There it stood in all its shabby glory. Dull brown duco that had probably never seen a polishing cloth. A 1972 Chev Impala station wagon all 4 metres of it. Column shift gears, bench seats, it guzzled about 10 litres per 20kms. You could have played tennis on the bonnet. My emotions on seeing this wonder for the first time were indescribable.
We had just recently moved to Lonehill and in those days it was really in the country. We only had one car between us and I had just left a job as a book rep. which came with transport. A neat little blue Corolla in fact. When I was offered this position in an antiquarian bookshop in central Johannesburg I had made the provision of a car a condition of employment. It was a long shot, asking for a car. Maybe subconsciously I was hoping that he would refuse. He didn’t and I duly went to work there. Two weeks in, I still didn’t have the car despite the fact that I brought up the subject daily. He was a vague dithery rather artistic old man, and very difficult to pin down. Finally, maybe just to stop the nagging, the boss capitulated.
“My brother owns a used car lot. I‘ll asked him to find us something.” And that was that. A couple of days later, he came through to tell me that I could go with the driver to fetch the car. At last! I had almost given up hope and had been mentally composing my letter of resignation.
As we pulled into the car dealer’s yard in the dreary fastness of industrial Germiston, my heart sank. As we rounded the corner of the shabby office, my new transport awaited me. Not a neat blue Corolla. Definitely not.
I am only 5 feet tall and when I sat behind the wheel I couldn’t see the front or the back limits of this baby. Reversing was guesswork, and I never learned to parallel park her properly. The 3 gear column shift was so sticky I developed Tennis shoulder. And she would jump out of gear, while we were in the middle of rush hour traffic. Solly, the driver taught me a trick. I had to pop the bonnet and grab some object in the engine I never knew the name of, and violently jiggle it with both hands. Then slam the bonnet, jump in and hopefully be able to get home before I had to repeat the performance. Once this happened while Paul and I were on our way to a dance. We were driving through Braamfontein early one glorious summer evening. He was driving the car for the first time and really didn’t know what to do, so I hopped out in my evening finery and jiggled the Thing, slammed down the bonnet and as I got back into the car, I looked up and I realised we had an appreciative audience watching from the balconies of the building opposite. All I could do was wave!
Because of her great length I couldn’t park it in the driveway so it sat, large and inviting on the pavement. Were those days really so innocent? We had a stream of people asking if it was for sale, but it was never stolen. One day a man came, one of many, and when Paul saw him walk up the drive he guessed what the man’s errand was. So when he opened the door Paul just said, without preamble,
”No it’s not for sale!” and made to close the door. The man said,
“No, you don’t understand! Wait! Just hear what I wanted to say!”
Paul opened the door a bit wider, “O K what is it?”
“Do you want to sell the car?”
I suppose all this interest in this petrol guzzler was because it was in the days before Combi taxis came into fashion and because of their size Chevys and other generously proportioned cars were highly desirable, as their bench seats could be filled to overflowing with customers. Many times as I roared up the road, a pedestrian would put up a thumb without turning around and then be amazed as I thundered past them, at the sight of a white Madam driving a taxi.
How easy it would have been to steal her could be demonstrated by the following story. One day, I parked at the Bompas Road shops to buy veggies and when I came out I realised that I had left my keys in the ignition and had slam-locked the door. I went back into the shop and told the man my predicament, and asked him for a sharp pointed object, like the wicked blade he used for cutting pumpkin. He came out with me, convinced that I was crazy. Everyone knows you use a wire coat-hanger to open a locked car! Instead of trying to pry open the window as he obviously expected me to do, I simply put the tip of the knife into the lock and Voila! I’m sure I could have started the car with the same knife if I had had to! Now the shopkeeper knew he had seen everything!
Some cars are characters in their own right and this one was no exception. She had survived untold adventures in Zimbabwe before she landed up in that car lot. Maybe she had been driven down here by escapees from the early days of Uncle Bob’s rule in that country, who knows? I suppose that if we had owned her, we would have named her. Maybe Memphis Belle would have been a good name, she was something of a flying fortress, but I left the company after six months and went into interior decorating. With mixed feelings I bid her adieu but she will always have a place in my heart.