James Walshe on how, 50 years ago, an Austin Maxi changed music history.
The mood in John Lennon’s Mini must have been tense. Crammed into the car with luggage on a hot, stuffy day in June 1969, John his wife Yoko, son Julian and stepdaughter Kyoko had set off from the family home in Surrey, bound for a destination more than 700 miles away in the far north of Scotland. With a boot stuffed with suitcases and further bags slotted into the back alongside the children, it was clear the Mini was clearly not going to be suitable for the journey. On arrival in Liverpool, John made a call from his Aunt Harriet’s house and within hours, Lennon’s assistant Les Anthony turned up on the driveway of 137 Gateacre Park Drive in an Apple Records staff car: a brand new Austin Maxi.
The Lennon family must have been chuffed. With bags of room, five gears and a big boot, this newly launched Issigonis creation came with an aftermarket sunroof fitted by London dealership Spingels and a silver apple, mounted to the dashtop speaker. Sadly, my own Maxi has neither of these things but it does have the larger 1750cc engine and ultra-comfy Hydragas suspension. I’m thankful for these small advantages as I set off on my own journey to Scotland, on the long and winding trail of The Lennon Maxi.
My trip also begins in Liverpool, outside Aunt Harriet’s house on Gateacre Park Drive. It was the first time she had been able to observe John and his new wife since the infamous marriage, drug-bust and ‘Bed-Ins’ of the previous year. Yoko commandeered the kitchen for their ‘macrobiotic food’ and Harriet wasn’t best pleased: ‘They can’t just eat beans!’ In photographs taken by her husband Norman, John was pictured loading luggage into the Maxi before they set off for Durness - a town in the far north of Scotland where John had spent many a childhood holiday at the home of Harriet’s sister, John’s Aunt Mater.
Luckily for me, the Maxi’s party trick is a seating arrangement that allows you to flip all the seats down to make a decently sized double bed. I’ll be making use of it too, as I’m staying at a campsite in Durness and I have forgotten my tent. My six hours of driving takes me across moorland, through rugged valleys and alongside numerous waterways. The day passes and my Maxi hums contentedly as I wonder what the conversation in the Lennon’s car must have been like. Did John rehearse new lyrics at the wheel? (This was, of course, just weeks before The Beatles were due to record their Abbey Road album). Or perhaps the family engaged in bouts of Eye-Spy. There was certainly enough room in the back for Julian and Kyoko to enjoy a game of Snakes and Ladders. Doubtful though, since John’s driving was said to be appalling.
Having passed his test in a Mini 1965, John splashed out on a Ferrari 330 GT and a Rolls Royce Phantom V but was afraid to drive them too far. This made his decision to drive to Durness all the more remarkable. Once safely there, John introduced his new wife to the family and to the places he’d loved as a child. On July 1st, John, Yoko, Julian and Kyoko hopped in the car again – this time for a tour of some of the local scenery - including the quaint village of Tongue. This is my first stop.
Tongue resident Norman Henderson was 10 years old when the Maxi pulled up outside his grandmother’s post office and tearoom. ‘There was quite a stir, as we weren’t expecting to see them at all’ Norman later took over the business with wife Barbara and these days they welcome the occasional Beatle fan. ‘I don’t think anyone has turned up in a Maxi though. I haven’t seen one in years. Maybe the last time was in 1969!’
Norman was there on the day. He remembers John’s huge beard and Yoko’s smile. ‘They had tea, signed autographs and then got in the car to leave, back to Durness.’ The road they took was the only option back then – a single-track lane around the Kyle of Tongue – an expanse of water now spanned by a bridge. The small crowd watched as the Lennon’s Maxi drove away and disappeared behind the hedgerows.
Ten minutes later, it all went horribly wrong. As they rounded a bend, a car suddenly appeared ahead of them causing a calamitous John to panic. He swerved and the Maxi plunged into a ditch. Both John and Yoko suffered concussion and some serious cuts and bruises in the impact. The children, although visibly upset, were unharmed.
Alarm raised, an ambulance arrived shortly after local mechanic George Reid with his tow truck. In the passenger seat was his young son Neil. ‘My father always used to joke that when he arrived at the crash site and helped Yoko into the ambulance, he left his oily handprints on her dress.’
The family were whisked away 50 miles away to a hospital in Golspie and as the blue flashing lights disappeared into the Highland evening, George Reid attached a line to the stricken Maxi, dragging it from the ditch and back to Tongue. ‘We had to stop at our house on the way, mind’ says Neil. ‘It was half-five by then. My mother had tea on the table!’
I take my Maxi out onto the road to ascertain the crash location and position the car to attempt a static recreation of the scene. Justifiably bewildered, some young American cyclists stop to enquire. I explain and seemingly grateful for this impromptu tourist information service, they cycle away. As their voices fade, I hear one of them comment on John’s demise: ‘Oh my god! John Lennon was killed here. I thought he got shot in New York?’ The other, in a quizzical tone, responds: ‘No, that was Princess Diana’.
I potter back to Tongue for supplies from Norman’s shop and imagine the broken car being towed through the village on that summer evening. It was taken to Reid’s garage for storage. Back then, the inquisitive little faces of the local children were watching – including that of a 10-year old Norman. ‘My friends and I were keen to see the car and maybe do some souvenir hunting!’ he laughs. It remained for a short while at the garage, giving the kids a chance to consider executing their cunning scheme – but it seems John and Yoko also had plans for the stricken Austin…
Continuing to Durness in the evening sunshine, I park up on the local caravan site. I sense my fellow campers watching as I create ‘CamperMaxi.’ Seats are folded flat, home-made cardboard cutouts cover the side windows and my sleeping bag is laid out so I can enjoy the sparkling blue waters and a warm, gentle sea breeze from underneath the giant open tailgate. Why can’t all family hatchbacks be as clever as this?
Next morning, I drive past Aunt Mater’s house, where John spent many of those childhood holidays. A well-kept and peaceful memorial garden nearby contains three locally carved stones with lyrics from John’s Rubber Soul masterpiece ‘In My Life.’ In the song, he reflects on the people and places he loved – one of them being Durness. The song has become an anthem for the region.
Reluctantly, I leave the beautiful Sutherland coastline behind and pick up the road southeast across the Highlands, no longer following the trail of the Lennon Maxi. I am instead chasing the tail of the Lennon Ambulance – and the fallout from a moment that was to change music history. The family was treated at Lawson Memorial Hospital, where they stayed for a week. ‘Considering the fairly minor nature of their injuries, that was an unusually long time – but it seems it was quite deliberate’ explains Ken McNab, author of The Beatles in Scotland. ‘Lennon was the world’s most famous man at the time - he felled rainforests with the amount of press coverage he got. So the hospital offered sanctuary from all that for a little while.’
Adding further justification for their lengthy stay, it transpired Yoko was pregnant – although she would suffer a miscarriage some months later. In the end, it wasn’t an entirely stress-free stay at Golspie. John’s furious ex-wife Cynthia stormed up from London to take 6-year old Julian home. It was the last time father and son would see each other for some years. Meanwhile, Yoko’s ex husband turned up to collect daughter Kyoko. Rows ensued and Yoko wouldn’t see her daughter again for almost three decades. ‘And then there was the collapse of The Beatles’ adds McNab. ‘It was an open secret they were falling apart’. The crash had delayed John’s return to London, where Paul, George and Ringo were busy recording the Abbey Road album. ‘John Lennon wanted out. He and Yoko must have talked about it in the hospital. But he simply hadn’t found a way to escape the band.’ After the crash, it seems he now had an excuse to leave The Beatles.
A superstitious Yoko described the accident as ‘A Happening.’ So significant was the Maxi’s role in this turning point in their lives, John had it brought from George Reid’s garage in Tongue back home at Tittenhurst Park in Surrey, where it was mounted on the lawn as a means of reminding the couple of their own mortality. Visible from their bedroom window, the car became a symbol for John and Yoko to make some significant changes – which included thoughts around leaving the UK.
I drive my Maxi straight to Abbey Road, where I park up and imagine what it was like to have been there for that final Beatles recording session in 1969 – the accident so clearly on John’s mind. Wary of Yoko’s influence, Paul, George and Ringo were said to be relieved at her absence from the studio (she was still recovering from her injuries) until one day a bed was installed in the corner. Within days, from underneath a blanket, Ono would supervise the entire recording process.
Driving an Austin Maxi into a Scottish ditch had prompted an end to many things for John Lennon. The accident gave him the perfect excuse to leave The Beatles. It marked his final visit to his beloved Scotland. Bags were packed and the most famous couple on Earth left Britain for New York City, never to return. And, probably for the best, the ill-fated Maxi was the last car John Lennon ever drove - he never got behind the wheel again. But what happened to John’s Maxi? Having moved to the US, Lennon sold Tittenhurst Park to Ringo Starr, who promptly had it removed from the lawn and crushed. A sad end to the car that helped to change music history.
James Walshe is Deputy Editor of Practical Classics magazine.