My first encounter with tow trucks (and their drivers) accompanied my first car and my first accident. As I sat on the roadside watching my crumpled ’64 VW Station Wagon being ignominiously taken away that warm Sunday afternoon 25 odd years ago I did not consider that this was to be the first of many such episodes in my driving life.
Yesterday, as my four year old V8 Jaguar Sovereign was unceremoniously dragged onto the tip-tray of a tow truck – thankfully from the privacy of my own back yard – I thought that really I have spent too much time in the company of tow truck drivers and thus mechanics, and really my preference for idiosyncratic European cars has not been the most sensible way of driving or economic roads to travel down.
The VW was only towed once – to the wreckers. It had been written off by an ex-con driving his purple Gemini without due care, ploughing it into my rear and forcing me into the Valiant in front. We were both stationary, waiting at a notorious corner for some car well in front to turn across the traffic. I was a student so only 3rd party, no comprehensive, the ex-con, of course, had no insurance. So no car and no money. The only consolation was that a set of traffic lights was installed at that corner not long after. I was the accident that broke the camel’s back of traffic light decision making.
My next car was a 1969 2.5 PI Triumph, complete with red leather upholstery and wooden trims. I loved it. It had grunt and style and I could drag anything off at the lights – except a big motorbike. This was where my real relationship with tow trucks developed. By the time the Trump was written off I had been towed more times than I could reasonably remember. The brakes failed going out of my mountainside driveway and I collected a largish boulder in stopping. My gearbox fell out one morning on my way to Uni. The head gasket blew coming home from the Huon. I burnt out the hand-brake cable coming home from rowing training one morning – too tired to realise why the car was driving so bumpily. Yes, by the time the car was beyond my desperate repair budget I knew nearly every tow truck driver in town. They were always friendly jocular types who were sexist pigs at heart but recognised a regular customer when they found her waiting patiently by the side of the road after her latest vehicular disaster.
I moved to Japanese cars for several years and had only one experience with a tow truck, thus buoyed with confidence (and a two year old Subaru as support vehicle) I bought a 78 V12 XJS Jaguar. True, it was past its prime, true it cost a fortune in petrol, true it was not a family car, but it was a thing of divine beauty, and despite it breaking down on the test drive we bought it one sunny November afternoon.
Six months later it broke down properly: in the car park at work and I re-entered the world of tow trucks and their drivers. The young man who arrived to take me away was a garrulous chap, talked the forty minutes it took from work back into town. But I found the perfect mechanic, who went on to look after my cars for several years until we left Darwin. This car broke down far more often than I thought possible. Non-Jaguar people just laugh at your foolishness and nod wisely about British engineering. I stood too many times at the side of the road mobile in hand calling the AANT, knowing the mechanic who came would be powerless and that all he could do was call the tow truck. So off I’d go, the burgundy beast safely on the back down to Johnno’s where he would nurture it back to life.
Oh, yes, I knew all the drivers. As I began to describe the car and where it was over the phone, I would hear – yes, luv, I know your car. Be there in a jiff. And so I would have interesting chats about the merits of English cars and agree that at least it wasn’t a Leyland and it was a joy to drive when it was going. The most bizarre man I met was the reincarnation of a 500 year old Hopi Indian who was happy to give me the inside running on the state of the planet and that Armageddon was in fact nigh but it was possible to be saved. He was only here to spread the word to as many people as he could before he had to move onto higher things. I was baffled how he could spread the word effectively as a tow truck driver but was assured this was all part of the greater mystery of life and if I followed his lead all would be revealed to me.
After several years of fun, many of them off the road, Johnno, who really did despair of the XJS, advised it was time to spend up big or get a new car. And dear reader, we did the obvious thing and flew to Queensland and bought a 1989 Sovereign, in quite gorgeous condition. Despite paying too much, as you sometimes do for things in the heat of the Gold Coast moment, this baby has only been towed once and that was under Johnno’s guidance before we moved to Tasmania. The car was having a final check before we left. A 7:30am call said: I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad is that the electrics had shat themselves. The good thing is that it happened with me. Don’t panic when you see the car on the side of the road – the tow truck is cheaper in the day.
And then we bought the blue car. The latest and greatest, the most beautiful example of Jaguar brilliance we are ever likely to own. I’ve washed and polished it, serviced it, loved it and still it broke down on me. The immobiliser immobilised the car. She wouldn’t go anywhere, just sat in the garage as I was trying to go to work and deliver children to school: my beloved and the Gold Sovereign miles away on a conference.
I ran through all the checks, all the tricks I’ve learnt over years of Jaguar ownership and still she was still. The RACT man came but I knew he was out of his depth. I knew we were moments away from the call. From the summons to one of those men who have been integral to my adult life, who have been there as latter day guardian angels rescuing me as no-one else could. And as he came down the drive way and smiled at me in that old familiar way of all tow truck drivers I knew my beloved car was in good hands and I would never be free of tow truck drivers. (Images courtesy Google Images and Private Collection)