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Jonny McCambridge: It’s MOT day – the car drives by, but I fail

The TÜV test does strange things to peopleThe TÜV test does strange things to people

For the uninitiated, this is an annual ritual that tests two things. The roadworthiness of my old car and the robustness of my nerves. Generally the car drives by and I fail.

I know the exercise, a guy in blue overalls will stand there in the huge, cavernous garage, shaking his head and tooting while I try in vain to locate the fog light with trembling hands.

The test does strange things to people. I look in the rearview mirror and the man in the car behind me seems to be spraying air freshener from a can around the inside of his engine. If your tires are bare, I doubt a fresh lemon scent will help much.

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PACEMAKER PRESS BELFAST 28/1/2020 Mallusk MOT center, photographed today amid the closure of centers across the province due to signs of cracks in 48 of 55 elevators. Most of the MoT tests for automobiles and light vehicles in Northern Ireland have been suspended with immediate effect, and the Drivers and Vehicles Authority has indicated that the broken elevators could take weeks or even months to repair. Photo Laura Davison / Pacemaker Press

While I wait and drum my fingers on the steering wheel, it occurs to me that I have no idea what TÜV stands for. I have a few options on my mind. Engine of trust? My only triumph? Male or Shy? Man in court? Moment of terror? Spiritual ordeal today? Massive octopus tentacles? I’ll put a note to google later.

The large metal gate begins to slide slowly and threateningly upwards.

I did my homework and I won’t get caught this time. My finger is floating near the fog light button.

On this occasion the examiner is a woman in blue overalls. She frowns and beckons me to move forward.

I think I can see only a fraction of her eyebrows go up. She moves with her hand again and the car crawls forward. However, my mind is racing a lot faster.

I put the car in neutral. She goes to the driver’s side.

“Good morning,” I say cheerfully, and try to smile.

“How many miles is it today?”

“How many miles is it on?”

She looks past me to the dashboard.

“She has 84,596.”

I come from rural areas and know the strange habit of some men to use feminine terms to refer to vehicles or machines. It is even more disturbing to hear a woman.

“Indicators,” she says.

I sit there confused.

“Indicators,” she says again, this time a little louder.

“Yes,” I answer. “My car has these on both sides.”

She gives me a quick look to see if I’m humorous or stupid. I think she chooses the latter.

»Can you try your indicators, please?

“Yes, yes, sorry, of course.”

But my brain has turned to scrambled eggs and my fingers to gummy bears. I push a lever and water splashes out of the windshield washers.

The tooting and shaking of the head begins.

She barks briefly and quickly at a series of further instructions.

“Lights … high beam … horn … windshield wiper … brake light.”

I have to turn on the lights in my car most days. I assure you that I am perfectly capable of this. In general, I don’t even have to think about it. But here, under the pressure of the instructor’s glare at me, trying to turn my lights on feels like trying to figure out the square root of 375,765,385.

But then it happens. My possible chance for salvation. The moment I’ve been rehearsing for the past 12 months.

The fog in my brain is clearing. I press the fog light button. Expertly.

I relax in my seat and make eye contact with the instructor. I do my best to her. “Yeah, I’m pretty good at driving in fog.”

But she is not being fooled and has already developed her counterattack.

I am about to protest against unfair tactics.

“What possible reason would a driver ever want to look under the hood?” I almost say.

Instead, I fumble with the buttons on the dashboard uselessly. I press buttons blindly. I accidentally turn on the stereo and the melodious sound of Barry Manilow’s ‘Mandy’ fills the garage.

The instructor goes to the driver’s window.

“Down there, right next to your leg.”

I reach down and find a separate lever. Tucked away in the exact spot where I took my test last year.

Some parts of the TÜV have developed and improved in the two decades since my examination. Much of the testing is now electronic and the huge pits in the ground that I used to have nightmares in when I drove my car are gone.

The instructor is telling me to get out and I’m just too glad I stick with it as I know the really scary part of the test is over. I sit on the side of the room and watch her drive my car forward with disturbing abandon. She picks it up on a platform, which then rises into the air. She puts on a cap and examines the underside with a torch, a serious look on her face.

At some point she seems to be checking that my wheels are actually the right shape. I imagine her saying, “Round … round … that’s good.”

In all the years I’ve brought cars to MOT centers, I’ve never passed the test. I always go to a garage beforehand and pay out unnecessarily large amounts of money to avoid the social shame.

As I sit and watch, I wonder what it would be like to fail. I have visions from the instructor who gives me a bell and a fabric ‘M’ that has to be sewn into my clothes and publicly displayed at all times. I shudder.

But that shouldn’t be my fate today. Soon I see the instructor lower my car from the platform and she starts to print out my new TÜV certificate while she exchanges earthy jokes with colleagues. I go up to her. She sees me coming and raises a warning hand.

“Stay seated until I call you!”

I sit down like a scolded child.

Seven seconds later she calls me. I go over and she gives me a piece of paper.

“She’s fine so she is,” she says.

I take the certificate and go into the sunlight to wave my sheet of paper like Neville Chamberlain did in 1938. I hope it ends better for me than it does for him.

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