In my 30 odd years as a motoring journalist, there’s one car that I’ve hardly mentioned at all in print; my very first one. There’s no particular reason for this; I’m not in any way ashamed to say that my first car was… an Austin A35 van. It was 1977, and I was basically getting around town on a 1971 Mobylette Moped – which sometimes completed a journey without breaking down – but as soon as I was 17 I started taking driving lessons, and being an impatient sort of so-n-so I wanted a car straightaway, so I could ‘get it ready’ for when I passed my test.

484KOG was a 1963 van in Spruce Green. It was the AAV8 model, with the 1098cc low-compression engine, meaning it ran quite happily on the same two-star fuel as the Mobylette, though of course there was no need to mix any oil with it. It was advertised on a postcard in a shop window for £50, but despite the low price I insisted on having it inspected by a local mechanic I knew well. He identified a damaged brake hose, but didn’t think I should worry too much about the corroded door sills as the inners were sound, and as the car had no seatbelts that was all it needed. I bought it for £45… Insurance – courtesy of the good old Co-op – was another £70; and I thought that was dear!

Needless to say I made a few ‘modifications’ to the van. An ammeter was easily wired in, as was a radio, fed from a whip-type aerial on the offside front wing. But most distinctively of all, I fitted a pair of air horns in the centre of the roof, pointing forwards. How I wish I’d taken a photograph or three; but sadly I was not into photography at the time.

That July I took my driving test – in Dad’s Morris Marina. That was something of an adventure; the night before, during a bit of last-minute practice, the speedometer cable broke. A working speedometer is, of course, fairly important for a novice driver taking his test. But at 9pm at night, with the test 12 hours away, there was nothing for it but to go ahead, and hope the examiner didn’t notice. Fortunately Dad’s Marina was a 1.8 Super, and the MkI 1.8 Super had a three ‘instrument’ shrouded binnacle and a rev counter. So the examiner didn’t have a clear view of the instruments, and if he did look, he’d hopefully see the rev counter moving. It did though mean I’d have to judge my speed without an instrument to help.

Worse was to come. Just over half-way through the test, the nearside direction indicator stopped working – I could tell, because the instrument display was no longer flashing. One of the boot connections – a common Marina weak spot – had failed again. There was no option but to tell the examiner. Thankfully, he said that “provided you don’t tell too many people you can carry on using hand signals” – which, fortunately, I knew. I completed the test thus, was told that I had passed, which meant I could drive the A35 to school that afternoon. I’m sure today’s examiners don’t have that level of flexibility.

I kept the A35 van for almost a year, in which time I drove it extensively around the South Coast and on a couple of occasions up to London. I learned how to change a dynamo and a water pump – the latter being made necessary by setting the fanbelt too tight during the dynamo change. I also – to my Mother’s horror – changed the engine oil and filter, and gave the front suspension regular grease-ups.   All of which gave me an excellent grounding in basic car maintenance. I sold the car because I was advised that the rusty outer sills wouldn’t get through another MoT – had I known then what I know now I’d have known it wasn’t terminal as the floor was good – but the temptation of a MkII Cortina estate for £150 was too much. The A35 was sold for £65 and, I believe, scrapped a few months later.

And needless to say, the MkII Cortina turned out to be a total dog, but I’ll save that story for another time.