The auto autobiography - a life in cars

 

 

Probably the first car I drove; certainly the car in which I did most of my learning to drive; possibly the car in which I passed the driving test.

My parents at one time owned two of these, and once I was a qualified driver I borrowed one of them from time to time when I needed a vehicle and didn’t own one of my own.

Boxy, boring and underpowered, the Husky was not an advertisement for British design or engineering. I seem to remember it lacked synchromesh on first gear, which given its weak engine made going up steep hills an interesting challenge.

 

It looked much rougher than this. The expression ‘used car’ conveys no  sense of the tired and tattered appearance of the old Mini I briefly owned.

In the winter of early 1976 I was living in a rented attic slum near Stoke Newington. I bought the car for £100 from a geezer in a tower block in the East End. It never once started without a push. About a month after I bought it I disposed of it for scrap.

  

 

1978? to 1981 – Ford Cortina Mk 1

Already thirteen years old when I bought it (from a colleague of my father’s) this beautiful vehicle (it looked very like the one in the photo) survived a number of bodywork mishaps, a trip to and from the south of France via the Massif Central, and the replacement of its engine.

The ignition system was frankly inadequate: I spent an inordinate amount of time adjusting the distributor gaps, spraying WD40, and in the depths of winter removing the spark plugs and heating them under the kitchen grill before re-inserting them and starting the car.

The Cortina was eventually finished off in a bizarre roofing-related accident. It was parked, as usual on a working day, outside the Games Workshop warehouse, where roofing work was being carried out. Unfortunately the workman on the roof had failed to secure his block and tackle to any solid structure, and it, and its surrounding scaffolding, fell from the roof of the warehouse on to the roof of the Cortina. I spent many months trying to obtain compensation from the workman and the warehouse’s landlord (neither, it transpired, had appropriate insurance), during which time the Cortina gathered dust in Games Workshop’s new and capacious warehouse on the Park Royal trading estate. But eventually it had to be scrapped.

 

I can’t remember what this car looked like. The photo is a stock image torn from the InterWeb. It wasn’t mine, either – I borrowed it from my parents while the Cortina was undergoing some remedial work. But I drove it for eight months so it deserves a mention.

 

My first big car. Automatic transmission, two-litre engine with overdrive, black leather bench seats. On one occasion when driving from London to Dover to catch a ferry it maintained 100 mph for long stretches of motorway (but we still missed the ferry). It was a looker, too – mine being very like the one in the photo. There’s nothing not to love. And it was free – a hand-me-down from my parents.

After two years, however, it failed an MOT test and had to be retired.

     

 

A beast of a car – in fact we called it ‘the Beast’.  This is no ordinary Hillman Hunter: it is a 1972 Holbay Hunter. It looked just like the photo, but with the addition of a pair of big, belligerent-looking fog lamps on the front bumper. The 1725cc engine was tweaked by Holbay from a normal Hunter’s 66bhp all the way to 107 bhp. My impression, though, is that the suspension and brakes weren’t proportionately uprated, as I found that this was a car that was easy to accelerate but rather harder to stop.

In the short time that I owned the car it was involved in three minor accidents (only one of which could even partially be said to be my fault). I had just had the bodywork repaired and resprayed when a lorry negotiating the narrow lanes of the Park Royal trading estate carved a furrow all along one side of the car while it was parked outside the Games Workshop head office and warehouse. The lorry driver was identified and eventually found guilty of failing to stop after an accident, but I never received any financial restitution. And then a few months later the car was rear-ended while I was driving it in Nottingham.

The car was a damage magnet. It had to go.

 

This is possibly my favourite of all the cars I have owned and driven. I bought it in January 1985, and in June of that year sold it to Games Workshop, which allocated it to me as my company car; I drove it until early 1986.

It was weird and wonderful. It had a 2.4-litre engine with four in-line cylinders; semi-automatic transmission; leather seats as comfy as armchairs; and suspension that lifted the vehicle into the air when the ignition was turned on. It looked just like the car in the photo. It was a joy to drive and looked exotic and fabulous.

It also had a hairline crack in the cylinder block that allowed water into the cylinders, but no car is perfect.

 

1986 – Ford Cortina Mk 4 Crusader

I arrived at Games Workshop with a Cortina Mark 1, and I left with a Mark 4. This company car – it looked very like the one in the photo – was transferred to me as part of my redundancy package. I didn’t like it and within a few months I didn’t need it.

 

I didn’t own this: it was allocated to me as my company car when I joined Argus Press Sales & Distribution Ltd as Marketing Director. It had been the car of the previous Managing Director, and it felt like a Managing Director’s car: big, smooth, comfortable.

It was in this car that I drove the corniche road along the Gorge du Verdon (the largest canyon in Europe) in the south of France – four times in one day. Twice at a leisurely pace, with my grandmother and uncle; and then twice more, in the gathering darkness, fast and dangerously, in a (successful) dash to rescue my jacket, wallet and passport, which I had left in a café at the head of the gorge. I’ve owned other cars that wouldn’t have kept me safe.

 

This isn’t a photograph of a Renault 5 GTX – it’s a GT Turbo. But it looks very like the GTX I bought in 1988 – the first car I bought new, using my redundancy money from Argus Press.

The GTX was a little car with a big 1725cc engine, and it was fun to drive.

I don’t have a record of when I sold it. It became unnecessary: I started working at W H Allen (later Virgin Publishing) in central London, whither it was more sensible to tube than drive; my partner was granted a company car in her job. There must have been a period during which I didn’t have a car – most unusual.

 

I do like a big car. There was a television advertisement for the Renault 25 in which a smug, handsome businessman, while driving the vehicle apparently from some formal event, informs his beautiful young wife that he has the financial backing to strike out in commerce in his own right. Of course, he says, the company car will have to go back. His wife contemplates the dashboard for a moment before asking him if he is perhaps being a little too hasty.

I think it was that advertisement that led me to yearn for a Renault 25. It was a lovely car: big, comfortable, powerful. Unfortunately the second-hand one I bought privately needed extensive and expensive work to bring it up to standard; and even so it died while I was driving it back from a Virgin summer party in Kent.

 

Look, I was desperate, OK? Only desperation could have induced me to take possession of a fifteen-year-old Ford Fiesta – a cast-off of the younger of my brothers. It looked like the one in the photo but with additional scuffs, scrapes and faded paintwork. But I had to have a car, and quickly, as I was driving every day between my London flat and Virgin Publishing, and every week between London and Southampton.

When I traded it in it proved to be worth £100.

 

There wasn’t a great deal of vitesse about this car, but it was only four years old when I bought it, and quite cheap. And the 216 was based on a Honda, and therefore was likely to be reliable. Which it was, until another car drove into its backside.

This was not the last of my cars to be written off following a collision – that was the Honda that succeeded this Rover, but in that case I can’t blame anyone but myself. However it’s a fact that the Mark 1 Cortina, the Triumph 2000, the Hillman Hunter, the Renault 25 and this Rover were all rendered inoperable due to being driven into by other vehicles – usually my cars were rear-ended while stationary at traffic lights or junctions. By the time this car was rear-ended I was beginning to think that I emitted a signal that encouraged other vehicles to converge on me. However I think two factors were involved: I did a lot of driving – I was in cars, on roads, much of the time; and cars and trucks just were not as well-made and reliable as they are today. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s there were a lot of old, unroadworthy (and often uninsured) vehicles being driven. It’s safer out there these days.

 

I don’t have much to say about my Honda. It was reliable and comfortable and not unattractive – it looked very like the one in the photo.

By the time I wrote off the Honda – I accelerated on to a roundabout, having checked that there were no vehicles on the roundabout itself, and drove into the back of the VW Golf that was in front of me and had not moved on to the roundabout – most of the worst of the turn of the century was over. Yes, I’d been let go by Virgin Publishing; yes, my partner’s second floristry shop had not proved profitable; yes, we used up all of our savings and at one point had no income; yes, a housing association had built a three-story block of ugly flats next to our house in Southampton; however we had closed the unprofitable shop; I had sold my London flat; I had written a few books and found temporary work; I could afford a new car: the Seat Ibiza below.

  

 

The first of several Seats. Mine looked very like the one in the photo. In general I think a car should be red or black; most other colours are unacceptable.

I bought this when it was a little over three years old, and so it was perhaps the first modern, up-to-date car I’ve owned. It’s true that I bought the Renault 5 from new, but that was in 1988 when cars were primitive compared with those of the twenty-first century. By 1997, when this Ibiza was made, cars were becoming more computer than internal combustion engine; carrying out DIY car maintenance had become almost impossible, but cars by now needed little more than an annual service and the occasional change of tyres.

This was a good little car: nippy, fun to drive, no trouble. Although the rear spoiler did fly off while we were driving home on the A303.

 

Another Seat – in fact the first of three Leons. During the six years that I owned this car I drove it about 70,000 trouble-free miles. It was not only reliable, it was also quick, stylish and fun. So when it started approaching 100,000 miles on the odometer, and I knew it was time to trade it in, I thought only of another, more modern, Seat Leon.

 

2010-14 – Seat Leon 2.0 TFSi FR

My second Leon – it looked like the photo. Four years old when bought but with only 15,000 miles on the clock. The newer, bigger, latest model, with a bigger engine, more technology and a higher specification – it’s bound to be better than the previous Leon, right? Well, not necessarily.

It drank petrol and ate tyres. And tyres for sporty cars aren’t cheap. Also, it wasn’t that much faster than Leons with smaller engines. It looked the business, but there came a point where I tired of buying tyres.

 

My faith in Leons was restored by this car. I bought it new, and it looked very like the one in the photo.

 It had only a 1.4-litre engine, but it was more fun to drive than the previous two-litre model. And it was bigger – one of the features of cars is that even if they have the same name, successive models increase in size.

I drove many miles in this car. I don’t have a record of how many, because when I traded it in the Mazda dealer discreetly omitted to write in the mileage, but I think I averaged about 15,000 miles a year. I was commuting from Southampton to Portsmouth every day; driving from Southampton to High Wycombe every couple of weeks, to look after my father; and then there were holidays in the West Country and France. The car coped well, but by 2019 it had developed a bad habit: without warning it would drop into ‘limp mode’, in which condition its on-board computer would not let it drive other than slowly and roughly. Seat dealers could find nothing wrong. However, it was clearly time for a change.

 

2020-now – Mazda 3 Saloon 2.0 GT Sport

Why not another Leon? Because this Mazda is just so pretty. But also because in the latest model of Leon, which in many respects appeared to be a further improvement on an already fine car, Seat had decided to route most of the controls through a touchscreen.

I don’t like touchscreens. My smartphone has a stylus so I don’t have to make bleary finger-smudges all over its screen. My desktop computer doesn’t have a touchscreen for the same reason. In a car, there’s not just the issue of fingerprints: it’s unsafe if in order to drive you have to keep looking at and attempting to precisely touch icons on a screen.

The Mazda – mine looks just like the one in the photo – is packed with technology and it has a very good display screen, but it’s not a touchscreen. Controls are on the steering column or the centre console. There is a heads-up display on the windscreen, too.

I also approve of the engine. It has a very high compression ratio, and so is fuel-efficient. It is also a mild hybrid: it has an electric motor to supplement the petrol engine. There is no turbocharger: if you want to go faster you have to use the gears and put your foot down hard, but there’s plenty of power when you do. In that respect it’s like driving used to be.

Oh, and it looks gorgeous. (I may have mentioned that already.)

 

 

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.