blue Ford man. Allen therefore took it upon himself to “assist” me in the task of rebuilding the Escort’s engine and transmission. I say “assist” but in truth, I was relegated to washing engine parts and holding things in place, but I was involved in every single step of the process.
On dismantling the engine, we found that my youthful enthusiasm had resulted in 3 pistons, split through the centre, literally held together by the rings and the gudgeon pins! (Please note that the engine still ran!) So it turned out to be a total rebuild, complete with new (high-compression) pistons and a rebore to maximum oversize.
A seized universal on the propshaft had resulted in the vibration, and in turn damaged the clustershaft bearings, but fortunately I had stopped driving before the alloy extension housing had fractured as was usually the end result of this failure.
Eventually the engine and gearbox were re-assembled and replaced in the car and a sense of pride established itself within me.
Now I started with the badly rusted bodywork, this was pre-google, and I learned from library books how to repair with fibreglass and filler, and eventually all the rust was removed and the dents filled, but the paintwork was a patchwork of the original brown and grey aerosol primer. I had neither compressor nor spray gun, so I became the butt of many local jokes.
Inspiration struck one day however when a local art shop was clearing out their stock of aerosol paint cans, while no two were the same colour, I had at my disposal nearly two-dozen cans of paint, and with masking tape and a fertile imagination I proceeded to transform the bland beige and grey into a mobile artwork! The front right fender was sprayed neon pink, and black pin striping, black enamel and an artists paintbrush resulted in a reasonable facsimile of the cover of Pink Floyd’s album “The Wall”, the two passenger-side doors were decorated with Table-mountain, the sea and a wind-surfer, the boot-lid and rear fenders received a covering of black tiger-stripes over a neon orange basecoat, the roof was glossy black, the hubcaps were painted as dartboards, while my memory fails me in the details of the rest of the panels.
I never owned a camera those days, and it was 12 years before the first camera-phones became available, so sadly there is no photographic record of my only sojourn into the art-world.
My mother then took to accepting lifts only if she could lie-down, out of sight on the back seat, and the elders in the church put me under disciplinary review!
But my peers loved the end-result, especially since I couldn’t afford speakers, so I resorted to wiring 3.5mm stereo-mini jack plugs into the centre armrest (ex Cortina 3.0S) and we cruised the town with headphones on to listen to music!
Eventually, during a disciplinary hearing with the church elders, I justified my “rebellious” behaviour by explaining that I could not afford the cost of a professional re-spray, and one of the kinder souls there offered to re-spray my car for free, as long as I contributed the materials and did the flatting myself. So sadly the mobile artwork became a white 1.6GL Escort once again.
I was still dating the lady whose father had arranged the car for me, and she lived 1000km away in Cape Town, so this journey became a bi-annual event. Each time, I would start my journey at 04h00, there is a long uphill section leading out of my hometown towards Grahamstown, and without fail, by the time I had crested the ridge of that hill the little Escort would be sitting at 5,500rpm, with an indicated 160km/h and I would hold that speed all the way to Cape Town (with obvious exceptions through urban areas), stopping only twice for fuel. I would arrive in Cape Town eight hours later at 12h00. Roads were quiet those days, and law enforcement was scarce.
Early in 1991 I moved to Cape Town to marry that lady, the morning after I arrived, while returning from dropping her little-sister at school (I was still eager to impress my future in-laws back then), I misjudged a traffic light and ended up rear-ending a Mazda 323. The damage to the Escort was only cosmetic, but it spelled the beginning of the end for the poor little Ford. We used her for the rest of 1991, but she seemed to have developed a jealous nature, since, almost every time my wife used her she would break down in traffic, and no one could start her, until, after work, I would find my way to where she stood sulking and would start on the first turn of the key. My wife started calling her “Christine”, and sadly I made the wrong choice by choosing the wife over the faithful Escort, and by November of 1991 I bowed to pressure and traded her in on a tinny, underpowered Nissan Langley.
For the next seven years, I apostatized and owned two Nissans, and then, horror of all horrors, an Opel, but as my wife lost her faithfulness, I de-discovered mine eventually buying a 1964 Anglia as a project car, but that’s another story…