Weeeoww! I’m on the M4 westwards in a resonating, rattling tin box, weaving in and out of hatchback Granadas, Chevettes and flying-brick Volvo 740s – destination Pan Am Cargo Terminal, Heathrow, with a package from the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. Then it’s on to Denham Studios to pick up three cans of film for the Central Office of Information. “Alpha Four!” rasps a cockney voice on the radio, “when you done that, there’s a china tea set ter collect at Peter Jones fer Denise at Gintel in Mincin’ Lane. Is that roger?”
In 1986, the small ad agency I worked for in London’s Covent Garden went bust. Pushing 38, with wife no longer working and a baby having joined the cast, I was truly sweatin’. But while the job hunt was on, a company director friend of mine kindly offered me something to keep the wolf from the door – a van-driving stint in his courier firm.
To begin with, there was no van for me to drive. Instead I got XPL 481T – the office manager’s cast-off from his minicab days. It was a white 1978 Marina 1.8 with rusty wheelarches and a clutch judder that wouldn’t have disgraced a pneumatic drill. Otherwise it went well, if very noisily. One of the later ones, it had that weird dash that angled the radio towards the passenger, and brown brushed-nylon seats that were actually quite comfortable.
It took me a week to discover all its foibles, chief among which was a broken bonnet cable when I came to check the oil. In my attempt to trip the catch with a screwdriver I holed the rad, just as I was due out on a job. Miraculously the old moose lasted all the way from Central London to East Acton before boiling, whereupon a goodly dose of Bar’s Leaks enabled it to survive a run to Dorset and back the next day.
In due course the Marina, brought up to Satherley concours standards – washed, polished and with colour-coordinated aluminium tape stuck over the rusty bits (“Blimey – wot you dun to this, mate?”) – was passed on to an unsuspecting recruit and I graduated to a 1982 Escort van. CVL 710X had also led a rough life. On handover the front suspension rattled ominously but once this was sorted, a half-eaten takeaway removed from under the seat and deliberate pauses were made for AWOL second-gear synchro, we bonded beautifully. For an 1100 it went like stink, showing an indicated ton on one naughty occasion. We went everywhere together; Oxfordshire, Yorkshire, Suffolk and all over the London and Home Counties area from Tilbury to Tottenham, Croydon to Cheam, and Wandsworth to Windsor. Loads varied from boxes of bubble-wrap to ‘one girl and a computer terminal’, or menu cards for the Savoy to a skeleton from SW19. In pre-satnav days I got by well enough using the A-Z, and if I arrived at a strange place out of London, I’d just call at the nearest estate agents for a town map.
I drove other vehicles in the fleet occasionally, but they didn’t compare with the Escort. The cramped Fiat Fiorino caressed my knee with its gearlever in fifth and was all-out at 72mph. C273 TLD, the boss’s new Fiat Regata Weekend, was a liability, cutting out at 70 in the outside lane of the M6. B162 OLY, a Renault Trafic 1200D, was handy for its low-loading sills, but the gearlever knob kept coming off when selecting third or reverse, and the thing had to be revved hard to gather any momentum out of town. It was in OLY though that I collected my most prestigious load – a vast seascape painting, ‘attributable to Carmichael’, from Sotheby’s in Billingshurst, where I saw a lovely ‘Godfather’ Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 parked outside.
Eventually, a ‘proper’ job offer saw us solvent again. But could driving a desk match up to six months’ adventure and the lure of the open road? Could it hell…