It’s not that I want to be a petrolhead; it just looks like I do, if you consider my recent vehicular history. Actually, I am far more into history than cars but the reality is that if you want to get around a big city like Melbourne safely and efficiently at all hours, you have to drive. Perhaps a more honest title for this would be: Motoring Mistakes I Have Made – grand errors and regrettable lapses, just trying to get from point A to B.
I learnt the word “petrolhead” at The State Theatre when a fellow dance reviewer called me that as we were milling about before the ballet. I was bemoaning the departure of Bill Tuckey, former motoring editor from his newspaper, a rival broadsheet. “You’re a petrolhead!” my colleague declared without telling me exactly what happened to Bill Tuckey, who had a very funny turn of phrase. I had ample opportunity to familiarise myself with Tuckey terminology because at the time, I was also working, in a most lowly capacity, on a trade publication for the motor industry. Trade publications are the cannibals of the press and live by stewing up information quoted from other published sources. Often quoted, Bill Tuckey was funny and funny is good, always. If I thought there were any jokes in Tuckey’s 1987 classic, “The Rise and Fall of Peter Brock” I would track down a copy and sink my fangs into it.
When Brocky died, I pretended to care, deeply. I was driving my white manual Barina City, 1996, known as the Batmobile. I was on Glenfern Rd, Upwey, with the densely verdant foothills of the Dandenongs on my right and the rolling grazing fields of Lysterfield on my left, when I got a call from Bill Allan, my octagenarian tenant at whose place I had just been ten minutes before. “Peter Brock’s dead!” he announced.
“No way!” I exclaimed right back, top of my voice because my hearing is not good and my handsfree mobile phone technique is even worse. The undulating road rose and fell beneath the Batmobile’s small but nimble wheels, as Bill filled in the bare details.
Brocky had wrapped himself around a tree during a rally. As I was in a simulated rally terrain, I drove with even more care. The legendary champion, by then over sixty, was now retired for good. Bill said all drivers on the road were turning on their headlights. I joined the throng. Maybe I had never seen a car race. Maybe I was opposed to having the Grand Prix at Albert Park Lake reserve and had made a protest sign, which I taped to the rear window of my white, manual Suzuki Swift sedan,1992 : “Ducks can’t wear earplugs,” but the death of a legend is serious. Likewise, Bill Allan was a Ford driver while Brock was Holden, but at that moment, it didn’t matter. I was transfixed by the irony of Brock having such an exemplary fit body – and not just for his age – at the time of his death. Also, I couldn’t believe it was an “accident”, especially since the rally passenger escaped, not just alive, but relatively unharmed. I only formed my suicide theory later. I also firmly believe that Princess Diana was definitely murdered.
In fact, it was my inappropriate reaction to the latter’s death that made me treat the deaths of celebrities with sensitivity. Normally, I don’t listen to the car radio but at the time of Diana’s car crash I had just done a live radio ballet review, so, driving home, I listened to the Sunday arts show for which I worked. The news of Diana’s car crash came through. “Wouldn’t it be good if she died!” I said, wide-eyed about the press feeding frenzy this would inspire. Then, Diana died and my daughter accusingly reminded me of my terrible words. She did this more than a few times. It was pretty hard to explain that when I said what I had said, I wasn’t thinking about Diana, the mother of two young children etc, but rather of the soap opera character that she had created in collusion with the press. That was the last time I would fall into such callousness.
Brocky’s death was no joke. Crocodile cuddler Steve Irwin had only died just before, so it was two legends in a rapid row. I immediately rang my sister Marta. Her husband answered the phone. I warned him not to do anything dangerous because we were now two legends down and there was bound to be a third. When my sister took the phone, I told her the news – no, she hadn’t heard and she was almost as hard hit by it as me. Actually, she’s not much into sport. For instance, I might say something about Ricky Ponting captain of the Australian cricket team – in whom I started taking a wary interest after I heard him declared, “the most dangerous man in cricket” which made me ask, why haven’t the police picked him up? – and Marta says, “Who’s Ricky Ponting?” to which I can say, “My point, exactly.”
Marta’s real soft spot is football. Her love of the Collingwood football club goes way back to when she was in her late teens and studying cello at the Victorian College of the Arts, when it was a proper performing arts academy focused on the arts as practice rather than essay topics about arts pracitce. We had gone to The Club in Smith St Collingwood to see a band called INXS because a former English student of mine was going out with the lead singer. As nightclubs were the only places you could get an alcoholic drink after 10 pm, they often attracted a seedy drunken element among the desirably well-heeled, young patrons. If the drunks caused no trouble, they were welcome to spend as much at the bar as their guts and bladders could hold. We were waiting for the band to come on, when a drunk siddled up to Marta. He wore a shabby, brown overcoat, was unshaven and had some grey through his messy hair. Today he would pass for the new, high disposable income inner-bayside residents who are only distinguishable from the homeless by their Audis/BMWs and pricey joggers.
The chat-up went like this:
“Collingwood did good today,” he began, balancing himself by the beer glass he was clutching.
“I wouldn’t know,” replied Marta coldly, as the rest of her party moved away, laughing politely.
“Doncha follow the Vee-eF-L?” he asked, stunned that he had wasted such a gem of a pick-up line on a non-believer. We were in Collingwood territory and the Magpies had won that Saturday!
“No. I think football is for morons.”
Was the gentleman admirer an idiot savant who opened Marta’s eyes to the aesthetics of football or it a cosmic irony that nowadays, when the Victorian Football League has stretched itself across the nation as the AFL, most of Marta’s pets are in the Collingwood club colours of black and white?
When I passed on the news of Brocky’s demise, I was driving a Holden. They had come a long way since my first driving lesson when a Mr Dowd from Ronald’s Driving School made me sit on two phone books so that I could work the pedals of his Holden sedan, which fortunately had dual controls. My Batmobile can transport six saddleback timber chairs in one trip but I bought it because it looked nice. So, although I passed for a petrolhead at the ballet, I clearly didn’t think like one. Colour is very important, too, and I can really only drive white cars. And that’s probably why I can’t drive my red Mustang much, if at all. It also partly explains why I have even more difficulty with my Subaru Impreza, which is called “white”, but the metallic, gold underlights make it a very pale pinky cream.
Of all colours, white is the most controversial and colour experts will tell you that it isn’t a “colour” at all, nevertheless, it happens to be my favourite colour and my panacea for all grief. Nothing is more therapeutic for me than an hour spent in my totally white laundry, washing “whites”. So how do I come to own a red Mustang or even a Mustang at all? Aside from the name and my strong identification with horses – unlike most people, in former lives I wasn’t a queen or Julius Caesar or even a human, judging by my incompetence at being one currently, but I do believe I was a horse, perhaps a mustang, but definitely a wild horse – I also think it looks nice. My first mistake, aside from buying the car at all, was being honest about this when sourcing insurance for the car.
I learned quickly that only a specialist insurer would underwrite a fully imported car, so I rang Shannons “Specialist Insurance for Motoring Enthusiasts.” I was asked questions that I can’t remember now and then couldn’t answer. No, I wasn’t in any car club, had no affiliations with any motoring apart from private commuting and when I had a flat tyre, I called the rescue service (or RACV road assist, as it’s known in the trade). My interrogator finally asked, “WHY did you buy the car?” Sensing his exasperation, I attempted to be as pleasant as possible. “Because it looks nice.” This was not enough for Shannons, as I had failed to demonstrate that I was an enthusiast. Lucky for him that I had refrained from demonstrating my no nonsense, “Jeez, you don’t muck about” side, which actually would have ticked all his boxes and gone something like this:
“Listen,” I would begin in a tone that implied, “Listen, shitbag, I’m the customer here!”
“… if you can’t help me, could you please put me through to your manager or someone of enough seniority to handle my request. Correct me, if I’m wrong, but yours is an insurance company for imported cars, which my car is. It is a Ford Mustang, 1994, 3.8 lt V 6 automatic red coupé righthand drive converted with 61,000 km on the clock. The kilometers are genuine, it has never been in an accident, it came into Australia from Japan in 1997. Obviously you have no idea how hard it is to find a Mustang 3.8 lt V6 auto in Australia. Everyone wants the 5 lt V8 manuals but have you ever tried the clutch on those? I normally don’t drive autos because I use the clutch to work my abdominal muscles and keep my gut flat.
“And yes, it’s true, if I could have bought a 2 lt 4cyl manual version of the same Mustang made smaller but retaining the same proportions as the 1994-1998 model, I would have. That model was 4610mm long and 1884 wide and I believe one of the shortest Mustangs ever. The shorter the car, the better for parking, the easier to manoeuvre and I don’t have to tell you about the importance of avoiding damage to your car. You’re in insurance, I am a RATINGS 1 FOR LIFE driver. When I get my insurance renewal notices, I get an “AAMI Award for Excellence in Driving” sticker, which I normally toss but I have now put on my Barina to let everyone (“shitbags like you,” – implied) know that my driving is praised in some quarters.
“But it’s not just the length of this Mustang. It’s also the proportions. The model is part of the Fourth Generation design, which took the look back to the classic 60s coupé – don’t start me on the fastbacks (fancy term for a hatch), I think they are really ugly like deformed slugs – and was produced from 1994 to 2004, however by 1999, the car became longer by 42 mm(4653) and narrower by 27mm (1857). That might not sound much different to you, but it is to me because I bought the car “because it looks nice.”
I wouldn’t have even bothered to start on the pony badge on the car’s front – a magical silver silhouette of a stylized horse, all hooves off the ground, tail flying, my idealized self-portrait. After many years of reviewing dance and bonsaiing my intellectual property for the unfiltered readership of the daily press, I’m very careful with whom I discuss aesthetics on an equal footing. So, luckily, I didn’t say any of the above because Shannons are very expensive insurers and ponce about with all sorts of demands, according to a woman I know who likes and has owned big American classic cars from the 1950s.
Then I rang Torque Insurance and found that, indeed, Torque is cheap. The man there was so nice that I let him look at my car via email and he said it looked really nice. There’s too much nasty in the world these days. I loved everything about Torque. When the soothing man asked how many kilometers I intended to drive the Mustang per year, I volunteered “100 a week?” Being innumerate, I had no idea but have since leaned that it’s not even 50 a month. I know this because Torque was taken over by Lumley Special Vehicles and they want an annual odometer reading.
When you buy a car because “it looks nice,” it should be obvious that you mainly want to “look” at it. Is that so wrong, even if it is surprisingly fuel efficient and inexpensive to maintain? But my Mustang isn’t just beautiful on the outside. The horse logo is repeated on the steering wheel. On the rare occasions when I drive the car, and I’m putting lanolin on my hands, I rub a little on the pony and make him shine even more. I love that little pony.
I discovered the cosmetic benefits of lanolin after running my hands through a sheep’s fleece while the sheep was still wearing it. My genuine fondness for sheep has not lured me into buying a Jumbuck ute “the toughest little half-tonner in town,” cute as they are, because they are front wheel drive and, since I even get bogged in rearwheel drives, for a proper workmobile, I need an all-wheel drive. If I was a real petrolhead, I would be able to take off at traffic lights on slippery wet roads without spinning the wheels and freaking out about some hotfooter ramming it right up my exhaust. Nor would I be getting bogged on rough roads that the towtruck driver assures me would be no problem for an all-wheel drive. You only need to be bogged a few times to accept that you genuinely need an all-wheel drive car and that’s why I have one. It’s an Impreza, a word that has become my synonym for anything that gives me a headache, which the Impreza literally does.
This car, the 2007 hatch – not the old sportswagon style that I had gone to buy two months too late – but the new super safe model that has so many air bags stuffed into it, you cannot see out of the car because the front pillars are so wide and the doors and the dashboard are so high. Even when I jack up the seat high enough to see a little better, making my legs bang against the steering column, visibility out of the car is still so poor, it strains my eyes and leads to headaches.
The front seats are designed for slouching and if you have a strong straight spine that will not be distorted to fit the curvature of the seat, the headrest bangs into the pressure points on the back of your head. This also leads to bad headaches. I have addressed this problem by swapping the front headrest for one of the smaller straighter ones from the rear.
Pity I can’t swap the clutch, which is oddly sensitive and does not release until about half way out. Don’t try fiddley reverse parking in busy city streets. Take extreme care at the lights or you’ll get rammed up the exhaust. And speaking of exhausts, the cabin ventillation is abysmal except for the mysterious draught that still blows on your feet from under the driver’s dash even when you have the heater on. The first time I froze like this, I took it well and instead of selling the car, which had been my first impulse, I went straight to a shoe shop and bought three pairs of different types of boots to cover different occasions and different degrees of cold. “Turn a negative into a positive,” is one of my motos. Two winters later, I still love and wear all those boots and I still hate the car because, although I have warm feet, I can’t get enough air for breathing. Unless I open the window at least half way, the slope of the window glass scoops the outside air up over my head while all that comes from the air vents is the stench of plastic and some feeble puffs of warm air. Maybe you are supposed to use the air-conditioning, which I can’t because all air-cond gives me a headache.
The car’s factory-fitted battery was a mega-problem. If you didn’t drive the car for two weeks, it would go flat. Trying to discuss the problem with the Subaru service people was impossible because the service phone number is not linked to any service department, it is merely a service appointment booking line. If you only want to ask a technical question, you have to take the car in for a service because the telephonists know nothing about cars and can’t let you speak to anyone who does. As I had already been through this whole process after a dashboard light played up, I couldn’t bear to be mucked about so painfully again. The light in question is one that shows the car in a wobbling position; according to the manual, if this light comes on, you have to contact the service department immediately, which I did. When I took the car in, they tested it at length, found nothing wrong and sent me off, saying that the next time it happened, they would have to keep the car for a whole day. As the faulty light would eventually switch itself off, I saw no point in having more of my time wasted by the endless number of Subaru employees you had to deal with to organise any kind of assistance, let alone actually get anything done.
(The faulty dashboard light was due to a software problem that Subaru addressed by issuing a warranty recall. A letter, dated 5 February, 2010, informed:
“Subaru (Aust) Pty Limited (“Subaru Australia”) has been advised by Fuji Heavy Industries (the manufacturer of Subaru Vehicles) that certain 2008 to 2009 model year Subaru Impreza vehicles without turbocharger can unnecessarily log an engine operation fault code. This is due to a “software bug” within the engine control unit (ECU) that causes illumination of a warning light, indicating incorrectly, that there is a performance concern with the exhaust catalytic converter.”
They fixed it by re-programming the ECU.)
The battery problem was eventually sorted after we strolled into a suburban Subaru dealership, where, unlike at the fancy city one from which I bought the car, employees who know something about cars also do their own reception. They talk the talk, walk the walk and fix the car. A new battery, supplied on warranty solved the problem.
To be fair to the Impreza, it cannot be faulted on wet slippery roads. The ventilation is not a problem then because I am so tense that I barely breathe. The visibility remains a blight but since I smashed the car’s front righthand panel on an obstruction just below my sightline, I have been triply cautions. It’s nerve racking and slower, but much cheaper. The dogs quite like the Impreza and for them it would be much more comfortable than the back of the mighty Toyota Hilux Workmate ute, the only vehicle my husband has ever owned. However, open the Mustang door and our Barry will be right behind you in the hope of getting into the back seat. They say that the back of the Mustang is not really for passngers but they haven’t run that one past Barry Boxer.
How I came to get the Mustang is a rollicking story involving the maxim ‘famous last words/careful what you wish for,’ eccentric car dealers, a sign from Elvis and a belief that I wouldn’t get pushed around on the roads if I had a tough car. But that’s another story.
Thanks for the compliments. Actually, I’m still writing – a monthly column in motoring plus other stuff, including my just-released 27th book, the first biography of Ken Warby, and 26th, a true crime book on a double murder.
Best regards from one petrol-head to another.
If the Norse gods themselves descended on my naturestrip, I could not be more dazzled or amazed. It is a regret that I cannot quote my all-time favourite Tuckeyism, which discussed some development in the motoring industry through a metaphor that borrowed its imagery from the fairytale of Jack and the Beanstalk. Very clever and very funny. The information was always A1, of course, but it was the quality of delivery that made it irresistable. Thank goodness for your books and their significant contribution to Australian culture both as historic record and good reading. Good to see, with the Ken Warby book, that you are immortalising another Australian legend in print.