Remembering four special people in four special cars


Remembering four special people in four special cars

HERMAN LATEGAN was at the annual Classic Car and Bike Show in Plumstead. There was an elderly band playing the blues, a melancholy singer in a church hat, Bacchus dropped in — and four cars reminded him of people from his past.


Ma Basson’s Wolseley

THE Wolseley was a grande dame that swayed gently. It was 1968, I was four, and it was the first car I remember driving in.

A typical Cape drizzle fell over a grey city. It was the time of soft rain that sprinkled the Cape for days.

I recall the sound of the windscreen wipers: swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. When the indicator was turned on there were also sounds: click, click, click.

There was a polished wooden instrument panel and comfortable red leather seats. My mother was in the front passenger seat. Her friend, much older than her, Ma Basson, was driving.

Both of them sucked on cigarettes until the blue smoke swirled around. The ashtray was overflowing. They smoked Rembrandt van Rijns, the ones in the yellow pack.

I remember Ma Basson's face in the rearview mirror. Her cheeks were powdered with rouge. A fine, black hairnet over her hair. (Her name was Iris, she was English-speaking.)


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This was her permanent look. She only wore black because she apparently lost a fiancé in World War 2.

She always had a small silver rouge container in her handbag. Inside was a brush and a mirror. At the traffic light, she dabbed it on her cheeks. Mirror, mirror on the wall.

My mum said Ma Basson wore so much make-up because her sight was fading and she couldn't see how much she was putting on, and that I should never ever ask her about that. Her anemone-red lipstick was always lavishly applied to her sad mouth, and she wore big false eyelashes and green eyeshadow.

She held the large steering wheel with puffy ringed fingers, around her arms she wore bracelets that rattled and jingled loudly. When she laughed exuberantly, she held her hand with the long white-painted nails in front of her mouth as if she had said something naughty.

She smelt of rose water; a faint whiff of smoke and brandy enveloped her. Later, we drove a lot with Ma Basson in her big Wolseley, our own ship on wheels. I felt safe.

When I see such a vehicle today I smell rose water, rouge, cigarette smoke, I hear my mother laughing carelessly. And turning my face upwards, I wait for the soft, grey drizzle.

Griet’s Volla

Griet worked with my mother at the Western Cape Provincial Library Service in Green Point. She drove a blue Volkswagen Beetle. Her son Ivan and I were the same age.

I was not allowed to call her Auntie, it was Griet. Ivan was not allowed to call his mum Mother either, it was Griet.

She was a practical woman, originally from Bloemfontein, who didn't take nonsense. If she had been a Voortrekker, she would have been the first to walk barefoot over the mountains.

We were about eight. She liked to listen to Vicky Leandros' When Bouzoukis Played.

At the weekend we travelled in that Volla over Kloof Nek to Camps Bay beach. It struggled up the steep hill but flew all the way down the other side.

Ivan and I sat in the hollow space that Vollas had at the back while the grown-ups talked about grown-up stuff. Men of course.


Griet dated a cantankerous German and ditched him. My mother was in love with Albert, an engineer. He wasn't very handsome.

It impressed her, the engineering part, also that he was ugly. In that little car, Ivan and I overheard many such conversations. The world of adults seemed to be one long love story with many twists and turns.

In Camps Bay we could buy ice cream and ride the waves on our inflatable mattresses, but not too far. Griet was attractive, with beautiful hair, young, both women's lives still light and charming.

One day, our cockatiel flew away. My mother didn't have money to buy a new one. Griet, with her great heart, drove her Volla to a pet shop and bought us one.

I sat with the bird in my little hands all the way home. A Volla will always remind me of the fragility of that little bird and of dear Griet.

Uncle Bertie’s Citroën Pallas

Uncle Bertie, our neighbour, looked like Oliver Hardy from the Laurel and Hardy films. He had a large, round face with a double chin.

His skin was red because Uncle Bertie loved his booze. Anything with a kick was his chum.

Even when he was pissed, he was steady on his feet and could maintain a conversation. He parked his Citroën Pallas in the street, just outside my window.

From there I could watch him. These cars had hydropneumatic suspension. You start the car, it takes a while for it to lift and then you're off on wings of air.

With Uncle Bertie it was not so easy, he took his time. With his black hard hat and tight black suit, flushed alcohol face and pipe, he always looked for his key first.

It would fall to the ground, then he would bend down with difficulty, pick it up and open the large, heavy door. Slowly, slowly he struggled to get behind the wheel, because his stomach was big.

When he started the car, he lit his pipe and waited it to “take off". His moustache was grey but there was a yellow nicotine streak on one side.

After a few stiff drags on his pipe, he would pull away in a jerky fashion. On the way to a bar, of course.


For some strange reason, his favourite bar was in the Blue Peter Hotel in Blouberg. In those days it was a long drive from Cape Town to Blouberg.

One Sunday he invited me to have lunch with him and his wife, Marian, at the Blue Peter. There was a Sunday special. My dad and mum would follow us.

How wonderful it was for a 10-year-old boy to sit in the back of this car and feel it slowly lift. But the drive there was a thrill because Uncle Bertie was not only pissed, he was speeding and wanted to impress me.

It was hot and all the windows were open. His fancy black hat blew off and when I looked round I saw a kombi run over the thing.

He wasn't fazed and we just drove faster. At the Blue Peter I noticed that the waitress, who looked like Barbara Windsor from the Carry On films, was making eyes at Uncle Bertie.

Like Barbara, she was blonde, firm and large-breasted. His wife was blissfully unaware of this flirtation.

But in the car on the way back to Cape Town, I could see how she wiped the wet mascara from under her eyes in the small mirror of the sun visor.

My dad’s Peugeot 404

His name was Sammy and his loves were cars and beautiful women. He was one of the best used car salesmen in the Cape, handsome, with black hair, tight jeans and aviator sunglasses.

Sammy walked with a swagger like a cowboy. If he entered a bar with swinging doors, he made a dramatic entrance à la Clint Eastwood. The soundtrack of his life was from the film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Because he was in the car industry, we drove many different ones: Mercedes-Benzes, Alfas, Jaguars and Kombis. But his favourite car was his Peugeot 404.

When Sammy drove that car, he would become a different person. Crazy happy. There and in a dark bar.

He placed one arm on the door with his window open (he always had a farmer's tan), had a Gunston Toasted cigarette in the corner of his mouth and often listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival's Midnight Special.


On Saturday mornings we would sometime race through to Van Wyksdorp in the Little Karoo on one of his whims, just in time for lunch with family. Something chased him and sometimes he disappeared for days in that car.

On the open road he was a speedster. With that Peugeot 404 he drove to De Aar, Bloemfontein, East London and many other places far from Cape Town in the middle of the night.

Then late at night the call from a public phone in a noisy bar: “I'm in Kimberley, I'll come home tomorrow."

One day he did not come back. I never saw that Peugeot 404 again. Him neither.

♦ VWB ♦

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