Thursday, December 10, 2009

My cars: a short guide. Part IX - this interminable account is finally concluded but not before several Rovers reach a sticky end

I did promise a final instalment of this account of my motoring history, and I am determined to show I am a man of my word, however much it might distress anyone else. There are only another six cars to go, and once this entry is out of the way, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and attend to less important matters in good heart and with a clear conscience.
When acquiring the Volvo and the 2CV, we had become a two-car family, but it would be wrong to imagine that we were in any way wealthy. We simply needed two cars. My wife insisted she needed one to take our daughter to play school and to go shopping - although I can’t imagine she drove more than 48 miles in the whole week - and I needed to drive to Exeter St David’s station and back every week. The successor to the 2CV was an Austin Maestro which I bought from the guy who had started looking after our cars when he set himself up in business. I paid
£500 for it, which was about £480 more than it was worth, and looking back I should have known as much. But Hamilton B. - I shan’t give you his full name as I intend being quite nasty about him - gave every impression of being a good, conscientious and thorough mechanic, and who, furthermore, made a great deal out of being a Seventh Day Adventist who attended church several times a week. So I reasoned that even though the Maestro he palmed off on me looked like nothing more than a mobile wreck, it must, at least, be mechanically sound if Hamilton was selling it. Looking back, I find it almost impossible to believe that I could have been so gullible. I was 49 and no less cynical than I am now. I should have realised something was amiss with both Hamilton and the car when within weeks of buying the Maestro (which was red like the one pictured), he ‘serviced’ it, only for it to break down on the way back from Plymouth. I opened the bonnet and immediately found a rather large spanner lying loose next to the battery, which most certainly should not have been there and which Hamilton had forgotten to remove. The reason for the breakdown was obvious: the lead to one of the battery terminals was loose and kept slipping off the battery. But I still remained loyal to Hamilton and still I allowed him to service and MoT both cars for several more years. Looking back I find it hard to believe my idiocy, but that was the truth.
The Maestro’s end came rather suddenly when it developed a very severe leak from the radiator and I blew the head gasket. The last journey I ever made in her was quite eventful. On the Sunday, I had barely managed to limp to Exeter station to get to London, and knew I would be in for trouble on my return journey several days later. I gathered as many plastic milk bottles as I could find from the canteen at work, and once back in Exeter on the Wednesday night, I filled them all with water and set off on the 60-mile drive home across Dartmoor (which is not quite as bleak as it sounds, as it is dual carriageway almost all the way). I had filled the radiator on my departure - there can be no talk here of ‘topping it up’ because pouring several litres of water into the radiator and watching it gush out of the other end just moments later is a lot more than merely ‘topping it up’ - but I could only manage to drive ten miles or so before I had to stop to refill it. On my second or third stop, I realised that I was also losing a great deal of oil and that I also had to ‘top that up’. The drive home to the small village in which we live usually takes just over an hour. That last journey in that particular Maestro - believe it or not I subsequently bought another whose fate was equally tragic - took almost five hours. I was finally forced to abandon the car two miles from home in the middle of Bodmin Moor after the engine seized up and would no longer respond to generous doses of extra oil. I walked the rest of the way home and got in at just before 5am.
I had just four days to find another car in which to get to Exeter station, and that is when I came across the second Maestro. It only cost me £200 and seemed like something of a bargain. It had supposedly been owned by the father of the man who ran the garage in St Kew Highway and had been taken off the road when the engine manifold broke. The deal was that for my £200 I would get the Maestro, a new manifold and a 12-month MoT. There was a problem of sorts, however. For some reason the temperature gauge indicated that the engine was overheating although, oddly, it wasn’t doing anything of the kind. But seeing the dial sitting well in the red does not make for happy motoring, and I never felt comfortable in that car. Nor did I have her for long. One morning, I arrived back at Exeter, after taking the sleeper from Paddington, at 4.15am (my shift pattern was quite erratic at the time) to find that the car had been stolen. It was found in Exmouth several days later, and as the thief had wrecked the steering column when he broke in, it was a write-off. The only good thing about owning that second Maestro was that, for once, I didn’t lose money on her: although I had paid £200 to buy the car, I had told my insurers she was worth £350. They offered me £275 scrap value, so I actually made £75.
It was around this time that the first Volvo, a 360 GTE Turbo Fuel Injection Twin-Cam Gti TiG iTg Touring Saloon with little pink spots (or something like that) breathed its last and was shunted of the the great scrapyard in the sky (well, in Bodmin, actually) and none too soon. This was my wife's runaround and all sorts of things were going wrong: the sunroof was leaking badly, and as is the manner of the more mechanically-inclined woman, for at least a year she had attempted to solve this problem by stemming the leaks with a number of old tea towels. I knew none of this because I never used the Volvo and didn’t get into it in a month of Sundays. I did eventually find out because I did once have to use the car on one rainy day and was upset to get a pint of rainwater down my neck as soon as I pulled off. Her ingenuity with tea towels was not always very effective. There and then I resolved to buy my wife the best, most practical new car money could be, but in the event sanity and economic necessity prevailed and I found her another Volvo for £395, which she has been driving for the past three years, although I am bound to admit not exactly trouble-free. But I take the view that most problems are character-building and take pride in the fact that her character is immensely stronger since I have been buying her cars to get around in.
Incidentally, regular readers will recall how when I was younger I owned two Austin Allegros. I think I pointed out in an earlier entry that Allegros were regarded with derision bordering on sheer contempt by lads who took their cars seriously and revered Jeremy Clarkson. I should point out that when the Allegro passed into motoring history, that mantel was taken on by the Maestro. Owning and driving a Maestro was seen as convenient shorthand for the owner and driver being a total pillock. All I can say in attempted mitigation is that I have never claimed to be ‘a lad’, and that my one concern when buying a car is to get as good a value a car as possible for as little money as possible. That I have rarely achieved it is neither here nor there, but it does explain why I am content to be regarded with derision by a large section of the British public. To put it another way, I really don’t give a stuff.
Within days I had bought a replacement, yet another Rover. This was the model which was more or less a re-badged Honda. To help Rover solve the latest of its many financial crises, Honda had done a deal and agreed to allow the company to adopt and sell one of its designs, although in time Rover developed its own engine for the model. I bought the car from a garage just north of Camelford for £800, and it wasn’t a bad buy. I had it for just over three years, the car provided good service, with relatively few crises. It did have a terrible tendency for various electrical components in the engine to get damp if it rained for more than a day, but the trouble was almost always the rotor arm in the distributor, so whenever I called out the RAC, I invariably invited them to take a look at that first, which they did and which always got me going again sooner rather than later.
By this time I had abandoned commuting to London by train after being let down once too often by First Great Western, but driving up and down meant I was clocking up an enormous number of miles - a rough estimate would be that I drove around 25,000 a year - and that took its toll. The car began to look ratty and when I spotted another Rover which was several years younger and for which only £750 was being asked, I bought her. Unfortunately, I had that one for barely five months: driving rather too fast in a narrow, winding Cornish country lane just south of St Endellion (and, to tell the truth, after drinking just a little too much sherry with my stepmother who I had been visiting in her care home), I collided head-on with a county council van. The van was coming up the hill, I was driving down the hill, and we were both going too fast. The car was another write-off, although oddly enough the damage was such that I was able to limp home at about 8mph and then limp on further to the garage north of Camelford to see whether I could find a replacement in time for my weekly journey to London. As usual, my luck was in, and Rob Gibbon, who owns and runs the garage, sold me yet another Rover. This one wasn’t in quite as nice condition, but beggars can’t be choosers, and once again he was asking my sort of price.
That Rover cause me no major or even minor upsets, but it was long in the tooth when I bought it and was even longer in the tooth when I handed it back to Rob in part exchange for the car I now drive - yes, another Rover, which also cost £800. My relationship with this one got off to rather a bad start when it became apparent that the alarm needed attention - it kept going off for no very good reason - but that was finally sorted out, although I didn’t have the car for three weeks, during which time I was back driving the Rover I had part-exchanged which Rob was using as a courtesy car. It is only fair to come clean and admit that this new Rover has one small and very unimportant, although niggling, fault in that a bearing in the gearbox needs to be replaced, but with luck that will be done before Christmas. The major thing in this current Rover’s favour is that she doesn’t look like a complete wreck. Even though I say so myself, this one is halfway decent looking. And as I have reached the respectable 60 and am expected to behave like a real grown-up, that is only as it should be.

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