by Paul Sweeney
The sudden and violent demise of the MK2 Escort and subsequent arrival of the very welcome insurance monies meant I could seek out my next used car. I don't think I have mentioned that we now had a wolf pack of three small humans, so car space was at a premium and that had to be factored into my thinking.
In 1983 BL had launched the Austin Maestro, a new car to replace the Allegro (I'd had an Allegro as a second car during my Vauxhall period in Birmingham) and I decided to investigate as I really couldnt face the idea of another Cortina, and the MK2 Cavalier just didnt appeal to me.
"Which" magazine said this about the Maestro:
The Maestro was launched in March 1983. In its summing up of the new car the Consumers' Association, in the June edition of its Which?journal, described it as roomy, comfortable, and nice to drive, and said "If you are considering buying one now, our advice, based on our first impressions, is to go ahead". In January 1984, after testing the car, they concluded: "In comparison with opposition of a similar price and body size, the Maestro has a clear advantage on room for passengers, with few cars equalling it for comfort either in the front or back". They also considered it to be a serious rival to the higher-segment Vauxhall Cavalier and Ford Sierra, apart from its smaller boot space.
Like many of us at the time, I was of course fully aware of BL's troubles but desperately wanted them to succeed - so if they really had produced a decent car that suited my needs, I was definitely open to giving them a chance. I decided to find one for sale and see how it went.
The first Maestro I found on offer at the right price point was some distance away from my home in Bristol - at a small used car dealership in Shepton Mallet, Somerset. Somebody kindly gave me a ride there and I inspected the Maestro. I was surprised by it's size; it was quite tall, wide and modern-looking. Inside, it was cavernous - a huge step up from the limited interior of the MK2 Escort - and it was also well appointed for its time and price point.
It was a 1600; 1.6L I think - in dark blue. I took it for a test drive and was very pleasantly surprised - compared to the Escort, the Maestro was comfortable, quiet and powerful. I really enjoyed throwing it around the country lanes of Somerset and when I returned to the dealer, a deal was soon done.
The dealer was a decent fellow in fact - when he heard my story of woe (the Escort being written off) he immediately offered me free use of his courtesy car for the few days he needed to prepare the Maestro for collection.
Naturally, I gratefully accepted and he disappeared for a short while to bring the courtesy car to me. After 10 minutes or so, he appeared driving the yellowest MK1 Fiesta I'd ever seen! It seemed to run OK, so I happily thanked him and drove it back to Bristol.
It was early Summer, and to begin with, I drove along with the driver's window open - but soon had a large bee in the car with me. I stopped and ushered it out (I'm not one for killing bees) and continued my journey - but very quickly had another bee joining me along with quite an assortment of other insects. Again, I stopped and cleared the car of wildlife, then closed the window before resuming my journey.
When I arrived home, my daughters came excitedly running out of the house to see "Daddy's new car" but soon ran screaming back inside when they were almost instantly surround by bees, wasps and various other bugs. Then it dawned on me - it was the car! The darn thing was such a bright yellow, the insects were seemingly mistaking it for a large flower - either it was the car or me and my money was on the car.
So it was with some relief a few days later that I returned the Fiesta to its owner and brought the Maestro home. All was well; the Maestro did exactly what it said on the tin and never let me down. Thanks BL - you did get it right sometimes, even if the haters won't admit it.
Next time - something catches my eye
by Paul Sweeney
With the Astra gone, I needed new transport - cue my next used car search! So what would it be? Something simple, cheap to run and suitable for carrying a young family. That felt suspiciously like my old selection criteria of, "dull, British and thoroughly normal" to me, which was a tad depressing.
Would it be another Cortina? No - that was just too tiresome to contemplate. It would have to be something else - but what? I decided - as time was not on my side - to be open-minded. Options were anything family car-sized from Ford, Vauxhall or BL - any of those would be considered. I still felt nervous about foreign cars after my Renault experience, so didn't consider them when poring over the classified ads (we are now 1986, so still very much pre-internet).
To maximise my chances, I decided to look at private sellers as well as dealers. The first car I went to view was a gold 4-door Ford Escort 1.3L - a private sale. Surprisingly given my previous experiences, the owner was completely normal and so was the car. In fact, it was absolutely ... errmm .. OK... and the price was reasonable, so I bought it without any hint of hilarity or strange behaviour. (Bet that surprised you!)
Driving the Escort was unremarkable but acceptable. I don't remember much about it really, except that it was competent - a good, sensible solution at the time. Did I like it or enjoy driving it? The truth is, I didn't care about it enough to even consider that - it was no more than a means of getting from A to B, and the best I could afford at the time. Other priorities took charge at this time of my life.
The only trip in the Escort that stands out in my memory (for reasons you will come to appreciate) was a day trip we took as a family sometime after our relocation back to Bristol.
My daughters were growing and like all small humans they loved animals, so we settled on a day trip to Longleat Safari Park, which was around 45 mins drive from home on the outskirts of Bristol.
We arrived safely and as you may know, the system at Longleat is that you drive around the animal enclosures in your own car. We did so and the small humans made all the right noises as we saw each type of animal - until we stopped in the monkey enclosure.
I must have been distracted, else I would have skipped the monkeys - but I didn't. The moment the car stopped, monkeys appeared from out of nowhere and leaped onto the Escort, clearly well aware that vinyl roofs were merely glued on and intent on ripping it off.
The children were by this time screaming in terror as the monkeys bounced around on the car, pulling on the vinyl roof, windscreen wipers, door mirrors and anything else they thought they could detach. It was like a madhouse inside the car - kids screaming and crying, wifey yelling at me over the noise to do something quickly - so I did.
I decided in a sudden indignant rage that those monkeys were NOT going to damage my car. What I did was to select 1st gear, rev the engine hard and execute a series of perfect learner driver-style kangaroo hops interspersed with 'ohmygodweareallgoingtodie' - force braking of steadily increasing violence until I had finally dislodged all the monkeys.
The moment we were clear of them, I raced toward the enclosure exit gates some 100 yards away which were already opening. Presumably the park rangers had been watching and were trying to help - and probably laughing themselves silly at our antics.
Seconds later we were out of there, and gradually wife and kids began to calm down. She didn't even criticise, which was something of a surprise. Thank God we didn't have a Reggie Perrin moment - if you remember that episode, his grandchild did, "Ploopy-plops" whilst navigating Longleat Safari Park.
The remainder of the visit was uneventful although I think we were all slightly shaken by the monkey experience and no longer in the mood to make the most of the trip. Little did we know, the worst was still to come.
After a time and an ice-cream or two, wifey and I agreed to make our way home and left the park to head home along the pleasant winding country roads of Wiltshire.
Unfortunately, no more than 5 miles from Longleat, we were hit head-on by another car whilst stationary. I had pulled over and stopped because I saw the other car approaching at high speed on my side of the road quite some time before it collided with the Escort. It was one of those moments when time seems to go into slow-motion - I watched almost impassively as the car approached, impact inevitable.
The small humans were asleep in their child seats in the back and were woken by the violent impact, but unharmed. Wifey and I were both able to get out of the car - also unharmed.
The Escort however had taken a very severe impact to the offside front. It definitely wasn't drivable and was almost certainly destined for the crusher - it was declared a total loss by my insurance company a few days later.
I suppose on reflection that is the closest I have come thus far to dying at the wheel. As it turned out, all it really meant was that yet again I now needed to source another used car.
But what would it be this time? You will have to wait for the next episode to find out!
by Paul Sweeney
Since relocating to Tamworth, wifey and I had somehow acquired two of the small humans commonly known as children. These little creatures had a curious effect on the previously very unsentimental Mrs S, who suddenly became extremely homesick for Bristol.
We had been in the Midlands for some five years by then. All I really wanted was a quiet life and with no real objection to going back home, plans were made. I sought a job transfer back to Bristol with my employer CIS, but they had no suitable vacancies at the time, so I got a new position with National Westminster Insurance Services of Bristol instead.
This of course meant handing back my company Astra. My job in Birmingham had brought with it the right to park in the company parking facilities under our office building, and on my last day Head Office sent two skinny youths down from Manchester to collect the car. I blame the air 'up North' personally.
The car park had numerous awkwardly-placed pillars dotted about - they were something to do with holding the building up apparently - and on that day I'd had to park the Astra against one of them. I knew that getting the car safely in and out of that particular space required no small degree of expertise and practice, so when the young guy demanded the car keys from me, I explained the issue and offered to back the car out for him so he could drive off safely and easily.
"No" he answered - a bit snappily, I thought. "Just give me the keys - I do know how to drive". "In that case, you will have to sign this paper confirming the car was received from me in A1 condition before I'm giving you the keys" I retorted (luckily I had typed it up beforehand precisely in case this scenario arose). He rolled his eyes, sighed but signed the statement, whereupon I handed him the keys.
No doubt keen to demonstrate his driving prowess, the lad practically leapt into the Astra, started her up and immediately reversed rapidly, rubbing the whole of the Astra's nearside along the pillar in the process. Did I mention that the pillars were painted with bright yellow and black stripes? Quite noticeable along the side of my dark red Astra, that yellow paint was - not to mention the dent in the rear wheel arch.
"Oh that was unfortunate" I called to him as I took photographs of the damaged car while it was still wedged against the pillar (I am a fully-trained insurance assessor, you know!). "You appear to have done some damage to the car, but it looks like the pillar is OK. Don't worry, I'll fax this (waving the statement I had made him sign) to Head Office while you are driving back to Manchester and follow up with the photos, so they know exactly what's happened."
He didn't answer. Instead he roared off out of the car park closely followed by his pal in the car they had arrived in, leaving me with an amused grin on my face. I never did hear from the company about it.
So with the Astra gone, I once again was in need of transport - cue my next used car search! I'd had two brand new cars but couldn't possibly afford that out of my own funds - so what would it be? Something old and familiar probably - simple, cheap to run and suitable for carrying a young family. That felt suspiciously like my old selection criteria of, "dull, British and thoroughly normal" to me, which was a tad depressing.
So would it be another Cortina? No - that was just too tiresome to contemplate. It would have to be something else - but what? Find out next time!
by Paul Sweeney
So the time had come to say goodbye to my little Nova; I'd never really been sorry to see a car go before, but this time I was. Still, another new car would be exciting and this one would be bigger, faster, better, right? Well no, as it turned out.
I arrived to collect the Astra and there it was, waiting ready for me on the dealer's forecourt. Shiny, brand new with that special smell only new cars have. I immediately took off for a spin. Compared to the Nova, it was bigger inside and out; it had four doors, a bigger engine and was a little better equipped. It was quiet and smooth as you'd expect of a new car .... and yet there was something missing. It wasn't fun.
That initial disappointment grew deeper when I found old vans passing me on hills -surely there was something wrong? This Astra was at the time the European Car of the Year but it had no, "Get up and go".
I took it unhappily to the main dealer, Wilnecote Motors of Tamworth to investigate and they quickly informed me there was nothing wrong with the car - and perhaps there wasn't. I'll never know, but what I do know is the sparkly, lively character I had enjoyed so much in the Nova was completely absent from the Astra.
I was disappointed, but there was nothing I could do about it; it was a company car and I just had to live with it until it was time to change again. At least I didn't need to do any maintenance on it, which left me more time for other jobs around the house.
One weekend I decided I couldnt put off mowing the front lawn any longer and pulled out my little Qualcast electric mower. It was the cylinder type and as I started mowing I noticed that all it was doing was flattening the grass, which sprang back up a few minutes later; it was barely cutting the grass at all!
I fetched my toolkit and patiently took the thing apart. I cleaned, oiled, adjusted and even sharpened the blades before carefully reassembling everything. I plugged it in, fired her up and .... it was even worse than before!
Muttering dark threats, I took it apart again; I must have missed something, so this time I even broke the Golden Rule of Blokedom - incredible as it may seem, I fetched the Owners' Instruction Booklet and did exactly what it said. Down to every last detail.
Reassembly complete, I eagerly plugged the power cord in once more and tried it on the front lawn. The result? No change. Well, not strictly true - it was as good as it had been before I tried to fix it the first time - meaning it still wasn't actually cutting the grass.
I decided the bottom plate against which the revolving cylinder blades strike was bent, so I went to the local B&Q and bought a new one - that would fix it! It didn't - well, maybe a marginal improvement, but no more.
By this time I was getting a tad hot and bothered - and had pretty much lost interest in mowing the lawn until my dear wifey yelled from the living room window, "Are you still ******ing around with that ****ing mower?" in the sweet tones she seemed to reserve just for me. "I'm getting there", I lied gamely as I took the mower apart one more time.
This time, I disassembled the mower almost completely - I had a dozen or so odd-shaped bits of cheap metal lying around me. Again I checked, cleaned and re-fitted the entire thing, then spent quite a while adjusting the blade clearance to as near perfection as I could. This was it ... the moment of truth had come.
I plugged the power cord in again, pulled the '"start" lever and set off across the lawn once more. I got to the far end of the lawn and did a smart 180 degree turn, looking back expectantly to see the fruits of my labours - and saw a neat strip of flattened uncut grass already beginning to return to the vertical position. At that very moment, Mrs S yelled "Are you coming in or not?" (expletives omitted) and it was then that I finally cracked.
I yanked on the power cord so hard the plug pinged out from the power point a few yards away, then I picked up the mower by it's handle and began circling it around my head wildly (think of a puny version of Geoff Capes throwing the hammer and you pretty much get the idea). After a few complete circuits accompanied by yours truly yelling I know not what, I let go of it.
Now if I'm honest, I suppose I imagined the mower sailing majestically across our front garden, bouncing in slow motion as it hit the ground and exploding dramatically into a thousand pieces. What actually happened was the control lever caught in my sleeve which tore - and the mower along with half of my shirt landed pretty much at my feet, completely undamaged.
My neighbours (for they were surely observing from their hide nearby) didn't say a word, coming as it did after the infamous Cortina-kicking incident, but I'm fairly sure I heard squeaking sounds remarkably like suppressed sniggering.
Wifey meanwhile had watched the whole thing from the house, and to my surprise had a rare grin on her face that soon turned to a chuckle until it became a most unladylike guffaw. I had to admit, I must have looked pretty ridiculous and before long I was laughing too. I can't offhand recall any other time when we both laughed together like that, although I suppose it must have happened occasionally.
Next time - a new job results in another search for a used car!
by Paul Sweeney
Work was changing at the Cooperative Insurance Society and I was being asked to spend 3 days a week out on the road investigating claims, which I rather enjoyed. However, I felt it was only a matter of time before my used Cortina would let me down, which would have been awkward - so I joined the company car scheme.
This meant sacrificing some of my salary (the CIS was not a generous employer), then the maximum price of the car was a multiple of the pre-sacrifice figure. We were allowed to negotiate our own price with the dealers. I soon realised this meant I could only stretch to a small car, but I didn't care - it would be new!
I eagerly researched prices of Ford Fiestas and Escorts - they were surprisingly expensive - and also for completeness the Austin Metro; but I just said a flat "No" to that one. There really wasn't much else on the market apart from the aging Renault 5 - but I'd still not forgiven Renault for the R12 - and some Japanese cars I regarded with suspicion (probably foolishly).
Then I discovered that Vauxhall had just launched a new 'Supermini' to replace the Chevette. With fond memories of my old Viva HB, I decided to look into this new Vauxhall Nova, as it was named.
Well, it all stacked up; the spec was pretty good for its time, the styling was modern and sharp and road tests were full of approving comments. Honest John's web site says this about the Nova:
"The Nova (unlike the Chevette) was a grown-up offering with as much practicality as any of its rivals. The Nova - or Corsa as it was known elsewhere - was available with 1.0-, 1.2- and 1.3-litre engines from launch but the range rapidly expanded over the coming years.
Five-door hatchback was useful, two- and four-door saloons were forgettable, while the 1989 1.6-litre GTE was easily capable of seeing off the Ford Fiesta XR2. And that was the main accomplishment of the Spanish-built Nova - it beat the Ford Fiesta and Austin Metro on the road but never out of the showroom. But it paved the way for the phenomenally successful Corsa."
Not only did it seem to be a good little car, I wouldn't have to have the entry-level 1.0 model! I could afford to go for the 1.2 litre 3 door model - and that was enough to convince me. Next, I called a couple of local Vauxhall dealers and found one of them had two 1.2 hatches in stock in a choice of either brown or blue. Blue it was, then. The car looked exactly like this one apart from the colour:
I was in such a hurry to get my hands on the Nova, I didn't even take one for a test drive; I reasoned there was no point, since I had already decided I was having it! Just a few days later, I collected the car and she was - to all intents and purposes - mine.
It was an instant love affair with the Nova. Compared to the dreary old rot boxes I'd owned before she was light, modern, nippy, quiet and remarkably refined. It took me a while to get used to not being able to hear the engine at idle.
As mentioned in the last instalment of this tale, I have absolutely no idea what I did with my old Cortina. I just didn't care about it at all and never looked back.
So, I began driving the Nova for work - often racking up 250+ miles in one day - and it was an absolute delight. I had it for around 18 months and it never put a foot wrong. All I ever did was refill the fuel and put water in the screen washer.
One of the many insurance calls I made in my little Nova sticks in my mind to this day, so I will share it with you.
I had driven around 80 miles to a house in Stoke-on-Trent to visit a homeowner claiming for storm damage to a flat garage roof. It was this kind of thing:
As anyone who has had the misfortune to own property built this way will know, the bitumen/felt roof covering becomes brittle with age, when it cracks and allows rainwater to leak through into the chipboard beneath, which swells and finally collapses.
Normal life expectancy for one of these roofs was around 12 years back then. So, on arrival at the house, the friendly owner already had his extension ladder up against the garage so we could climb up for a look. The purpose was for me to look for evidence of damage caused by a storm - and I already had with me the weather report for the date it was claimed to have happened which was 'calm and overcast'.
As soon as I got up there, it was very clear to me that the roof was simply at the end of it's life and needed replacement. Put simply, this was not 'Storm damage' as covered by insurance policies, it was, "You have a mouldy old felt roof that leaks" time! I had learned from experience not to tell the guy the bad news while we were still standing on his garage roof, so I climbed carefully back down to terra firma and waited for him to join me.
Once he had done so, I gently and politely explained the above to him and told him that the insurance company would not be paying for his new roof. He quietly said, "OK" and we bid one another farewell. As I started walking towards the Nova parked about 50-75 yards away (I never parked too close just in case!), I heard a kind of strangled yelp and turned to see the man had grabbed his extension ladder and was starting to run towards me, twirling it like a huge baton above his head and screaming incoherently in my direction.
I didn't need to be told to get out of there and ran towards my car as quickly as I could, burdened as I was with a heavy leather brief case, camera and other tools of my trade.
I made it to the car, jumped in and drove straight towards the guy fairly rapidly.
He jumped out of my way and stood watching as I continued in the direction of his house, where I could see his wife waving frantically at me to stop.
I wasn't daft enough to do that, but I did slow down a little and open my car window enough to hear her calling out in rather a posh voice, "I'm so sorry - he gets like this sometimes!" Even in the heat of the moment, I couldn't help grinning to myself as I drove away. The company never heard from the man again - he even renewed his house policy with us the following year!
Before too much longer the company told me I should change the car for a new one as the business mileage alone was 26,000 in less than 18 months. That suited me, as my then wife had recently given birth to our first child, so a bigger car would be handy. As I still liked the Nova so much, I decided to go for the new-ish Astra model, which I assumed would be the same - but bigger.
More of that next time.
by Paul Sweeney
My search for a used car that was 'dull, British and thoroughly normal' continued despite some bizarre encounters (see part 2). I found another car for sale that fit my criteria (a Ford Cortina 1.6L, naturally) and made an appointment with the seller to view the car.
To my dismay, the inner-city address that I found with the help of my trusty Birmingham A-Z book (satellite navigation devices were still the stuff of science fiction back in the 1980s) turned out to be one of the many high-rise tower blocks 'gracing' the Birmingham City skyline.
Well, I'd come quite a distance, so I wasnt going to turn around without at least viewing the car. I pressed the, "Call Lift" button and waited with low expectations for the lift to arrive. To my surprise it came after what seemed like mere days waiting in the heavily graffiti-ed entrance to the building.
I stepped into the lift and was at once almost overcome by the strong acrid smell of urine - dear God, didn't these people have toilets indoors? The address was on the 19th floor and eventually the lift doors opened with an ear-splitting grinding sound. The landing was large and cold with a bare concrete floor, but I saw the door I needed opposite and walked across quickly to ring the doorbell before I changed my mind and got the hell out of there.
I heard a faint voice call from inside, "Just a minute" so I waited. I waited quite a while. Eventually, the door opened a crack and I was confronted by a lad of about 15 who was naked from the waist down. His nose was streaming green snot as he said, "Sorry, I've got the shits real bad. Do you want to see the car?"
As I wondered how to respond and doing my best to play it cool and not look surprised by his appearance, I finally nodded and managed a feeble, "Yes please". He shuffled away (his trousers and underpants were still around his ankles), re-appearing a minute later with a car key in his grimy hand. I reluctantly took it and with no small amount of relief, retreated from the 19th floor horror show I had just witnessed to the lift doors. Luckily the other lift answered my call - the smell of urine wasn't quite so strong in this one.
I followed the boy's directions and soon found the car parked outside the building. To my surprise, it looked quite presentable. I checked around it, then opened the driver's door expecting to encounter something ghastly inside - but no, it looked and smelled remarkably clean. Perhaps this was the one after all!
I started the engine and drove away from the flats into the busy Birmingham traffic - this was going quite well! I drove for 5 minutes or so - around 3 miles - when the engine began spluttering and finally stopped completely, allowing me just enough time to pull over to a lay-by. Some advanced technical investigation by yours truly (I checked the fuel gauge) revealed lack of the liquid gold to be the cause.
So, I imagine you think I then called someone for help, right? Wrong .. no mobile phones in 1982 - or at least, those you could buy required a small mortgage and weighed more than your average house brick. So, I walked ... I walked every one of the 3 miles back to the High Rise Horror Show, having first carefully locked the car and taken note of the road where it had stopped.
When the boy answered the door, I was relieved to see that this time he had his trousers on and had made at least a cursory attempt to clear his face of snot. "What is it?" he asked as if he'd never seen me before. "Your car has no petrol, so here's the key and the address where its parked" (I'd cunningly written it down by this time).
"Oh, I'll get you a petrol can so you can buy some more and bring the car back here" said the boy, thus managing his longest and clearest utterance since we first met. "No" I told him, "it's not my problem - just tell your Mum or whoever where it is. I'm leaving now".
He looked surprised but I left before he had a chance to reply; thankfully the lift was already on my floor and I was able to leave that ghastly place quite quickly. I felt an urgent need for a thorough shower; clearly I had thus far led a sheltered and relatively privileged life. On the way home I made a mental note to thank my parents for providing a clean, warm and decent home for my siblings and me to grow up in.
All of the above led me to a new conclusion: I had been wrong. Used car dealers probably were the best place to look for my next set of wheels after all!
Next time - I finally manage to purchase a car that is dull, British and thoroughly normal - so that would be a Ford Cortina, obviously.
by Paul Sweeney
I was thinking about the cars I owned back in the 1980s and how I came to have them. I will start in 1982 ... I had moved with my (now ex) wife and young family from Bristol to Birmingham. "Be brave to get on in life" thought I. Yeah, right.
Anyway I had a pale blue M reg Renault 12TL at the time. Not a great choice as it turned out, since it rusted as badly if not worse than British cars of the time, and was also utterly hopeless at going around bends. Lovely in a straight line, but bends? Forget it!
I regularly drove slowly along, trying desperately to avoid a degree of body roll reminiscent of the Titanic's fatal voyage - all the while feeling hugely embarrassed as a long line of traffic built up behind me.
I'm guessing there arent many R12s left, as I had quite a bit of trouble finding a photo of one in the same pale blue as mine; as you can see the car pictured is LHD and has weird wheels, but you get the idea.
One experience with the Renault is indelibly burned in my memory - driving home through central Birmingham on a 6-lane highway near an infamously busy junction called Five Ways, the gear lever suddenly stopped doing anything; I was in 3rd gear and no amount of knob wiggling was going to change it.
I happened to be in an underpass when this happened. The traffic was nose-to-tail, stop/start with no footpaths or hard shoulder and so I had to coax the weedy Renault into moving forward from a standstill in 3rd gear on an uphill incline - several times. The engine roared impotently and smoke billowed from the clutch, but eventually I made it with much cursing and sweating.
Eventually I managed to pull off the road and looked underneath the car. Even to my relatively untrained eye, the cause was obvious; there was a linkage hanging loose directly under the gear lever.
Luckily the plates holding the thing had holes for the nuts & bolts which had previously been holding this crude contraption together, so I simply measured the holes and bought new ones of a similar size. Lying on the ground, I bolted the linkage back together and - success! My car was good as new .. or good enough, anyway.
Not long afterwards, I decided my experiment with having a French car was a definite failure. I resolved to buy something more sensible, so I set off to the car dealers in the fair city of Birmingham, determined to change it for something dull, British and thoroughly normal - so that would be a Cortina, obviously!
More of that next time.
by Paul Sweeney
I'd had enough of private sellers and strange happenings so ventured out across 1980s West Midlands once more in search of used car dealers - and this time, I went looking for the smaller, "corner" dealers where I hoped prices might be lower.
I soon found a small car yard with a red Cortina for sale which looked to be in pretty good condition. However, it happened to be parked next to one of these:
I had never considered a Mirafiori before, but it looked somewhat more interesting than the Ford. It had a twin cam engine with an alloy head too and sounded rather tasty when the salesman started it. And it was a little cheaper than the Cortina.
Very tempting indeed, a bit of Italian style. The legendary Triumph Harold was Italian-designed, so they couldn't be all bad, I reasoned. "Go on" urged the wicked voice in my head, "just take it for a little ride .. you know you want to". And I did want to ... but then the Ghost of Johnny Foreigners Past came into my mind ... the now hated Renault 12. That hadn't gone at all well ... and everyone knows all Italian cars are rubbish, right? Best stick with what I knew - the Cortina.
And so it came about that I bought the Cortina, telling myself it was the sensible buy. I had little excitement or enthusiasm for the car even while buying it, and that was to remain true throughout my ownership of the MK4.
Truth be told, I remember very little about it. I have no recollection whatsoever of driving it, but I do recall that I briefly used it for work. At the time, I worked as an insurance investigator and often had to make house calls to claimants.
One day I was to visit a large house on the outskirts of Coventry; the house had been burgled and I was sent to investigate. The home owners were wealthy scrap metal dealers; I drove through a pair of somewhat pretentious double gates onto a circular gravel drive in my red Cortina, which crunched its way pleasingly across the driveway. There was a Rolls-Royce of some sort (sorry but they all look the same to me) parked outside a garage to one side, and even a small roundabout directly outside the front door of the house. Not quite the Trevi Fountain, but you get the idea.
I parked at the side near the Rolls, considerately trying to make sure my car wasn't in anyone's way. I walked over and rang the doorbell, which was answered by the lady of the house, a well-dressed but very common woman smoking a cigarette from one of those silver holders reminiscent of Hollywood movie stars from the silent age. I introduced myself and asked if my car was alright where I had parked it (meaning was it out of the way?).
She looked across at my Ford and uttered the immortal words, "I don't think anyone will bother with that thing here, do you?" (meaning it wasn't a nice enough car to be stolen when her Roller was nearby). I may not have been particularly proud of my Cortina but that one snobby remark cost her dearly on her claim settlement - not that she ever knew it!
My only other memory of that car was when it failed the MOT test - the rear brakes needed new shoes. I was confident I could do it myself easily enough, and jacked the car up on the drive outside my house. More than two hours later, I was at the end of my tether, still trying to fit the new brake shoes. Eventually, I got so annoyed and frustrated that I jumped up and delivered a massive flying kick to the drivers door, yelling something ridiculous like, "Let that be a lesson to you, you absolute bast**d piece of cr*p!"
I kicked the Cortina so hard I dented the door and had in fact broken my big toe. I sat cross-legged on the front lawn nursing said toe (it was already starting to hurt) when I became aware of much giggling from next door - the neighbours had watched my entire hissy fit unfold, much to my embarrassment! "Oh Paul" they laughed, "you're so funny when you are cross!" "Hmmmm ... is that so?" I seethed silently.
Not long after this - early in 1984 - I had been using my car increasingly for business use, so decided to take up the offer of a company car from my employer. As a result, the Cortina was consigned to history. To this day and try as I might, I have absolutely no idea how I disposed of that car. It had made so little impression on me that I just didn't care about it at all.
I wonder what stories I would be telling now if I had instead bought the Mirafiori? Tales of terrifyingly fast corrosion and unreliable electrics, probably.
Next time - my very first new car...
by Paul Sweeney
So, the Renault had to go. I made my way into Birmingham and spent an entire day touring grim used car yards that mostly presented their cars amidst the same depressing vistas of stained, crumbling concrete, grey skies and high prices.
I concluded I wouldn't find anything decent that I could afford at a dealer, so turned my attention instead to the private used car ads. Yes, this was pre-internet and the only way was to buy a local newspaper and scan the classified ads - which were often mis-categorised. Many a 'find' could be had by looking in the wrong places!
Eventually after much circling of increasingly unlikely 'possibles' and after discarding all the cars I actually found appealing (Rovers, Jaguars etc) on the grounds they would cost too much to run (the ghost of my Dad at work there!) I found an ad for a MK4 Cortina 1.6L - dull, British and thoroughly normal. Perfect!
So I dialled the number and the call was answered by a pleasant-sounding woman who said her husband was out of town but she would happily show me the car.
So off I went to (I think) somewhere along the A5 towards Walsall ... and found the car parked outside a fairly tidy semi-detached house. Quite promising - so I rang the doorbell. The woman answered and said I could test drive the car but she would reverse it off the drive for me as "It's a bit tricky". I wasn't going to argue as that would give me a chance to check the exhaust for smoke (I was alone so couldnt do that and drive too). All was well when she started the engine, then I stepped aside as she revved the engine then suddenly shot backwards off the drive.
Unfortunately, she continued backward straight across the road, stopping only when the car collided quite forcibly with a brick wall on the opposite side. There was damage. She drove forward again, parking neatly on the correct side of the road then got out, asking, "Do you want to take her for a spin now?" as if nothing had happened. Stifling a giggle, I replied "Actually I don't think I will, thank you" and got out of there as fast as I could! I've often wondered what she told her husband.
My next attempt to acquire a Cortina was similarly unsuccessful. Again a housewife showed me the car (housewives - remember those? That dates these stories - this was back in the days when Grandparents were allowed to enjoy their retirement in peace rather than being seen as free childcare providers).
After a visual inspection and starting the engine, I was satisfied that the car was worth a test drive. So, I got settled behind the wheel, checked the gearbox and moved away..... all of 250 yards down the street, when an almighty CLANG stopped me in my tracks. I pulled over to the side of the road and became aware of small children pointing and laughing from their front gardens .... and what the blue blistering blazes was that noise? Fortunately it stopped when I took the key out of the ignition to investigate what was causing such merriment in the streets of not-even-slightly- sunny Birmingham.
I stepped away from the car to see the entire Cortina exhaust system (all but the manifold) lying some yards behind the car in the street. The damn thing had fallen off, complete!
I made my way on foot the 250 yards or so to the seller's front door. She must have seen me approaching, because she opened the door as I walked up the garden path. She looked extremely embarrassed, so without exchanging a single word, I placed the Cortina keys in her hand, smiled weakly, turned and walked away.
Having had such an eventful and really quite amusing time I wasn't about to give up, so my car search continued - but that's for next time....
by Steve Favill
For those of our members who don’t yet know me, allow me to introduce myself. I emigrated to the United States some twenty-eight years ago now, after retiring from the West Midlands Police on disability. It’s a long story…
Having owned a succession of British and European machinery, plus the occasional Japanese motorcycle in the UK, I had naturally hoped to continue my habit of buying cheap, interesting vehicles that I could tinker with and use as regular transportation as well. After all, the majority of British sports car production had made its way across the pond ahead of me, had it not?
Ah, how the best laid plans of mice and men grind to a messy halt.
I quickly found that there is really no such thing as a cheap car over here. Whereas you can find a decently reliable, not to mention desirable, older car for less than a grand over in the old country, here in the US of A, all you can find for that princely sum is a heap with a heater (if you’re lucky) that requires constant maintenance and most likely several repairs to make it safe.
You see, whilst in the UK we have had the MOT test that has helped ensure that most vehicles on the road are fit for the purpose, at least in theory, over here most states do not require any roadworthiness or safety inspections.
You will see vehicles with body panels held on by zip ties or duct tape, if not missing altogether, and all being driven perfectly legally.
So, having conceded that there are no cheap cars unless you actually want to drive one of these deathtraps, you decide to raise your sights somewhat. This brings us to the second part of my dilemma.
Any cars that might appeal to someone even remotely enthusiastic are still priced way above a similar car in Britain or on the Continent. They will also have a lot of miles. Distances over here are so much greater, and people... Drive… Everywhere... Public transportation is poor to nonexistent, and the rail network is rather laughable. So, we drive.
There are certain states that have long winters, with a lot of snow, and salt being ever-present on the roads from late October until May, so if you have something nice you can’t really use it as your daily driver as you would in the UK which entails the purchase of another vehicle that you can use for this purpose, making you a three-car family for only two drivers because you each need a car. Did I mention that public transport is pitifully bad?.
Another factor is choice, or rather the lack thereof. British cars are rare up north here, simply because most didn’t survive, and the majority of those that did survive are to be found in warmer, southern states, spread over a vast area. Add to this the fact that certain manufacturers dropped out of the USA market due to poor sales, etcetera, and their products were scarce here even when new.
All is not yet lost, however. Thanks to some advice and a handy guide provided by a wonderful gentleman out in Michigan, I now have information that would make it possible for me to source a vehicle over in the UK and have it shipped over here for around $1,200, or £800 or so, depending upon the exchange rate. Even so, I used to be able to buy a decent car for that much back in England.
When the time comes (when I can afford it) the search for the right car should provide material for several future articles, shouldn’t it?
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