Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Mirbane: In Memoriam

Back in 1961, more than 50 years ago now, a friend of mine, Sam Turner, found an old car parked in the garage in the house where he was lodging. The landlord told him that it belonged to a former tenant, who had left it there when he had moved to Naboomspruit. We wrote to him and asked if we could take it for a drive, and possibly buy it from him. It was a 1936 Austin Ten, and to us it seemed enormously ancient. having been made before either of us was born.

Mirbane, with Steve Hayes and Sam Turner, Johannesburg, |February 1961

We took it out of the garage, and, mirabile dictu, it started. We drove it around, and the owner agreed to sell it for R50.00. He also agreed to renew the licence and 3rd party insurance. A car could not be registered in the name of a new owner until it had passed a roadworthy test, and we thought it might need some work before it could achieve that. It had been registered in Barkly West in the Northern Cape, where the previous owner had worked before, but it appeared that it would have to be reregistered in Naboomspruit. So its number changed from CAG 1595 to TNS 784.

We thought it needed a name, and Sam found the name Mirbane in a dictionary, which said that it was “of obscure origin”. Oil of mirbane was another name for nitrobenzine, a substance rumoured in those days to make cars go faster when added to the petrol. The picture shows it on the first day we took it for a drive after getting it out of the garage.

The only problem was that the clutch did not work, so every time it stopped someone had to get out and push to get it moving in order to get it into gear. Nevertheless, that evening I used it to drive across town and take another friend to a party, praying all the while that we would not encounter an uphill stop street.

Mirbane with the Prestons’ Volvo Sport

Sam decided to pull it apart and put it together again, and spent just about every weekend doing that, with occasional help from his friends. He took out the engine, and took the body off the chassis, and cleaned it. After about 6 months, it was ready for a test drive, so we took it for a spin, with no bonnet, no dynamo, no headlights, and no fan belt. We visited my friend Mike Preston, and parked it in their driveway next to his father’s Volvo Sport, which, despite its rather old-fashioned appearance (even for those days) was one of the best-performing saloon cars on the road.

On another occasion, doing a similar test drive, a traffic cop overtook us in Johannesburg Road in Lyndhurst. He ignored the lack of lights and obviously unroadworthy condition of the car, and homed in on the lack of third-party insurance disc, and wrote a ticket for that.

I was driving, so I was the one who had to go to court. I sat with sinking heart as half a dozen similar cases came up before mine, and the magistrate fined each one R30.00 (worth about R3000.00 in todays money). When my turn came I asked for the charge sheet to be amended — I was driving in Johannesburg Road, but the ticket said Pretoria Road. It was a pedantic point, but it seemed to impress the magistrate. He asked the traffic cop about it, and the traffic cop seemed confused. I said yes, I was driving without a third party disc, but my friend had sent money for the third party insurance to the registered owner, and he hadn’t sent the disc yet. Why was I driving, not my friend, asked the magistrate. Well, my friend doesn’t have a driving licence. “Cautioned and discharged,” said the magistrate. “Next case.”

After about a year it was more or less in running order again. When we found it had been painted black, but Sam was into numerology and palmistry and such pursuits, and determined that the most auspicious colours for travel were green or white, followed closely by yellow and purple. So we painted Mirbane green and white and yellow and purple, with a mermaid on the sun roof.

In July 1962 I had some leave, and wanted to go and see my cousins in Durban, so we decided to go in Mirbane. Unfortunately, a day or two before we were due to leave Mirbane jammed in first gear. We spent a day pulling the gearbox apart, and found that the first gear cog had pushed beyond some spring-loaded balls that prevented it from being moved back. We got a file and removed the spring-loaded balls, which also abolished the synchromesh on second gear.

We worked through the night, in the driveway of Sam’s lodgings, and the next-door neighbour kept sticking his head out of his window and saying things like “There’s a time and a place.” We tried to hurry, and forgot to put the gearbox into two gears at once to tighten the nut that held the drive shaft on the back. We tightened it against the engine compression, which wasn’t very good.

We left at 5:00 on a Monday morning, having worked through the night, and so were in some danger of falling asleep at the wheel. The main road was not a multilane one as it is today, and we went bouncing round the winding bits between Nottingham Road and Howick. Mirbane had cart springs and the shock-absorbers also left something to be desired.

Mirbane at the entrance to Durban harbour, July 1962

We arrived in Durban about 5:00 pm, when the evening rush hour was in full swing, and we were halfway across one of the busiest intersections in town when the prop shaft fell off. So we held up the traffic still further while we removed the gear lever, put it into two gears to lock the shaft, and tightened it properly. We were getting quite expert at that by now, so it only took us about 40 minutes.

A couple of days later we were taking my cousins, Jenny and Glenda Growdon, for a drive, when Mirbane suddlenly began firing on only two cylinders. It appeared that the cylinder head gasket had blown. Jenny and I went into town by bus to McCarthy-Rodway, the Austin agents. We were gobsmacked when they produced a new gasket, which they had in stock.

We arranged for an engineering shop to skim the cylinder head, and when it was all working we set off on our delayed drive, up to Camperdown on the road to Pietermaritzburg, where there are some quite nice views down into the valleys below.

Mirbane at Camperdown, with Glenda Growdon, 13 July 1962

We took some photos of Mirbane there, and then went to Inchanga, where another cousin, Brenda Growdon, was on holiday with her mother. We went on to Gillitts, where my friend and guru, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection, was spending his holiday with the retired Archbishop of Central Africa, the Most Revd Edward Paget.

It was Brother Roger who had introduced me to the works of Jack Kerouac a couple of years earlier, and here we were, a bunch of scrufty beatniks like the ones in Kerouac’s On the road, arriving at the archbishop’s rather posh retirement home in a rather posh suburb in a beat-up old car.

The archbishop passed the Christian hospitality test with flying colours, and invited us in for a pre-prandial drink. Afterwards Brother Roger told us that the archbishop had been quite impressed with us because we didn’t smoke and talked about art.

Mirbane outside Archbishop Paget’s house in Kloof: Sam Turner, Jenny Growdon, Brother Roger CR, Glenda Growdon.

Brother Roger knew quite a lot about art, and had been something of an artist himself before he had become a monk. A few weeks after we got back to Johannesburg he opened an exhibition of the work of a Johannesburg artist, Harold Rubin. The police later seized a couple of the pictures and charged Harold Rubin with blasphemy, and Brother Roger was hauled off a train to give evidence at the trial (for more on that, see here).

Having seen quite a lot of my cousins  who were children of my mother’s brothers, we went to to see yet another cousin, Patricia Maxwell, whose mother Doreen was my father’s sister. They lived not far from Gillitts, in Kloof, but were about to move into Durban itself.

Patricia Maxwell, Sam Turner, Glenda Growdon, Jenny Growdon

So Mirbane got me to see five cousins on our journey — the one I haven’t mentioned was Jenny & Glenda’s baby brother Mark Growdon, who didn’t accompany us on our running around, as he was only two years old.

At the end of our holiday Mirbane got us back to Johannesburg in about 10 hours, which was not bad for such an old car. After that Sam used her mainly for running around Johannesburg, and after a couple more years she finally died, and ended up in a scrapyard, and I later saw the body, lying on its side in the veld near Alexandra township. So we had resurrected it to have a few more years of life, and one memorable journey, so she is a vehicle I remember with affection.


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