In 1968 I was having the time of my life driving around London in an old Mini.
BXP 322 was not of Issigonis’ original 1958 production, but it had issues.
The transmission had no synchromesh, which meant you had to get the engine at the same speed as the gears before shifting. There was a lot of grinding of teeth, the transmission’s and mine, until I learned to rev the engine and slip the clutch at the right moment as the rpms reduced.
There were small holes in the floor through which you could see daylight and the road, useful for gauging your speed. Moss grew in green circles around the holes.
The body’s original bright blue paint had been washed out to something Turner or Cotman might have chosen to represent shallow water.
There were no door handles; you pulled a cable inside the door instead.
The windows did not go down or up but slid back and forth. The wiper blades, never in synch, often fell off, usually on the A23 on the way to Brighton. Always in the rain.
The engine didn’t start on cold mornings. Parking on a hill was mandatory.
The car was a death trap, especially to pedestrians. The sheet metal was joined together with pressed seams. In a collision they would unfold, exposing their sharp edges.
God, I loved that car.
It was so low to the ground that at 30MPH you felt you were zooming around corners like Dan Gurney or Jackie Stewart. It was impossible to turn over. The Mini’s front wheel drive and transverse engine put the weight directly over the driving wheels, giving it great road-holding.
It had the turning circle of a politician.
There was no over-steer or under-steer. It went where you pointed it.
It nipped in and out of traffic jams and into parking spaces. The parsimonious 850cc engine sipped gas.
Front wheel drive meant no drive shaft, no hump down the middle of the passenger compartment. The car was the template for Dr Who’s police box: bigger inside than out.
The Mini and I delivered psychedelic posters around London. Ours were a more superior type than the usual San Francisco, drug inspired designs. We were more spiritual. We had Indian mandalas which glowed in the presence of a “black” light.
Stare at it under the right stimulus and eternity soon beckoned.
We were entrepreneurs. We had a business. It was called California Imported Arts: CIA Ltd. We even had an office: 18 Soho Square.
My two partners were from the West Coast. Edward knew every Beach Boys lyric. And sang them.
Usually, around noon, we would rouse ourselves, climb into the Mini and try to sell the posters. In addition to building a graphic empire, we did anything anyone hired us to do.
Edward, a man of many talents, built a perspex desk for John Lennon’s office at Apple.
Tony Cox asked us to help promote an Ornette Coleman concert at the Albert Hall. At the time Tony was married to Yoko Ono. We’d having meetings in their flat across the street from Regents Park usually sitting on the floor. These were occasionally interrupted by Kyoko, Yoko’s daughter, racing in and out of the room.
Across the hall lived Daniel Richter and his wife Gill. Richter was a mime artist. After much searching Kubrick cast him as the principal ape in the opening sequence of 2001 A Space Odyssey. He is the one who throws the thigh bone into space and the future in one of the great scene transitions. He was also in “The Revolutionary”, Paul Williams’ first feature (and maybe Jon Voight’s too).
Paul impressed us greatly. When asked how he was getting home one night after dinner at our house in deepest Wandsworth, he said “I have a car outside”. We looked out the window. He did, an Austin Princess, with driver.
We sold and delivered posters to any shop that would take them. In Ornette’s case, many did. The concert was a sell out. I am still surprised.
One day Edward and I took bunch of posters up to an office in northwest London, Kilburn or Willesden, which turned out to belong to the Pink Floyd. As I turned to leave a short, good looking, intense young guy with a halo of frazzled hair and what seemed like eye shadow introduced himself and asked if he could hitch a ride back to central London. On the way he asked if we had ever heard of Tyrannosaurus Rex?
Of course I said. I had seen the movies on Channel 9 in New York. Biggest and most ferocious meat-eating dinosaur, I said.
Good, he said. Why, I asked.
He said he was thinking of starting a band and calling it that.
And he did.
Years later Marc Bolan, a passenger in another Mini, died after it crashed into a steel chain link fence post in Barnes, southwest London. He was not wearing a seat belt.
One day when we were driving in the west end, the Mini just stopped. It was as if it had reached the end of its road. In the dark of night my wife and I pushed it to the front of Holbein Motors, just off Lower Sloane Street. I gave BXP 322 a last pat on the bonnet and we took off. I assuaged my guilt: it was the garage I had brought it to often. If anyone can resurrect it they can. If not, they can junk it and get paid for their trouble.
Months later, coming out of a theater one night, I made eye contact with a familiar face. And he with me. We nodded, both unable to make the connection.
It was only after I was safely away that I realized it was Mr Holbein Garage.