The First Car Ever

Why do we want to go faster than we can run; why do we want to fly – and beat gravity?

It’s been an obsession with many generations of human beings to innovate and to change our rate of movement. This may have to do with our intelligence, self-awareness and our dreams or our search for thrill. Or is it possible that we have to find ways to outdo our boredom?

Someone said that God wanted a Mercedes Benz: He did not know how to go about it and so he decided to create man to do it for him! When Mr Ford set up his automobile industry, little did he know that people had predicted that no one would be able to produce more than two million cars, for where would we look for more than two million drivers to drive cars? Little did they realize that there would always be some young kids who would be dreaming of driving cars.

Decades ago, in the early 1950s, my parents were tenants of a thatched house: a two-room building with a “godon”, and an open verandah running round half of that house. On the western side were the kitchen, a small detached cabin about ten feet away, and further still west was the plot was bounded by a thick hedge of “balie fatac”.

Near that impenetrable greenish growth was a solitary “Vacoas” tree, and almost below that tree lay one of the most unforgettable gifts that a child of those days could dream of. Here lay a disused, weather beaten car, a real one, with deflated tyres buried in the surrounding ground. It bore a blackish, rusty pock-eaten paint; later I would realize that most cars of that time were black-coloured.

The more I think of that car, the more I recall that it did not have a roof, though logic makes me ask who would have had interest to rob it of its top. Looking back now, it was common practice at that time that an unwanted car would be stripped of all possible spare parts by the owner before being discarded like an old shoe. Could my car have suffered such a fate, where even the roof was not spared? That’s why I have also this uncanny feeling that it did not even have back rests or seats, and the doors were missing. But it definitely had a driver’s seat – if we could call it a seat. Because, every morning, that’s where I would run and take my royal berth as soon as I woke up; at that time there could not have been ‘marocain’ covering ; nor was there leather on that seat, for one could see the springs and the rusty, yellowish coconut-like fiber stuffing. But that did not deter my enthusiasm; after all, what is a seat. I would rush to that sanctum sanctorum of fun as soon as the sun was up. I do not remember whether I did it systematically every day, but the feeling was that I had had great thrill at attempting to drive a car — my car. No one ever gave a hoot about her, except me.

However, I may be mistaken; memory may play me foul. Was it possible that certain avian beings had discovered that the car’s innards were the ideal place for laying eggs, in a corner of the back quarters of that old machine? Maybe.

It was a solid, out-of-size toy, with a long bonnet in front, with real wheels and driver’s seat. I was never aware of brake, clutch or accelerator pedals or other manual devices (to be fair, I could not have then known of their existence or purpose). Had they also been dismantled and sold away? I would never know.

In those days, poverty and fashion permitting, boys of three years did not wear pants or shirt; we had a long “toile ecrue” singlet which reached us below the knee. I could see myself being seated on that huge adult seat with my singlet, grasping a huge steering wheel, with all the thrill that this could entail, trying to imitate the grown-ups. Though the question may be raised whether in those days I had had the opportunity to see many cars driven by adults. But if I had not, how could I have known what driving is all about?

I would wobble on the springy seat, twisting and rotating the steering wheel which, of course, would not budge. Did I ever imitate the engine sound by filtering my exhalation through puckering lips? Maybe yes, maybe not — because we children might not have seen or heard many running cars. Soon, I suppose, I would have discovered that it was useless to expect movement in that contraption. Yet every day the make-belief world would have taken over, and the child’s mind would have given in, adapted and played along; and that was great fun almost every morning. For me the car was the steering wheel, and the steering wheel the car.

I do not remember how much time I spent daily with my metallic friend, nor do I remember ever hearing my mother scolding or reproaching me for filial infidelity.

Months later we would change house and my child’s mind would be malleable enough to forget that dear immobile, faithful friend. What happened to it I would never know; most probably it rusted, broke down further and got discarded to some still gloomy corner of the compound – forgotten by one and all — except that it still lingers in my memory.

In those days children had no electronic toys or electronic-guided toy cars to fondle, but of all the children of the world I am sure I was the luckiest: I had a real car to look up to every day.

Now almost six decades later, driving a power-steering wheel car, with aircon and automatic clutch, I ask myself how that childhood car would have compared. Yet sometimes, I have a feeling that for a fraction of a second, as I speed along M1, I would forget my age and revert to that childhood reverie, fancying myself sitting in that old English vehicle, reliving the old sensations of that hard, metallic steering wheel in my small hands, with so much ecstasy and fun, that only children of those days could dream of.

Surely there will always be certain feelings and memories which will always tickle within us a pleasant nostalgia of our bygone childhood days.

* Published in print edition on 29 April 2016

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