‘Real managers don’t come to work on a bicycle’. My boss made that comment to me back in 1982. I had just joined Kellogg’s as ‘Human Resources Officer’ and within months had got myself banned from driving. I sold my car and my daily commute became a 21 mile trek on a bicycle down the East Lancs Road, from Wigan to Trafford Park, Manchester. Working in the ‘offices’, (as opposed to the factory), one was expected to arrive in a suit with shiny shoes every day. To many of my contemporaries, including my boss, I parked my dignity, (and my prospects), in the Workers’ Bike Shed along with my bike. So began my life-long love affair with the bicycle.
Eventually I got my license back, we moved to Manchester but I continued to cycle to work every day until I retired 35 years later. Only I swapped the gruelling East Lancs Road for the picturesque Trans Pennine Trail, along the banks of the Mersey. Looking back on it I can see that my driving ban was a mixed blessing. In the short term my career suffered an undoubted blip. Falling foul of the drinking-and-driving laws carried a stigma, even back in 1982, that was more of a burden than the inconvenience of not being able to drive. However it did not hit the skids – my boss was a small minded bigot who soon got sacked for bullying, a cardinal sin at Kellogg’s. And I moved into a more interesting area in Consumer Affairs – Human Resources can be terribly tedious and you only really get job satisfaction if you don’t like people. A fellow manager, who I respected enormously, confided that he had also been banned at the same time as me but that he had covered it up by becoming a ‘road racing cycle enthusiast’ who trained by riding to work. He became a very close friend, and I never breathed a word about his secret, (until now). Fashions change and by the time I left loads of people were cycling to work, it was almost a badge of honour. And when the MD started they even put lights in the bike shed.
So the positive aspect to my ban was that I fell in love with bikes and since that time I have never had my own car. Every journey I have ever made for nearly forty years has been on a bike unless there has been a compelling reason to use a car which is when we would use Joy’s car. (When Joy bought her car, ten years ago, I had no interest in the decision-making process other than to suggest that she get a French one because we take our holidays in France.) At work I travelled quite a lot but that involved trains, planes and taxis, never a car. At company dinners and social events I would always turn up on my bike. Many people at work, in the pub, at the footy or at the tennis club assumed I just don’t drive. More than that, I became anti-car. I supported higher petrol taxes, congestion charges and was remorseless in suing the pants off any driver who knocked me off. My daughter, never slow to take the mick, used to call me the ‘Cycle Warrior’. That all changed when the Sick Bay came into my life.
I think that the impact of acquiring an historic VW campervan has been so much greater for me because cars featured so little in my previous life. Naturally, owning a campervan, even a modern one, is different from owning a car because it is a pleasure thing associated with holidays, travel, freedom; so much more than just getting from A to B. Owning an ancient one adds yet another dimension because you have to look after it. If you are not prepared to do that then why would you not just get a modern vehicle? And what does it mean, to look after it? Joy looks after her car – she takes it to Renault for servicing, she takes it to Kwikfit for its MOT and the Polish lads in the carpark at Sainsburys sometimes wash it while she goes shopping. Looking after the Sick Bay is altogether different, more akin to caring for a faithful old dog than a heap of steel and plastic.
At Kelloggs we always used to say that whenever we were directly in contact with a consumer a bonding process took place. This could be because of a complaint – someone finds a burnt flake in their Corn Flakes, or they have difficulty claiming their free trip to Alton Towers. It was recognised that this bonding process is very powerful and, provided it was well handled, would lead to greatly enhanced consumer loyalty. Think of any time when you have been in direct contact with a corporate body and how differently you feel about that organisation afterwards. The bonding process with an old VW is just the same.
You can’t leave the care and maintenance of an old VW to other people – if you try to do that it will cost you a fortune, the work won’t be done right and it will all end in tears. Any old salt in the VW scene will tell you that if you buy one you have to buy into the philosophy of Do It Yourself. Like getting a dog, a VW is not just for Christmas. Fortunately the old air cooled engines are dead simple so it’s easy to learn the basics and so as you change the oil, or set the timing, you begin to bond with your van. The bond becomes even stronger as you realise that although your van is robust and well designed, it is also quite vulnerable. Joy can happily leave her car on the drive in all weathers because it is modern and unlikely to rust. Out of sight and out of mind. I would no more leave the Sick Bay outside than I would leave a dog out in the rain. At first I kept it in a barn but that was ten miles away. Then when my son was looking for a house near us I persuaded him to get one with a garage so that I could keep it in that. Originally the garage had an up and over door but I had to swap it for roller doors to accommodate the van – £900 but no matter. On those rare occasions when it has to be outside I wrap it in a purpose built van cover. Safe from prying eyes and the ravaging effects of the Manchester rain. When we get back from a trip I am never really happy until the van is safe, secure and dry. And that’s after having spent several hours on my back painting the underside with a foul tar-like substance that gives added protection but stays in your hair and lungs for weeks. You don’t do all that without bonding very closely with your machine.
So over a period of only about six years I have morphed from a lentil eating, car baiting cycle warrior into some kind of petrol head. I have gone from someone who thought Brummies were just about tattoos and funny accents to respecting them because they understand and revere cars and engines. I watch TV programmes about people restoring barn finds, I recorded ‘The Cars That Made Britain Great’ and am even considering watching whatever Jeremy Clarkson is working on. People who stop smoking are more anti-smoking than those who never smoked. Converts are more committed than those who have believed all their lives and I guess that’s why I have an almost emotional attachment to this vehicle. I still get puzzled looks from old friends who remember my total lack of interest in cars whenever I let slip my new found passion for an old VW but I think they are slowly getting used to it. It’s funny to think that this probably all started so long ago ago when I was banned from driving.