MAY 2000 - NO. 103

The advent of Madam Fifi

By JOHN MACKAY, Bettyhill

Some years ago there appeared an article in Country Life magazine, "A motoring pioneer in Sutherland", by Sir Harold Dankwert. His father, an eminent KC, had brought the first motor car to Strathnaver in 1902.

The author writes: "Our car arrived at the railway station with a French chauffeur, who, when he saw the road, took fright, picked up a hammer and cracked one of the cylinders.

"Had his French counterparts who accompanied Bonnie Prince Charlie to our West Highland shore been as enterprising, no doubt the outcome of the Forty-five Rebellion would have been different.

"When the new cylinder arrived, a mechanic from Aberdeen came and fitted it. On the journey from the railway station it became apparent that the French chauffeur was so frightened of the narrow road that he was incapable of driving the car, and the Aberdeen mechanic took over. When the party arrived at their destination the chauffeur was discharged and the Aberdeen man engaged temporarily.

"The car a French Clement, and evidently a poor performer like the chauffeur was sold and quickly followed by a Martini. It is to be remembered that in those early days of motoring, Martinis were driven, not sipped."

I have used a few of the author's sentences to illustrate a point: the Aberdeen mechanic was my uncle.

Uncle James, a qualified blacksmith, had as a comparatively young man left behind the dour hard grind of rural Aberdeenshire and trained as a motor mechanic. A far-seeing man, immediately after the first World War he set up a taxi and haulage business in the city, at a time when competition was not too exacting.

Every year he visited the Motor Show in Paris, yet there is no record of any views he had on the gay night life of that cosmopolitan and glamorous city. However, he arrived home dutifully with a new model (not a shapely female, although at that time France led the world in the rag trade) but a brand new motor car, "Chenard et Walcher" emblazoned across its colourful radiator.

The engine of this iron Colossus had a frontal appearance not unlike the rear end of a rhinoceros, and a back stiff and straight as that of a dowager duchess; a somewhat formidable combination.

In summer, when travelling our narrow country roads, this huge car gave the illusion of being broader than the roads over which it had to travel, with deep ditches only inches away, camouflaged in succulent green foliage, waiting to engulf the unwary traveller. However, the journey from Aberdeen to the north coast of Sutherland was accomplished in a time comparable with that on today's congested roads. To use an oft-quoted expression: The wheel has come full circle. Around the mid-twenties, roads along our north coast were little better than cart-tracks. One notorious section known locally as "General Wade's nightmare" drew and ditched cars with the almost fatalistic pull of that other great mystery, the Bermuda Triangle. One distraught motorist, having suffered this indignity, although his car was only slightly damaged, surrendered it to a mechanically minded crofter; returning home by train, a broken man.

In high summer my grandfather positioned himself in this blackspot armed with a spade (a horse was used in stubborn ditchings) to become the forerunner of our present-day knight of the road the AA man.

Members of the family said rather unkindly that he willed cars to their destruction, but this was untrue. With merry blue eyes and flowing white beard, he liked meeting people whatever the circumstances, one of the traits passed on to a Bohemian grandson!

I have deviated slightly from my story, but only to point out the hazards of early motoring were many and varied. Earlier fears expressed by a French chauffeur were not entirely unfounded.

By the late twenties British cars had caught up and superseded foreign models, leaving the days of our iron Colossus numbered. My uncle, a good improviser, removed the engine from our Chenard et Walcher, converting it into a threshing machine, to stand lonely and forlorn in the dark corner of a draughty Highland barn.

Unwittingly, during the transition period, Madame Fifi, as she was now known, had developed a personality! From now on, always addressed as "she" or "her", never "it"; that would have been undignified.

How many crofters she managed to seduce will never be known, but the amount of threshing done, as opposed to cranking, was minimal.

For a time she gave frenzied and eccentric performances with a potato stuck in her carburettor duct, an insult from which she never quite recovered. At the beginning of each threshing session an elaborate priming ritual took place, occasionally resulting in Madame spraying oil onto well-worn driving belts with the grace of a benign whale. By the time belts were made to grip with generous applications of sand and crushed oats, her ladyship had lapsed into sullen silence; characteristic of an absolute bitch.

Pre-heated sparking plugs, liberal douches of practically tax-free petrol, were to no avail; she just stood there with Gallic dourness, refusing to respond.

When relatives and neighbours had retired for well-earned refreshments, I made several small adjustments, for example removing the offending potato. A half turn on the starting handle and she was away, cackling into life like some ancient houri bent on a belated comeback.

Our antiquated threshing mill became an animated thing as it hummed and vibrated, shining steel lines blurred in speed, shooting decapitated sheaves against the far wall with a defiant swoosh. Madame may have been old and temperamental, yet she was very strong.

An innovation; her fuel induction pipe, larger than that of today's jet planes, passed over the cylinder head, broken only by a glass cup-like affair, on which during frosty weather a crystallisation formed, not unlike whisky on the rocks.

On the death of Uncle James she became my full responsibility, leaving me the unenviable task of performing desperate surgery on her ageing bowels with the aid of a blowlamp and the usual tools of the trade.

Around 1940, when France fell, she capitulated completely and no amount of coaxing could bring her back to life. The old lady had almost bridged the gap between two world wars, outliving her creator by many years.

For a decade she stood out in the yard, with her myriad copper pipes and bold brass fittings, a target for covetous scrap merchants. I repeatedly refused to sell her; it smacked too much of prostitution.

Today a rejuvenated Madame Fifi adorns a small private car museum in Edinburgh, rubbing shoulders coyly with veteran boyfriends, lovingly restored by the hands of a master craftsman. May Madame give her present owner as much pleasure as she gave me if they ever come to terms. Ironically, none other has taken her place in my affections, maybe due to the penury of crofting. Or could it be that she was my first love and no other would suffice?

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