How it works: The Motor Car

FOR the last 50 years, I have never clearly understood the workings of the motor car. Back in the 70s, my eldest brother drove a Ford Anglia – my other older brother sat in the passenger seat and would manoeuvre the gearstick whenever the driver instructed “second gear… third gear…” I sat in the back just enjoying the ride without understanding the function of the gears.

My eldest brother progressed onto a Ford Cortina, next onto a sporty Ford Capri, the prestige Ford Granada followed, then the Ford Sierra. I was the passenger in all of the cars, but still my knowledge of how a car worked was zero.

My dad gave me his red Ford Escort M2 in 1989 – did my knowledge of the workings of a motor car improve? Not really.

… the children’s song, The Wheels on the Bus, just tells us that they go round and round, but there’s no mention of the crankshaft, cylinders, or combustion.

Let me start with what I did know: during the winter months, I’d have to pull the choke out to get the car going, then gradually push it back in during my journey (once, I made the mistake of forgetting to push the choke back in and got stranded on Wembley Triangle with a flooded engine); my car needed 4-Star leaded petrol to function; I knew where the latch was to open the bonnet; I stopped being fooled by the petrol tank gauge indicating a half full tank after I’d filled up at Esso, and, probably most importantly, I knew how to drive the car.

And now onto what I didn’t know: how the wheels turned (the children’s song, The Wheels on the Bus, just tells us that they go round and round, but there’s no mention of the crankshaft, cylinders, or combustion); how the brakes worked was beyond me; I had no clue that the oil should never be filled up beyond a maximum level. In conclusion, I was still a novice in the knowledge of the workings of a motor car.

Through the 90s, I did learns bits… how to do an oil change, replacing the air filter, changing a wheel, putting in new spark plugs, and getting the tyres to the right pressure, but they were just isolated bits that didn’t really connect the dots to solve the riddle of how a car runs.

Earlier this year, 2021, the breakthrough happened. It was a Ladybird book with an iconic front cover – first published in the 60s, and was part of the How it Works series… The Motor Car.

Now, it’s at this point I have a confession to make: this was not the first time I had seen the book… it had been a permanent fixture on the bookshelf in our family home in London during the 70s and 80s. I did try to read it a few times over the years, but I didn’t really understand it and gave up after a couple of pages.

So, this year, after reading the book from start to finish (all done at bedtime), I can honestly say, I do now understand the workings of a motor car! The cylinder system was a breakthrough for me (Aha, that’s where the petrol is injected!).

My understanding of the motor car is a major achievement for me – even though it’s taken many, many years, I’ve grasped it. My message to Ladybird Books is this: I am now ready to take the exam in understanding how the motor car works based on the principals explained in your book. My preferred timing for taking the exam is during the month of March – by this time I would have recovered from the boozy Christmas period, got over the January blues, and revised during February.

Upon completion of the exam (and passing with flying colours), I don’t plan to take up a career in motor repairs just yet, and here lies my next challenge: the motor industry is changing and more electric cars are hitting the streets. After just managing to understand the working of a petrol car, how much longer will it take me to learn about an electric car? So, my second request to Ladybird Books is that a new book needs to be swiftly written… How it works: The Electric Car. Once written and published, it would be wise to send me a copy, and put in place a schedule outlining dates for the mock exams and final exams – this way it ensures my learning of the electric car does not take 50 years before the penny drops.

Now, it’s your turn…

Share your fond photos and stories of your memorable cars during the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Send them to with a short explanation about your memory, and it will be shared on the Retrohen website. Some of these cars may jog your memory.

5 thoughts on “How it works: The Motor Car”

    1. Hi Chrissie, the Capri was a sexy car, so I’m not surprized your brother was impressed! Pity your boyfriend didn’t cut the mustard with your brother.

  1. Hi David, we didn’t own a car as both my parents couldn’t drive. I did have the ‘I Spy book on Cars’ though, in fact I still have it. I’ll add some photos of it. Just wanted to let you know that I’ve left Twitter and Instagram – they were consuming all my spare time! 👍🏻

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.