It’s the same in any trade when you’re an apprentice – you find yourself the butt of everyone’s jokes, the first in line for all the crappy jobs and the worst paid person in an entire workforce.
Yet despite their gullibility when it comes to sourcing left-handed screwdrivers and paint rollers to match, I’ve a great deal of affection for anyone who has worked their way up from an apprenticeship in any business.
Part of my reason for respecting them is that I, too, was once an apprentice. I know you might find it hard to believe given my obvious sharpness of wit and business acumen, but back in the days when Britain still had a fully operational indigenous motor industry, I cut my teeth selling new cars through a dealership owned by the lumbering nationalised corporation known variously as British Leyland, BLMC, Leyland Motors or Leyland Motor Holdings (it depended on whether you were a debtor or creditor…)
My boss was a jovial Midlander, who had worked his way up to DP of the company’s flagship site in Coventry. He frequently tried to catch me out with evil practical jokes, but only on one occasion do I remember him turning nasty, and in truth, he was perfectly justified.
It was a Friday morning, and I’d spent the previous night asleep in the boot of a Rover P5. I’d been for a few drinks with a mate, was in no fit state to drive home and figured it would be both cheaper than a taxi and safer, in terms of guaranteeing I wouldn’t be late for work. The boss never found out about my evening’s domestic arrangements, but what he did know was when I rolled into work I wasn’t my usual fresh self.
Realising I was best hidden away, he sent me out the back to work on a vehicle that, the following morning, was due to be picked up by the local mayoress. My job was to set up the carburettor to make sure the car was running properly. Thing is, the car was a Triumph 2.5 PI estate – which the more time-served among you may recall was the meaty one with the 150bhp TR6 engine and Lucas Fuel Injection.
After a two-hour snooze in the workshop, I returned to my boss looking much healthier, so when he enquired about the carburettor I told him it was all sorted and the car was running as sweet as a nut.
That was when he exploded. How was I to know, in those early days of fuel injection, that the damned thing didn’t even have a carb? He’d caught me out and rather bluntly explained that if I didn’t stay on for at least three hours to clean and tidy the workshop, then there’d be no point in coming back the following morning.
The story doesn’t end there, though. Once my boss had knocked off at 5.30pm and I was supposedly staying back for three hours, temptation got the better of me. As an irresponsible 19-year old, I couldn’t resist finding out what the mayoress’s 150bhp Triumph had to offer, so I decided to take it round the block and find out.
You’ve probably guessed what happened next, but if you haven’t, let’s just say it involved an unfortunate imbalance between what I perceived my driving skills to be, and what they actually were. I was lucky to avoid hitting any other vehicles, but buried the nose of the Triumph in two big metal dustbins, wrecking the nearside wing, bumper and one pair of headlights.
Just 14 hours later, Ma’am was due to pick up her new motor. The problem was, I loved my job and didn’t want to lose it, so I called a few mates, all of whom were motor industry apprentices themselves.
To this day, I owe them all a huge debt of gratitude, as we worked through the night to rebuild the front end of the Triumph. By 6.30am, the car looked as good as new – I just hoped my boss wouldn’t notice the smell of paint, nor that the workshop hadn’t been tidied.
He didn’t. I still have the newspaper clipping from the local rag with two pictures of the mayoress at our dealership – one where she’s leaning against the nearside front wing for the cameras, and another where she’s walking away with a streak of still-tacky Trafalgar Blue up her dress. Great days…