Article published on June 1, 2017.
This was a car with a voice: Its engine note, a deep, powerful burble, was as distinct to me as the voices of my parents and friends
As a car-obsessed child of the 1960s, Martin Gurdon lived in a lost world of bubble cars and Ford Anglias, a place where dads took spare gearboxes on holiday and cars were frequently fixed at the roadside.
A 1970s family crisis saw him sent to relatives in rural Lancashire, before spending five dysfunctional years at a vegetarian boarding school, where cars were both his salvation and undoing, thanks to an illicitly acquired Triumph Herald. He’s since driven everything from supercars to £25 Morris Marinas and been stalked with murderous intent by Reliant Robins. As iconic, and sometimes spectacularly awful vehicles passed through his hands, Martin dreamed of owning an exotic Bristol 401 like his dad’s, and of writing about cars, but would anyone ever be mad enough to let him…?
Paul Cheney read and reviewed Martin Gurdon’s humorous memoir and had some questions to put to him afterwards:
“Unless you are really unfortunate, your car today will almost certainly start first time, be warm, dry and traffic allowing, you will make it to your destination with no dramas. However, motoring in the 1960’s when Martin Gurdon was growing up, was an adventure in itself. Cars could frequently be seen by the side of the road with the bonnets raised and steam coming out; it was not uncommon to take a full toolset and a spare gearbox, just in case… Gurdon’s fascination with all things with wheels was borderline obsession, he could tell the just from the note of the exhaust, what car was passing, by reading every detail in magazines he could glance at a car and tell just how rare it was. This just seemed normal, surely everyone was like this; weren’t they?
Then his happy childhood broke down; his mother’s illness caused a family crisis and he was dispatched to her sister in Lancashire. His new school tolerated him, but his father made the decision to bring him down closer to home and placed him in a vegetarian boarding school. So begins the final five years of his flawed education, an experience that he tolerated because of his continued obsession with cars, and the thrill of acquiring a Triumph Herald for illicit trips out. Stumbling out of school with no idea what he wanted to do, he ends up in a couple of dead end jobs, frequently visiting the job centre before slowly realising that writing might be something he could do, and if he could write about cars, that would be just about perfect.
Gurdon, in his capacity as a motoring journalist, has had the privilege of driving some of the world’s fastest cars but he served his motoring apprenticeship in the appalling cars that were produced in the seventies: Reliant Robins, Morris Marinas, 2CVs; he is lucky to be alive after reading about some of the scrapes that he got into. Nostalgia seeps from this book like oil from a leaking head gasket and whilst Gurdon acknowledges that some of the cars he owned were dreadful, we see others through the rose-tinted windscreen, in particular his fond memories of his father’s Bristol 401, a car he loved so much, he bought one of his own. There are several laugh out loud parts in this book and a few of what my eldest would call ‘facepalm’ moments. Good stuff and an ideal book for your friendly petrol head.”
Author meets Reviewer
Paul Cheney: Thank you for writing an entertaining book about your early life seen through the lens of a headlamp. Who inspired you to consider a career in writing?
Martin Gurdon: A number of people, particularly writers Car Magazine in the 1970s, but two were big influences. George Bishop, who could be effortlessly funny and LJK Setright, who wrote like nobody else.
PC: Your boarding school sounded horrendous, did you have any positive memories of the place?
MG: I was the wrong person for that school and that environment. It worked for some of the pupils, but I couldn’t handle the freedom. Still, I have a couple of friends from that period who are like family, and I wouldn’t have missed them.
PC: What are the top three cars that you have owned?
MG: Honda Z600 – My first car; Bristol 401 – Evoked so many memories of my father’s Bristol; Nissan Primera P10 – Great to drive, brilliantly engineered and never went wrong.
PC: Aside from the Reliant Robin, what are the worst three cars that you have owned?
MG: Vauxhall Viva Estate – Just depressing; Morris Marina – A bad car in good times; Fiat 127 – The bodywork fell off it
PC: What car do you think has given you the ultimate driving experience?
MG: A well set up Morris Minor, oddly enough, because it’s unexpected fun. Also, the original Honda NSX, as this is a finely honed, pure piece of engineering.
PC: What is your favourite road to drive?
MG: The A505 between Luton and Hitchen. All sweeping bends and cambers.
PC: Did the Bristol 401 that you bought live up to expectations?
MG: Well, my dad had one and it seemed much bigger when I was eight. I loved the aesthetic of the car, the noise, and once you got into a rhythm it could be a delight to drive, although things like the brakes and wipers are rubbish compared to modern cars. The interior was cocoon like and your clothes had a tang of wood, leather and mechanical alchemy after being in it.
PC: What are you currently driving?
MG: A free T-reg Toyota Avensis automatic that has so far lasted 40,000 boringly reliable miles. It’s inverted snobbery on wheels. I also have a pea green, 1989 Skoda Estelle with the engine in the back. I love its pathological simplicity and it’s great for country lane pottering.
PC: Can you tell us anything about the next book you are writing?
MG: One is a Dorling Kindersley book on the cultural impact of cars, which should be really interesting. I’m one of a team of motoring writers like the brilliant Richard Bremner, who are involved with it. My very first book, ‘Hen and the art of Chicken Maintenance,’ written in 2002, is being re-published next year and I’m editing it and will add a new chapter. Like ‘Estate Car’ it’s an observational book, it’s my baby and I’m pleased at how well its aged.
PC: Which authors do you turn to for inspiration?
MG: Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemmingway, Stella Gibbons and Malcolm Pryce. ‘Last Tango In Aberystwyth’ is comic gold.
PC: Do you have a particular place to write, or can you write anywhere?
MG: I am a hack; I can write anywhere! At home I write in the kitchenette or dining room to keep the dog company.
PC: What book are you currently reading?
MG: Private Eye The First 50 Years.
Many thanks to Paul and Martin for the Q&A.
An Estate Car Named Desire by Martin Gurdon, published on 23 March, 2017 by Duckworth Overlook, in paperback
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