‘We’re done for.’
These are the words that echoed from my father’s lips as the clutch imploded on the 1967 Commer camper van that had, up until then, transported us from the safety of Hertfordshire, across the channel on a Sealink ferry, down through the cultish beauty of northern France and to the Atlantic ocean town of St Jean-de-Monts.
We had left St Jean-de-Monts to make our way home. Time was of the essence since my father was due back at work on the Monday. It was a Wednesday and we had to catch the ferry from Calais to Dover on the Friday. When the Commer ground to a halt in the middle of mid-France alongside a cornfield, my father’s words had a rather terminal tinge to the proposed schedule.
In previous years our ‘van’ had taken us on a four-week jaunt from northern France, through the Pyrenees and down to Tarragona in northern Spain and back again. That trip had also not been without incident such was the fragility of the Commer’s mechanicals. In Evreux, in northern France the van called time with a thermostat problem. We knew this because steam was coming up through the engine bay which, inconveniently, was located under the bench seat on which we were sitting. As we sat in the mist-filled cab wondering what on earth was happening, my sister, my mum and I heard dad underplay the situation with: ‘I think there’s a problem’.
On that occasion the issue was minor, so his reaction had been understandably less incendiary, but this time, as we sat surrounded by corn, the breakdown appeared more serious.
My father, aware of his responsibilities in that split second had overstated the gravity of our situation, but what happened after that was truly wonderful. We were not ‘done for’. Dad simply walked to a nearby farmhouse up the road, telephoned the nearest Chrysler dealership (about 20 miles away), and a man turned up insisting that he could drive ‘sans clutch’ and get us to a place where the necessary fix could be undertaken. The real only issue we faced was that, once started, the van should maintain momentum at all times until we arrived at the desired location. Fine, but that dictated that all traffic lights should be green in order to complete the journey. There were occasions on that 40-minute journey that prayers were said from the mouth of my atheist father imploring a shining red to transpose to green.
The Commer’s clutch would take a day to fix but that would be precipitated by a two-day wait for the parts to arrive. As a consequence, we stayed in a dishevelled hotel room with a shower shared by the whole floor in order to reduce costs. Picnics were taken in cornfields, baguettes and cream cheese were consumed and dirt-cheap red plonk was drunk. It was a magical family time, and it subsequently provided excellent anecdote fodder at Christmas gatherings, which inevitably started with the words ‘You remember when the van broke down… ?’
As a vehicle the Commer was fundamentally rubbish. Its power output was so meagre there were doubts about its ability to cope with the Pyrenees, even in first gear, and it was about as reliable as an election manifesto. With a painfully narrow inside track on the front axle, it handled much like a barge with all the coal located at one end. If dad took a corner too fast, his kids would end up either on his lap, or in the driver’s footwell.
There were upsides though. The living space was ample and practical. As a four-berth, it certainly didn’t contravene any trade descriptions. My parents slept comfortably on a makeshift bed constructed from the bench seats and dining table, I slept on the pull-out bunk (referred to as the jam shelf) and the cab, with privacy curtains, made a nice little hideout for my sister.
We bought the van as an experiment. My parents, woefully middle class, had tired of package holidays to Spain and Majorca in the early 70s and wanted to embrace their inner beatnik. Their goal was to culture-up the summer holidays and take their kids along for the ride. The Commer van represented freedom for them and for six glorious years we travelled the length and breadth of France and Spain.
Thing is, I remember this underpowered, unpredictable and almost undriveable E-reg Commer without rose-tinted spectacles. It wasn’t much cop and I am still mystified as to why British Telecom chose this model over worthier candidates as the backbone of its maintenance fleet.
Still, it is imprinted in my memory and, if you need a way of bonding your family now rendered dysfunctional by iPads, computer games, modern society and general apathy, go online, find a Commer and tell your kids you’re off to Spain. Then you really will be ‘done for’.