The little Subaru hurled itself up Bumble Hill in the streaming rain. 90, 100, 110km/hr in third gear, the wipers doing their best to clear the water from the screen. There is a dangerous fascination in the way a 4WD handles difficult conditions. You can get mesmerised by the traction, the stability, the speed; the turbo spins faster and faster, the car goes faster and faster but it is the way it tracks dead straight no matter what the conditions that makes you feel omnipotent, until you reach the point where the brain reluctantly concedes that the car is more in control than the driver.
Reality seeps back in if you start to think of Farmer Bob who could pull out of a hidden gate in the Fergie tractor; and you slow down. Bumble Hill is near Wyong on the NSW Central Coast. Until the Fifties it was a hill climb venue; Jack Brabham competed there, as did many of the great names oft he day. As the Subie and I approached 120km/hr it occurred to me that in rain like this even Jack Brabham would not have been going a lot faster in his Cooper Bristol on Fifties tyres. I am no Jack Brabham, so I slowed down. And it was then, through the sloshing wipers and the pissing rain, I saw the ghost.
It was only a fleeting glimpse. It was not the ghost of Jack Brabham, or of a long-dead race driver lost in history who went over the side of the narrow track. It was the ghost of me, 40 years before on this very hill, also in the driving rain, double declutching the 203 back to first gear on the steep lower slopes of Bumble Hill.
That 203, my first car, had seen a lot of double declutching in its life. Or perhaps it hadn't; the first job I did on it - at 17 I was too stupid to know better - was to put new bearings in the gearbox, and it became obvious that first gear was literally half-gone, chewed off by former owners crashing that stubby little alloy gearlever into first without coming to a stop. Or by clumsy double declutching attempts, like mine on Bumble Hill.
That first car caused a lot of trouble at home. From my usual seat in the bus on the way to work I had spotted it in the car yard. Even to me it looked a wreck, but I have always been a fatalist when it comes to shopping - I look at good ones, I look at bad ones, but when one turns up with my name on it then it doesn't matter whether it is good or bad - the deal will be done. So I took it home, gearbox bearings shrieking in protest. My mum took one look through the front window and phoned the car yard. She threatened them with something so terrible they agreed to take the car back. I wish I had heard the conversation; I could have used that skill many times in later life. But the 203 was mine and, at 17, parental defiance took a hand. Anyway, I liked the look of the cat; it had romance in its lines, which Morris Minors didn't; and it wasn't an FJ Holden, which is what my father wanted me to get.
That 203 was foreign in more ways than one, and its added value was its ability to irritate parents. And the soggy insulation carpets, under the rubber mats in the rear, gave it a musty smell all its own. But Uncle Jack was on my side; he had bought a new 203 in 1948, and a new 403 in 1958, and loved his funny French cars. The 203 carted me everywhere for a year - on bushwalking expeditions, weekend camping trips, it got bogged, got stuck in creek crossings, slithered backwards down muddy hills with the brakes locked as the driver tried to steer it straight and praying it wouldn't go over the cliff on each side.
The amazing ability of those worm-drive cars to keep going on impossible surfaces has been forgotten; the articulation of the rear axle was unmatched in saloon cars. If you could keep the diff housing from grounding on the hump in the middle of the road, you could go anywhere in this era before cheap 4WDs, and before VWs were cheap enough for poverty-stricken teenagers.
Then, on one late Sunday-night run home, the boys and I were shattered by an horrific screeching from the gearbox area. We lifted the rubber mat which covered the transmission tunnel, and through a hole in the tunnel cut by a previous owner (why? you have to ask) the origin of the problem became apparent. After the earlier gearbox repair, when I had bolted the torque tube to the rear of the gearbox I had assembled the torque tube collar upside-down, so the grease nipple was pointing upwards. That most important bearing had not seen any grease for a year. The grease gun was under the passenger seat so we pumped the bearing full of grease which calmed things down and we made it home.
A week later, on another dealer's lot, exploiting the dubious morality of the teenager, I traded the car on a 203C, the only time I have knowingly shaken someone down in a deal. To make things worse, in the moral sense, I got more for the car on trade-in than I had paid for it. Why? A few months earlier the boys and I had spent a whole afternoon spray-painting the car with one coat of enamel, using a vacuum-cleaner spray gun. It looked great.
That first 203 was the forerunner of many others; over the years there were three 203s, four 403s, one 404, one 504. Then came my company car era. Each of my four modern cars, bought new, has broken down at some time and required external help. None of those Peugeots, some of them rust-riddled heaps, ever stopped unless I asked them to.