My ownership of cars can also be used as a barometer of my own fortunes and a condensed indicator of how the motor industry has developed over the last century.
Our story begins in 1990, when I lived within cycling distance of Farnborough station and commuted into London, so had no intention of saddling myself with auto-ownership. Until, one particularly irritating New Year’s Day, I found myself stranded at the family home. I had been promised a lift back to my own home but had not been informed said lift would not be until teatime. Back home, I had writing to do and preparations to make for returning to work the next day. I was frustrated and seething.
I solemnly swore it would never happen again and so purchased:
1) A seven-year old Renault 4. Pure mechanical-electrical in a style that probably hadn’t changed since the early twentieth century. A slight list to starboard, such that any single passengers in the rear seats were asked to sit on the left. Renault 4s look like straight-backed versions of 2CVs but are no relation – more a product of convergent evolution like wolves and thylacines. One feature of the make that everyone remembers is the gearstick that disappeared straight into the dash, just below the rear view mirror which was also dash-mounted. The reverse position was at bottom right, so you risked dislocating your shoulder every time you wanted to backwards. If you opened the bonnet, you saw that the gearstick was actually just one end of a rod that reached across the top of the engine. It ended in a loop, and inside this loop was a second gearstick that was actually connected to the transmission at the front of the engine.
Finance was 100% parent-provided and repaid with interest, which I worked out on a spreadsheet. For 1990 and the office software available on Amstrad PCWs, I maintain this was pretty cool.
Lasted four years, died of rust. The end was diagnosed as being nigh when I noticed a small puddle of rainwater around my feet …
2) A seven-year-old Ford Escort. I suppose it must have been partly electronic, but only partly, in that it had a radio and tape player, and the radio had presettable channels and an LCD display. In terms of car development it was actually comfortable, with metallic paint and, wait for it, five gears!
Finance partly parental, partly self-funded. My car career also mirrors the finances of the parent in question, who had forgotten that interest was charged by the time I came to buy my second car. I asked what rate of interest should go into the spreadsheet this time.
“Oh, don’t worry about that.”
“You know you charged me interest last time?”
“Did I? What kind of parent am I, charging interest to my own son?”
“Well, if you feel that badly about it, you could refund the interest.”
[cough] “Tell you what, let’s just put it down to experience …”
Cash was paid in the carpark behind Milton Keynes station, that being the most convenient halfway point between Abingdon and where the vendor lived. Felt strangely like a drug smuggler, or maybe a drug buyer given that I was the one parting with the money. The car’s finest moment was getting me to Glasgow and back, which I wouldn’t have done in the Renault. Got progressively worse at starting after prolonged exposure to the wet and cold, but otherwise a very nice little runner. Lasted six years and also died of rust, but only after its successor had already been lined up …
3) Two year old Vauxhall Vectra. Lasted 12 years and was still going strong, though the amount of money needed to get it through its MOT was gradually increasing each year. The final straw was a whump-whump-whump sound that was traced to incipient clutch and/or flywheel failure, which would cost more than the car was worth to fix.
Air conditioning, power steering, remote locking and generally more electronics than before, though just to remind me that no one actually needs half these gadgets, several of them went wrong and never got fixed. The remote locking stopped after about a year. The LED display that was meant to show things like time, date and radio station gradually deteriorated until it was only showing very strange, eldritch hieroglyphics. Every now and then the power steering decided it would be fun to drain all its fluid and make strange concrete grinder noises as I drove.
But, this was the car that oversaw the greatest change in my fortunes, from penurious struggling writer ex-publisher bachelor to reasonably well-paid doing-okay author and technical writer family man. It was the car that took us on honeymoon one sweltering summer and drove us around Cornwall in air conditioned comfort. Sadly missed.
So, what should its replacement be?
I wanted a Ford. I fell in love with Fords – or specifically their heated windscreens that make scraping ice a thing of the past – a couple of years ago when I had a hire Mondeo for a couple of weeks. After that I decided the next car should be a Ford too. I like to think our choice was a collaborative venture, but Beloved pretty soon got the idea that I was set on it. We decided it was a choice between a Mondeo and a Focus. (Even then she may say this is an overly generous definition of “we”.) We test drove one of each and both had their pluses and minuses, but I think she still suspected where my heart lay, and gamely came up with some reasons why the Focus wasn’t quite what we were after. Mostly, we felt it would be unwise to say that our days of driving large carloads around the country are over, and it was a bit too cramped – seats not great for long journeys and a rear view like a letter box. So …
4) Four year old Mondeo. As electronic and gadget-filled as a very gadget-filled, electronic thing. Possibly also slightly bigger inside than out. Still working through the electronics. I suppose the piston action must be mechanical by definition but I’m not sure what else is. One gripe so far is that the bonnet release catch is on the left hand side of the passenger footwell, which is a blinkin’ stupid place to put it in a right hand drive car. Still wresting the sound system to my will but I have high hopes.
I can now feel myself turning into Clarkson and will stop.