Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Day I Rolled the SSS

In the 1970s a Datsun 1600 SSS was a desirable car, one that was not readily available in Australia. Things were different in Malaysia, and having the use of one for a day or two was not to be knocked back.

For a 12 month period in 1972-73 I was Vice President of the RAAF Butterworth Motor Club (RBMC). During that time the club was involved in organising a major motor rally – although I can’t remember what it was. Curly Knight told me recently that the RBMC organised the North Malaysia Rally and it may have been that.

The local Datsun dealer was one of the sponsors – if not the major one. In that capacity it supplied the club with a SSS to help with the route survey. Now I don’t know how I came to be involved with the survey as I was into bikes at the time but I was entrusted with the keys to the Datsun. Perhaps, as club Vice President I was judged to be one of the more responsible members.

And so it came to pass that one morning bright and early four of us set off in the SSS to survey a part of the route. This took us through a rubber plantation somewhere south of Butterworth. Gravel roads, no traffic, a hot car and three mates to show off to. For a young hoon – did I suggest I was one of the more responsible RBMC members - this was pretty close to heaven.
The 1600 I bought when I returned home in April 1974

Zeke Behm is the only one of my passengers I can remember. Zeke was a couple of years younger than me and obviously somewhat sillier. I remember an earlier occasion when I had hired a Colt Gallant for the weekend. These were pretty good little performers in their day and Zeke and I decided to take it for a spin around Penang Island.  This was late at night after I had been enjoying Zeke’s hospitality at a party he and his housemates threw out Hillside way.

The road from Hillside to Batu Ferringgi was narrow, windy, potholed and hilly. It afforded a great opportunity to demonstrate my driving skills to Zeke and he was obviously impressed. ‘You’re a great driver, Ken’ he would exclaim as I dropped it down a cog or two, lined up another corner and threw it into another drift. ‘The best driver I’ve been with’. And we continued on this vein until I looked at the fuel gauge. This was a most sobering moment as I realised there was no way I would get around the Island and that I would be lucky to get back to Hillside if I turned around then and there. So I did the smartest thing I had done all evening – turned around a drove quietly back to Zeke’s place in order to save as much petrol as I could. We made it.

Next morning I thought about what we had done and it really scared me – and it does to this day when I think about it. But not Zeke – at least at the time. He still raved about my skills behind the wheel for months.

Now here I was again with Zeke in the front left-hand seat. And as I lined up the corners, dropped down a cog or two and applied power and a bit of opposite lock as we drifted through one corner after another, Zeke again was complimenting me on my driving skills. This was how a Saturday afternoon was meant to be lived.

Now I know what you are thinking, that with all this encouragement I continued to try harder until … But you’re wrong – although the more my ego was stoked the harder I may have tried. But for some reason I had slowed to a crawl – no more than 15 to 20 miles per hour. Nothing hoonish at all. And then it happened. It was a gentle corner, the road was grassed and, as I was about to find out, quite slippery. The back slid out, up a slight bank and we ended up on the roof. Although the passengers in the back didn’t have seat belts no one was injured – perhaps except for a bruise or two.

Now we had a bit of a dilemma. Here we were in a rubber plantation with a sponsor’s car on its roof and no mobile telephone. Now I can’t remember how it happened but it didn’t take long before the plantation manager appeared on the scene with his tractor. With his help it didn’t take long to get the car back on its wheels.

We assessed the damage and found the car was driveable. Now I may be wrong on this but I have a recollection of throwing the windscreen into the boot. We did have a slight leak in the radiator and we did have to stop a few times to top it up. Don’t ask me if we had enough water with us or had to scrounge some on the way home. And I can’t remember the reception when the car was returned to the sponsor so maybe someone else in the club had that responsibility.

Planning for the rally continued and it was finally conducted successfully. I have limited recollection of the event itself other than being in a rubber plantation at night manning a checkpoint. I remember the fire flies. And I remember the Saabs.

These Swedish beasts were different. They were three cylinder 841 cc two strokes with a distinctive scream that warned us well in advance of their arrival – and then there was the two-stroke exhaust haze that hung in the air after they passed.

On my return to Australia I bought a second hand 1600. I drove it from Richmond to Brisbane accompanied by Ken Simpson and B.J Boyton to attend Zeke and Angel’s wedding shortly after Zeke returned from Butterworth. I had the honour of being their best man. The 1600 was a good, fun car to drive, but not as good as the SSS. But at least for the time it was mine it remained right side up.

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