First Time I Drove a British Car
By Cam Russell
When I was ten years old, my family moved to Victoria from Calgary. For a lad of ten, born on the prairies, the Victoria region held many new fascinations, but among the two most prominent were the Undersea Gardens at the Oak Bay Marina and the basement of Capital Iron. I could never figure out why my parents were always so keen to usher prairie visitors out to Butchart Gardens when these two, much more interesting tourist destinations, were available.
We hadnít lived here for more than a few months when my parents decided that the family should have a second car for my Dad to commute to and from work, leaving Mum with the brand new 1967 Dodge Coronet. Dad began perusing the Daily Colonist classifieds until one Saturday morning he announced that we were going to look at a 1963 Austin Mini Woody Wagon that a fellow named Dave had for sale for $300.00. My Dad had already owned an Austin A40 panel van for his business, Capital Sheet Metal, when we lived in Calgary, so he was somewhat used to the eccentricities of the 'British motor'. So, my eight year-old brother Trev, Dad and I headed over to give this car a look-see and a test drive. While the details of the test drive have dimmed over the years, I do distinctly remember observing the brown stained wood on the back of the car and noticing how agreeably the moss growing in the sliding window tracks matched the green paint colour. The most interesting feature, though, was the placement of a household electrical switch on the floor of the car which had been wired in to replace the push button starter solenoid switch. When I say a household electrical switch I really do mean a 110-volt electrical light switch (ivory in colour), exactly like the fifteen or twenty that are in every house in North America. My ten-year-old mind reasoned that a car with wood on it might be prone to sharing other components which were more architectural than automotive in origin. The real reason for the switch as explained by seller Dave was that those "thieves down at Plimleys" wanted over $5.00 for a replacement, when these switches are available at any hardware for 40 cents. This later turned out to be just as well as the heavy amperage of the starting circuit tended to melt the light switches on a weekly basis.
The decision to buy the car was made, probably based as much as anything on the economy of the 850 cc motor and the fact that gas was selling for 58 cents a gallon, a ridiculously high price in Victoria compared to Calgary.† My Dad and Dave headed into the house to complete the paperwork for the deal so Trev and I were left to sit in the new acquisition with strict instructions to: "behave ourselves". This command, while not meant to be widely open to eight and ten year old interpretation, certainly didnít prevent us from seeing any good reason not to take turns behind the wheel for some pretend driving. Getting into the role of a pretend drive required a destination so we decided we would head for - where else - Capital Iron. After a few minutes of pressing pedals, shifting the magic wand gear selector, yarding and releasing the emergency brake and flicking light and wiper switches, the spartan mini interior had just about exhausted all fantasy driving possibilities.
The one switch left, of course, was the one on the floor, which as the only remaining one unflicked, got itís deserving toggle. The effect was both immediate and dramatic. It began with the car lurching down the street in first gear powered by the starter motor, followed very closely by Trev yelling: "I DONíT REALLY WANT TO GO TO CAPITAL IRON". The most impressive action, though, was when Dave bolted from his house, ran across his front lawn at a Donovan Bailey pace, opening the passenger door of the moving car then diving in and returning the switch to the off position. Our total distance traveled was probably in the region of twelve or fifteen feet. Dad recounted later he looked up from completing his signature on the Provincial tax form to find an empty chair where Dave had been only seconds before and absolutely no trace of Dave remaining. Rather than blame Dad for not hearing the noise and running to our rescue, I like to think that based on the installation of the switch, Daveís hearing was extremely well attuned to the sounds of a straining Lucas starter motor.
Not many Saturday mornings later we took a family trip to Plimleys in order to buy a proper starter switch. A few years later the woody wagon was traded in along with $1500.00 for a new 1969 mini van at Plimleys. Both Trev and I learned to drive in that vehicle through well supervised Sunday excursions on the University of Victoria parking lots.
Gordon Russell stands by his 1969 Mini Van with a penny farthing bicycle made for the 'Big Bad John's' pub in the Strathcona Hotel Ö around 1970.
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