Mazda 121 Utrecht

After all: My first driving lesson

E&T looks back at a gruesome driving experience.

While living in Australia in the early 1990s, I used to hate fire hydrants.

Melbourne, the city where I was based, appeared to have been invaded by them. Wherever you went, rows of the things stood nonchalantly at the kerb, dragging people and cars towards them. Their short vertical form was almost pagoda-like, but I didn't feel like praying at those small roadside temples that gave the impression that Melbourne was possessed by pyrophobia and inhabited exclusively by pyromaniacs.

I started suffering from that peculiar disease - firehydrantphobia - after my ever first driving lesson. At the tender age of 37, I finally decided to overcome my inborn Soviet handicap and learn to drive a car. I even successfully passed my traffic rules test, only slightly embarrassed to be doing this in the company of giggling teenagers.

I couldn't wait to be able to sit behind the wheel of my brand-new Mazda 121. Never before had I felt so passionate about an inanimate piece of technology. My Mazda though was very much alive: gleaming, young, beautiful and, yes, feminine (particularly from behind). I was sure she winked at me coquettishly with her left blinker when I first approached her from the front.

Her insides smelled of leather and perfume, and the exterior was bright yellow - the safest colour, I was told. Her engine worked with short flirtatious purrs, which were driving me mad with desire to drive her'

The sad reality of my learner status was that I had to share my mechanical sweetheart with someone else, and I dropped myself into the driver's seat next to Kevin, my driving instructor.

'I never knew driving was so easy! The most difficult thing so far has been adjusting the mirrors' And see: I am moving - faster and faster - my steady hands resting possessively on the wheel. Looking triumphantly around, I am driving' driving my beloved Mazda crazy with driving her' I am making a left-hand tur'

Crunch.

I don't know, I must have pressed the accelerator instead of the brake. My little Mazda leapt up in the air and landed beyond the kerb. Kevin had no time to press his emergency brake. We were both alive, it seemed - but where is this angry hissing coming from?

Kevin, my Mazda and I were lying on our side, and as I looked over my shoulder I saw a thick fountain of pressurised water beating from underneath the wreck. My voluminous research had educated me that a car engine needed water for cooling - but so much?

It occurred to me suddenly that the hissing might be some precursor to the car exploding, at which point I promptly fell out of my seat through the open car door and into the mud-filled ditch beneath.

Clambering to my feet I could see the 20m-high fountain of water that beat from the flattened fire hydrant was generously watering the nearby palm tree - not to mention the unsuspecting rare pedestrians on the opposite side of the road. Two playful rainbows were already dancing above the newly created sea of Melbourne mud under the stream.

From the corner of my eye, I spotted another palm tree - hairy, thick and solid - just 20cm from where the car stopped. Only at that point did I realise how close I came to meeting my maker.

It all fell into a dreamlike sequence of events: the torrents of water flooding the street, the arrival of the water utilities people; the tow-truck lifting my poor Mazda and carrying her away.

I could hardly believe that I was the source of all that fuss. After all, I was just trying to turn the corner, the first corner in my car-driving life.

The injured fire hydrant was lying on the ground - a desecrated obelisk on the grave of my illusions that driving was easy. It had probably saved my life by slowing down my Mazda's dash towards the palm tree.

An admirably courageous Kevin made sure we returned to 'Vitali's corner' (as he started referring to the spot) in the same repaired Mazda several weeks later. I negotiated it again - this time without incident or accident. I was now educated and fit to transport the great and the good from A to B - right?

In early 1991, my good friend Sir Peter Ustinov, who was then touring Australia, came to visit.

'What a lovely little car you've got! I have never seen a car like that before!' he cried on spotting the Mazda in front of my Melbourne house. Like a perennial teenager, he had a great passion for cars - and even collected them.

'I'd like to have a ride in your car!' he enthused - though I could scarcely share his enthusiasm. It was only one day before that I had got my driving licence, and my recent dalliance with the fire hydrant - the memories of which were still fresh - did not bode well for my driving future. Besides, I had never driven the car on my own, without an instructor.

'Drive me to the restaurant in this lovely car of yours!' he exclaimed.

We were supposed to have dinner in one of Melbourne's Russian restaurants.

I tried to talk Ustinov out of it by explaining what an awful driver I was. I confessed about the tragic fate of the fire hydrant, but he remained resolute.

He proceeded to squeeze himself into my Mazda - knees first, and the tiny car sagged under his weight. I climbed onto the driver's seat - and Mazda's metallic underbelly touched the ground. Off we drove, striking sparks from the asphalt.

I sat behind the wheel trembling like an aspen leaf, and my mind kept turning the reality over and over: 'If something happens, I'll go down in history as the man who killed Peter Ustinov.' This did not aid my nerves when it came to getting the correct order of manoeuvre, mirror and signal.

I was covered in cold sweat by the time we reached the restaurant, and had totally lost my appetite. The verdict of the worldy Mr Ustinov? 'Your driving was perfect!' I remain thankful that I was not responsible for denying the world this man's genius a full 13 years before nature's eventual date.

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