1982 was the year of the Falklands War, the raising of the Mary Rose from the Solent, and the launch of Channel Four, when we all gathered round the TV to watch Richard Whitely and Carol Vorderman present Countdown, and to be amazed at now having four TV channels to watch. But for me, 1982 stands out as the year the car caught fire.
My alarm didn’t ring. I’d missed my train. I lived in Wallasey in those days, and I worked at the bus depot near Penny Lane, the same Penny Lane as in the Beatles’ song. (In fact I used to be a regular at Tony Slavin’s barber shop, the one that features in the song. He certainly knows my head, but as far as I’m aware he doesn’t have a photo of it.)
Anyway, I got up late and decided I’d have to go to work in the car. Rail and bus travel were free on my staff pass, so the cost of tolls for the Mersey Tunnel, and petrol at a scandalous 37pence per litre, was most upsetting.
I got through the tunnel without mishap (now shuddering to think what would have happened had my later mishap occurred in the tunnel) and straight up to the top of Low Hill. I stopped at the traffic lights outside the Coach and Horses, an iconic white pub, right on the junction. The first thing I noticed was the smell. Kind like a chemical works going up. I thought, hmm, something’s burning nicely round here. Then I noticed how the paint on the car bonnet had started to bubble. Then came the smoke. The engine was on fire. I jumped out of the car. What do you do when your car engine catches fire? Open the bonnet, I thought, because I don’t want the fire to damage the paintwork any more than it already has.
Now, I need to explain something. When you buy a car for £150 you can’t expect all the gadgets to work properly. This car had her share of small faults and idiosyncrasies (for example the wheels weren’t all the same size and the brakes sometimes caused the direction indicators to come on) and one of those small faults was that the cable for the bonnet catch had long ago snapped, so access to the engine bay was via a special, long, Phillips screwdriver that I kept in the boot. There was also a technique for getting in the boot, so there I was, blocking up one of Liverpool’s busier junctions in the thick of the rush hour, with smoke coming out of the bonnet, lying in the road trying to open the boot.
I attracted an audience.
I popped the boot, grabbed my special screwdriver, ran to the front of my car and dropped to my knees so I could poke through the special hole in the grill with my special screwdriver. I had become pretty slick at doing this, but billowing smoke and fire added to the pressure, and it took a while. At last though, a satisfying pop and the bonnet sprung open. Then there’s a catch that you had to find without burning your fingers. I used the screwdriver again and swung open the bonnet. Flames and black acrid smoke billowed out. I rocked back on my heels. It didn’t look as though much of the paintwork could be saved. I had nothing to use on the fire, but I could see what had happened. The plastic air filter box (that had no bolts, lost long ago) had fallen onto the exhaust manifold, and it was this that was burning. If I could just get it out of the engine bay… Think!
There was on old rug in the boot. I kept it there to lie on when I was crawling under the car on wet days. It had seen good service and was covered in oil, and I thought I could use it to smother the flames. Back round to the boot, grab the rug, round to the engine again; I threw the rug over the flames and success, the fire was gone. A cheer from the audience, still gathering outside the Coach and Horses.
But then the rug burst into flames. Gasps from the crowd. In hindsight an oil-soaked rug is not the best flame retardant item in your apprentice fire-fighter’s tool kit. Now the flames were properly taking hold. All seemed lost until the driver of the bus that was stuck in the queue of traffic behind me, pushed past.
“Mind out, mate!”
He had the fire extinguisher from the bus. Woosh! The show was over. He and some of the audience helped me push the car onto the cobbles in front of the pub, and rush hour got under way once more.
“I guess you want me to tow her straight to a scrapyard?” This was the RAC man. (or AA, can’t remember which one I was using that year. I switched between them often so that I wouldn’t become too infamous and get myself blacklisted.)
“Scrapyard?” My voice came out as a squeak. “No. A garage, please. She’ll fix up fine.”
The RAC (or AA) man raised an eyebrow, then gave an incredulous shrug. “A garage it is then.”
I didn’t like his attitude, but then I got my own back. He attached a towrope, pulled forward, giving a little tug, and I responded by sliding down the rain-slicked cobbled slope straight into the back of his van. My foot had been hard on the brake but she just slid, wheels locked, as though on ice.
Mr RAC/AA got out, looked at the back of his van. No damage (my car never damaged anything, it just tended to crumble upon impact, leaving little piles of rust).
“Try using your brakes,” he said. I thought that was unfair.
I was right and he was wrong, though. The garage fitted a second-hand wiring loom for just twenty quid. I took the car home the next day and painted over the bare patches with red oxide primer. The photos were taken a few weeks after the fire. If you look closely above where the rear bumper should be, you’ll see where I painted ‘Red Oxide Owner’s Club’ as an attempt at humour. She stayed like that for several months until Sarah got me to paint over it in green.
You can read about the adventure of how she became a green car in Travelling in a Box. And also about the incident that finally ended her years of faithful service, once and for all.