At the end of 1962 my tour of duty in Lebanon came to and end. On the three hundred and sixty fifth day I flew to London, enjoyed a few days leave and spent ten days in London Headquarters being briefed for my new assignment.
I was taking up a different type of post. For the next ten years I would be engaged in the personnel area of operations dealing primarily with the training and retraining of Arab personnel on the company payroll in Qatar.
I needed a car. I had no money in Qatar. It would take some time for my bank balance in Lebanon to be released and so I arranged for an overdraft on the second day I arrived and went along and bought an Austin A60 from my old ‘friends’, the Darwish brothers. The Gulf was alive with cars made in Britain. Although not brilliant they were sturdy and fairly well made even if the paintwork and finish was poor quality. During the three years I kept it the A60 gave me sterling service. It was a short sighted move on the part of Austin Motors firstly to merge so fully into British Leyland and then become mixed up in the argument of selling to Israel and thus, in the end losing the markets in the Arabian Gulf to Peugeot and the Japanese. Had a new company been formed with a distinctive and different name selling the same vehicles under another badge name then the outcome may have been very different. It is easy to be wise after so many years yet looking back. One cannot but despair of our rigid and plodding approach to industrial selling and our blind faith in the almost divine right of selling anything we made to our long standing customers of the colonial and connected markets and expecting them to buy willy-nilly. It took two decades for this truth to sink in and in that time we lost out disastrously.
In the early sixties Qatar was open desert, it is now mostly a large urban sprawl. One could drive over empty desert for miles and during those first three years not only did I retrace all the journeys I had made in the late forties and early fifties I explored most of the peninsular. The car was serviced regularly at the Doha garage and it never let me down except on one occasion and that was in unusual circumstances. During the rainy season, a matter of only several days each year when the sky would open and water fall in Niagara quantities; pockets of water sometimes forded lakes several feet deep that persisted for days before they drained away.
The day I arranged to take a friend to the airport some twenty odd miles away it rained heavily the night before. Half way to the airport the road disappeared into the centre of a lake. There was no knowing how deep it was, one could see the road reappearing on a small incline some two hundred yards distant. The sensible course to take was to engage a low gear, keep going, hope one kept the car on the oiled road surface, for we still did not have ‘proper’ roads at that time, and no matter what, keep the engine going to stop water reaching the exhaust pipe. This worked until we were two thirds of the way across and then disaster struck. The engine splurted to a stop.
Later I found that a tiny hole in the exhaust pipe let in much water. But all was not lost. My passenger, muttering through his teeth. He took off his best shoes and socks, rolled up his trousers and, taking his bags from the boot set off softly cursing his way through the sandy water. Meanwhile I was wrestling with the starter when I had an idea. I had the car in low gear and inched it from the flood on the strength of the battery. My passenger was delivered to the airport wet and grumpy but he did catch his plane.
When the children came out for their holidays I arranged for the Mother of a lady friend to come out from London and keep an eye on them. Of course she had the full use of the A 60 and although she found the steering very heavy she drove merrily all over the place. Indeed one day Ma drove over the large irregular stones that lined the roads in the ‘camp’ much as they did in the old Army camps. This didn’t do any good to the near front wheel in fact it sheared off the suspension. The metal used for the wheels left a great deal to be desired. Soon after I bought the car I realised something was amiss with one of the front wheels. I had it stripped of the tyre and tube and took it around to the mechanical workshop. One side of the brake drum housing was more than twice the thickness of the opposite side. They trued it up and from then on it gave no trouble. Well, that is until the day of the puncture. Going into Doha one Thursday morning the front wheel on the drivers side had a punctured inner tube. I was near to the Darwish garage and they soon put in a replacement tube. Meanwhile I was enjoying a coffee in the manager’s office. I asked the mechanic standing idly by the car if all was ready, to which he nodded and, as I was driving away in the car, his friend the other mechanic waved goodbye. I drove down the main street into the Suq and swung the car smartly round a newly sited roundabout that were mushrooming all over town. The car developed a little wobble.
As there was a scheme whereby I could lease my car to the company during working hours or at such time when I used it on duty and charge up the mileage I was able to run my car for little or no cost, actually making a slight profit in the third year.Good grief I thought, another puncture. I prepared to draw into the side when suddenly the car fell onto the brake drum and the left side front wheel rolled down the street scattering people and thankfully ended up against a high pavement. As I sat in the car transfixed, watching it roll away I imagined it smashing through the expensive shop window of the jeweller’s shop. The Darwish breakdown truck arrived in double quick time as though it had been shadowing me. The manager was most apologetic. It turned out that the mechanic had nipped away and I had asked my question “is it ready?” of his colleague who was standing there but had nothing to do with my repair job. The nuts had not been fully tightened they supplied a new wheel as the bolt holes in the wheel had become large ovals.
During the time I had the Austin I also bought a Gypsy Austin four-wheel drive. In this I was persuaded by one of my more enterprising students who missed no opportunity to improve his position. He was so persuasive I only once drove the Gypsy. The idea was that it could be used over rough desert and thus take the strain off the A 60. In fact the student used it for his own safaris and stripped the gear box and talked me into swapping it for an old Cadillac which was kept in Doha and used by me only twice as I found it too ostentatious.
“It was the Cadillac which caused me to be interested in American automobiles. These old American cars could be picked up quite cheaply. They were good fun and my budget was very little dented. H. Y. H. now a student of promise proved useful. He progressed in his studies sufficient for him to be considered for training as a clerk in the air-movements office. He had a cousin who was the leading second hand car dealer in town, from whom I learnt quite a lot. He also introduced me to many local merchants who I had only nodding acquaintance way back in the fifties. With him, I visited many palaces and houses that would never have been so freely open to me a foreigner working inside an oil company compound. The financial transaction for the Cadillac was confused. I was never sure if I owned it. I drove it for short period but it was too flashy for me and we decided to sell it.
It was part exchanged for a Karmen Ghia Volkswagen soft top that H. Y. H. used exclusively, considering it his own. There was a vague understanding that, at a time expressed in the future I would be reimbursed, which I realised would always be vague and lost in time.
The Austin A 60 was proving useful but battered with so much service across the desert roads and frequently on the dirt itself. The condition of the bodywork was quite presentable. Despite all the hard work it had been given to do it showed only small signs of wear. The chassis was in good condition but the car has lost its crispness. I had no difficulty in selling it and let it go for a good price for a three-year-old car. I had three years good motoring for nothing; in fact, I may have made a small profit, taking into account the mileage rent I received from the Company.
Despite my interest in American fun cars I had a great respect for the German Mercedes. They were fast becoming popular in the little oil state and already one member of staff had bought a 230 model Saloon. One of the sheikhs had a 230 he wanted to change for a newer model and the head German technician at the Mercedes garage put me on to it. The wheels were larger than usual and the tyres were fatter too. It had been used on the desert quite a bit but in no way did it look anything but new. I bought it. The Mercedes 230 had a different feel to an American car. The Americans were making cars with huge ornamental bodies. Ornamental in the sense they carried too much chromium strip on oversized bodies and the suspension was so bad they rocked and rolled like the pop stars to follow. The seating capacity was usual for four although some of the Arab families used to ride eight or ten in them at times. The Germans made a different kind of car.
The gauge of the metal used on the body was heavier; the car was better sprung, better designed, better in performance in every way. It was so far ahead of any American car available and I drove it with care and pride. There is no denying I drove that car with more care that any other car. It had plenty of power, there was no need to drive madly about town to impress. The more slowly one drove the more impressive it was. But the brakes didn’t seem strong enough for so heavy a car. After two weeks I took it into the garage and had new brake pads fitted all round. I felt more confident with sharp brakes and I began to enjoy the power of the engine and the feel of the car.