Jonny McCambridge: It’s MOT day - the car passes but I fail

I’m sitting in my car. In lane 2. It’s MOT day.

Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 12:16 pm
The MOT test does strange things to people

For the uninitiated, this is an annual ritual which tests two things. The road-worthiness of my ancient car, and the robustness of my nerves. Generally speaking, the car passes, and I fail.

I know the drill, some guy in blue overalls will stand there in the huge cavernous garage, shaking his head and tutting while I vainly attempt to locate the fog light with shaking hands.

The test does strange things to people. I look in the rear-view mirror and the man in the car behind me seems to be spraying air freshener from a can around the interior of his motor. If your tyres are bald then I doubt that a fresh lemony scent is going to be much assistance.

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PACEMAKER PRESS BELFAST 28/1/2020 Mallusk MOT centre, photographed today amidst the closure of centres across the province due to signs of cracking in 48 out of 55 lifts. Most MoT tests for cars and light vehicles in Northern Ireland have been suspended with immediate effect and the Driver and Vehicle Agency has said it could take weeks or even months to fix the defective lifts. Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press

As I wait, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, it occurs to me that I have no idea what MOT stands for. I run through some possibilities in my mind. Motor Of Trust? My Only Triumph? Masculine Or Timid? Man On Trial? Moment Of Terror? Mental Ordeal Today? Massive Octopus Tentacles? I make a note to Google it later on.

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

I’ve done my homework and I’m not going to be caught out this time. My finger hovers near the fog light button.

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

I stall the car.

I think I can see her eyebrows rise just a fraction. She motions again with her hand and the car crawls forward. My mind, however, is racing much faster.

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

‘Good morning,’ I say brightly, trying to smile.

‘How many miles does she have on her today?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘How many miles has she on her?’

‘Uh…’

She looks past me towards the dashboard.

‘She’s got 84,596.’

Coming from a rural background, I’m familiar with the strange habit of some men who refer to vehicles or machinery using female terms. Hearing a woman do it is even more disconcerting.

‘Indicators’, she says.

I sit there frozen with confusion.

‘Indicators’, she says again, slightly louder this time.

‘Yes,’ I respond. ‘My car has those, on both sides.’

She shoots me a quick glance to see if I’m being humorous or stupid. I think she settles on 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 jelly babies. I push at a lever and water sprays out of the window washers.

The tutting and head shaking begins.

She curtly and rapidly barks a series of further instructions.

‘Lights....main beam.....horn....wipers....brake light.’

I suppose I must turn on the lights on my car most days. I assure you I’m perfectly able to do it. Generally, I don’t even have to think about it. But here, under pressure with the harsh glare of the instructor upon me, trying to turn on my lights feels like trying to work 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.

‘Fog light’.

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

I relax in my seat and make eye contact with the instructor. I give her my best ‘Yes, I am rather skilled at driving in fog’ smile.

But she’s not fooled and has already devised her counter-attack.

‘Flip the bonnet.’

‘Eh?’

‘The bonnet.’

I’m about to protest about unfair tactics.

‘What possible reason would a driver ever have to want to look under the bonnet?’ I almost say.

Instead, I fumble uselessly with knobs on the dash. Blindly I’m pushing buttons. I accidentally turn on the stereo and the mellifluous sound of Barry Manilow’s ‘Mandy’ fills the garage.

The instructor walks to the driver’s window.

‘Down there, just beside your leg.’

I reach down and find a secreted lever. Hidden in exactly the same spot as it was when I did my test last year.

Some parts of the MOT have evolved and improved in the two decades since I have been undergoing the ordeal. Much of the testing is now electronic and the huge pits in the ground which I used to have nightmares about driving my car into are gone.

The instructor tells me to get out and I am only too glad to comply, knowing that the really scary part of the test is over. I take a seat at the side of the room and watch her drive my car forward with disturbing abandon. She takes it onto a platform which then rises into the air. She puts on a cap and examines the underside with a torch, a serious expression on her face.

At one point she seems to be checking that my wheels are actually the right shape. I’m imagining her saying ‘Round...round....that’s good.’

In all of the years I’ve been taking cars to MOT centres I’ve never failed the test. I always go to a garage in advance and pay out an unnecessarily large amount of money to avoid the social ignominy.

As I sit and watch, I wonder what it would be like to fail. I have visions of the instructor giving me a bell and a fabric ‘M’ which has to be sewn into my clothes and displayed at all times in public. I shudder.

But that is not to be my fate today. Soon, I see the instructor lowering my car off the platform and she begins to print my new MOT certificate while exchanging earthy banter with colleagues. I begin to walk towards her. She sees me coming and puts up a warning hand.

‘Stay seated until I call you!’

I sit down like a scolded child.

Seven seconds later she calls me. I walk over and she hands me a sheet of paper.

‘She’s fine, so she is,’ she says.

I take the certificate and walk out into the sunlight waving my sheet of paper like Neville Chamberlain in 1938. I hope it ends better for me than him.

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