Thursday, April 24, 2008

N Is For Neutral

Ambassadors Outrank Kings And Prime Ministers

Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON

Forget your Hummers, mate. Forget your SUVs, too. The hardiest vehicle in the world has to be the Indian-built Ambassador, modelled on the old Morris Oxford of 1950s English vintage. They were on the Indian roads when I was a kid and - guess what - they're still being manufactured, with the same iconic body shape. One was even shipped out to England and turned into a hippy-style taxi, so I guess they're set to take over the world now.

I learnt how to drive on an Ambassador, or "Amby" as they are fondly referred to. The photograph above was taken of an Ambassador taxi in Calcutta in late 2006. It was completely dark and I had just got out of the cab when I realised the street light cast the vehicle's interior in a beautiful glow. I shot this with the flash off and if you look carefully you'll see the driver's head and the interior glow reflected in the vehicle's roof.

To his eternal credit, one of my brothers decided to teach me how to drive an Ambassador when I was eleven years old. By that time, I had paid close enough attention to know that when you started a stick-shift vehicle, you had to ensure it was in neutral.

Left foot on the clutch, right hand on the wheel, left hand on the gearshift. Make sure it's in neutral. Turn the key.

Simple, when you think about it now. But when you're eleven years old, you have lots of questions.

Like: what happens if you start the car and it looks like it's in neutral but it's not? So my brother showed me. He put it into first gear and started the engine. The car jerked startlingly forward and stalled.

Lesson learned. Always ensure it's in neutral. Never take anything for granted.

He was a great teacher. He was 23, a combat veteran who flew fighter jets. And in his eyes I guess I wasn't just some little tacker who was clamouring to drive - I was worthy of being given the chance.

I guess that says a lot about life as well, doesn't it? We only achieve when we are given the chance to do so, or when we create our own opportunities.

We lived in a huge house with a garden large enough to encompass a cricket pitch, a badminton court and a flower-bed area large enough to dwarf most present-day Australian suburban blocks.

On my first few lessons, my brother showed me how to juggle the daunting logistics of engaging the clutch, selecting the gear and releasing the clutch smoothly while using the accelerator to achieve movement.

After a few lessons, I reckoned I had it licked. So did he. We then moved on to the next phase and he showed me how to drive on a deserted street. I loved it. I revelled in the freedom. After Christmas had come and gone, he had to rejoin his squadron on the other side of the country - and my driving lessons came to an abrupt halt.

Then one afternoon when not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, I got itchy feet. What's life without a challenge? The grown-ups were asleep, honouring the siesta tradition.

So I helped myself to the car keys, walked out and started it up. You see, our front gate was a tight fit and several experienced drivers had remarked to my Dad that while coming in and making an immediate ninety-degree right-hand turn was a challenge, it got considerably harder on the way out when their reflexes (and probably their eyesight, too) were slightly less sharp after a couple of glasses of Scotch.

So I turned the car around, went smoothly through the gate, drove down the avenue that was (and still is) fringed with palm trees, drove back through the gate, parked the car and put the keys back.

From memory, I didn't keep it a secret when the adults woke up. And from memory, I didn't get into strife either.

But when I think about the episode now, I cannot for the life of me remember how I turned the car around in the narrow lane to re-enter the house. I must have done a three-point turn, which is not a bad feat in an Ambassador with no power steering.

But more importantly, it was a lesson in life. That was the afternoon I learnt you can do anything - if you assess the risks, approach the challenge sensibly and with enough, er, drive.

For the home of ABC Wednesday, go to Mrs Nesbitt's Place.


Charles Gramlich said...

Reminds me a bit of teaching my son to drive. Althoguh we didn't have an ambassador but a toyota.

leslie said...

What a great post today, David! I must admit to smiling a lot as I also recalled learning how to drive with a standard transmission. And then...teaching my own daughter how to drive a standard transmission. I remember one day as we were at a stop sign, waiting to turn left, she kept stalling the car as she tried to get it in first. The cars were piling up behind us and I was getting more and more nervous, ready to jump out and direct traffic behind us. But the man directly behind was so kind and just waved me off as though to say, "I know what she's going through. It's okay." After about a dozen stalls, she finally got it going only to return home, pull into the garage, and just clip the ping pong table enough to have it fall over on the hood of my car - giving it a huge dent! We! lol

Neva said...

You absolutely crack me up! I love how you tell your stories!

Liz said...

You must have been a confident little lad! And you didn't get into trouble?!

Katney said...

I rode in some of those taxis when I was in India.

(My mother's learning to drive--standard transmission was all there was in those days--involved my father's appendicitis and a ranch far out in the Mojave desert. Somehow I think there were rattlesnakes involved as well, but that could well be a different story from the ranch.)

Gretchen said...

My daughter is turning 16 in June and now we're just now trying to teach her to drive. What a treat! Nice photos.

Thalia's Child said...

I love the subtle way you weave a life lesson into a wonderful tale about learning to drive. (My lessons on a manual were much... jumpier)

Dragonstar said...

Obviously a natural-born driver!

Beautiful photos again.

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

May I assume that the Ambassador (and the old Morris Oxford) are/were better constructed than the MGB, the only British car I’ve ever owned?

Seamus said...

Excellent "beginning" tale!

I put all 3 of my girls in a 1 ton pickup truck with dual back wheels and standard shift when it came time to learn to drive. All were around 12 (they are 2 years apart) and we started in parking lots, then fields and then unpaved country roads. I figured if they could learn to drive that behemoth then they could tackle anything. Have to say it worked. By the time they had their license they also had time in a variety of off road equipment as well - loaders, dozers and such. They had such bragging rights over all their boyfriends and now husbands - LOL! 20 years later we've managed no accidents or tickets.

John said...

What a great post and photos today David! Very well done.

the amoeba said...

What is it about the name "Ambassador"? At about the same time that Hindustani Motors first started rolling out their Ambassador cars (late 1940s), FE Olds and Son in America introduced their Ambassador line of trumpets and cornets. Intended for students, which means they were built to be almost bulletproof, and yet they were good enough to be played by professional jazz musicians. They're regarded as at least the equal of many professional-grade horns made today. The Olds company went belly-up in 1979, but their horns, including their Ambassador lines, are still being played, and command respectable prices on the used trumpet market.

wes said...

Thanks for the post, David, brought back a lot of memories of when I learnt to drive. But I wasn't 11!

BRUNO said...

It's all in the desire to learn---even if ONE of us drives on the WRONG side of the road!

I think I was BORN with a shifter in my hand---except for me it was in my RIGHT fist!(I do confess to a "weakness" for automatics as of lately, however---my "rusty" joints, and clutches don't mix too well, in traffic!)

The most confusing shift-pattern on a car I've ever encountered was a mid 50's(?)model Mercedes-Benz, with a four-speed on the steering column!

Talk about "split-shifting"....!

Lacey Lichi said...

Love the photos and the story. I learned how to drive in a wheat truck. Not nearly as exciting, but a lot of fun when I was 13.

quilly said...

I believe we have like spirits. I got my first driver's license at the age of 14 and my first car was a motorcycle. It came time for it to be serviced and my folks were going out of town for the weekend. Dad told me I couldn't ride the bike until it had an oil change. He was thinking he had successfully grounded me while no one was around to keep an eye on me. Ha!

I took out my owners manual and very carefully followed it step-by-step and changed the oil. It was a great weekend. Vrrooooooooooom!

joan said...

Great story and love the photos.

Cathy said...

What a wonderful, inspiring story!

mrsnesbitt said...

I remember learning to drive...the tears and worry! That was just Dad at the thought of taking me out on the road again! LOL!
Great post the way you bring life and experience into it all.


Shrinky said...

What a beautiful tale, and a great parable for life, David. Yes, unless given the tools to try, manys a potential spark can be snuffed before ignighting.

Eleven? What a precosious child! But then, having an adult brother to hero worship, and a fighter pilot no less, what else could be expected?

imac said...

Nice one your driving lessons and your ride out on your own.

Sandi McBride said...

Learning to drive...what a wonderful experience I had doing just that with my father...since I was the closest thing he had to a boy at the time, I was the youngest in the family to learn how to drive stick...oh how I love to drive...great story, great they'd cost the earth to drive now!

Jennifer H said...

I love this story. And I admire the nerve you had to take the Ambassador out for a quick spin.

Well told.