THE BOYS IN THE VAN
Here’s an account of a road trip I undertook in the sixties. Be warned, Easy Rider it ain’t.
Donkey’s years ago, three of my mates, Reno and Ronnie Caldarelli, Pete Raymond and me cobbled together the princely sum of £55 to buy an eight-year old Bedford van. If you’re of a certain age you will remember these vans: sliding doors that could be left open as you drove, divided windscreen and a three-speed column change.
From somewhere or other we acquired a set of side windows that we had fitted to make the van more user friendly for rear seat passengers. We now considered ourselves to be in business and cast around for somewhere to drive to. I was eighteen years old. Reno and Pete were seventeen and Ronnie was sixteen. So we made the only rational decision that four naïve teenagers with no money could make. We decided to drive 1,000 miles across Europe to Italy. Our intention was to visit Reno and Ronnie’s Uncle who lived in Cassino, eighty miles south of Rome.
We bought the van in January, less than a month after I had passed my driving test, and decided to make our trip in August, as we needed plenty of time to save up money and to prepare. We quickly came to the conclusion that due to financial constraints we wouldn’t be able to eat in restaurants, nor afford to buy much fresh food locally. So, every week we’d troop down to Woolworth’s in Tottenham’s West Green Road and buy tinned meals manufactured by a Newcastle-based firm called Tyne Brand. Let me tell you now, these meals were disgusting, but we didn’t know that then, as we’d never tried them. We hoarded the tins for weeks until we had a larder big enough to fill a trunk. We then carefully drew up a chart covering our intended 15-day odyssey, allotting each tinned meal to a day, three meals a day.
Another preparation that we deemed necessary was to test the van’s ability to cross the Alps when fully laden. We filled it up with everything we could lay our hands on, including ourselves, and set out for an exhaustive test of the van’s mountain climbing ability. This consisted of a single drive up Muswell Hill. Well, it was the nearest thing to a mountain we knew of in North London. Our successful ascent of this local incline was enough to convince us that we could cross the Alps with ease. So we moved on.
Now, in those days, the price of petrol abroad was high, compared to the UK, and we were going to need gallons of the stuff to cross the continent. The tank of the Bedford had a pitiable capacity of only eight gallons. And the van did at most 25 miles to the gallon, and that was with a following wind. Usually, it was fewer. So we began buying jerry cans from an army surplus shop. We bought five in all, each with a five gallon capacity. We filled four with petrol from our local Jet garage; the fifth we filled with paraffin from to fuel our two cooking stoves. This had the effect of turning our van into what amounted to a bomb on wheels that would have done credit to the IRA. If we’d been rear ended, we’d probably all have died in a fireball. But that thought never occurred to us, we were just grateful to save the cash.
Month after month, the money we needed for the trip built up, along with our tinned meals. Eventually, the big day arrived and we could set off. We were booked on a 10.30am ferry so we hit the road at the crack of dawn, waved off by three sets of worried parents. The van moved slowly and unsteadily from the kerb, weighed down as it was by 25 gallons of highly flammable liquid and a ton of Tyne Brand. We reached the end of the road and turned south for Dover.
A couple of hours later, we filled up with petrol just outside the Eastern Docks, bringing our total fuel load to 33 gallons or, in today’s money, 148 and a half litres of petrol and paraffin. It’s a wonder they ever let us on the ship. If the van had exploded it would have blown a hole in the side of the ferry the size of a football pitch. But luckily, the jerry cans were all carefully hidden, the ones of the roof rack patriotically covered by a Union Flag.
We had chosen what might be regarded as an eccentric route to reach Italy, by way of Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Switzerland. So we sailed to Ostend, not Calais. This again was influenced by petrol prices. The fact that it was longer in mileage terms had escaped us. We figured we could fill up on cheaper petrol in Luxembourg and even replenish our jerry cans there before crossing the expensive expanses of France and Switzerland.
We used up our tank of eight gallons before we’d even left Belgium, so we emptied one jerry can almost immediately. We were doing far worse than our hoped for 25 miles to the gallon. But then, we were seriously overloaded. Empty, the van had a top speed of 55mph. Fully laden, I had trouble getting it over 40. That was on the flat and we still had the Alps ahead of us.
Shortly after this re-fuelling, I noticed a change in the van’s performance. It seemed different, livelier, with a more pungent smell to the fumes that incessantly entered the van’s interior through the open sliding doors and cracks in the floor. Soon it grew dark so we stopped for the night somewhere in the Ardennes.
One of us clambered up on to the van’s roof to retrieve whichever Tyne Brand tins were allocated to that evening’s dinner. It was at this crucial point that we discovered we had the tins but nothing to open them with. Despite months of preparation, we’d forgotten to bring a tin opener. Never mind, somehow or another we managed to get them open, vowing to buy a tin opener the following day.
Having prised the lids from our tins it was time to fill our stoves with paraffin to cook the contents. We ignored the empty jerry can and opened each of the others and sniffed it. But all four smelled of petrol. Another terrible truth dawned on us. We’d filled the van with paraffin, not petrol. No tin opener, and a petrol tank full of paraffin. And this was just day one. We had another fourteen to get through. Surely things couldn’t get any worse.
The next day the van’s engine started and seemed quite happy to run on paraffin. So we set off in search of a tin opener. As a result of this expedition I now have the French for tin opener indelibly etched on my brain. It’s ouvre-boite, not that any of us knew that back then. We were reduced to performing a charade of opening a tin in front of a highly amused Belgian shopkeeper.
By the end of day two we’d managed to traverse the small Duchy of Luxembourg (buying petrol, of course), purchase some replacement paraffin, and cross the border into France, but not without mishap. The van’s starter motor had packed up and the accelerator had become detached from its pedal. Paying for repairs was out of the question, so Ronnie reconnected the accelerator pedal using a paper clip previously employed to keep our travel documents together. But there was nothing we could do about the starter motor. Luckily, one item we had remembered to bring along was a starting handle. There was, however, a problem.
As the trip progressed we discovered that we could only get this to work if the engine was red hot or stone cold. Anything in between and we couldn’t start the van. This hindered our progress further, necessitating careful planning of the duration of stops with the engine turned off. They either had to be very short or very long.
I seem to remember it took us another day or so to reach the Alps and Switzerland. I’d managed to climb Muswell Hill with the van in second gear; as the van began climbing the Alps I was forced to resort to first. We watched with alarm as the needle on the temperature gauge also began a sharp ascent. Before too long it was way into the red and we had no alternative but to pull off the road to allow the water in the radiator to cool. Alert to the fact that this was likely to be neither a very short nor very long stop, Reno decided to speed up the process by opening the radiator cap to release as much heat as possible. Immediately, boiling hot rusty water cascaded all over me ruining a jacket I’d bought from the trendy sixties boutique, Take Six. Looking back, I can assure you that this jacket was hideous even before it was splattered with rusty water.
My jacket got its revenge on Reno, whose jacket had escaped unscathed, a few days later. We had constructed a commode that consisted of an open framework made of wood so that we could execute number twos without the need to crouch. It was about the height of a toilet bowl and meant we could rest our bums on the frame, allowing our waste matter to fall unhindered to the ground below. Reno had taken this frame into a small copse for privacy. Before sitting on the frame he had removed his jacket and hung it on a convenient branch. We were miles away when he remembered that he’d left his jacket on the branch.
When the radiator had finally cooled, we topped it up with fresh water and reached for the starting handle. We’d stopped for just about an hour. It was neither short enough nor long enough to allow us to start the van. So, at four in the afternoon, we settled down for the night. At this point, I’d better explain our sleeping arrangements. They were simple. We basically just dossed down in the van. I, for one, found sleep hard to come by. The reason for which, I discovered much later in the journey.
The next day, mile by mile, we crawled up the Alps and descended the other side, finally arriving in Italy. We stopped after dark in a layby, cooked our Tyne Brand and tried to sleep. We awoke to discover that we were in the middle of a town, overlooked by a huge housing estate, the van being rocked by passing traffic on a bustling main road.
We pressed on, following the spine of Italy, travelling through Tuscany towards Rome. One town we passed through still sticks in my memory, largely due to its silly name. This was Poggibonsi, which might reasonably be translated into English as Fat Head. Eventually, we reached Rome, but not without further incident.
Just outside Rome the weather turned windy, hampering our efforts to cook breakfast outside, so we relocated our two stoves to inside the van. At this point, Old Bill in the shape of two Policia Stradale on motorbikes turned up. As one walked slowly around the van assessing the road worthiness of our battered Bedford, the other asked to see inside the back of the van. We opened the back doors to reveal Ronnie, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the van, stirring the contents of two tins of Tyne Brand liver and bacon with a large wooden spoon.
The two coppers started laughing, shook their heads, and signaled for us to close the van doors again. They climbed onto their bikes, and with a friendly wave, sped off. It was only after they’d gone we noticed a sign that said no cooking, no fires and no picnicking.
We spent a day in Rome, looked at all the usual sights, and moved on. We had chosen not to head straight for Cassino – that would have been too easy – instead, we decided to go to the seaside. The town we picked as our destination was Gaeta. We spent a pleasant day here sunbathing and relaxing. I fell into a deep sleep while sheltering from the sun beneath the van. Reno spent so long doing the opposite that he suffered mild sunstroke. Meanwhile, Ronnie and Pete were panicking, wondering where the Hell I was. Eventually, much to their relief, they discovered me slumbering beneath the Bedford. I hadn’t slept properly for days and was dead to the world.
They woke me up and confessed that because I was the only driver they’d been lacing my tea with large quantities of powdered glucose in an attempt to keep me awake. I have to say it worked. Many times over the previous days they’d all been asleep as I drove the van. This had been at its most alarming as we snaked across the Alps. Remember, this was pre-seatbelts. I watched with trepidation as a sleeping Reno, sitting next to me, swayed first in my direction, then perilously close to the van’s open door. On more than one occasion I grabbed his arm to stop him falling out.
The next day we decided to head even further out of our way and visit Naples and Pompei. First, though, we made a diversion inland to find a good place to stop for the night. Somehow or other, we happened upon a deserted quarry, out of sight of the road or any buildings.
We drove from there to Pompei where we visited the ruins. After a good snigger at the smutty murals in the building that was once a brothel, we headed up the autostrada, back towards Naples. Just as we turned off the autostrada, the van spluttered to a halt. No amount of cranking could restart the engine. Almost immediately thirty or so street urchins surrounded us. We were concerned that they were about to rob us so we closely guarded every entrance to the van.
Reno and Ronnie spoke Italian with a southern dialect so they managed to set up a rapport with the urchins. The urchins in turn were amazed to discover that two apparently English kids could speak just like them. One of the urchins claimed to be a mechanic and offered to fix the van in return for 3,000 lire. We were skeptical but didn’t think we had any choice but to agree. There were 30 of them and only four of us. He quickly diagnosed the problem as a blocked carburetor (no doubt caused by the rogue paraffin) and set about cleaning it. Sure enough, at the first turn of the starting handle the engine burst back into life. We gladly handed over the 3,000 lire (about £1.75 at the time), took a photograph of the urchins assembled round the van, and headed back to our quarry.
It was finally time to go to Cassino. Reno’s uncle, Cosimo, had no idea that we were about to turn up, but put a good face on it when we did. He took us on a tour of the local British war cemetery, which it was his job to maintain. In the evening the family prepared what can only be described as a banquet for us, course after course of delicious Italian food, washed down with local red wine. Needless to say at the end of it, I was heroically sick. But for the first time in over a week we did each get a proper bed to sleep in.
The next day, after the briefest of visits, we started the long return journey to England. We decided to adopt a coastal route, entering France at Ventimiglia then following the N7 along the Rhone valley, thus avoiding the need to re-cross the Alps. At this stage we checked our finances and decided that, despite having shelled out 3,000 lire on the blocked carburetor, we had enough money to treat ourselves to lunch in a cheap trattroria.
We found a decent looking place by the side of the road and, important this, on a hill, so that we could jump-start the van by slipping the clutch after our meal. The hour and a half or so we’d spend at the restaurant wouldn’t be enough to allow us to use the starting handle.
In the trattoria there were a group of locals on an adjacent table who took great interest in our appearance. We all had long hair, a fashion that didn’t seem to have yet reached Italy, and they began talking about us. As they did so, Reno translated what they were saying. It was stuff like what a right bunch of Jessies we looked, that sort of thing.
We finished the meal and as we left, Reno turned to the table of locals. In perfect Italian he told them how much we’d enjoyed our meal and what a nice restaurant it was. For the first time in two hours they were stunned into silence, their faces turning the same colour as the red wine they were drinking.
We continued our laborious progress back home, stopping regularly to eat meals of Tyne Brand. By now, we’d coined a name for the unsavory contents of these tins, gilge. I think it was a mixture of glutinous and bilge that inspired us, although I doubt whether back then I knew the meaning of glutinous or how to spell it.
As we approached England, there were two tins that we eagerly anticipated and had saved for last: the alluringly named ‘Pound and a Half’, which purported to be ‘one and a half pounds of delicious beef stew and vegetables’. When, on our final night in France, we opened these giant tins, we were treated to the sight of a solid layer of congealed fat that proved to be several inches thick. We boiled down the contents to discover that it wasn’t so much beef stew and vegetables as vegetable stew with so little beef that it took a magnifying glass to see it. I can’t say that I was surprised to learn recently that Tyne Brand ceased making food for humans and turned their efforts to manufacturing dog food before finally going out of business some years ago.
Miraculously, and with the paper clip still securing the accelerator pedal, we reached Calais and the car ferry. We were lucky that we didn’t have to wait long before boarding the ship, making it possible for us to restart the van’s engine with the starting handle. It was a different story when we reached Dover. The crossing was a quick one, just under an hour and a half. And the van was in pole position, right by the front doors of the ferry, blocking dozens of cars.
Reno, Ronnie and Pete took it in turns to crank the starting handle as I sat ready to rev the engine if by some chance we managed to get it going. But would that bugger start? Would it fairy cake. Becoming more and more embarrassed by holding up a shipload of returning holidaymakers we kept trying to start the bloody thing. The ship’s crew was just on the verge of calling up a tractor to tow us out of the way when, miracle of miracles, the engine fired into life. From behind us there rose a great cheer as hundreds of holidaymakers applauded our success in finally getting the engine started.
It was a fantastic feeling. We were on the road home and the engine was running. But first we had to negotiate Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. They took one look at us and waved the van straight into an inspection bay. Of course, the first thing they told us to do was turn off the engine. We tried to explain that we’d rather not, but they were having none of it. I turned the ignition key and killed the engine that we’d fought so hard, and so long, to bring into life.
The customs men now began an exhaustive search of the van and its contents. They took out everything, put it on a long table, and examined each item closely. Amongst the many things we had on board was a tin box containing a wrench and set of sockets that kept opening and spilling its contents. At some stage of our journey we’d taped it up with insulating tape to stop this happening. I remember one customs officer having a Eureka moment when he discovered this at the bottom of our toolbox. He spent hours laboriously unpicking the insulating tape only to discover, guess what? A wrench and set of sockets.
After this incident, the boys from Customs and Excise appeared to lose heart. They told us to put everything back in the van, which in itself seemed to take ages, and clear off. Thank Heaven, one crank of the starting handle got the engine running.
As we emerged from the entrance to the docks, two familiar figures hailed us from the side of the road. It was Reno and Ronnie’s mum and dad. They’d been so concerned about us they had decided to drive down to Dover to meet us. After a brief hello, we set off in convoy, the van in front, the Caldarellis’s white Fiat following at a short distance.
Just after Canterbury we joined the M2 motorway for the 60-mile haul back to London. A couple of miles in, the van completely lost power and we were forced to pull over on to the hard shoulder. As all four of us climbed out of the van in a leisurely fashion wondering what to do next, the Caldarellis’s Fiat screeched to a halt behind us, accompanied by a frantic flashing of headlights and horn honking. Reno and Ronnie’s dad rushed up to the nearside door of the van, pulled us out of the way, and yanked the front passenger seat off its mounting. Caldarelli senior was acting like a man possessed. We soon understood why, as flames began to engulf the area where only seconds earlier Reno had been sitting.
As you’d expect, amongst all the junk on board, we had nothing resembling anything as sensible as a fire extinguisher. Luckily, Mister C was a strong little bugger with a huge lung capacity. He took a deep breath and blew out the fire.
It turned out that even before we’d been forced to stop, the Caldarellis had been alarmed to see flames licking the bottom of the van. Our battery appeared to have been the culprit, but I have no idea why it caught fire. In fact, after a decent interval, we were able to re-start the engine and successfully navigate our van all the way to Tottenham.
Believe or not, this trip did nothing to discourage us from planning another. Quite the opposite, in fact. We immediately started working out the details for a long journey to Spain the following year. This time we didn’t forget the tin opener. But that, as they say, is another story.
Copyright: Michael Everett 2013