To have stayed on in Qatar would have been much of an anticlimax. During the twenty years spent in Qatar I felt more at home there than anywhere. One had many friends and acquaintances working in the company and more than several Arab friends of both sexes with whom one built up trusting and valued friendships. Then came suddenly the realisation that Qatar had no claim on me. I felt I must return to England. When asked to join a consortium of oilfield consultants the problem was resolved.
London in 1977 was a rapidly changing scene from the one I used to know. The people had changed; they were so young, so brash and more international. They used language and customs one did not recognise. I had much to learn and it did not attract me. The Arab invasion had reached its peak. Earls Court and Bayswater were chock-a-block with Arab visitors.
One needed a car. A lady relative having bought a new car was offloading her "L" registered Fiat 128. A square rather squat metal box with a wheel at each corner underpowered by an 1100 cc engine. It worked well enough but the body was beginning to show signs of rust and the brakes required renewal and the tyres would soon have to be replaced. However the price was right, although on reflection I probably paid over the odds for it.
It was a suitable vehicle to leave on the streets of London parked outside the flat I was to occupy during the weekdays. It was sluggish and slow compared with the American limousines one had used during the past three years. I had three months vacation before my appointment was to be taken up. Ibrahim appeared in London with his family, despite his cement fiasco his father did not veto the visit. It was arranged we meet before his return to the Middle East. They where staying in a rented house in Fulham only a stone throw from the flat I was using. He said he selling the B. M. W. he had been using during his stay. I mentioned I might be interested. The night before his departure who should turn up but cousin H. Y. H. calling in on his return from the States. Without more ado he cajoled Ibrahim to give me the B. M. W. Of course I refused as best I could, knowing that some accommodation would be reached. The more I "refused" the more Ibrahim insisted until I finalised the impasse by declaring I would pay a token sum. Then this had to be resolved. H. Y. H. suggested one hundred pounds. Ibrahim said no, no, (he had to appear not to lose 'face') fifty sterling would be enough! On handing over the car I obtained the reg. papers and a bundle of unpaid parking tickets each costing six pounds. Having paid ten by post, with about twenty remaining, and finding seven more tucked away in the side pocket of the passenger door I sent the lot to the police authority explaining they had been issued to the previous owner of the car, who being an Arab had now returned to Arabia, and I did not feel responsible for paying the fines. I heard no more.
The B. M. W a "J" registered model 1800 automatic was not worth a fortune. Ibrahim had bought it from a local used car dealer in Brompton Road. It cost him not much over one thousand pounds. The general condition was good. The engine was lively, the body in good shape for a seven year old car. When Ibrahim took it over it was almost perfect. Severn weeks hard wear and subjection to a horde of unruly children had taken its toll. The winding handle to the rear nearside window had been wrenched off and lost. Someone had backed into the front end whilst it was tightly parked in Earls Court Square, cracking one of the indicator and side lamp glasses; scratching a nasty score mark on the mud guard, and the bodywork was scruffy and uncared for on the out side. The interior soon cleaned up. The dark blue real leather seats were a joy and so comfortable. The exterior needed a little longer to clean up. It was obvious the car required a good overhaul. I found a garage near Seagrave Road that dealt with B. M. Ws. The bill was high but considering the car had cost me only one hundred and ten pounds I wasn't grumbling. When cleaned up and serviced it ran like the sporting car it was. After driving the 1100 Fiat the four-cylinder 1800 cc. B. M. W. automatic, four-door saloon swept along the M 23 seemingly without effort. Having owned many six-litre cars in the past years, this was the most powerful car I had owned and driven on English roads.
A reminder of the middle years in Qatar when I had a stable of cars, the Fiat was parked in the large garage in Hove, which held much of my furniture and belongings. I offered the use of the Fiat to my son and his wife who were using the Brighton flat; I had leased a flat in Fulham for eighteen months. After several months and four hefty repair bills mostly for renewing the wheel bearings and redoing the brakes the car was returned to me, the recently married couple finding it too expensive to run. The Fiat was sold for four hundred and twenty pounds. Having cost seven hundred and fifty pounds with another couple of hundred spent on it was an expensive car to have owned for nine months. The gift of the B. M. W. 1800 eased the pain of the cost of repairs for the Fiat fiasco. We travelled in comfort for thousand of miles. From the south coast to the east coast, the Midlands and the Yorkshire Moors many times a year. After the initial general overhaul it accelerated like a bullet and cruised at a steady eighty miles an hour giving no trouble at all.
Similar models of B. M. W's registered about the year 1971 having a "J" number had the same style of body but were invariably powered by 2000 cc capacity engines. During the time it belonged to me I came across only one other 1800 model. When I took it over it had around 50,000 miles on the clock and could keep up with the traffic one found on the M23. The automatic gearbox worked well. The four cylinder engine was lively enough, from a standing start the thrust was sufficient to pin one back into the seat for the initial second. Although looking slightly battle weary, it had had three previous owners; the car gave a good-natured performance with which I was greatly pleased. Whilst I was living in London and working for the Consultancy Group the B. M. W. had to be parked outside the flat.
It stayed there when I went on business to the United States in 1979 to Texas, to visit companies manufacturing some of the oilfield equipment we had designed. A car is essential in the States. What the Americans are pleased to call a "compact" car was sufficient for my needs. An almost brand new G. M. saloon, in blue paint with four doors, four seats, with plenty of power and air-conditioned was waiting for me at the hotel when I arrived by taxi from the nearby airport in Houston. It was like being back in Arabia once more; excepting the traffic hazards were a little keener.
Driving on Route 59 in Houston in a sudden rainstorm and negotiating a bridge and the confluence of dozens of traffic lanes one had to be on full form to stay in the race and keep one's head working out the traffic route back to the hotel. Driving in and out of the West End, up and down Park Lane and around Victoria during the rush hour had stood me in good stead, and, I could look back on the experience of driving in Beirut traffic without flinching. One could not move outside the hotel without using the car. The only early evening stroll I took was to visit the local store, a vast structure similar to our British major supermarkets. This entailed crossing the hotel's large car park, a service road and an open space; about five hundred yards. On the way back, in the long purple shadows of the evening I was importuned three times, the last time, on reaching the car park, by a very tall, dusky damsel of stunning beauty and svelte figure who continued her spiel until we reached the forecourt of the main door. Thereafter, I followed the advice of the desk clerk when I realised I'd lost a wallet of travellers cheques. From then on I went around by car. Walking in the U.S.A. was not done. I never discovered how she stole them; she must have been disappointed there were only forty dollars left unspent. The car was so easy and cheap to hire. It arrived at the hotel within half an hour of my request and, on leaving; I merely handed over the key and settled the bill along with my hotel account with no effort at all.
Arriving at San Francisco airport on my next leg of the journey ten days later I had difficulty obtaining a compact car. My protest on being offered a large limousine was overcome when I explained I was solo with one suitcase and had no need to drive around in two tons of metal. And anyway there was a petrol shortage at that time. When a new Thunderbird was offered at compact rates, principles went out of the window. Driving down to Silicon Valley to visit trainees studying at Honeywells was really most pleasant. One regretted not having a companion to enjoy the journey, the hotels and the delicious meals. In six days I had finished my company business and was free for two days in San Francisco. Then to motor up to a little town called Willets, way up north in Marin County to stay with my daughter, now married to an American.
Driving across the Golden Gate bridge which I had previously crossed two years before was, this time an occasion. I was driving. Travelling on Route 101 the coast road up to the Canadian border and beyond will always remain a pleasant and memorable journey. Having enjoyed magnificent scenery in northern Iraq, in Persia, northern India, Lebanon and northern Portugal and Spain one can make rational comparisons. Perhaps it was the loneliness of the drive. The Thunderbird purred along effortlessly at a steady speed on the broad band of silver black tarmac gliding and snaking up the foothills for miles and miles and miles. No traffic, man or beast passed me either way for half an hour. The emptiness, the space, spelt "freedom" and made one understand the vastness of States.
Arriving in such elegant transport may have conveyed, wrongly, an impression of wealth. However my daughter ever the resourceful and down to earth gal she is, saw to it that I had no need to spend a fortune and housed me in excellent accommodation in the motel she managed just outside Willetts. The visit was short; I had to return to the U.K. The reverse drive down to San Francisco is now a blurred memory; I must have been lost in deep thought, scheming how I should live and where I should live in the future. I recall I decided not to move to the U.S.A. much though I liked the country and the people I had met. I would retire to the south coast in England. Returning to the London flat the white paintwork of the B. M. W. had a thick coat of grime that soon washed off and after a quick check of the engine, the oil and the water she burst into life on the first switch. Having given me good service with little or no hassle I would liked to have kept the B. M. W. as a second car after I had bought my first new car for seven years, a smart Volkswagen Golf G. L.
A distant relative asked me to sell the B. M. W. to him. It seemed to make sense; I had no need for two cars. He was very keen and could not get round quick enough, but when he found it had automatic gears, he backed off. I used it for shopping trips leaving the Volkswagen in the garage. He 'phone up four days later and asked if he could see it again. He was very interested and asked the price. I suggested the mean between the prices shown in the used-car dealers trade handbook. He bought it on the spot. One is advised never to sell to friends or relatives; this was amply illustrated two weeks later when I received a telephone call from him. He was most indignant claiming the battery had failed and needed replacing. I was so astounded I sent a cheque for twenty pounds that was more than enough in those days, for him to buy the best battery he could find.
There is a little end piece to this story. A year or so later I had a strange telephone call from a lady in Bournemouth. She asked me to give an opinion on a car she was thinking of buying that evening. It was the B. M. W. I asked her how she got on to me. It appeared she had found the papers I had handed over at the time of sale on which there was my name and telephone number. She asked,
"Was the car a good one? Had it given me any trouble?" I was able to tell her the car had served me well, but could not answer for the past year, incidentally would she care to tell me what she was paying for it? The same price I had sold it a year ago.
I suppose I retired in nineteen seventy-three when I went to Algarve in Portugal. Then again I "re-retired" when I left Qatar for the last time in nineteen seventy seven only to take up with the Oilfield Engineering Consortium in London four months later in the same year. By the end of seventy-nine I became "semi-retired" and took on commissions only when they suited my schedule.
The B. M. W. was by then a little decrepit and I needed to cheer myself up, what better than with a new car? Nothing flashes, not too big, not too expensive to "run", not too large to park. I found the very car in Hove. A two door 1500 cc Volkswagen, metallic silver bodywork with black leather upholstery. One could say it was a three-door car, a hatchback, very useful for carrying things. Its attraction for me was the price and that it had an automatic gearbox. Three decades of living and dealing with Arabs showed through when I began to bargain over the price of the car.
The radio cassette player was an extra and when added on to the other extras brought the cost to seven pounds and seventy five pence over four thousand pounds. I wrote a cheque for four thousand, the young salesman seemed a bit nonplussed and ducked into the office to talk to the big man. He came back smiling, 'een tho' 'twas a trifle wry. The sum discounted was paltry and I was non too happy having done it. Yet this did not stop me, I had bargained so much in the Middle East.
I soon learnt this method used discreetly at the right time with certain people worked wonders for a thumping great discount. The Volkswagen was a great runner covering the Yorkshire dales, Scotland the Midlands, Norfolk and Suffolk, not to mention the peripatetic peregrinations the length and breadth of the south coast The pleasure of the V. W. was sadly to be diminished by a stupid accident caused by a breakdown truck.
Coming back from London one Friday evening we reached the outskirts of Brighton the time being about eleven o'clock with not much traffic about. Turning by the traffic lights to climb up Mill Hill another car was in front of us as we neared the railway bridge A Land Rover heavily laden with a small jib crane and armoured with a stout metal girder forming a formidable front bumper was negotiating the angle of the bridge arch. We followed in line. When the road opened up in to three traffic lanes the driver of the car in front of me put his foot down and shot away up the hill, passing the Land Rover trundling up at about thirty miles an hour. Following close behind and seeing no traffic coming down the hill, I, too put on speed and starting passing the Land Rover breakdown truck. Just as my Volkswagen was passing, the driver of the Land Rover turned to the right at the same time he put his indicator out.
First I heard a horrible crunching of metal and felt the car pushed to the right, my passenger cringed over to my side to escape the impact of the towering Land Rover which had now swung back and was following in parallel up the hill. He stopped, I came to a halt just in front of him checked that my passenger was unmarked, but not unshaken, got out and strode back to the truck. My opening remark:
"What the hell did you do such a daft thing for.... you." tailed off into more polite language when I saw there was a woman in the cab. The driver of the truck was a young chap and he said he was very sorry.
"I didn't see you" was his opening remark. I walked back to the Volkswagen followed by the truck driver. He had made a nasty mess of the nearside of the car. The heavy girder bumper had cut deep into the metal of the wing and the skin of the door panel, stopping just short of the rear wing panel. Again, he said he was sorry and looked very crestfallen. With the exchange of names and addresses we each went our own way. On arriving at the flat I rang the local police station. They didn't want to know any more when they had checked no one had been injured and we had exchanged details. I sensed the chap the other end of the 'phone was smiling at my naiveté. However it looked well on the accident claim, which was met in about four weeks, the car being made to look as new.
But, the car had lost something. It had been "soiled". I began to lose interest in it as a proud possession. It was just another box on wheels. Yet it earned it's way back into my heart by sheer performance. It was a gutsy little thing. It never let me down. I have fond memories of the V. W. 1500.
It was the vehicle numbering system that started me thinking of buying a new car. For some reason I had the idea that the last letter the alphabet "Z" would be issued in the August of eighty-two. I would buy a "Z" registered car. I was attracted to the Mazda 606 model. The salesman made a splendid offer for the V. W. about £750 above book value. My mind was almost made up, although I did not like the colour of the upholstery in the car I was offered, that was to be changed, if I would wait two weeks. Then I found out the car registration series finished with "Y" and a new series would start that year, with "A". I asked what the number would be. He couldn't tell me but would find out. By the time I learnt it was to be "A ...JJR" which I didn't like, I had an excuse to make my mind up against buying a Mazda. Strange, is it not the excuses we use, even look for, when we don't have a good reason for shilly and shallying. Of course I didn't let on to the salesman why I'd changed my mind. I just faded away from what could have been a good transaction for both of us.
What made me change my mind? The sight of a red B. M. W. Hove is full of B. M. Ws. Two a penny you may say. Maybe, people of taste (and cash) say I. By this time we were no longer living in Brighton, when moving down from Suffolk I bought a spacious place in Hove. The B. M. W. dealer's garage was not far away from my old flat in Brighton. Passing by one day this gleaming red two door 320 had a central spot in the window. It was not new, in fact a "V" registration, only one year younger than the Volkswagen. With only 13,500 miles on the clock it was as good as new. Not a mark on it inside or outside. The price was right, but the exchange was not satisfactory. They did not want take the V. W. in part exchange. Their advice was I would be better off selling it myself. This did not put me off. Again I had the daft idea of keeping the V. W. as a second car. The B. M. W. was in due time mine at their asking price and delivered with a huge bunch of flowers by the ex-public school salesman.
With six pots under the bonnet the 320 had a good turn of speed. The auto gears worked excellently. From a standing start at traffic lights the machine usually leaves everything else behind. It is a mean machine. I was a little disappointed there was no driving mirror on the passenger door. As the cost of fixing one was over a hundred pounds I managed with out at the time of purchase and never got around to having one fixed. There was no sunroof. However we seldom enjoy the sun and as I suffer from a cold in the head or a stiff neck if I sit in a draught, this did not worry me at all. The previous owner had taken out the radio cassette player; it was no trouble to fit a Motorola player.
The advice given at the time of delivery was never to wash the car with anything other than water, perhaps if very dirty to use a little mild detergent. Never use polish, only a soft polishing cloth. Never use chamois leather. The bodywork of the B. M. W. responded perfectly to this simple treatment. The car is invariably washed by hand on the concrete apron of the garage and has been only twice through a car wash when away from home base. Only once has the car let me down and this was remedied within ten minutes. Half way between Norwich and Lowestoft late one afternoon a sudden rainstorm required the wiper switched on. After a mile or so they packed up. It was a bad moment travelling at about sixty miles per hour with traffic fore and aft I had to quickly decide which hedge row to glide in to. Luckily a lay-by came up a couple of hundred yards ahead and I had safe parking to sort out the problem. The fuse box sitting over the front near side-wheel arch was very accessible but yielded up no "dead" fuses. The very act of taking them out and making sure they were firmly back in place again worked the trick. Switching the wipers, once the engine was ticking away, all was well.
During the December of the following year, having called in at Hadleigh to take tea with a niece the delay meant we had to drive to Lowestoft in the late afternoon. Snow began to fall. The few miles into Ipswich were thronged with 'rush' hour traffic. The new bridge over the river had not at that date been completed. We had to negotiate many traffic islands one encounters in Ipswich.
After more than two hours delay and with the snow now compacted to almost four inches we started to climb the hill out of town towards the A.12 route. Unfortunately I was driving behind a large van that had bald tyres and could not negotiate the hill. Even the B. M. W. began to slip and slide. Changing gear made little difference. Had there been a clear run ahead the tyres would have gripped and the car would have shot up the hill. Instead, stuck behind the truck with traffic constantly slipping and sliding down the hill on the other side I dare not try to pass. I had to grit my teeth and slip and lurch up the icy compacted snow to the top. By which time my patience was sorely tried and when the snow began to fall more heavily the thought of having to drive another fifty miles to Lowestoft was too daunting. The nearest Inn was a local pub. They did not usually take guests but could accommodate us. They could make us a meal. The room was roughly furnished and had one electric powered oil radiator placed just inside the door with the power cord fastened to a plug on the landing. This was not obvious to me when we took the room we were more interested in going downstairs to the bar to have a warming drink before the supper was served. I have never been so cold for many a long year as I was that night.
And meanness caught up with me. The performance of the car was not the reason for a dismal showing at the end of 1986. I was due to be away in Sri Lanka for the first three months of '87. The car would be laid up in the garage. The battery was by now getting a bit weak. Twice I had been embarrassed when it would not start on a November morning. I gave thought to buying a new one but decided not to do so until I came back to the U.K. in April. Dashing around doing last minute shopping I returned to the car to find a flat rear tyre. The A. A. man took quite some time to reach me in Portslade. The wheel changed and the cause located persuaded me I would require two new tyres for the rear wheels, the front being well shod.
I took the flat tyre to the BMW Agent not far away in Portslade. The foreman having taken the wheel and tyre from the boot waited as I switched on the engine. It would not start. "Try again, Sir," said he. He listened intently as I pressed the switch. The resultant " BrrrrrHbbrr.." made him shake his head. He asked me to open the bonnet whereupon he undid the battery and carried it to the workshop. He was not cheerful when he returned two minutes later.
"Sorry to say it's got a dud cell", he commiserated. This came as no surprise to me. The battery had been playing up for some weeks.
"It's ten to five now, can you fix a new one by tomorrow?"
"Can do it now", said the foreman, and off he went to fix it whilst I went back to the showroom office to put pen to chequebook. Surprising how the cost of car batteries seemed to have rocketed. In 1979 a new recommended battery for the BMW 1800 cost less than twenty pounds, now I had to write a cheque for fifty-seven pounds.
When I bought the B. M. W. I said to myself, "This car will last you most of your motoring days", which it will, if only I can quell my natural desire to buy a more modern car. The Volkswagen was to have played that role. It was in good shape when I sold it and was good for ten years more life. I lost exactly two thousand pounds selling it. That worked out at around six hundred and fifty a year loss on capital. So far I have had the B. M. W. since August 1983. After taking into account the cost of replacement parts and tyres over and above the cost of normal maintenance and allowing that I would expect to get about five hundred pounds above the trade book price, if, and when, in the near future I sold the B. M. W. the loss on capital, would be, within a few pounds, the same each year as for the Volkswagen.
The B. M. W. has three little rust spots. I give them my attention each time the car is cleaned. They are not improving with age neither are they causing me much concern. My friends tell me not to worry too much about them. That I am too fussy and should be happy to have such a 'clean' car. I am ... happy I mean.