Saturday, 31 December 2011

Tales from Argentina – The Old Vauxhall

When you find yourself thinking back to childhood, doesn’t the tape in your head automatically rewind to the same topics - the house(s) you lived in…  the food you ate… the cars your parents had? 

I’ll tell you one day about one of the houses, and the less I say about the food I consumed the better, since I’ve covered it pretty comprehensively in this blog – alas.  However there is a car I’d like to tell you about, our black 1946 Vauxhall 12.
1946 Vauxhall 12 (internet)
Dad bought it in 1954 when I was a year old and it was of British manufacture, though the steering wheel was on the left hand side so it must have been made for export.  He was the third or fourth owner, and none had been of the ‘careful’ variety, so it had seen better days.  Its maximum speed was 60 km per hour, and my sister remembers Dad with his foot to the floor doing 58, and Mum shouting querulously at him to slow down his 'breakneck speed'.
The problem with the Vauxhall was the difficulty in obtaining spare parts, which had to come from England.  When he was involved in an accident at one point, the only second hand mudguard/wheel arch that my father could obtain was dark red in colour.  No problem – he had the whole car resprayed dark red. 
However there were parts you couldn’t get, particularly those responsible for keeping it going.  Your only hope was to contact some Anglo-Argentine friend who worked at the Blue Star Line shipping company offices in town, and get him - through his contacts - to get one of the stewards on board a passenger ship to bring a part with him on his next trip, and then you waited for six months.  In fact it was well known that the stewards supplemented their income by bringing Scotch whisky, British tobacco and chocolate over with them to sell to the people anxious for imported luxury goods who would be waiting at the quayside of the Buenos Aires docks.
The old Vauxhall’s engine was started by means of a button behind the steering wheel which was temperamental in the mild and damp winters and during the summer thunderstorms of Buenos Aires.  When it refused to cooperate you had to hunt for the starting handle which fitted into a slot outside the car above the front bumper, and turn it energetically until it sparked into life.  The muttering of oaths and curses throughout this procedure was essential.   
My sister still remembers the embarrassment she felt as a six year old when they stopped at a set of traffic lights on Montes de Oca Avenue.  When the lights turned to green the car stalled, and our mother had to brave angry drivers sitting on their horns while she climbed out of the car in her faux fur coat and high heels, hunted for the starting handle and yanked it round in fury until it coughed back to life, while my sister glanced around her fearfully in case she saw anyone they knew.
This was the car which, during my early days at boarding school when I was five, took us up and down the many hours of sticky, muddy track - otherwise known as the main road - on the first and last day of term, when we felt we were setting out into the unknown at the mercy of both the weather and drivers in other more powerful cars which would have to haul us out.  On one occasion even a car transporter loaded with new farm vehicles stopped to help.  We were hoisted onto the top level and while our parents shared the cabin with the driver, we travelled on the top in swaying, towering splendour, seeing the land from a very different perspective and feeling terribly important.
This was the car in which my parents were earnestly discussing their impecunious existence, unaware that little-pitchers-have-big-ears until my five-year old sister piped up tearfully offering the contents of her piggy bank. 
This was also the car which developed a loud and very ominous rumbling sound underneath which defied all examinations by my father and a couple of skilled mechanics.  It went on for some time and all my father could identify was that it was particularly bad when going round corners.  The spectre loomed of yet more expenses to come out of a meagre budget, and as they agonised over what terrible thing was happening to their car, my mother reminded him that the spare mangle roller of our Hoover washing machine which she had asked him to take to be repaired still had not been returned. 
Hoover washing machine, 1950's. Internet picture

He finally remembered that he’d forgotten to take it – and from there it was just a step to realising that it was on the floor of the back seat, rolling merrily from side to side as he drove.  The story did the rounds at dinner parties for a while.
All this was in the mid 1950s, a time of great uncertainty politically in Argentina when it was not safe to venture out at night in the capital city to areas other than those known for entertainment and restaurants.  One evening my mother had prepared dinner and my father was late.  It overcooked and then got cold, and he still wasn’t home.  There had been rumours that week of gangs assaulting unwary pedestrians in town, and knowing my father was apt to decide on the spur of the moment to pop into the cinema when he left work, she started to fret.  She was a worrier anyway and by 11 p.m. she was beside herself, convinced he was lying bleeding somewhere, stripped of his wallet and small change.
She rang The Buenos Aires Herald, the English language newspaper where in his free time my father would go to submit his report on the latest cricket match under the pseudonym “Cover Point” – but he had not been in that evening.  There was no point in ringing the police, since they were known to take bribes and could be relied upon to show little interest, and she did not feel she could contact any of his friends in view of the late hour.
By 1 a.m. the carpet was worn out and her frenzy had turned to fury, so when he walked through the door beaming all over his face half an hour later he was lucky she didn’t greet him with the meat cleaver. 
“Look darling!” he exclaimed “Look what I’ve got.  I’ve been so lucky.  The Argentina Star is in port, Dougie rang to tell me today so I went down there after work, and guess what – the pistons for the Vauxhall have arrived!  Isn’t it wonderful?  So I stayed and had a drink or two with them and….”
His voice trailed off as she burst into tears as he stood there with packages in his arms and a nonplussed look on his face.
By his reckoning ‘a drink or two’ was the least he could do to thank them for their trouble, he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about…

Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Valencia and Chiva, Spain


Happy New Year!



SUREANDO said...

Feliz 2012 con salud y prosperidad.
Un abrazo

Joyful said...

I enjoyed this tale. Even though it wasn't my experience, you really brought it to life for me :-) I often think about those days when one had to rely on ship and other slow means of transport to get things done. These days we aren't so patient to rely on a ship to bring our goods.

Margaret said...

Hi. I came over from Joyful's blog. Your car story reminded me of the old car (Dodge) my parents had when I was young. There used to be that big hump down the middle of the car. I remember it well, because my mother used to have me lie down in the back and stay out of sight so she didn't have to have her friends see me. (I was so ugly.) Anyway, that hump was sooo uncomfortable! And I was expected to stay hidden for hours on my stomach over the hump.
BTW, I love Argentina and Patagonia! I wouldn't mind spending our winter (your summer) in Ushuaia.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Penny - it's interesting when for whatever reason our present day life has to slow down and we find ourselves living day to day at the pace our grandparents did. You see things so differently...

Lonicera said...

Hi Margaret - Welcome! and thank you so much for commenting. I had intended it to remind people of their own experiences, though I'm not sure whether or not this was good for you - I'm still reading over again what you said...
I've enjoyed browsing over your blog (which I'd like to follow) and I'm envious at the distances you've travelled. You might note from my past posts that I have a very special place in my heart for northern Patagonia, and would love to visit the southern reaches of it too.

vauxhall specialist said...

Its really interesting post , i enjoyed to read it.I just want to say thanks for sharing such a nice stuff.

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