New Year, New Adventure

Today was my first drive of Mabel. I have sat as a passenger on many outings with Holly and she very kindly added me to the insurance. I had asked James a few weeks ago whether he would give me a lesson, and we had scheduled today. The weather was mild with light drizzle but we were committed to a short Sunday drive.

I met James at 10 am and he gave me a run down of the necessary steps in starting and driving Mabel. This was a great refresher as my main role has been behind a camera capturing our experience to date so the details and nuances were not obvious.

Before getting into Mabel, James had filled the fuel tank to the brim and flipped the electrical isolater switch. I was shown where to open the valve beneath the fuel tank and prime the carburettor. James got in and Mabel fired up straight away.

Foreground: Handbrake (left) and gear stick (right). Background: Clutch and brake pedal.

Inside James explained the layout of the gearbox. 1st is back towards you, reverse straight ahead. 2nd is across the box and away and 3rd across and back towards you. The handbrake is next to the near gear lever. All seemed reasonable. On the steering wheel is the advance/retard on the left, and on the right a choke and accelerator. Only a clutch and brake pedal in the foot well.

Steering wheel with advance retarder lever (left), choke and hand throttle (right), short red bungie cord for keeping choke lever up, and 1934 coin.

The engine was started with the ignition fully retarded (lever up) and
on full choke (lever down). Once up and running, the ignition was advanced (lever down) and the choke gradually taken off as the engine warmed up (lever back up). The choke is conveniently supported by a “tried and tested” red bungie cord on Mabel’s steering wheel.

I squeezed into Mabel next to James and we set off around Hilton and Etwall with the wind in our hair and drizzle in our eyes. We both sit with our heads above the windscreen so the fact Mabel has no windscreen wiper is completely irrelevant. James drove us smoothly around some country lanes with the beautiful V-Twin exhaust note thumping away. I said this was proper Sunday driving and love the charm of a classic car.

On the second loop of the villages James pulled over on the Mease so we could swap seats. It is definitely easier to type out what we did than to do it in practice. I clambered out first to allow James to get out. Below is my insight into the realities of Living with Mabel, which were not quite so obvious as a passenger/bag handler/film crew with Holly.

Just getting into the drivers seat requires you to twist and turn between the steering wheel and seat, whilst avoiding the handbrake and gear stick. Do not underestimate the effort and agility required to do this. I have seen Holly and John Chatwin on several occasions simply slide into place. There must be a trick to this. James then dropped in alongside.

Ready to go I have my feet firmly pressing the clutch and brake pedals that feel like two little wooden blocks. I then grab hold of the steering wheel. Into 1st gear, brake covered, handbrake off, mirror, if there was one, signal, and manoeuvre. Lifting the clutch, reducing the pressure on the brake and applying some throttle in my right hand we begin to move.

What really catches your attention is the weight and effort just to wield and turn the steering wheel. You realise instantly how much assistance a modern car is providing to make light work of this. You do however feel instantly engaged as it demands a larger than expected physical effort to manoeuvre.

Building up a bit of speed on the straight I now need to think about changing up. You have to double de-clutch. Going through neutral and using the clutch twice per change is definitely not a habit.

Now we are approaching a roundabout, dipping the clutch and applying the brakes is an interesting experience. Whilst you are fully aware that you are applying a force through your right leg to the brake pedal, you will question whether everything connected as it does not really lose speed. The foot break engages the drum on the rear wheel but this does not provide the reassurance offered by modern disc brakes that you will actually stop. Braking in Mabel with the foot brake is like having a phone conversation. You dial the number of the brakes, wait a couple of rings before they pick up, exchange some pleasantries for a few minutes and then finally get to the reason of the call. Slowing down.

I found changing down quite challenging. Their is obviously no modern synchromesh managing the speeds between the gearbox and the engine. A bit like the steering, this is all down to you putting some effort in. Very different from extensive engine braking I am familiar with my Golf. So down into neutral, blimp the revs on the hand throttle and then engage the lower gear is the theory. This only really worked once I have trimmed loads of speed. Definitely more practice is required to get this all together, opposed to the current 5 part saga.

After a couple of roundabouts and straight runs we are sitting at the T-junction to return home. On coming traffic forces us down to a complete stop and shifting down to 1st. Turning in 1st gear whilst maintaining some throttle felt like it required my complete attention to pull-off. I’ve taken this corner thousands of times in my life so it was very strange to feel that conquering this corner would be an achievement. But it did. We were home and I was sold. That was definitely an experience, and partly redefines what driving is. It actually made it a doing word again. I felt like I was doing something.

Steeping away from this first experience only really served as a reminder of Holly’s talent and capability. She took to Mabel in about 5 minutes in front of Mabel’s’ owner, classic car journalists and enthusiasts at Gaydon in April last year and made it look so, deceptively, easy.

Back home, James showed some of the many grease points on Mabel, then switched off and isolated the relevant components, and put her to bed until the next driving adventure. . .

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