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Friday, September 19, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 2/13/2005

It's not quite cabin fever, but we're just ready to hit the open road

It doesn't take very much to turn this young man's fancy to thoughts of the open road (with apologies to Milord Tennyson).

Just a smudge of sun on a snowy field. An atlas on some remainder table. The smell of new cars at the Toledo Auto Show. Or the sudden - and rather shocking - realization that it's now 50 years since I got my first driver's license!

Actually, that should probably read "rider's license," because 16-year-olds in Britain were restricted to motorcycles, and had to wait another year to get behind the wheel of an automobile.

Anyway, on the morning of my 16th birthday, I put away my old James Arrow Ace bicycle that, in the course of 10 hard-pedaling years, had gone from trusty tourer to grass-track racer - sans lights, guards, bells, everything - and bolted some L (learner) plates onto a newly acquired 250cc Rudge Rapid motorcycle. Vintage 1936.

I'd been given this rebuilt classic (read "clunker") as partial payment for working through the Easter holidays at a motorcycle dealership. But when a few weeks later I proudly rode this same bike, with its gleaming black-and-gold petrol tank, up to the local testing station to try for my license, the officer in charge looked at it and burst out laughing.

"If you can ride that relic, mate, you can ride anything. You've passed!"

In fact, by that time, I probably could ride just about anything. I'd been running all manner of machinery over farmers' fields and abandoned WWII aerodromes for years under the eagle eye of a father who had spent his war turning raw RAF recruits into motorcycle dispatch riders and then leading convoys of heavy trucks across the top of India.

Two years later, the old Rudge developed an incurable oil leak, and it was turned in for a much more practical Lambretta motor scooter, which went on to serve as bike about town and London commuter, until 1960. At that point I turned it south and headed for Stuttgart to start a new job in an alien land, some 600 miles away.

We both made it safely, navigating treacherous Belgian streets and a wet and windy German autobahn, all at a reckless top speed of 50 mph!

Over the next two years, that scooter and I had many more long trips together. Over to Munich for the Oktoberfest - with an English friend riding pillion - runs deep into the Austrian Alps and the Black Forest, and some beautiful trips along Lake Constance, also known as the Bodensee.

Finally, I sent the scooter back to England, replacing it with a '56 Beetle, which was much better equipped to carry my rugby pals. And skis. And real luggage. And to keep me dry when it poured. And was also a whole lot safer over the treacherous cobblestones of German villages and Stuttgart's own notorious tram tracks.

NOW IT'S NOT as if long road trips were anything new in our postwar peripatetic family. For as children of a motoring journalist, it seemed as if we were forever on the go.

The early journeys were always part of our month-long summer holidays when we'd travel up to the north of England to the little Lancashire village of Poulton-le-Fylde, the place where we'd been billeted during the war.

In those pre-motorway days, it was a drive of maybe 300 miles. But for all the preparations and pre-trip excitement it created, it might as well have been 3,000!

On the night before departure, for example, the tiny Morris Ten or Austin Seven would be packed and repacked from boot to roof, loaded up with food, pots and pans, boxes of books and games, and dog stuff - then topped off with a couple of bicycles.

"We'll be off at crack of dawn then," Dad would say as we all went to bed early to get rested up for the long day ahead.

In the end, however, it would be closer to noon before we finally got out of town, what with catching the dog that had escaped, turning back a couple of times to shut off the gas, again, or to stop the milk. And finally, with tempers at fraying point, we'd stop at the first available pub so that Mum and Dad could down a quick Guinness - to calm the nerves for the long journey ahead!

Overseas trips of half a century ago were quite another matter, and fraught with even more difficulties. But the results were always amazing - unforgettable journeys that taught us so much about other lands and cultures.

So with all these recollections of travels past, and upcoming anniversaries, it's not too surprising, perhaps, that come a break in the wintry weather - or the first hint of spring - our thoughts should turn once again to the open road.



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