No… this isn’t a story about 37 KPO and pal R2D2 helping Luke Skywalker thwart Darth Vader’s plans for intergalactic domination. 37 KPO was a white 1963 British Leyland Mini. Our first family car. Costing £200. Truth was, it was less sophisticated than R2D2. For 37 KPO was the basic model. One step up from Fred yabba-dabba-doo Flintstone’s, feet through the floor, buggy. In the 60’s, basic was basic.
The key didn’t start the car, the button on the floor did. The front seats were synthetic, red leather – and squeaky – and the back bench seat challenged a medium sized child to get comfy. The black, plastic cords that looped across the inside of the doors were surprisingly efficient handles. Windows didn’t shoosh up or wind down and were in two parts. The front half slid along, overlapping the back half. Small heater vents warmed you up slowly in winter (Dad got driving gloves and thick socks for Christmas that year). Air conditioning meant windows open!
Yet this unassuming, humble Mini served us well.
I remember the quiet joy on my father’s face as he ushered us out to “his special surprise”. That evening we embarked on our maiden outing and first adventure. Getting lost in the maze of homogenous streets of a posh Bearsden estate. Yes really! The petrol gauge hovered menacingly above empty. The nearest open petrol station was… where? We got home. Just.
As Dad was a mechanic, specialising in servicing and repair of Land Rovers for the Western Isles farmers, keeping this car running smoothly was a dawdle. It was washed, polished, and waxed more often than Poirot’s moustache. And Dad treasured it not because it tracked along rutted forest trails, blasted through deep puddles in road dips, rumbled across fallowed fields chasing straying sheep… because it couldn’t. But for him it meant two hours, to work and back, saved every day. No longer at the mercy of the elements. Or moody double-decker clippies. I treasured it because in the mornings he dropped me off at secondary school, we had family teatime before the six o’clock news and enjoyed Saturdays at Drumchapel Baths. With cousins.
That summer we went on our first camping holiday abroad… to Great Yarmouth. England.
The amount we packed into that Mini was nothing short of miraculous. The roof rack had the hefty tent, poles, ropes, pegs, and our largest suitcase. Tarpaulins were draped over and roped secure. Next the folding table, four chairs, camping gas, cooker, Monopoly, Risk, Instant Smash, assorted food tins, plastic dishes all disappeared into the bottomless boot. Mary Poppins couldn’t have crammed more stuff in her magical carpetbag. Across the back seat towels, sleeping bags and extra blankets were spread out and top of that was us kids. By now the clearance between road and back axel was scarily minimal and Dad would spend ten minutes testing the pressure on those skiddly wee tyres.
Mum would arrive at this point with a bag containing sandwiches, flasks of tea, a bottle of diluted orange juice, Kit-Kats and Granny’s precious clootie dumpling – specially made, old style. The bag would sit at her feet. Handy. Back then transport cafes were iffy, expensive, and only used… conveniently. Besides, we would breakfast early, at dad’s favourite viewpoint car park an hour south of Scotch Corner.
As I recall, the final preparations for the actual departure could generate several tetchy moments. Dad would be ready by 21.00 hours. Mum’s last-minute tasks meant we usually left around 10. I had my own departure preparation to do. Like a puppy, I plumped up my sleeping bag on a two foot by ten inches space for a pillow against the window. I doubt if many of you would have found this journey speedy or comfortable. Yet to this day, my most cherished holiday memory isn’t sweet treats, beach, or cinema trips. It’s always drifting off to sleep, curled up in a soft, thermal nest, lulled by the gentle thrum of the engine. No journey would ever be as sublimely perfect and the complete responsibility of someone else.
In 1976, on turning twenty-one, I claimed the car as my own scoot around and looked forward to geographical freedom and endless new adventures. I found 37 KPO very fuel efficient. A quality much appreciated as a cash strapped starter teacher. That needle could almost touch the red bar of the petrol gauge for ages and still the car would keep going and I only ever ran out of petrol twice. Dad, my personal recovery service provider, swore that this car ran on the smell of an oily rag… and excitement. Minimising petrol consumption, I perfected the art of neutral gear car coasting, acquiring a comprehensive network of downhill routes and reducing my carbon footprint long before many Just Stop Oil warriors were born.
Then one day the driver’s door suffered a severe case of dodgy hinge droop. Opening it was doable, closing it, fraught with difficulty. My solution, leave the door be and scrabble across the passenger seat instead. Whilst amusing for others, it was quite undignified when one was dressed to impress. Soon after, the exhaust was readjusted, fatally, during a close encounter with a high kerb. I had hastened the car’s demise. A new exhaust? That Door! Labour, parts will be more than the car’s value, Dad said. And slinking along back roads, the exhaust in the boot was nerve-wracking as police patrols could be alerted by the throaty rrrrroaaarrr of the car impersonating a wannabe dragster. Then there was a tell-tale trail of smoky fumes. However, I had to admit defeat when I watched Dad give the car a steady shoogle and rusty flakes fell freely from the disintegrating undercarriage. My faithful old mini was destined for scrap yard heaven.
Forty-two years on. Numerous fancy cars later. 37 KPO is still the only registration that lives on in my memory, easily. And fondly.