Car lover who undertook epic journey dies behind the wheel
Published 31/01/2010 | 05:00
John Coleman, who has died aged 81, was an eccentric teacher and author whose lifelong love of cars led him to make an epic journey in a 35-year-old Austin 7 Chummy from Buenos Aires to New York.
He was assured that the idea was impossible. But inspired by AF Tschiffely, a Swiss writer who had travelled a similar route on horseback in 1925, Coleman attracted support from Austin Motors, which offered spare parts and their agents' services on both continents.
Setting out from the Argentine capital in late 1959 speaking no Spanish and refusing to carry a gun, he had his first accident outside the city when his beloved Chummy skidded on a pool of soft tar, nearly toppled over and hit a modern car overtaking on the nearside.
Remembering advice never to stop after an accident in South America, he kept going, crossing the plains in sheet lightning until meeting an English vet, who helped Coleman by furnishing him with friends and contacts further along the way.
Although badly shaken on first seeing the Andes, Coleman pressed on up a steep, zigzag road, with the Chummy making good progress until its radiator cap blew off. He encountered high winds and saw so many crosses commemorating those lost over the edge that he kept his door open in case he had to jump out. On reaching his first major peak at 10,000ft he paused to eat his sandwiches and enjoy the new record he had established for an Austin. Coming down the other side he had to squeeze past a puma in a narrow tunnel and reverse uphill along a narrow ledge.
On entering the Atacama Desert in Chile, white sand billowed through every crack in the vehicle and the smell of petrol vapourising in the heat was a constant reminder of the risk of fire. The road was only occasionally paved, and sometimes disappeared altogether because of landslides and sudden flooding.
Restaurants were unhygienic, hotel bedrooms dirty and prowling characters forced him to remain with the car at night unless satisfied that it was properly protected. But he enjoyed the fraternal spirit of the road, by which other motorists stopped to help a fellow driver in difficulty. In large towns both he and the car were greeted as celebrities, with the Chummy being carried aloft by four mechanics on one occasion.
An earthquake in Peru compelled him to take a train and a boulder-blocked road forced him to take a boat in Ecuador. But following less dramatic adventures in Costa Rica and Mexico he arrived -- after 11 months -- in New York, imagining his car sighing with relief at not being expected to climb the Empire State Building.
After an official reception he was sent to stay with friends, then appeared on a quiz show, To Tell the Truth, as one of three Englishman who were tested for lying. Having fooled the panel, Coleman used his prize money to buy time in which to write an account of his travels, Coleman's Drive (1962).
The son of a motor engineer, Charles John Darrant Blake Coleman was born on May 13, 1928, and went to Haileybury before doing his National Service with the Royal Army Education Corps, which taught him to drive. He then read Theology at St Peter's Hall, Oxford, where a keen interest in motor vehicles grew into a lifelong love affair.
After marrying Ursula Tretow, with whom he had a son and daughter, he demonstrated a flair for teaching children with special needs in a series of schools.
In 2005 Coleman received an ovation when he lapped the Silverstone circuit in the Chummy. He continued to write feature articles for the Telegraph and other papers, and recently completed his last book, about a journey around Scotland in a 40-year-old Morris Minor. Driving back from the printer on January 5, he died at its wheel.