Peter Pickering - Words and Worlds Interwoven

The Lincoln Green Chronicle

The journey from adolescence to adulthood is marked by milestones that seem, at the time, monumental. For me, that defining moment came at seventeen, after a year of yearning for the independence that seemed just out of reach. Restricted to tractors, motorcycles, and the unappealing option of three-wheeled cars — the latter quickly dismissed due to their glaring lack of dignity — I longed for true freedom. The stage for this transformative chapter was set in Stratford-upon-Avon, a town as steeped in history as I was in impatience, awaiting my driving test in my father’s stylish Ford Zephyr.

The driving test itself was a blur of anxiety and adrenaline, a brief quarter-hour that would determine my motoring fate. Each turn and signal felt weighted with destiny. My critical misstep, a naive wrong side manoeuvre on a two-way street, seemed to seal my fate to failure. The silence that filled the car on the return journey was thick with my unspoken fears, punctuated only by the scratch of the examiner’s pen, a sound I interpreted as the death knell of my driving dreams.

And yet, life, as I would learn time and again, is full of surprises. The examiner, perhaps seeing the raw potential beyond my mistake, passed me. The relief and elation were overwhelming, a rush of liberation that only those who have tasted the cusp of defeat can truly understand. This triumph paved the way for a new love in my life: my Austin Mini 850. It was an embodiment of the swinging '60s spirit, metallic Lincoln Green paired with a Truck Yellow roof — a daring combination that, to my seventeen-year-old self, was the height of cool.

This Mini was more than just a car; it was a symbol of independence, a mobile sanctuary where I was in control. The interior was a sanctuary of individualism, from racing seat covers to a dashboard that belonged more in a spacecraft than a compact car. The various dials and gauges whispered promises of adventures and speeds yet to be tested. The Mini was not just a vehicle; it was an extension of my identity at a time when every teenager is desperate to assert their individuality.

The creation of the Mini itself was a tale of ingenuity and British pluck. Designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, it was conceived in response to the Suez Crisis and the ensuing fuel shortage, a challenge met with a compact, efficient, yet remarkably spacious vehicle. The Mini broke the mold of automotive design, its transverse engine and front-wheel drive creating a blueprint that would shape future generations of cars. Yet, despite its global acclaim and variations — from the economical 850 to the sporty Cooper — my Mini felt intensely personal, as if it had been crafted just for me.

The fittings of the Mini were as distinctive as its iconic exterior, speaking volumes of an era when simplicity meshed with functionality. Unlike modern vehicles with their electric conveniences, my Mini boasted sliding front windows instead of the now-standard winding mechanisms, offering a unique, hands-on interaction with the car that required a personal touch. The rear windows pivoted outwards, an ingenious solution that provided ventilation while maintaining the vehicle's compact silhouette. The early 850 Mini models were equipped with a unique feature in lieu of traditional internal door handles: they had a plastic-coated wire, positioned horizontally within the door recess, which passengers would pull down on to release the door catch.

In those days, starting the engine was an art in itself, thanks in part to the choke button, a now virtually extinct feature. This manual choke was essential for enriching the fuel mixture on cold mornings, a ritual unfamiliar to the contemporary driver accustomed to the immediacy of modern ignition systems. The Mini also retained the old-school charm with its headlight dip switch - not a lever or button on the dashboard, but a large, floor-mounted button operated by the foot, adding to the tactile experience of driving.

Its performance on the road was as memorable as its interior quirks. The Mini, with its low centre of gravity, hugged the Warwickshire country lanes like a dream, darting around bends with the nimbleness of a rabbit. It was as if the car embodied a spirit of mischief and adventure, a quality that would have surely drawn a wry smile from William Shakespeare himself, had he been around to witness this mechanical marvel.

The gear lever of the basic Mini left much to be desired, often referred to as a 'pudding stirrer' due to its vague and wobbly nature, a stark contrast to the precision found in the later, sportier Cooper models. The electrical system, courtesy of Lucas Industries, added an element of unpredictability to every journey. Dubbed the "Prince of Darkness," Lucas's creations were notorious for their temperamental nature, especially under the adverse English weather or during an ill-advised car wash, which could leave the front-mounted distributor cap sputtering in protest against any intrusion of water.

Security was another matter entirely; the door locks on the Mini were notoriously easy to breach. I discovered, somewhat alarmingly, that the lock could be persuaded open with nothing more than the end of a steel comb – an unintended nod, perhaps, to the simplicity of the era, but a fact that made the addition of an external padlock, like the one Mr. Bean famously used, seem less comical and more a necessary precaution. Despite these quirks and foibles, the Mini was not just a car; it was a companion on a journey through youth and beyond, its personality as distinct and memorable as its silhouette on the British landscape.

The concept of car safety in the '60s was markedly different from today's standards; seat belts, now considered a fundamental feature, were not commonly installed in vehicles. Yet, always one step ahead, I equipped my Mini with something quite extraordinary – a set of full harness belts, salvaged from the Royal Air Force. This was no ordinary addition; at the time, I was likely the pioneer of automotive safety in the County, perhaps even across the UK, introducing a level of security unheard of in civilian vehicles.

But my forward-thinking did not stop at harnesses. Embracing the spirit of innovation, I also installed the latest in automotive technology – small plastic wings that snapped onto the windshield wipers. These ingenious devices harnessed the force of the wind to press the wipers more firmly against the glass, improving visibility in the driving English rain. This combination of RAF-grade safety and cutting-edge design in accessories was more than just a statement; it was a testament to my belief in progress and safety, blending the old with the new in a car that was as much about preserving the past as it was about ushering in the future.

The adventures we shared, from the winding roads of Warwickshire to the scenic stretches connecting Derbyshire and Leicestershire, were chapters of my youth written in motion. Our honeymoon journey to Norfolk was a testament to its reliability and part of the narrative mosaic of my early married life. The Mini wasn't just transport; it was a companion on the journey of life, witness to the laughter, the conversations, and the silent contemplations.

However, the wheel of time turns, and with it, desires change. The longing for something new, a trait that would define my relationship with cars, began to gnaw at me. Thus, with a mix of regret and anticipation, I took the Mini to Tewkesbury Car Auctions, unaware that this decision would serve as a harsh lesson in the unpredictability of life. The scene at the auction remains vivid in my memory: a parade of cars, each with its own story, awaiting their fate. The shock that coursed through me as my Mini was pushed, rather than driven, into the auction space is indelible. The absence of its seats, a bizarre and unforeseen act of theft, turned my prized possession into an incomplete puzzle, its value diminished, its dignity stripped away in front of an audience of indifferent bidders.

The aftermath was a cocktail of emotions — anger, disbelief, resignation. The sale, a mere formality, closed a chapter on what was an integral part of my youth. The Mini Cooper that succeeded it, with its sleek white body and contrasting black roof, offered solace and a new thrill with its enhanced power. But the lesson of the Lincoln Green Mini lingered, a reminder of life's fleeting joys and unexpected trials.

The theft of the seats, while infuriating, imparted a wisdom far beyond the loss of material possession. It underscored the impermanence of things, the importance of cherishing moments rather than objects, and the resilience required to move forward from disappointment. The story of my first car, the Mini, is a canvas painted with brushstrokes of joy, adventure, love, loss, and learning. It is a story not just of a young man and his car but of life's unpredictable journey, the roads taken and not taken, and the memories that fuel the drive forward.

© Peter Pickering 2024