I was seven years old when Betsy entered our lives in the summer of 1964. My father took my mother, the baby and me outside to meet her. He was excited and trying not to let it show. My mother wasn’t excited but was pretending to be. Even at seven years old, I knew when my parents were faking. We stepped onto the kerb outside our house and there she was, black and beautiful. ‘This is Betsy,’ my father said, pointing to the Ford Popular on the street.
We’d never had a car before, so I assumed they all came with names. ‘Hello Betsy,’ I said. Then ‘Can I touch her?’ My father opened the door and told me to climb in the back. Betsy was tall enough that I could stand up in the back without my head touching the roof. I spent some time proving that to myself and then testing out the big bench seat, so I didn’t pay attention to the slightly tense and mostly whispered conversation my mother and father were having. By the time my father opened the door for my mother she was no longer smiling but she wasn’t scowling either. My father opened the driver’s door and said brightly, ‘I’ve just got to turn her over and then we can go for a drive’.
While I wondered if we should get out before he did this and whether he’d be able to stand Betsy back up again, my father took a long metal handle, pushed it into the front of the car, turned it twice and started the motor. He drove us to the seafront and we ate ice cream while he explained the car to me.
He showed me the gearstick and explained how he used it to change gear up and down from first to third. He told me about the Choke that, despite its name, let the engine breathe. He opened up the cowling and showed me the engine, which, he told me proudly, was as powerful as thirty horses. None of it made much sense to me but I listened because this was the most excited I’d ever seen him. My mother watched both of us and seemed to relax a little. She didn’t drive and wasn’t expected to know about cars so, with my baby sister in one arm she sat on a bench and ate her ice cream. My mother didn’t think it was right to eat in public but if you were going to do it, you shouldn’t be in motion at the time.
I didn’t understand it then, but some of the tension between my mother and my father was because Betsy was the most expensive thing we owned. We rented the house we lived in. We even rented our black and white television. We owned Betsy. Or we would, once the payments were made over the next two years. Betsy wasn’t new, in his whole life my father never bought a new car, but she was ours and she ran and we could go anywhere in her and we were one of only two families on our street who had a car. My sister’s recent arrival must have put pressure on the budget. It had certainly made our house seem smaller. My father had bought Betsy anyway.
Decades later, I went back to that street. It had cars parked all the way along both sides, making the street seem narrow and crowded. Betsy sat pretty much alone outside our house, as much an anomaly in the neighbourhood as my father.
Like the street, my father was working class. When he married my mother he’d been in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, something I’d accepted without curiosity at the time but which I now wished I’d asked him to tell me all about. He’d taken my mother and me with him to his posting in Malta when I was two. I have not a single memory of the place, although I’ve seen the pictures. There’s one of my father coming out of the water, snorkelling goggles pushed up on his head, speargun in his hand, smile on his face, that seems to me to be of a man I never met. By the time Betsy arrived, we were all back in England, a few miles from where my parents grew up. My father was a Bus Driver and my mother worked part-time as a Pools Clerk and it was as if neither of them had ever left the country.
Looking back, it seems to me that, beneath the make a living, raise your kids, pay for the Hire Purchase on your furniture day-to-day life my parents lead, something else lay not quite dormant. Something that had tasted difference and wanted more of it. I can see now that Betsy fed that hunger in both my parents. My mother grew to love her. She would declare that she needed to ‘escape these four walls’ and see something worth looking at and we would climb into Betsy and my father would drive until we hit sea or countryside. We never stayed overnight. We never went away on holiday. But, with Betsy’s help, we regularly rode beyond the horizon set by work and home and every time we did, my parents became lighter and happier.
Betsy had no seatbelts, no airbags, no anything but the basics. She had to be started by hand and on cold winter’s days, she’d get grumpy about it and much energy would be spent turning a cold metal crank in the hope of a response. At night, my father would go out to Betsy and attach a Parking Light, a tiny little lamp, red at the back and white at the front, so that she’d be seen in the unlikely event anyone else drove down our street in the dark. Sometimes I’d go with him and we’d both say, ‘Goodnight, Betsy’, before we went back in the house.
Betsy lasted about three years. In the meantime, we’d rented a different house and my sister had grown old enough to start to be interesting. We all knew Betsy was going. We’d all said goodbye to her and we were waiting for my father to return with the next car.
What arrived took my breathe away, both because it was so unexpected and because of my father’s first words to us when he stepped out of the car. Except this wasn’t really a car. Cars, I was fairly sure, had four wheels. This one had only three, two at the back and one at the front in what looked like a snout. Where Betsy had been all shiny black metal and tall dignified curves, her replacement was squat, angular, made out of fibreglass and was the colour of sour milk. My father climbed out of her, looked at his assembled family, swept his arm in a showman-like way towards the Reliant Robin three-wheeler he had bought and said, ‘This is Betsy.’
I remember thinking, ‘No, it’s not. It really, really is not.’