Most people, whether they specifically want to or not, will end up driving a car at some point in their life. A smaller percentage, but one that likely includes everybody reading this article, will drive a car for pleasure as well as simple necessity. And of this portion of humanity, a great many will have wanted to get behind the wheel from a very early age.
But just how far back does our love of the car go? I spent a little time in the presence of my three year-old nephew last weekend, and he got me thinking. Oliver is his name, and he likes a lot of things. He’s a fan of 1970s rock music – although his Dad admittedly has a fair bit of influence there – he enjoys Peppa Pig and Thomas The Tank Engine, too. But he’s also recently taken delivery of his first car, which is photographed here in the garage – where it belongs. I can’t vouch for Oliver’s exploits behind the wheel in this bright orange mean machine, but I can hypothesize – because I can recall my own experiences. And I’ll bet you can remember yours.
Oliver’s car is a Berg Buddy, and in many ways it’s very similar to my own first set of wheels, which survives to this day in my parents’ attic. Mine is a Kettcar, by the British Kettler company, and I’m only too glad to see that you can still buy one almost identical today. Mine has the same powder-coated red tubular frame, but a black chain case and silver steel wheels, surrounded by solid rubber tyres. The (sadly cracked) seat is made from red ABS plastic, and mine was customised by doting grandparents through the addition of a large Alfa Romeo emblem. Yes, my first car was an Alfa.
Like Oliver, I was three when I took delivery, and although my memories are reinforced by ancient Super 8mm movie footage, I still recall taking to the pavement outside the first house I lived in, on Columbine Gardens. The housing estate was of typically 1960s design, with paved footpaths in place of the tarmac surfaces that came into vogue in the 1980s. I can still hear the noise these flagstones made as I passed over the joints, particularly if one of them was laid higher than its neighbour, and especially if it had developed a wobble due to poor underpinning. I also recall that pedalling this single-gear, chain-drive contraption took a fair bit of effort.
Sitting in a reclined, relatively sporty position, three year-old me could exert relatively little purchase over the pedals. This wasn’t a problem on flat surfaces, in fact I could get up quite some speed on level paving. But any incline was hard work. Even the ups-and-downs on the sidewalk were noticeable – the ramps that link driveway to road would give me a moment of delicious acceleration followed abruptly by wearisome effort to ascend the the other side. And, while I would gleefully whizz down the ascent to Walton Road, I’d need a helping hand to get back up the hill afterwards.
And this really was my first experience of traveling ‘quickly’ in a vehicle that I was controlling. Sure, I’d had a tricycle before, and various sit-and-ride toys, but that Kettcar was the only one that was suitable for the open road. With supervision, I could finally venture beyond the front garden and driveway. I could accelerate, steer and, in a fashion, brake.
In fact, the latter two were probably the most car-like of all the Kettcar’s many sensations. The brake, which worked by friction acting on the rear ‘tyre’ treads, was actuated in much the same manner as the handbrake in any modern car. The friction material started out life as a round-section bar, but its section was gradually worn to a half-circle. But it’s the steering that I really remember with fondness, and I’m sure Oliver will, too.
I had ridden sit-‘n-ride toys with ‘steering wheels’ before, but they were seldom linked to any proper steering mechanism. The Kettcar, though, has wheels that actually steer through a sensible, car-like pivot point. It’s direct-acting, and very hard to turn without forward momentum. On my first drive, fresh after freeing it from quite the biggest box I had ever seen, I discovered the meaning of ‘analogue’, even if I didn’t understand it.
A child might understand that a steering wheel can be used to turn a vehicle left or right, but has little understanding that there is anything between steering and not steering. Wanna go left? Turn the wheel left. So you do, and plough off the road and into the scenery. You only make that mistake a few times, and pretty soon, the Kettcar, or the Berg, has taught you how to steer in sensible increments. You have learned the fundamentals of driving, and you’re only three.
It’s too late to nominate the Berg, or my own beloved Kettcar as Hooniversal Car Of The Year, but I honestly might do for 2018. This could be the most important car you’ll ever own, for introducing you to the very concept of independent control. Oliver loves his Berg. He loves going fast in it, as I did in my Kettcar. And one day, if I sire an offspring, I’ll wake my Kettcar from its retirement slumber and restomod it so my daughter can enjoy their first mouth-watering taste of driving.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2018)