The Hillman Avenger Story

How do you define your first car?

The question can actually be read in many different ways.  Let me explain.

Take a look at the photograph below.  Here you will see a very young me sat in black and white next to my mother on our front door step.  In my hands you will see a small toy.  A fifties style car the make and model of which I cannot recall, nor determine from the picture.

Vince with Lilian on doorsetep
The earliest photograph of me holding a car so it must be mine

I don’t remember that car but by the look of my tight grip it looks very much like mine.  Is this my first car?

The first toy car that I definitely remember owning and which became my favourite one was a red Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Corgi toy.  So was this my first car?

But toy cars don’t count as a first car, do they?  One needs to be able to get in and drive.  Well, I could do that in the go-kart that my brother and I were given.  I may only have been around four or five years old but it was me doing the driving, providing all the self-propelled forward motion, steering and braking.  In doing so I learnt width judgement, the consequences of speed, under and over steer and when ignoring all the above what happens when the corner is tighter than the grip.  So surely my first car.

Then motorised transport came into my life.  You can read about the origins of this journey in my Bikes section because like many others in those days I started on two wheels.  On the road since my sixteenth birthday on a borrowed moped, then at seventeen my own trail bike, followed by a small road bike then mid sized tourer.  You will also have noted that I finished this section of my life with a crash, a girlfriend, thoughts of future passengers and a story involving a bicycle and a Hillman Avenger.  My first actual car.  Or was it?

It was certainly not the first I drove as I had been driving for about three years by then.  I started as soon as I was legally allowed at seventeen.

The first I got behind the wheel of was a Vauxhall Viva.  Not the latest, rebadged 2016 Chevrolet Spark, but the much earlier HC version that Vauxhall produced during the 1970s.  It was red and new and light to drive through its enormous steering wheel.  I had already garnered a good sense of road craft from my year on mopeds and a trip or three on my Yamaha Trail bike.  And crucially I couldn’t fall off it.  Driving a car should have been so easy.

The trouble was that it was owned by a gross, un-sympathetic, interfering Driving Instructor and I couldn’t afford many or even regular lessons.

I hated every moment of the driving not because of the car but because of the instructor.  He would arrive late, squish down in the passenger seat with his plump thighs overhanging both sides of the wide seat usually with his used handkerchief dripping out of his side pocket hanging over the handbrake.

He would then fuss and panic about someone driving his car and constantly grab at the steering wheel and gearstick then pump his feet up and down on his new toy, his dual pedal set up.

I already knew how to meander through traffic from my year and some of biking, I was aware of my surroundings, familiar with junctions and traffic signs.  I just needed some practice at the bits of a car that were different such as clutch changing using my foot and steering with a big circular wheel.  But I was not free to plot my own course without unnecessary intervention, or pull to a gentle stop without my passenger stabbing the brakes.

I was just seventeen and didn’t have the life experiences or confidence to change instructors or the funds to do back to back lessons and as a result every two months it felt like another brand new start.  Just let go of the controls you gross, pig-headed bastard.

Overall I had just six lessons, one every two months or so during the year before I was advised by Mr. Slob to take my driving test and inevitably failed it.  I can’t remember exactly why but do recall it was only a couple of minor issues.  The main thing I needed was regular, unhindered practice.

I was also under pressure from work.  My job required me to visit various construction sites around the local counties and my white collar image was being smeared by the arrival in motorbike clothing and helmet.  Plus I was unable to transport the required oddments and official documents that my role dictated.  The boss wanted me driving and I had colleagues’ cars awaiting my piloting.

I finally got my chance when my mother persuaded my dad that I could be added onto her car’s insurance.  With the assistance of my older brother in the passenger seat and a couple of L plates I could get all the practice I needed.

It was a first generation white Triumph Herald 1200 with bright red seats and I took it out as often as money, my brother and time allowed.  I even took my friends, Jeff and Spike, in the back a couple of times.  Although regretted it when they gesticulated at a passing police car which got me a lecture about how I, as the driver, should be in control of my unruly passengers.

But it did the job, I got the regular practice needed and re-hired the Viva to pass my car driving test.

Not that I swapped my exciting twin wheeled vehicles for a car immediately.  Why should I?  I already had 120mph travel potential and a 0-60mph time of around three and a half seconds.  Cars were dull, slow things that in my budget were rusty and unreliable with excessive insurance premiums.  And besides that I had started driving anyway.  Virtually every day.  In nearly new cars, fuelled by a large on-site petrol tank.

I worked in a small to mid sized building services company.  Our task was to design and build the intricate pipe work and associated plant that courses its way around commercial and industrial buildings and my role was to manage or assist in the supervision of these projects.  The company needed me to deliver tender offers, visit the sites for meetings and help with previously forgotten small deliveries.  And so leant me the company cars for this purpose.

I particularly took advantage of tearing around the place in John’s blue facelift model Vauxhall Chevette 1.3 L as he was generous enough to let me have the keys, thanks John.  Malcolm was less forthcoming with his near identical green model.  In fact I was more often offered the mid-size executive 1.6 Vauxhall Cavalier Mark 1 LS of Senior Engineer Jeffery.  And once had to deliver our MD Peter’s BMW 525 E12 post facelift model to Salisbury.  I saw 125mph on the speedo.  Err, it was just under the 130mph on the dial, officer.

However time was moving on, I had done all that I needed to at that moment on two wheels and as explained in my Honda CX500 article the market for potential new female friends would be increased exponentially by having my own four wheels so I advertised my bike for sale and included a thought that I would consider a swap for a car.

I had a reply.  Some chap had a car and wanted a bike.  We agreed that any difference in value would be included in cash and he duly arrived in his Hillman.  I can’t recall who got some dosh with their vehicle but he took away my shiny ‘as new apart from the frame reshaped’ bike and left me the keys to his slightly tatty Avenger.

Hillman Avenger front
My Hillman Avenger in all its glory when first purchased by me

I had received not only the keys but also the car.  A Hillman Avenger GLS with vinyl roof.  This pleased me immensely as for a start it exceeded the company cars I had use of in virtually every aspect.  It was a GLS model, not a mere L, or LS and as anyone around this time knew this was important.

It had four headlamps, velour seats, Rostyle wheels and it’s black vinyl roof.  Plus an enormous 1.6 engine as big as Jeff’s one.

It also had some extras not normally on these models.  A bit of surface rust and a distinct lean towards the front right hand side.  But let’s not forget, it was a GLS.

Driving the car felt good.  It’s soft, probably knackered, suspension wallowed it around to suit it’s big comfortable presence.  There was a dashboard full of dials and accomodation to easily fit five adults.  The multi headlamp set up lit up the darkest of night lanes and the powerful engine provided prompt passage to wherever you chose to travel.  Everything worked and I was a happy owner that summer.

I loved having the car and was the first of my gang to have one.  Yes, Spike had occasional use of a huge four wheel barge that had Vauxhall VX 4/90 written on the back.  It was an FD series and actually his Dad’s car.  All the others were still tootling around on just two wheels.  I became the go to guy for transporting numbers greater than two.

In fairness the others didn’t have cars because they were still at school, or sixth form college as they put it.  I was the only working one with a wage, although a fairly meagre one as I was doing an office based apprenticeship.  But at least I could run the thing.

Jeff, Vince, Theresa & Jackie
Jeff [the ‘student’, not the Senior Engineer version], Vince, Theresa and Jackie, pictured at another time completely.  The Pot Noodle is irrelevant to the story.  But in the interests of complete disclosure was a Chicken and Mushroom version

The most memorable of these journeys happened at the beginning of August that year.  My good mate Jeff had been dating Jackie for a few years by now and a suggestion was made that I could get together with Jackie’s friend Theresa.  A plan was hatched for us all to go to the British Biking Grand Prix together, ostensibly to help with the marshalling but mainly to snuggle up in handy pairs in a tiny overnight tent.

Jeff had just been signed up for his Polytechnic, err University, course and was already there sorting out his new accommodation so I was tasked with collecting the girls, passing by the big school to pick up Jeff and then for all four of us to travel towards Silverstone.

The problem was that it was fresher’s week so Jeff was therefore torn between his long planned trip to the races and getting in on the first social events with all his new poly buddies.  He felt he had no choice but to choose his new social contacts meaning I had to take a very tearful girlfriend and her sympathetic bestie onwards to the racing circuit where the only racing certainty was that the threesome in the tent would end up as a sad, sob fest.

Our weekend duties were also squarely curtailed.  Without Jeff we could hardly form a reliable marshalling team for a major Grands Prix event so we were asked to ‘assist around the pits area’.  A euphemism for don’t get in anyone’s way.  We didn’t have much to do and sat around watching things happen.  At one point I had popped to the loo and Barry Sheene was told off by the girls for ‘sitting in Vince’s seat’.  In the Yamaha pit area.

But I should be reporting on the car.  Well it was near perfect.  Plenty big enough for three adults and all the camping equipment that we could muster and very comfortable on the long trip.  The only issue being the windcreen wipers that decided to stop working just as the rain started to.  Oh, and the fact that Jackie threw open the passenger door too hard when the car was parked facing downhill resulting in a slightly bent front door where it met the hinge and a bit of a gap where it now couldn’t meet the back door.  A judicious slam and a bit of securing rope and it closed providing access wasn’t needed any more on that side of the car.

It wasn’t quite the end of the car.  That would happen later that year as autumn, winter and my circumstances started to take it’s toll.  The ownership coincided with a dramatic time of my life.  I decided I had made an error in joining a company in the construction industry.  I wasn’t planning to stay beyond my apprenticeship so immediately junked the job.  It was the week before news headlines reported the first time unemployment had reached the milestone of one million.  I was out of work, likely to be staying that way, poor and had only just left home to stay in a shared house with some of my old school buddies.

The car was parked, unused, at my parents house and when the tax ran out I popped it up on the front lawn.  Not as dramatic as it might seem at first because the lawn had become a regular spot for many of my brother’s many broken down vehicles.

However, my car wasn’t welcomed.  Possibly in fairness because I wasn’t living there any more.  I was asked to move it.

As usual it fired up first time but then immediatly became sick and started to wet itself all over the floor.  That day I learnt three important things.  Firstly why antifreeze is a critical component in a coolant system.  Secondly that you cannot trust a previous owner to know about the first thing.  And thirdly that if you are oblivious to points one and two the ordinarily very durable metal crankcase can be split in two.

I had no funds to repair the car and had to come up with a solution.  And it looked like I found one in my new friend Stuart.  He offered to take the car off my hands and give me a bicycle.  This pleased me because I had never had a bike, could actually afford to run one and there was more talk of a cash value to make up the difference.  And I desperately needed cash at that point in my life on the simple grounds that I had precisely none of it.

Sadly the deal didn’t go down too well.  Newly discovered ex-friend Stuart arranged to take the car promptly then procrastinated about the bike.  It appeared he didn’t have one to give me, or didn’t want to part with any he did have and spoke about building one for me.  I had previously envisaged a shiny brand new racing bike but was now looking down the barrel of a rusty frame fished from a canal, bent spokes and a soggy seat.  The bike, when it was finally delivered wasn’t that much better.  It was a recycled frame with a lovely hand crafted paint job with a unique paint run effect.  None of the components were of any quality or purchased recently from a store.  And when the cash differential was raised Stuart disappeared and so became someone I never saw again.  Shame really, he seemed like quite a nice guy.

So, in summary I had started with a fairly new motorcycle and ended up with a crappy bicycle.  But in between loads of fond memories of my first car.  Because that was what it was.

And that’s how it should be because, as anyone knows, the first car is the cheapest.  Queue the song Rod.

Author: Vince Poynter

The header photograph shows the author sat on the bonnet of his Hillman Avenger 1.6 GLS, taken by a family member in 1981
The first photograph shows the author aged around three to four sat with his mother, Lilian on their doorstep and must be dated around 1964/5.  The next image shows the front view of the Hillman Avenger, also from 1981.  The final photograph shows the author and his friends Jeff, Theresa and Jackie, also from 1981 but a bit later
This article first appeared on the vinceunlimited web site on 20 September 2019 and can be found at vinceunlimited.co.uk/cars.htm or if you are on a mobile device and want a more suitable reading experience on vinceunlimited.co.uk/carsm.htm

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