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The cars our dads drove

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James Mills | Journalist


14 June 2024

For so many of us, loving cars wasn’t a choice: it was an unavoidable inevitability, pre-programmed into our DNA by the delivery mechanism of fully one half of our chromosomal composition, more commonly known to most as ‘dad’.

It was our dads who showed how these cold, clinical, efficient-running machines, engineered to a cost and designed to crumple in safety can still amount to so much more than the sum of their connected parts. How they could offer a home from home, be that trusted companion to take you on adventures, something to look forward to with giddy excitement, and look back upon with unalloyed fondness. Yes, they are just cars, but to us, and to our dads, they were also far, far more than that.

Here some of our writers recall the cars their fathers drove, and the indelible memories that, together, they produced.

Richard Bremner

If you were posted overseas it could be financially advantageous to buy a car tax-free in the UK, and have it exported. In this case Trinidad, in the West Indies, in 1967. My Dad, a French teacher, chose a Renault 4. It was economical, and presumably tough enough for roads unknown. It travelled with us on a ship, and I remember seeing it hauled from the hold when we arrived in Port-of-Spain, the crane operator catching a bumper on the hatch opening. Despite subsequent minor collisions it served us very well, and later inspired me to buy one. In fact, five of them. So far. Oh, and it would have been cheaper to buy a car in Trinidad after all.

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"The car Dad talks about with most affection is his Lotus Cortina, which he reckoned was his ‘perfect car.’ Nowadays he has a Boxster S and an unfeasibly potent Golf GTi. He’s 87 and still going strong"

Steve Sutcliffe

Dad has owned lots of great cars. My fondest memories include a red Trans Am with a manual gearbox in which I was collected from prep school each day; a yellow GT40 replica; a Citroën 2CV nicknamed Hercule; a Suzuki Whizzkid in which I passed my test; one of the few UK A80 Toyota Supras with a manual gearbox; plus numerous Lotuses – from an Elan Sprint to an Excel and a 1980s Elite. The less memorable ones include a troublesome Fiat Coupé Turbo and a hand-painted Datsun 120Y, which I destroyed not long after I’d passed my test. But the car Dad talks about with most affection is his Lotus Cortina, which he reckoned was his ‘perfect car.’ Nowadays he has a Boxster S and an unfeasibly potent Golf GTI. He’s 87 and still going strong.

Mel Nichols

In the 1960s, my dad Reg – known to everyone as Nicky – treasured his pale green 1955 FJ Holden Special. Front bench seat, three-on-the-tree gearshift, red leather trim. Nicky drove it respectfully, reassured by the legendary Holden reliability.

Until that is my 13-year-old brother Mark swiped the keys and slid the FJ around the muddy paddock where the new village hall was being built. Alas, just as our younger brother Shane said ‘watch out for those bricks’ the FJ smote the tall stack. Shane says ‘I remember bricks raining on the bonnet in slow motion disbelief’. Mark reparked the mutilated FJ, slipped the keys back onto the mantelpiece and took off over the hills. Nicky went spare; it was the only time I ever saw him lose his rag.

Sam Smith

What did Dad drive? So much. Before I came along: MG Midgets, Toyota FJs, an early Honda Civic, a BMW 2002 and a Binz-bodied Mercedes 190 Ponton estate. After I arrived, a BMW E3, Alfa GTV, MGs TC and PA, a modern Mustang Boss 302, countless others. Every one of them made a dent, though I remember the TC and old BMWs the most. This is him and me and his 3.0 Si in the early 1980s. He insists the hair and poise were simply how everyone looked back then.

Andrew English

​​Dad’s Renault Dauphine had already survived being driven straight over the top of the A127 Fortune-of-War roundabout in Essex with a terrified aged aunt in the passenger seat, when Dad and Mum went to a medical school party in London. High up in the tenement the hard booze was hidden behind the curtain and at some point a sneaky imbiber yelled: ‘look there’s a car on fire down there.’

Mum looked out of the window and saw the Dauphine well ablaze. ‘Oh God, Andrew’s in there,’ she shouted. This was 1960, a time when you left your babe in arms, erm, in the car…

Half a dozen burly medical students made short work of the fire and the Dauphine must have survived as here it is in 1961 outside the family home at Seaview on the Isle of Wight.

Four of the Robinson brothers – the fifth was born four months later – off to see Queen Elizabeth II on the first visit by a reigning monarch to Australia. Peter on the far left

Peter Robinson

Almost three-quarters of a century later I still remember the registration number of my father’s first car: RN 688. Joanna, our 1950 Austin A40 Devon, was the first car in his family and Australia’s best seller. How proud we were. She struggled to reach 68mph and shuddered if coaxed to 70mph down hills. We loved her for the freedom she liberated on driving holidays to Sydney and Tasmania. Somehow, she transported seven: five boys, plus mum and dad, three on the front split bench seat, four in the back. Every 10,000 miles Joanna demanded a valve grind. Still, we forgave her everything.

Julian Thomson

Any ‘car cool’ attributed to my father is all thanks to Granny! So Dad would have us in awe as he told how he’d taken his Mum’s MG T Type down on the beaches near Liverpool for what would now be described as antisocial drifting. Sadly by the time I arrived, the last of four brothers, our family automotive needs had shifted. What Dad badly wanted to buy at this time was a Renault Espace, but sadly this hadn’t been invented yet, so we were reduced to a series of Bedford Dormobiles, alongside my mother’s Mini van. Doesn’t really explain why I became a car designer…

Andrew Frankel

My father’s one true automotive love was his 1930 4½-litre Bentley. My mother used to say that in his affections she came a poor third behind his sons and that car. Surprisingly, the marriage didn’t last. He drove it everywhere, including across America and around South Africa. When his entry to the Mille Miglia was turned down, he drove it to Brescia and presented himself in the Piazza Vittorio, so surprising the organisers they let him in anyway. His last drive in it was to Le Mans and back in 1997, where I drove it for a couple of laps in a gratifyingly vigorous pre-race parade of vintage Bentleys. I never saw him happier or, indeed, again. He died, very suddenly, five days later.

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