Wheels on Fire!

This week I want to talk about the cars I’ve owned over the years. Now, don’t get me wrong, I can look at a nice car and go “mmm” just as much as the next person, but pay out three years wages to buy a status symbol car? Nope. Never. Even if I had that kind of cash lying around, I doubt very much, I’d ever waste it on what is basically just a mode of transport, one step up the evolutionary ladder from a pony and cart. And I don’t understand those who do. It’s a car, get over yourself, and telling me straight away what type of car you drive and what horsepower it is, well, to quote Shania Twain – “That Don’t Impress Me Much”.

Of course, cars need to be a comfortable ride, reliable, safe and economical, but you can get all of those things without paying out a small fortune, and as for those people who get caught in the sticky web of finance deals and pay hundreds of pounds every month just to have the latest version – well, a fool and his money are soon parted.

Over the years I have owned precisely six cars, which considering I’ve been driving since I was 19 is not bad. It took me a while to pass my driving test, four attempts to be honest, and that wasn’t because I found it hard to learn, but because I fell apart in the test. Quaking with nerves, I’d do stupid things that would have my lovely driving instructor shaking his head with disbelief when I got back clutching yet another fail notification. Finally, on the fourth attempt, I took the test with a raging temperature, a throat that felt like sandpaper and a head that was threatening to explode. I didn’t care if I passed or failed, I just wanted to get it over and done with so I could go back to bed. Of course, taking the pressure of myself meant I passed with flying colours.

My first ever car was a Ford Escort Mk1 1300 four door saloon in metallic bronze. Built like a tank, it was in immaculate condition and had hardly any mileage on the clock despite being reasonably old. The engine was as clean as a whistle, as was the paintwork, and I cut my teeth in that car. It cost £600 which back in the 1980’s was a lot of money for such an old car. My dad bought it because of its pristine condition, low mileage and because he knew its provenance. The deal was, my parents would have use of it while I was learning to drive. During that time, I would make monthly payments to pay off £300 of its cost. Once I’d passed my test, the car would become mine completely. As it took me almost two years to pass my test, my parents had a second car for that long for only £300, so a pretty good deal for everyone.

It was a clunky though sturdy car, with a face only a mother could love. There was no power assisted steering, if you took it over sixty miles per hour the force threatened to shake your arms from your sockets, and there were no rear seat belts. But I loved that car. It didn’t matter that I felt like I’d done an aerobic workout on my arms every time I drove it, it offered me freedom and independence. Living out in a small village with an irregular bus service, having my own transport was gold.

The Shed – Much loved

That car went everywhere, I drove it to Kent on holiday and up to Hull to visit my boyfriend’s family, and it took it all in its stride. Maybe it wasn’t the quickest mode of transport in the world, but it was certainly the most reliable and the most economic.

As it was brown and usually full of crap, my friends christened my car the Shed and teased me about its old-fashioned appearance, and the fact it was so noisy when travelling at speed the radio had to be cranked up to full blast to hear it. It became habit that the passenger would automatically turn the volume down as we slowed down, in order to save our eardrums from being shattered when the engine noise suddenly dropped, and the full force of the music would hit us. Once, the rear door locks broke and the doors wouldn’t open, so my friends had to climb over the front seats to get in, clutching mini skirts to thighs and shrieking with laughter – much to the interest of my elderly neighbour who I suspect had to have a little lie down afterwards to recover from the sight.

But all good things come to an end, that little car last me from 1985 to 1997. When I got married my husband used it to get to and from work, and although I could never prove it, I think he thrashed it a little too hard and the engine blew. And that was the end of the Shed.

After the Shed, my husband decided he wanted a status symbol car, something more in keeping with the ace guy he thought he was, and he bought himself some kind of Ford turbo thing – please don’t expect any more details from me, other than it was silver and low and sleek and growled like a bear on heat when you stepped on the accelerator. Totally impractical for town – we have a lot of speed bumps around here and having to baby your car over them in case you rip your undercarriage off is a complete pain – and no good for country lanes, I hated this car with a passion.

Technically, it was supposed to be my car as well. I had paid for half of it after all, but my husband snipped and criticised me the whole time I was driving it and, in the end, made me so nervous about it that I flatly refused to drive it anymore. We had the beast for about nine months and then my husband’s parents offered us a lovely Ford Mondeo as my father-in-law was getting something smaller and easier for him to handle.

Reluctantly, my husband agreed it was too good an offer to turn down, especially as we were thinking of starting a family and the beast was a complete no-no as far as car seats and fitting a buggy in the boot were concerned. So, the beast was sold, and the nice sensible Ford Mondeo joined the family.

I didn’t mind the Mondeo. It was comfortable and practical, a nice smooth ride which behaved itself very well over the next couple of years, including managing two holidays in Cornwall with lots of driving about on very twisty steep roads. However, I always felt it was a little too big for the road we live on. There’s residential parking up our street and spaces are extremely limited and purely on a “first come, first served” basis. On numerous occasions we’d try our hardest to get into the last space available, before having to give up and watch in seething frustration as our neighbour’s mini side stepped into it.

Time ticked by, I had Miss F in 2003 and the Mondeo was the perfect family car, roomy enough to fit all the paraphernalia one small baby seems to need just to be taken seven miles down the road to visit her grandparents. Then my marriage fell apart and I was left with a one-year old baby and a mountain of debts.

My ex-husband was struggling to pay any child maintenance and I accepted the Mondeo in lieu of two months maintenance, despite the fact it had been a gift to us both, was now in dire need of repairs and that he’d also left with me a pile of other debts. This was in September 2004. The following January I was driving Miss F home from a birthday party in a nearby town when the car suddenly slowed to ten miles an hour on the motorway. Nothing I did would convince it to go any faster, so I limped home with my foot flat on the floor and other cars speeding past me on the motorway honking their annoyance. I got home and phoned my mechanic, who told me it sounded like the clutch, and that once the clutch goes in an automatic that was it, the car was done for.

So, I went to bed that night feeling a bit grim. I couldn’t afford a new car, and as it was natural wear and tear, I wouldn’t be able to claim on the insurance. In the middle of the night, I was awoken by the sound of a car roaring at speed down our road and then a very loud crunch, like metal on metal, before the car revved up and roared off into the night. Next morning, when I went to get my daughter’s pushchair from the boot of the car, I discovered the whole driver’s side had been removed from boot to bonnet – that must have been the sound I heard in the night. I telephoned the insurance company, who sent an inspector and wrote the car off on the spot. I didn’t get much in the way of insurance – it was an old car after all – but anything was better than the nothing I was expecting.

My next car was a dear little Vauxhall Astra hatchback in a sort of metallic peachy pink bronze colour. I bought that early in 2004 and it was a good and faithful workhorse for us. It was reliable, sturdy, nippy and very cost effective. Requiring hardly any repairs, it sailed from MOT to MOT costing me very little in between. I have very fond memories of that car, although its demise has gone down in family history as being the most spectacular car exit ever.

It was early one Monday morning in 2012. I was rudely awoken at 5am by the sound of someone pounding frantically on my front door. Pulling on my dressing gown, I stomped irritably downstairs and threw open the front door to find my neighbour from across the street standing there clad only in a flimsy nightie. I blinked at her in surprise. Not what I’d been expecting, I must say, and she grabbed my arm yelling at me to look at my car!

I looked at my car. My car was on fire! Yellow flames were licking at its insides and fire was oozing out of the bonnet. For a moment, my neighbour and I had a completely girlie moment on the step, where we just shrieked and did a little panicky dance. Then I pulled myself together and rushed to phone the fire brigade. Now, I’ve never had to call an emergency service before and must admit, despite the severity of the circumstances, it was very exciting but a bit daunting and the conversation with the operator went a bit like this.

“What is the nature of the emergency?”

“Fire! There’s a fire!”

“Where is the fire please?”

“In my car.”

Sigh. “Where is your car please?”

“Outside my house!”

Eventually, I calmed down enough to give them my address which is literally five minutes around the corner from the fire station. By this point, fireballs were ballooning inside the car and we could feel the heat from it. My neighbour ran to get something more covering on as lights began to snap on up and down the street and people were coming out to see what was happening.

My lodger sleeps in the basement and his window looks out onto the street, so I was concerned about smoke and fumes going into his room and ran to bang on his door. Very excited, he of course grabbed his phone and started posting updates to his Facebook page. By now the fire engine had arrived and lots of chunky men in fire breathing apparatus were tackling the blaze which was pretty impressive and very scary.

I ran to get Miss F up and we all huddled on the front step to watch, united with the rest of the street in excitement. Finally, it was over, and the fire was out. My poor car was a smoldering blackened wreck and the smell of acrid smoke and burning plastic was horrendous, making the whole house reek for days afterwards.

Wheels on Fire!

Of course, it was a write off, there was nothing left to salvage from the car and the insurance company paid me a few pennies. Again, it was an old car and unfortunately the way insurance works is they pay you what the car is worth, not what it will cost to replace it.

So, there I was, car less again. I managed a few weeks without one and wondered if we could get by permanently relying on walking and public transport. After all, we lived in the middle of town, and both Miss F’s school and my work were within walking distance. But I quickly discovered it’s just too inconvenient not having a car. The whole having to have my shopping delivered or pay out for a taxi, not being able to visit family and friends when we wanted to and never being able to go anywhere on the spur of the moment. Nope, we needed a car, but I hadn’t got much money – the insurance pay-out had only been a few hundred and was not enough to buy anything reliable.

Then my parents stepped in with a small cash gift to my brother and I, and I used mine to buy a new car. I bought it off eBay, and it seemed like a good deal, but I really wouldn’t recommend you do it that way unless you are a trained mechanic or have access to one. The car was a bright red Citroen C3 which looked beautiful but was an absolute bitch to drive. It rattled alarmingly and every time we hit a bump in the road, things would shake and move around us. It felt like I was driving a tin can and if I went at any speed, I imagined the car was running away with me. It cornered like a cow, was a pig to park and was so delicate that if the temperature overnight dropped to the point where a light cardigan was needed, the car would refuse to start in the morning.

It was considered a higher performance car, so my insurance premiums doubled, it ate petrol like it was going out of fashion, and there was a funny smell in it that no amount of air fresh seemed able to get rid of. I stuck it for six months before deciding enough was enough, it had to go.

I traded it in through a local second-hand car company who I must admit were brilliant and very fair with me. Given all its faults I didn’t think I’d get much for it and was thrilled and delighted when I saw what they offered me. A 1996 Nissan Micra automatic in British racing green. Absolutely immaculate inside and out, and with only 26,000 miles on the clock, it had had only one owner, the anecdotal little old lady, and it had been kept in a garage all its life and serviced every two thousand miles. It was a gem. Lovely upholstery, it smelt nice and handled beautifully. A comfortable, sturdy and reliable little car that we took to right from day one. My daughter christened it Basil because of its colour, and for the past seven years it has served us faithfully.

Most years it sails through the MOT with minimal repair work necessary, but last time I was advised it needed about £150 worth of welding underneath to ensure it would pass the following year. I really did mean to get it done, I honestly did, but the year has flown by and I somehow never got round to it, and suddenly it was the beginning of October and my MOT was due at the end of the month and I still hadn’t got it done. Deciding I really needed to get it booked in, I found the folder where I keep all the car details and pulled out last year’s MOT paperwork, only to find my memory had let me down as usual. Far from being due the end of October, it had been due the day before! Panicked, I called my garage to see what they could do.

They could fit the car in for a MOT that afternoon, but there certainly wasn’t time to carry out any welding. But what about if it failed, which it probably would do, given their insistence last year it would without the welding. Well, then I would have ten days to affect the necessary work and submit it again for the MOT. Oh, right, well can I still drive the car in those ten days. No, it would have to be off the road. Now I was really panicking. Not only do I now need my car to get to work, I also had to get Miss F to her work placement nearly a 40-minute drive away. But there was no time to do anything else, so I took Basil to the garage and left him there, convinced when they called it would be to tell me the patient was terminal.

It was a long hour before they called with amazing news. Basil, bless his little spark plugs, had pulled through for us and sailed through the MOT needing nothing more than a new bulb. But what about the welding I asked? Well, they replied, he still needs it but because you haven’t done many miles it hasn’t deteriorated to the point where it has to be done. Maybe by next year though… yeah, well, next year is a long way away, a lot can happen between now and then.

You can imagine how relieved I was that instead of £150+ bill, it ended up only costing me £58 for another year’s worth of motoring. Thank you, Basil, I may even give you a wash to say thank you.

Thank you for joining me again this week, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my trip down automobile memory lane.

All the best.

Julia Blake

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