Friday, March 18, 2016

Cars, especially first cars, and chips off the old block: I hope my daughter isn’t as stupid as me

About six or seven years in this blog when it was still a thing of fresh, juvenile enthusiasm and I hadn’t resorted to writing potted resumés of the most recent Economist analysis I had come across, I included an account of all the cars I have owned. Not in itself a topic of unbridled fascination you might think, but please bear in mind that this blog is as much a diary and a compendium as it is anything else, and quite probably more for my benefit than it is for yours.

Yesterday, I jotted down a list of all the cars I have bought and owned since I passed my driving test and bought my first and the number came to, er, 28. And I don’t say that by way of bragging, for the sad fact is that although some were fine and dandy and did the biz, several were, at best, not fit for purpose, and one was a complete lethal wreck.

. . .

I was 25 at the time and working as a reporter in North Gwent, which in those days given what is always euphemistically called an ’industrial downturn’ was pretty much in many ways the Wild West of South Wales. Rough doesn’t even begin to describe the area. The steelworks at Ebbw Vale, which had employed the vast majority of everyone locally, was within a year of being closed completely as were various coal mines in the area. And, of course, an area hit by widespread unemployment suffers as much because shops and businesses are also affected.

As a district reporter for a local weekly paper, The News, I was eligible to claim mileage expenses, so not only was I as keen as every other young lad to get my first car, having one also meant I could try to boost my wages. Later, once I had moved on to the local evening paper, the South Wales Argus, I went on to boost my weekly wage rather well: newsdesk insisted by made our police calls in person, so short trips to do them from the office in Ebbw Vale to nearby Tredegar (3 miles away), Brynmawr (4 miles) and Abertillery (10 miles) went down on expenses as a total of around 80 miles, with trip assuming I returned to base before starting off on the next.

As soon as I passed my driving test - on November 25, 1975 I remember, I happen to remember one or two odd dates when I had just move from the Lincolnshire Chronicle in Lincoln to work for The News in South Wales - I set about saving up for my first car. That first car was a wreck of a Triumph Herald (and, dear reader when I say ‘wreck’ I am going easy on the bloody thing). Until I was able to boost my pitiful wages with expenses, I did not earn a lot, but was saving as much as I could for ‘my car’ and finally had £65. This was in 1976, and today that would be worth around £600.

I scoured the the cars for sale columns of the South Wales Argus for something I could buy locally for that price but there was nothing. Then, one day, going by bus from Abertillery north to Brynmawr, I passed through Nantyglo and there the narrow valley spreads out into a plain. And there, off to my right I could see, in the distance a row of three cars for sale. I got off and walked down side-road towards them. They were on offer at what I would now realise was a scrapyard. Still. I wistfully looked at all three, but they all cost more than I had. Then the owner approached me and asked me if I was interested in buying one of them. Yes, this one, I said, pointing at the Triumph Herald which was offered for £95, but I haven’t got enough money. ‘How much have you got?’ he asked. £65, I told him. ‘That’ll do,’ he said.

His ‘that’ll do’ should - and these days would - set off an array of very noisy alarm bells in any man less green behind the ears than I was then. His ‘that’ll do’ meant nothing more than ‘well, I’ve got a right one here’, and he was only too pleased to relieve me of my pot of gold for the heap of shit which shouldn’t, in a more just world, even be allowed to call itself ‘a car’. He explained that as the

As I saw it . . .

car was quite old there, were one or two things amiss with it, mainly that in order to get a circuit going between the battery, alternator and distributor, you had to run a wire from here to there - but, he warned, you should disconnect the wire every time you turned the engine off or else the battery would be drained and go flat. More alarm bells? Not for me, as just about to be the proud owner of my first car, I was in seventh heaven.

I had that car for just a week or two before it was written off (which was rather easily done). It wasn’t a particularly fast car and one annoying and very tiring aspect of it was that the spring which is attached to the accelerator pedal to return it ‘to neutral’ when you stop pushing it down to accelerate had long been lost and had been replaced with another spring, a very heavy duty, industrial affair which surely started life as part of an articulated lorry. This spring was so powerful, that after only ten minutes of driving your poor right foot would ache and ache and ache merely because you had been pressing down on the accelerator pedal.

That weekend I drove the 140 miles home to my parents home in Henley-on-Thames to show the car to my younger brother. It was the first time I had driven and the route I took was substantially longer than it need have been, and Christ did my right foot ache once I got there. The car would go no faster than 50mph and if I remember the journey took just under five hours. It should have taken just over two.

On the Monday morning I got up early to drive back to work in South Wales only to find the battery as flat as a pancake. I had forgotten to disconnect the thin wire which ran from somewhere in the engine to somewhere else to put the whole show on the road. I roused my brother, and we pushed the car a quarter of a mile to the nearest hill (Gillott’s Land down to Harpsden on the outskirts of Henley, on the road to Rotherfield Greys and Peppard Common if you know the area) before I could roll down it and bump start the car.

A week or two later, I parked the car in a street in Abertillery to dodge into a cornershop to get some cigarettes. When I got back a minute or two later, the car had gone. My first thought was ‘shit, my car’s been stolen!’, followed immediately by my second thought ‘but no one in their right mind would steal that car!’ In fact, what had happened was that almost as soon as I had parked the car and

. . .  as it really was

dodged into the shop, it had started rolling forward down the street - like all Valley towns, Abertillery is very hilly indeed - and then, coming to a T-junction to a road which was even steeper, had turned right and rolled some distance further down before crashing into the back of a parked car. I discovered what had happened just moment later. The owner of the other car (which wasn’t much damaged at all) had called the police who, once they had arrived examined my car and established that it didn’t have a handbrake.

So, dear reader, within just a few weeks of owning my first car, I earned my first motoring conviction and got the standard three penalty points on my licence. Worse still, I no longer had the means to legitimately claim mileage expenses to raise my wage from ‘pitifully small’ to ‘very poor’.

There is a postscript to that, it has to be said very minor, crash, and one which could only have occurred in South Wales: as I, the owner of the car my Triumph Herald and the copper were getting through the necessary business, who should walk by but the local representative of the Co-operative Insurance Society who I had seen just a few days earlier to insure myself and my car. He asked me what was up, and I explained.

So the business of starting to settle the other man’s claim for damages, whatever they were, got underway rather more swiftly than might have been the case but more to the point, when I moaned that I didn’t have a car any more, he advised me to get the bus to Newport and go to Brown’s (I really don’t know why I can remember that) who often had cheap cars for sale. I did, a few days later, and came home with a Hillman Superminx which cost me £100 (though on reflection how and why I suddenly had £100 available to buy it, whereas just weeks earlier I only had £65 and had already spent that on the Triumph I really don’t know and can’t recall. Perhaps this is a point where this blog sidesteps in magic realism. Who knows, and, more to the point who cares? You have to remember that this all occurred 30 years ago).

. . .

This stroll down Memory Lane, which, to be honest has become more of a trek than a stroll, has a point. My daughter, who will be 20 on August 7, passed her driving test last October and is equally as keen to get ‘her first car’. I recalling my excitement, I can’t blame her. I have been echoing my father telling her that running a car is the fastest way to lose money yet invented by man, that it isn’t just a question of buying one, but that every year it has to be insured, taxed and weekly filled with petrol, that there are the unexpected incidentals to pay for and the rest, but nothing, nothing, nothing will dampen her enthusiasm.

This summer she is due to have a holiday job managing a local pub/restaurant (and not one of those ‘big plate/small portions nouvelle cusine gastro-pub outfits’, but a local pub/restaurant, and so far - she has been working there for several years - we have been running her over there and picking her up, but she now insists she ‘needs her own car’.

My wife, who runs a tiny Daewo Matiz (a runt of a car) has told her that we can insure her for that car and she can have the use of it whenever she likes, but no, ‘she needs her own car’ - she would sometimes like to stay overnight with her boyfriend’s family (about 20 miles away) and it would be inconvenient for my wife if the car weren’t there. ‘Don’t worry,’ we say, ‘no big deal, we still have my Vauxhall Astra available’, but no, she really does need her own car. And so on. And to be honest, recalling own desperation to ‘have my own car’, I’m finding it difficult not agreeing with her.

My attitude is that yes, her ‘own car’ will be a terrible drain on her resources - resources she doesn’t much have - but that no amount of telling her will make the slightest difference. She will have to learn the hard way so that when the time comes she can tell her own children that the car they ‘need’ will be an unaffordable drain on their resources and they can then, in turn, ignore her. We’ve told her - or it somehow came about, I can’t quite remember - that the cost of her insurance can come out of the children’s benefit we have (at my insistence) been saving since she was born and which is intended for college fees and such. I suppose covering the cost of insurance for the care ‘she needs’ can, at a pinch, but thus justified.

She has only around £800 to spend and has been keeping a keen eye on the Autotrader website for anything available at that price. And she has been bombarding me with links to cars for sale on Autotrader and wondering what I thought about this one and that one. I tell her that cars are ten a penny, that most at that price are shit and not worth the asking price, and that the best way of going about it is to look at loads of cars until she gets an eye for what is complete crap and what might be worthwhile and can then grab a reasonable one when she comes across it. Which is all in through one of her ears and out through the other.

I am reasonably certain that my involvement in helping her find a car will inevitably mean that I shall get all the blame when that car breaks down within three weeks, but then I’ve been married for 20 years now and you get used to that sort of thing (rather as Russian servants in Tsarist Russia got used to being beaten - they most certainly didn’t like it and it hurt each time, but each beating no longer came as a bolt from the blue). I am also certain that my daughter will hint more than once that, sigh, she’s got to fill the car again and . . . and that I shall slip her £20 with the stern instruction that ‘this is really the very last time.

What’s new in this world?

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