My dear days with Strabismus


Days before he died, MOTORS invited Ted Bonner to recall his first car.This is his report:

The first car I ever owned was a 1929 Austin 12 saloon I bought for £25 - a fortune in those day - and which, when I acquired it, had 75,000 miles on the clock, but since that same clock had stopped who knew how many more had passed beneath those sturdy no-nonsense wheels? Very clearly, too, they had been long years and hard miles and the evidence was everywhere to be seen.

The roof lining was coming away in places like wallpaper in a haunted house. This allowed the cracked back-window's celluloid film to discolour to the shade of jaundiced umber. In certain lights rear seat passengers glowed with an unearthly hue, such that any of them, catching a brief glimpse in the rear mirror, were apt to be overcome by a strong weakness.

The paintwork had once been a glossy chocolate but years and neglect had removed any slightest trace of shine and so it had become a matt mud in colour. In those halcyon days I attempted to wax it but soon desisted: I desisted even sooner from washing it on the grounds that water could not possibly do it anything but harm.

What has brought it to mind again, across the chasm of the years, was re-reading some J B Morton articles; he wrote under the pseudonym of 'Beachcomber' and gave me a zillion laughs. Lest you are not familiar with his work, he once had a headline to his column: 'Sixty Horses wedged in a Chimney' and beneath, in 8pt type 'The story to fit this sensational headline has not yet reached us'.

He invented Big White Carstairs, the archetypal Englishman who insisted on dressing for dinner even when alone in the jungle; he also wrote of Captain Foulenough, a Mayfair conman, who collapsed one day on a doorstep in Belgravia crying 'Brandy, brandy - or whatever you've got'. He fathered my favourite character in his vast repertoire - Doctor Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht who invented such essentials to man's progress as the leather grape; water-proof onions and false teeth for swordfish.

And so that first car was christened Strabismus and was known as such to many who never knew that the word also meant squint.

I learned a lot about motorcars and the internal-combustion from Strabismus never mind about the squint. The engine was a 4-cylinder side valve of 1,861 cc, water-cooled and with a thermometer on the radiator top (where Rolls Royce locate their rather-more elegant symbol).

STRABISMUS had a magneto-sparked ignition which is to say that a form of generator produced the spark once you got it rotating fast enough. This machinery developed 24 bhp at 2,400 rpm and, since the heavy saloon body (with cross members that looked as if fashioned from quarter-inch boiler plate) weighted 21 cwt, it did not move with the speed of light. Nor were the nostrils assailed, at take off, with the smell of burning rubber. 51.2 was the claimed maximum speed and the 0-60 time was impossible to deduce since it never did get to 60 even downhill.

But Strabismus had some facilities I sorely missed in more sophisticated chariots I have driven in the ensuing years. It had, for example, a roller blind on the back window and this was controlled by a string carried through a series of loops to terminate by the driver's shoulder; when a following car dazzled, the string pulled up the blind.

We, however, soon found less prosaic uses for it than that and so carried a series of notices we would attach as the errant fancy took us. On passing some driver whose operation we considered somewhat less than expert, we'd gesture towards the back of Strabismus, pull down the blind and let him read, for example: "Who taught you to drive? Blind Pugh?!" Or, my most favourite, of an up-market car being driven by some well-groomed executive, we would let him consider the stern advice: "Destroy the letters - your wife knows all". What merry rascals we were to be sure.

Strabismus had only sidelights because the headlamp wiring had been incinerated in some fracas before I got it and the pressures of my social life prevented me getting down to the renewal job for at least two years. During that period I drove hundreds of miles by night using just the sidelights which were but tiny glimmers.

However, my night vision sharpened to such as extent that credulous passengers looked at me with a mixture of terror and awe especially when it was not alone pitch dark but raining as well and yet I saw no reason to slacken speed even if distracted by the sparks from their rosary beads.

Strabismus was stolen from outside the Festival Hall in Belfast whilst we were tripping the light fantastic within. I couldn't believe it had been half-inched and stood near the pool of oil-stained pavement that marked its passing, saying harsh things about the morals of the citizenry and the inefficiency of the local gendarmes. In the Nick, a bored sergeant listened to me without comment and took down all details, unmoved by the fact that we had about a six-mile walk ahead of us.

At five o'clock that morning - after roughly an hour's somewhat restless slumber - I was awakened, as was the whole street, by police knocking down the door to tell me Strabismus had been found and where.

"You don't seem very pleased," said the younger of the two who seemed very chirpy to me considering he'd been up all night.

"I'm concealing my emotions manfully," I told him. "I'd have been thrilled at seven o'clock and ecstatic at nine."

"I'll tell you something for nothing," he said, as if I hadn't spoken. "The ones that lifted that heap must have been hard up, so they must. Thon's a wreck that made walking a pleasure."