John Shellcross is one of IAM Roadsmart’s longstanding members. We recently had a chat with him to find out about his years behind the wheel and to understand what he thinks about modern driving and roads, and why he thinks the Advanced Driving Test is a good idea.
How many years spent behind the wheel would it take to consider yourself an “experienced” driver?
Five years? 10? 15 or more? What about 75 years? That’s exactly how long it is since John Shellcross originally passed his test in 1947, at the tender age of 17. Now 92, he’s still driving and enjoying it!
In fact, since then, John has passed his Advanced Driving Test no less than twice – the first time in 1964, again in 2011, and this year he underwent an IAM Roadsmart re-assessment, just to check his driving is still on point. It is!
Since passing his original driving test in the ‘40s, the long list of cars John has driven, and bikes he’s ridden, is one to envy; not to mention R1 Yamaha and Ducati 1199cc Panigale motorbikes. But more on those later.
IAM Roadsmart caught up with John to find out more about his love of motoring, and what he thinks has changed the most in his 75 years on-road.
When John, now a member of the IAM RoadSmart's Milton Keynes group, first took his test in Watford, it was the one probably familiar to anyone who took theirs prior to the more recent updates: a three-point turn, reversing into a road on the left, and an emergency stop were the main features.
“Fortunately, my emergency stop was in the middle of the three-point turn, because the car I was driving – a 1934 Hillman Minx, had cable brakes and they were absolutely useless,” he says.
Fast forward to the 1960s and John was working as a sales rep when he learned that his manager was set to take his Advanced Driving Test. “I thought if it’s good enough for him, then it’s good enough for me.” And now it’s certainly something John would recommend to other drivers, because it helps to keep driving “sharp” and prevent bad habits from slipping in. And of his recent reassessment he confirms: “In one way it was a challenge, a target - a standard to get to. It’s also reassurance that I’m still fit to drive.”
So what are the biggest changes on the roads since John originally passed his test? “It’s the traffic density, the traffic speed and the speed of the HGVs,” he says, adding that these are particularly noticeable driving in the UK compared to Europe, where he’s done many Continental tours both in cars and on motorbikes, and in America where his son lives.
“The minute you land back in the UK, you notice everyone is in a hurry, overtaking whenever possible and driving too close. It is very, very competitive and after driving abroad, you have to readjust quickly to cope with it.” And of his own driving he says: “I’m very cautious; as a driver I don’t take risks.”
When it comes to his thoughts on modern roads, John is firmly against smart motorways. “Absolute madness. No one can ensure they will not encounter a problem – a puncture/a timing belt failure or similar and will have to find a route to the nearside lane without full control or power – dangerous in the best of conditions; and the reality of a nearside lane occupied by cars or HGVs at speeds of up to 70 mph is terrifying. It is difficult where there is a hard shoulder, but at least this is a relatively safe haven – but no hard shoulder?!”
He’s also got something to say about the trend to plant roundabouts with bushes and trees, which he believes hamper visibility, causing danger: “If you cannot see what is on the far side of the roundabout, you are denied the information you may need to make the decision to enter the roundabout safely. I speak from experience,” he adds, referencing a near-collision when another driver entered a roundabout at speed, narrowly missing the front of his car. “If I’d have been able to see him driving fast around the roundabout, I wouldn’t have entered it.”
John also believes that lane markings and signage leading up to roundabouts should be made clearer and be a lot further in advance, to allow non-local drivers the time and space to get into the right lane for their exit. He also thinks that they should be constructed/planned to prevent drivers from being able to change lanes at the last minute just to get ahead.
However, the frenetic UK roads haven’t put John off driving. In the 1980s he took a job as a coach driver, which included taking the central band of the Royal Marines from its base in Northolt to various engagements nationwide, complete with police escort when security was deemed at risk.
And later, at the ripe young age of 73, he delivered luxury and performance cars around the UK. “It was ideal for a car enthusiast – it was the least stressful job to do, and the most enjoyable of my working life!” Driving prestige marques ranging from Bentleys to Ferraris, Aston Martins and Lamborghinis, saw John travelling hundreds of miles a week until he finally retired at 80-years-old. “I’m sure that it was this job that kept me mentally and physically fit,” he says. So, of all the cars John has driven in his 75 years, what’s his favourite? “That’s the Aston Martin DB9. I drove it from Edinburgh down to Leicester. It sounded beautiful and performed in a wonderful way,” he says without hesitation.
Even after retirement, he and Shirley, his wife of 61 years, have done a number of continental tours, plus visits to their son in the US, where John was able to ride his Ducati! However, he says his most memorable trip was navigating the 48 hairpin bends of the Stelvio Pass in the Italian Alps on a motorbike, at an altitude of more than 9000 ft!
John’s car of choice for everyday is a Peugeot 406 diesel estate that was originally registered in 2002 and he’s owned 12 years. He previously owned a 1978 Peugeot 504 petrol estate: “I’ve found them completely reliable and economical to run and service and that first estate had the most comfortable seating of any car at the time.”
When it comes to advice for younger drivers, John says: “Take a break when you’re tired, anticipate more, plan ahead and leave plenty of room. “I’m a cautious driver and I don’t take risks,” he says.
While many people John’s age have long since handed in their licence, he has no intention of giving up the independence and freedom his car offers – unless of course his health dictates otherwise. Certainly, he’s looking forward to a few more years before putting the handbrake on for good.