My First Car: Fred passport to world beyond barracks

Fred the Austin Seven started life painted black but acquired red and green livery thanks to Dulux g

Fred the Austin Seven started life painted black but acquired red and green livery thanks to Dulux gloss. - Credit: supplied

Tony Martin enjoyed many 'manoeuvres' and journeys of discovery while in the Army with Fred his trusty Austin Seven.

I spent most of my National Service on Salisbury Plain when it took me 18 months to save £40 for my first car.

It was parked against the wall of a garage at Weyhill, near Andover, and was my passport to the wider world beyond Bulford Barracks.

The Austin Seven was first registered in 1934 so was 23 years old when I got it. It reliably carried me on 48-hour leaves to Ipswich – I could get away on Friday evening and complete the 200 miles in exactly six hours.

Then, the A303/A30 was a delightful road although I used the B3400 to go through Whitchurch and Overton to Basingstoke and then to Hook, Hatch and Hartly Wintney, Blackwater and Camberwell. I stopped at the last place, near Sandhurst, behind a large Rolls-Royce with a flag on the front and five stars on a plate. As I was in uniform I am able to say that I once saluted Field Marshal Montgomery.

Sunningdale and Virginia Water were charming then and the run past Staines and into Hounslow, Chiswick and Hammersmith uncomplicated. Hyde Park Corner was always interesting and in Oxford Street there was a row of telephone boxes where I'd ring my mother to say I would be home in three hours – I always was. It was easy in those days to find Leytonstone and the A12 to Romford and on to Suffolk.

The Austin was black when I bought it but acquired red and green livery with Dulux gloss paint and the name 'Fred' at the Pathology Laboratory of Tidworth Military Hospital to which I was attached. We found that a bottle of benzine added to the five-gallon petrol tank gave smoother engine running, especially in damp conditions, long before BP thoughtfully put it in its own fuel and called it National Benzole.

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Fred opened up the West Country for me so that I was able to discover the wonder of the Hot Spring at Bath and I could sit in the solitude of a Sunday at Stonehenge. I would go to Salisbury where, for £1 (I've still go the menu to prove it) one could eat where the officers ate at the Haunch of Venison by the Butter Cross.

I met my parents, once, for Sunday lunch at Simpson's in The Strand. I remember that the doorman – in his top hat, gold braid and frock coat – solemnly opened the passenger door and tipped the front seat forward so my father could get in the back and my mother in the front. I then took them back to Liverpool Street railway station, a bit lopsidedly because it was better to sit in the back on the offside to counteract the road camber.

This may well have been the day I went down The Mall to get to Hammersmith but I went through the gates of Constitution Hill which was closed to traffic on a Sunday. I found out why when my rear-view mirror was filled by a large square radiator topped by a flag far prettier than the Field Marshal's and a coat of arms more impressive than his five stars. This car was maroon and disappeared into Park Lane while I went to Kensington.

Fred came with me to agricultural college near Northampton so I regularly travelled the old A45 – Wellingborough, Higham Ferrers, Kimbolton, St Neots, Cambridge – no bland bypasses then, just the small towns of old England before the Sixties did dreadful things.

Fred came back to Suffolk with me, only once not under his own power. Something went wrong in Cambridge and my father had to tow me home behind his Humber Super Snipe. I think this was the only time that Fred exceeded 45mph. Semi eliptical springs at the back created a tendency for rear-wheel steerage on fast corners.

I think I did about 20,000 miles of trouble-free motoring – perhaps with a bit of help from Radweld, Redex and plenty of oil. It was simple to take the cylinder head off on a Sunday morning, scrape the coke off it and the pistons, grind the valves and their seats a bit and have a hot lunch before returning to Hampshire or Northamptonshire.

I drove lorries and Land Rovers in the Army and I drove a general in his Austin Princess staff car. I drove the medics and the Queen Alexandra's nurses in Austin A40s and A70s and Vauxhall Victors but I never again had so much fun as I had with Fred.

Tell us about your first car and the adventures and scrapes you had. I doesn't matter how long ago it was, just email your motoring memories with a picture of the car to or post it to Andy Russell, motoring editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE.

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