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An Embarrassing Moment in The Service of The Crown

by Pat Kennedy

It was about the mid-1980s when HMSO allowed some grades to hire a car for use on official business in lieu of using one’s own vehicle, provided it was more economic to do so compared with using public transport.  I decided to make use of this new facility on one of my monthly journeys from Manchester to Norwich to attend a Print Procurement divisional meeting.  I hired a Ford Consul from my local village filling station, leaving my own car as a deposit.  The hire car had obviously seen better days with about 80,000 miles on the clock, but it was the best of a miserable two-car forecourt fleet and cheap to hire to please HMSO’s accountants.

I had an uneventful drive to Norwich feeling pleased with myself and grateful to HMSO management that I wasn’t piling on the miles on my own car.  With the business in St Crispins and discussions with several old colleagues concluded, I managed to leave Norwich about 16:00 trying to beat the traffic build-up for my return journey north.  On the outskirts of Norwich the gas-guzzling Ford Consul was crying out for a drink, so I pulled into a petrol shop on the A47 to fill-up.  With the car and petrol attendant satisfied I locked the petrol cap, got back into the car and placed the key in the ignition and switched-on.  Nothing happened, apart from the brass key fob coming away in my hand minus the remainder of the key that was left stuck deep inside the ignition lock!  Apart from my own consternation, a great deal of irritation quickly built up in motorists impatiently queuing behind me for petrol, until the deputy petrol attendant was able to direct the fuming fuel-thirsty motorists around me.  A frantic phone call to the two-car so-called Ripponden Car Hire Company proved fruitless apart from their suggestion that I contact the Norwich Ford agents to have the car repaired at my own expense.

About two hours later I was ignominiously transported with the car to the Norwich Ford dealers who worked overtime trying to retrieve the elusive brass key part from the ignition, but without success.  I had no alternative but agreeing to them replacing the ignition housing at a cost of about £80.00, including changing the door locks to fit the new gleaming steel ignition keys (because brass ignition keys were renowned to be too soft for their purpose).  I was then able to resume my delayed journey north at about 21:00, arriving home well after midnight and too late to return the car to the car hire company.

I was up early the next morning to return the car in exchange for my own and after remonstrating with the proprietor over his crappy car and equally crappy worn-out brass key, he agreed to meet me part way for the cost of the new ignition with a £40.00 refund.  He then said ‘I’ll just fill up the tank’ (to determine how much I owed for fuel used).  He had to use his spare brass key to access the petrol cap, but after a brief struggle he exclaimed ‘there’s a bloody piece of brass key stuck inside the petrol cap’!  After another brief argument I beat a hasty retreat, and vowed never to hire a car from them again.

My first action on arrival at my office was to phone the Norwich Ford dealer to protest at them unnecessarily changing the ignition housing when the offending piece of key was stuck in the petrol cap.  ‘Sorry sir, but we can only act upon a customer’s instructions’!  I then suggested to George Rokahr the Forms Centre Manager, that HMSO could refund me my nugatory expenditure of £40.00: he looked down his nose at me and puffing out his cheeks he continued playing on his bagpipes!
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