Cars I have driven #13 – Vauxhall Viva HB & HC plus HA van

21 Sep

Maybe it is appropriate that the Viva should be number 13 in my series of Cars I Have Driven blogs because it was in an HC Viva that I both failed and passed my driving test. Not at the same time you understand, there was an appropriate interval, but the HC was a popular driving school car of the early 1970s and it was in one of these that I set off from Hornchurch test centre one thundery morning in the May of 1971.

I had barely gone a mile when an unplanned demonstration of the emergency stop caused the examiner to drop his clipboard after it came into violent contact with his forehead. Not a great start perhaps, but I had stopped a couple of yards short at a pedestrian crossing in the High Street. The last person across was an elderly lady pushing a shopping trolley. She safely mounted the pavement t my onside having crossed from right to left. I went through the process of engaging gear, checking round, releasing hand brake and pulling away, but as the examiner raised his clipboard to note something I saw that the elderly lady had changed her mind, done a u-turn and was on her way back. I was barely moving, but the sudden brake application bought the examiner’s forehead into contact with the big metal clip on his board and the board fell into the foot well.

We re-started and things went reasonably well; the three-point turn was executed without fuss despite another storm having arrived and brought a Wagnerian atmosphere to the proceedings. Proceeding into another of the suburban side roads we pulled over and I was briefed on my emergency stop proper. Now my years of off-road experience had taught me a lot about car control; you try driving a direct drive go-kart on wet grass! The road we were on was sharply cambered and lined with Chestnut trees from which the heavy rain had knocked leaves and blossom. And it was still pouring. I knew that I had to try to avoid the obvious problem that these factors and felt that I had a good degree of vehicular control, probably the one thing that I had learned that we had not tried to unlearn in teaching me to pass the test.

The clipboard began to move and I was on the brake before it hit the dashboard, trying to get them on as gently as I could whilst stopping the car int he shortest distance, but I still had a lock up and slipped automatically into cadence braking. I stopped, but not quite square as the back came round a bit on me down the slope of the camber. Disappointed, I drove on when commanded to, returning to the test centre where the Highway Code were swiftly dealt with and a fail chit handed over. The crossing incident and the emergency stop were the cited reasons.

I was shattered. My employer had promised me a company car, only an old Anglia or similar, but all of that was lost for now (they had already given me a company moped, don’t laugh, and replaced that old second-hand one with a new model as a consolation, but I was inconsolable.

A year was to pass before I decided to try again. A new school assessed me as pretty much ready to just do it (I had changed jobs and had been driving class 3 and 2 HGVs in the yard which had sharpened up my close quarters maneuvering somewhat as well as clutch and brake control). They also suggested a switch to the Brentwood test centre to reduce my apprehension if I got the same route as before.

A test was booked for the May of 1972 and I had about 5 hourly lessons in the run up, mainly learning the Brentwood routes and practising the test routines there. Then, on the morning of my test I trotted out of work to find a different HC Viva waiting. The clutch cable had failed on my usual car, but this one had the clutch coming in right at the top of the pedal movement whereas the other one had the bite point down near the floor. At 6 foot 3 I didn’t have a lot of leg room even with the seat right back and I really struggled with the replacement car’s clutch as we drove over to Brentwood and had a quick run round the town.

The time came and I had to go for it, trying to use all of the skills I had learned to manage the clutch with my leg and foot at an un-natural angle and to try not to let adversity break my confidence. One stall at a T junction was swiftly and calmly deal with, but then I managed three stalls on the three-point turn, again, all dealt with calmly. Back at the test centre the Highway Code questions went on and on, a sign of being borderline I had been warned, but then congratulations were being offered and I had my pass chit. My instructor waved me to the passenger seat and drove me back to work. I was on cloud nine.

My next couple of jobs saw me drive 3 HA Viva vans and my first company car was a well used HB Viva (as seen in the Ford Consul blog). In one of the vans I survived a massive aquaplaning incident on the A13 near Becton when I spun 450 degrees from lane 1, kissed my front wheels on to kerb in lane 3 and spun another 270 degrees to end up back in lane 1 going the way I needed to. Very light on the back axle those HAs, but I was not best pleased when my regular one got swapped for a Marina van.

My first experience of a motor racing circuit from the driving seat was in a Vauxhall Firenza which was really just a coupe version of the HC Viva.

So very fond memories of the Viva family. If you add in a hired HC I drove seven examples of the various models between about 1970 and 1976 and for about a year all told of that time one or other was what I did my job in day-to-day. I don’t suppose that the experience would be the same today, but if I had the money and space for a cheap old car then an HC Viva would come close to the top.

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