It was a white Holden Kingswood.
Until I was about 10, I saw this vehicle through my Dad’s rose-tinted lens. I enjoyed its enormousness – the back seat that we once proved was big enough for 5, the boot that could hold an implausible number of bikes and scooters, the ridiculously abundant leg-room. I loved that in summer we would wind down all the windows and let the warm breeze rush into our faces and ears. The car was affectionately nicknamed “Bertha”.
Then, one day, sometime in primary school, I suddenly noticed my friends’ parents’ cars. Mighty Mitsubishi Pajeros. Zippy little Hondas. Gleaming Mercs. They had a lovely newness and a modern sleekness about them. In one of those painful coming-of-age moments, my young mind realised that (like proper Speedos instead of el-cheapo bathers from Woolworths, and like Popper juice boxes rather than daggy re-usable drink bottles) these cars represented Fitting In.
I realised with horror that Bertha was the mark of a family that didn’t have the money for something better.
Things got worse when I was a teenager, and my parents sent me to a private girls’ high school that was known for its high academic standards. Unsurprisingly, it was filled with girls from privileged families who owned luxury cars. In hindsight, I was lucky enough to be able to attend this excellent school only because my parents, with humble jobs as a public servant and a teacher, chose to invest in my education, and not in new cars. As a teenager, however, I could not see past my own confused angst and self-pity. I would take two different buses to get home rather than be seen in that car. I would cringe when friends came over and saw it parked in the driveway.
In my view, it was the family car from hell. It stood for everything that was wrong with my self-image.
My loathing continued in force for some years, until, at age 17, I was desperate to learn how to drive. My dad was actually willing to teach me, but he and Bertha were a package deal. Having to be seen in Bertha was an evil I would have to live with if I wanted that coveted driver’s license.
Bertha was like no other car I’ve driven since. Forget automatic transmission and power steering – Bertha had a classic “three on the tree” stick shift, and steering so heavy you could feel it in your triceps as you tried to get around tight corners. There were only three forward gears, but you could comfortably do 80 kmph in Bertha’s mighty second gear. Engaging the clutch required considerable lower-body strength. While steering required some level of brute force, at the same time you had to be a bit careful – in the wake of a dodgy repair executed by my dad, the steering wheel was strangely wobbly, and in fact, a few years later, it actually came off in my younger brother’s hands while the car was in motion. [When he told me about it, I was shocked and asked, “But what did you do?” and he said, calmly, “I put it back on again!”] The left indicator didn’t work, or rather, it did, but for reasons Dad was never able to ascertain, turning it on caused the horn to blare loudly. The radio antenna had been snapped off by vandals, so Dad had ingeniously made a new one out of wire that he’d sticky-taped around the inside perimeter of the windscreen.
But against all odds, thanks to (or in spite of) Bertha I passed my driving test on the first try! After that, when Dad had weekend errands to run, he would ask me to come with him, and handing me the key to his beloved car, would say, “Go on – you drive!”
I like to think this was his way of saying, “I love you, and I’m proud of you.”
And by my 20s, my feelings about Bertha had mellowed. She was like an elderly relative – full of flaws and quaint little idiosyncrasies, but a lovable fixture nevertheless. Bertha came to symbolize something important in my life. She represented humility, living within one’s means, and the need to work hard for material gain. She reminded me of my parents’ love, and their determination to send their children to the best schools they could possibly afford, even if that meant living on a tight budget and cheerfully driving the same old car for almost two decades. She taught me not to be ashamed of having fewer and less nice material things than others, because in the end I had all the things that were truly important.
It was around this time that my younger brother was driving Bertha when he was involved in a car crash. He walked out of it without a scratch. Bertha was so badly damaged that she was written off.
It was her time to go, I thought. By this stage, my parents were no longer strapped for cash. They could go out and buy a newer, better-quality car.
But Dad, somewhat devastated at his loss, wasn’t ready to give up on Bertha. Unbelievably and to my mother's horror, he went out and bought two scrapped Holden Kingswoods, deposited them in the front yard, and started, piece by piece, trying to rebuild Bertha. We tried to dissuade him from this task, convinced this would be a prolonged but ultimately futile attempt at resuscitation (“It’s all over, Dad. You did your best. Let her go now.”)
But he actually managed to summon a pulse. He succeeded in rebuilding that damn car. The new Bertha was pretty rough around the edges where Dad had tried his hand at DIY panel-beating, but she was back on the road, and Dad was thrilled.
It was somehow shocking and just plain unfair when, one night not long after that, Bertha was (no kidding) STOLEN, never to be recovered. Dad suspected joyriders. Even we who had driven that joyless car were kind enough not to laugh.
Dad gave in and bought a soulless but reliable Camry. It doesn't have a name.