Last updated on: May 16, 2018 at 9:32 am
From fixing a broken-down vehicle in the middle of a lion park to breaking into cars in less than 15 seconds, RAA’s longest-serving patrol Chris Bennett reflects on what it’s like to spend half a century helping members on the road. Words: Lauren Ferrone and images by Jacqui Way
Imagine a time when indicators weren’t compulsory on cars and you didn’t have to wear a seatbelt behind the wheel. It was in this era that 16-year-old Chris Bennett scored his first full-time job as an apprentice mechanic with RAA.
Fifty years and a whole lot of car safety features later, Chris – now 67 years old – has put the brakes on his yellow patrol van. He retired earlier this year, with the title of our longest-serving patrol and employee.
As you’d expect, new car technology isn’t the only change the former Henley High student has seen in the past five decades.
“The biggest was definitely the first computer RAA ever got. It was about the size of a car,” he laughs.
“Back then, we also didn’t have mobile phones to get in touch with members, so that made for some pretty fun times on the road. Mr Google is the best thing in the world.”
But it’s probably down members’ driveways and in garages where most of Chris’ memories come from.
“It’s one of the best parts of the job – getting to make a member’s bad day a good day. I’ve had a lot of them shed a tear on my shoulder and would even get hugs from little old ladies,” he says.
Members have made it clear that they feel Chris – like many other RAA patrols – is a knight in shining (yellow) armour, and they often show their appreciation in more than just words.
“I had a regular customer who made his own fresh crumpets and it wasn’t uncommon to go home with a box of 24,” Chris says.
“There was even a young chap – a professional fisherman down the Coorong – whose Holden ute’s gears jammed one night. After fixing his car, he opened the back of the ute, which was full of fish… that night I went home with a few big, beautiful mulloways.
“It’s one of the perks of the job you’re not really supposed to receive these days,” laughs Chris, pictured below in his RAA Patrol uniform in 1974.
Some callouts were a little, shall we say, scarier than others, like one at Two Wells where a member had a couple of big cats in their backyard (we’re not talking about the domestic type).
“It was pitch black and, as I was taking the battery out of the member’s Ford Capri, I heard a loud roar. He laughed and said, ‘don’t worry about it… that’s just my pet lion’.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but I was at a lion park,” laughs Chris.
But forgive him if he doesn’t remember you by name.
“It’s funny because I was averaging up to about 4000 callouts a year so you get regular customers come up and say, ‘I remember you’.
“I’d always start with, ‘what sort of car do you have?’ I’ll always remember the car, but not a face,” he laughs.
Here are some figures Chris estimates he’s clocked up during his 50 years as an RAA Patrol…
How many callouts he’s been to
How many kilometres he’s driven as an RAA Patrol
If the phrase ‘married to your job’ rings true for anyone, it’s Chris.
His wife of 44 years, Heather, would jokingly remind him of this – especially on family holidays on the other side of the world.
“I remember being on a tropical island in Vanuatu and getting a phone call from one of the patrols who had a question about a car. I took my phone everywhere and always tried to be available 24 hours a day if they needed me.
“Some of the guys still ring me up even though I’ve retired,” he laughs.
In fact, Chris was known as the go-to patrol if a member had locked themselves out of their car.
“It’s a bit of an art – you’ve just got to get your head around how the lock mechanisms work down the side doors and it’s all about being gentle.”
How many lockouts he’s attended
How many batteries he’s changed
Chris’ art of breaking into cars usually only takes him 15 seconds or less, and even came in handy one time when he was on holiday in Nevada.
“I saw a young couple wandering around their car and asked them, ‘would you like me to break into it for you?’ After fiddling around for a few seconds, the door unlocked and they asked how I did it.
“I said I was a professional car thief from Australia,” he jokes.
No doubt he’ll continue to lend a hand if he sees a motorist stranded while exploring places like Madagascar and France (just to name a couple) in the coming years.
But, his first of many retirement projects is actually parked in his garage.
“I’ve got a white 1979 Escort panel van, which I’ll do up to look like an RAA van. I’ll paint it yellow and probably be driving around in it until I’m in my 90s,” he laughs.
After roughly 120,000 callouts, you might think they all blur into one, but Chris says that, just like a great love, his first and last callout will always stand out to him.
“My first callout was to a 1950s Rover with a flat battery in North Adelaide, and the last one was on a Wednesday night in January.
“I was supposed to head out to a hotted-up HSV Commodore where the supercharger had come fully loose, but it changed last minute to a lockout job on a beat-up Hyundai Getz,” he laughs.
And just like that – staying true to his 15 seconds or less reputation of breaking into cars – Chris knocked off from his final shift and made it home just in time for dinner.