Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My cars: a short guide. Part VIII - a third 2CV, two Volvos, two Austins and more Rovers than you could shake a stick at

Working and living in London I didn’t need a car, so once I had rid myself of my very awful Vauxhall Chevette - and discovered that since I had last got rid of a car, I now had to pay someone to scrap it - that was it for a while, no more cars, and I can’t say I missed them. Finally, in 1995 once I had become engaged and knew I would be moving to Cornwall, I agreed to buy a former flatmate’s 2CV, a white Charleston with blue stripesm, which was still in good condition, both mechanically and cosmetically.
There was something attractive but deeply daft about how Citroen released the same car over and over again with each model being identical in every detail except that it had differently themed paintwork. I think the last techinical change made was when the engine capacity was doubled from 300cc to 600cc, and that was at some time towards the end of the 19th century.
The 2CV you got was still a great car to drive - if you like that quirky sort of thing and didn’t mind slowing down considerably when driving up hills - but it was a dog to deal with when something went wrong. So ‘theming’ them in the hope that this would somehow make the car different was, frankly, quite daffy. In essence the design hadn’t changed in years. Furthermore, Citroen desperately wanted to stop making them - they had, after all, been designed as a farm vehicle in for post-war use and didn’t fit Cirtoen’s new high-tech innovative company image - but just as they were on the brink of being retired, hippies of all shades, German greens, French revolutionaries, British Liberals and vegetarians, and assorted Dutch and Danes suddenly decided it was cool to drive one and that it made ‘a statement’ about their individuality. And, incidentally, no one - except cynical ad men - seems to have cottoned on that more than one person being ‘individual’ in a certain specific way, such as driving a 2CV, makes it impressively less of an ‘individual’ act, and that ‘being alternative’ can quite rapidly become a mainstream activity. There are few sillier sights than a whole gang of more or less identically dressed and styled alternatives all convinced that they are a one-off. But then the world seems to abound in silliness. But what the hell, it’s been going on now for several thousand years.
Certainly, Citroen must, at first, have been rather pleased that an old design had a new lease of life and that it would be reflected in the sales figure, and they even designed a ‘new’ 2CV, the Dyanne, to cash in. The Dyanne got a new shape and superficial makeover, but it was otherwise the old 2CV with a new name.
I had agreed to buy Andy Penman’s old 2CV - he only wanted £100 for it, but I insisted on giving him £200 because it was worth more than £100 and I didn’t want there to be any bad blood later on. As it happened, I needed it sooner than we had planned because my wife-to-be had had a miscarriage and I had to get to Cornwall very quickly, so I picked it up from outside his house in Kennington and drove down to Cornwall in it, getting lost around Southampton looking for a petrol station.
That 2CV was a good little car and I drove down to Cornwall and back several times before I finally left London. It was still nice looking and drove well. Later, it developed a habit of not starting in the damp cold of Exeter St Davids, but I got a great deal of good mileage out of it.
However, my wife insisted, when our daughter was born, that we needed a safer car, and she also insisted that a Volvo like the one her father had, a 340, was what she wanted. So we looked at two or three, but none was worth the asking price. Then we discovered that a dealer in Summercourt on the Truro road was selling one, and that it had belonged to the dealership manager, no less. Our thinking was that if the manager had driven it, it most certainly would have been kept in tip-top condition. But that was rubbish. I paid way over the odds for it - £2,000, £1,000 more than I had ever before spent on a car - and as soon as we got it, we realised the electrics were all to cock. Yes, it was fast - it was the 360 GTE (whatever that means) and, yes, it looked quite nice, but it needed a lot of work to be done before I was happy with it. Celie, my wife, used it as her car, and I carried on with the 2CV to drive to Exeter to get the train to London.
By 1999 it was giving me far too much trouble. I had discovered a garage at Wainhouse Corner on the road to Bude which ‘specialised’ in 2CV, but all that meant was that they had a yard full of wrecks in various states of degeneration which were useful for picking up parts (such as a rear indicator lens which I needed after I had reversed my car into a gate). The garage was run by three old brothers who all seemed a bit daffy. The final days of my 2CV came when I had dropped it off for a service. When I picked it up, it was obvious something was serious wrong: the driver’s door would not shut properly, the steering was all to cock and the car was simply assumetrically out of alignment. Then I realised: it had been on the ramp and fallen off. The brothers, of course, denied any such thing but they would, wouldn’t they. There was no way I could prove that the negligence was to blame, so I had to lump it and sold the car for a pittance to a 2CV enthusiast.
I should add that a year or two early, I had twice crashed the Volvo, first demolishing one wing, and once it came back repaired, on the very same day, demolishing the other wing. There was a joke between my father and my brother Mark that as far as cars are concerned I am accident-prone, and I am bound to admit that there is a great degree of truth in the claim.
But now it is past midnight, I am tired and I am going to sleep. I shall continue this - rivetting is the only word I can use - account another time.

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