On the Road Again

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For a motoring journalist it’s like being let out of prison. Six years after the accident which paralysed most of my body and my hands, I am finally behind the wheel again. Colleagues thought I was mad to go for another Alfa (my fifth) but after nine months I feel quite vindicated: my 3-litre Alfa 164 has proved almost ideal. Everything is electric, from seats to sunroof, and all by push-buttons (my fingers can’t operate twist-knobs), including the vital automatic air-conditioning — one of the consequences of being tetraplegic is the complete loss of bodily temperature control. And I bought it at 23,000 miles, low for these long-lasting machines, having plummeted from its £25,000 tag — I paid £13,200 for this fresh-looking high-spec car. Mind you, after Quentin Willson boosted them on Top Gear, low-mileage examples became like hens’ teeth, especially the V6 automatic, and it took many ‘phone calls before I struck lucky with Black & White Garages at Newbury. They had taken a call from a possible seller just half-an-hour before, and it was several anxious days before he agreed to sell and I could inspect the car.

For a paraplegic, only paralysed from the waist down, converting a car is dead simple — fit a throttle/brake lever and a steering knob and you’re off. For someone with no finger use, even winding a window or releasing the handbrake is almost impossible. During my 11 months at Stoke Mandeville I was shown all sorts of ironmongery to compensate, but in the end I avoided most of it by having myself modified instead. A series of lengthy but ingenious “tendon transfer” operations has given me back the ability to straighten my arm and to clutch things roughly but firmly with my fist.

So there’s little to see inside the Alfa’s standard button-laden cockpit, just a discreet throttle/brake lever by my right knee and a chest-threatening steering spike clamped to the wheel. But of course I can let go of neither on the move, so everything else vital is controlled by a small rubber pad on the door which I stab with my elbow and hold for the right number of beeps — two for right signal, three for left, etc. The trouble is that it needs seven beeps to trigger the wipers, and it can be hard in town to find a long enough gap to run straight without braking. Also I can’t hear it on the motorway, so I have to guess. And although there are nine functions, the unit cannot switch the lights on, so I regularly plunge completely unlit into the stygian A40 Hangar Lane underpass; I’m learning to stop by the old Renault HQ to switch on first, but then I can’t douse them until I leave the motorway.

I also have a “motorway drill” of closing the sunroof and cranking the radio up at a stop-light well before I hit the on-ramp, having all too often realised only at 70mph that I can’t swap the wind-roar of one for the sound of the other until the first services. That’s OK on the M4 (it’s a mile to Heston), but a pain on the M40 — the first services are at Banbury, and I could miss the whole of Loose Ends!

Other things I can’t do on the move: change radio stations or tapes; put sunglasses on; drop the sun visor; switch foglamps on; dip the mirror; scratch my nose. So nowadays I bless red lights. What’s worse is that I cannot relax my left (steering) arm for a single second, and as the car always wants to run down the camber, it’s like holding a house-brick at arm’s length for a solid hour or more. The power steering has been lightened, but what I really want is to make the car track to the right to compensate. My service people (Alfa II in North London, recommended to me by Alfa-loving colleague Mick Walsh of Classic and Sportscar) have coped with most of my odd requests, like setting the steering wheel squint to reduce arm stretch, but we’re still working on this one.

I devised my own design of hand-control to give me more precise throttle control and better leg clearance, and had it made up by a specialist firm in Milton Keynes, Design & Innovation. They also lightened the power steering, fitted the 9-way unit, disconnected the release button on the gear selector, pulled the radio forwards from its coy recess, made an extra-chunky ignition key, and had a chest strap neatly stitched in to the seat to stop me toppling over. With no working trunk muscles, I just flop over if pushed; I still fall to the left on right-hand bends, so it’s a brute trying to signal left to leave a roundabout as the beeper pad goes out of reach. I try to minimise the number of angry hoots by sticking to the outside track. I have refused to carry one of those stickers saying “Disabled Driver”, as my aim is to be good enough to be “invisible”, but I do wish I could explain why I can never lift a hand to say “thank you”, and, occasionally, “sorry’.

After several adjustments by D & I, things are nearly sorted; I could do with a self-dipping mirror — the equivalent Lancia Thema came with one, but Fiat Group/Alfa Romeo UK, rather to my surprise, have evinced little interest in my project in general. So if anyone knows of a scrapped Thema or can identify the company which makes such an item, I’d like to hear. And though you can buy a voice-controlled radio-cassette, it won’t fit the Alfa’s fascia.

Having a ‘phone is simply vital when you can’t get out of the car by yourself, and I have a hands-free Nokia set-up which answers calls automatically. I can’t end the call without stopping the car, but still, being incommunicado after a breakdown or puncture on a dark night doesn’t bear thinking about… Another frightener is fire, but I’ve found an excellent solution, called Firetrace. It’s plumbed-in, but instead of having fixed nozzles and a manual trigger, it relies on a flexible tube which melts and ruptures where a flame touches it, releasing the magic gas fully automatically. It was £114 which I was happy to spend.

After all this effort, and expense, having the car stolen would be a devastating difficulty. There is an alarm/immobiliser, but by accident I’ve ended up with a wizard antitheft device. To guard against an involuntary leg spasm (normal for spinal cord injuries), D & I fitted a removeable throttle pedal. Even if the rats get in and start the car, they’ll be hard pushed to get anywhere, as no able-bodied driver seems to be able to manage the hand-throttle.

So at last I have a small degree of independence and a large amount of satisfaction; the car is smooth and quick, the gearbox sweet, if slow to kick-down, and the handling excellent within my low-g limits. But please — if you meet a red 164 which signals right, but turns left and then hoots at you — be gentle with me.

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