Pedestrian to Petrolhead

First Car

I had a great pedal car, but my first real car was a second-hand Ford Fiesta. I only used it at weekends, and I admit, didn’t take much care of it mechanically. However, it was robust and well-made and never let me down. But I began to get the idea in my head that it was normal to ‘trade up’ every so often, so after a couple of years, I sold the Fiesta and bought another Ford: an Orion.

Ford OrionThe Orion was the late eighties Escort, with a boot added. So you lost the advantages of the Escort’s tailgate, in return for, um, er, alarming instability in crosswinds. However, I was too ignorant to worry about this. This first Orion had a 1600cc engine, but it could have been a steam engine for all I cared. This was proved, when my next ‘trade up’ was another Orion; newer, but with only a 1300cc engine. It was completely irrelevant to me: it had a wheel at each corner and it got me to where I wanted to go, and that was it. I still didn’t bother with oil changes, or servicing, or any such nonsense.

Ford SierraThen my employer came up with a scheme to erode the power of the unions. They’d offer the most senior middle managers a “personal contract”, which included a Company Car. You could have any car you liked, as long as it was a Ford Sierra, and any colour you fancied, as long as it was red, or white, or blue. (I am not making this up.) Or if you didn’t want to go on a personal contract, there was the threat of a static pay structure. I got a white Ford Sierra.

This was one of the late Sierras, with the improved gearbox and two-litre DOHC engine. And it was the first brand-new car I’d ever had. I thought it gave me status, performance, sex-appeal. I was beginning to weaken.

After a while, so was the company car scheme. The lack of choice and excitement compared badly with other companies, and I suppose the competition for employees must have been a bit keener, because by the time the Sierra was due to be replaced, after three years, there was a new scheme with a full choice of brands. The best deals were to be had from the British makes, presumably because they were giving the best discounts, but someone of my grade could have a new car that was a lot more interesting than a Ford Sierra: a Vauxhall Calibra.

Vauxhall (opel) CalibraFor a few pounds a month personal contribution, I could have a sleek 16-valve Calibra, in metallic black, with rich black leather upholstery and a top speed of around 140mph. So I did. It was the most attention-grabbing car I’ve ever driven. People would stop to watch it go by, and schoolboys would ask “What’ll it do, mister?”

After three years, it was time to choose again. I could have another Calibra, but the design was quite old by then, and anyway, it would be boring to get the same model again. In the end, my shortlist was the BMW 318 coupe and the Audi A4 Turbo. When I test-drove the BMW, I reckoned it was grossly underpowered and somehow felt more flimsy than the Audi (it was nice to look at though).

So, it was the Audi 1.8 Turbo. Nice as it was, I suddenly noticed that people weren’t looking at me any more. I had becomeAudi A4 Turbo respectable and anonymous, which was a definite worry. So was the effortless power of the car. I’d look down at the speedo, and find I was cruising along at 110mph. After a while I realised that I had entirely lost my resistance to the Dark Side. Not a day would go by when I didn’t exceed 100mph at some point. Quite possibly, I was going to kill myself.

My next change of car would have to break that cycle. As it happened, the changeover coincided with my selling my house in town and moving to the countryside. I decided to get a country vehicle: a large 4×4. This time, my shortlist of two came down to the Freelander and the Nissan Terrano. The Freelander was fine, but for the same price, I could get the Terrano with leather seats, air-conditioning, a sunroof and a CD player. And it had a removable rear bench seat, so I could transport seven people. Naturally, I hardly ever did.

944The Terrano did turn out to be useful, standing duty as a removals van twice, being able to haul out fence posts, and getting me home in severe winter weather. But I began to miss the excitement. The Fiesta-driving student of the past would have been astonished, but I decided to buy another car. A sports car, a Porsche 944. Eighteen years old, but still very cool.

By the time the Terrano’s three years were up, the government had changed the tax regulations for company cars, and my calculations showed that I’d be much better off if I opted out of the car scheme, and took the alternative money lump sum instead. I decided to buy an older car and put the savings aside to pay for ‘trading up’ the Porsche.

My first new old car after leaving the company scheme was a Saab 9000. I saw an on-line ad for a Lexus and went to see it. It was OK, but, you know, really it’s just a Toyota. (No, it actually is. The workshop manual for the Lexus 200 and the Toyota Carina is the same book.) Also, it was metallic pink. They probably called it ‘Pale Copper’ or something, but, no, it was pink.

Sitting next to it, for the same relatively modest price (nobody wants a big second-hand car) was a dark blue Saab 9000. I drove it, liked it, and bought it. It was made from Swedish granite, accelerated like a fighter jet, and had a huge cavernous rear hatch — perfect for carrying music gear, if not quite as capacious as the Terrano. Ugly as sin though. Even that photo doesn’t really convey the brute, angular unlovliness. And the triangular alloys: Saab never could do wheels. They make them slightly better today, but still not pretty.

The 9000 was made in several versions, saloon and hatch, and a number of different engines. Mine had the “ecopower” 2-litre. Ecopower meant that it had a lower boost turbocharger — the badge on the back had a “t” for turbo instead of a “T” for Turbo to make the distinction clear. The idea of “eco” was that the turbo made the engine more efficient and able to push a large, heavy car with only a teensy 2-litre capacity. Yeah. Right.

One of the “executive” accessories of the Saab 9000 was the computer in the dashboard. It had loads of useless features, sorry, useful features, like predicting how much further you could drive until you ran out of petrol. One of the facilities of the computer was a cumulative miles-per-gallon display, which would keep track, over an extended period if you wanted, of the petrol consumption. I found that if I drove very carefully and conservatively, I could get 31 MPG. However, if I drove like a complete lunatic, consumption increased dramatically to 29 MPG.

That was sarcasm there, in case you missed it. Dramatic change of driving style had an impact of only two miles per gallon. So guess how I drove after that discovery.

968With all the tax money I was now saving, I bought a lovely silver Porsche 968 Sport, one of only 306 made in 1994 and 1995. Even with the perfect, un-Porsche balance of the car, the additional 50% power compared to the 944 made driving it a learning experience. All right, no beating about the bush, within three months I had managed to spin it off the road and backwards into a hedge.

After a year or so, I realised that my two cars were actually too similar in some ways. Different in others, of course, such as number of seats, but neither could really be driven across a field, for example. Or carry a sofa. Yes, I was thinking that I really wanted another 4×4, and ended up buying a Honda CR-V. I got £1,500 trade-in for the Saab, just so you know the kind of values involved. I love value for money, and you can’t beat a ten-year-old car for slow depreciation.

There’s a lot of prejudice and ignorance about four-wheel-drive vehicles. The Honda was smaller than the Saab — 25cm shorter and 5cm narrower — and had the same size of engine. Yet which of them upsets enviro-mentalists?

In December 2007, I was driving the 968 back home down the country lanes near my house. It was a bright, clear day, and I was smiling to myself. Just so you know, I wasn’t driving at a crazy speed, probably around 50 miles per hour. But it was too fast to stop in time when I rounded a corner and found a huge truck just twenty metres away. I hit the barrier on the back that’s supposed to stop cars sliding underneath in a collision, but the height isn’t designed for low sports cars. But the car did stop before the entire bonnet was under the bar. I was even able to restart the engine and reverse out, with loud metallic screeching. That was the car, not me. I wasn’t hurt at all, but the car couldn’t be repaired economically. New parts would have been available from Porsche, but at prices too high to justify on a car of that age. Even such a rare and lovely one.

I decided that I did want a replacement. Just having the Honda would have been so boring. But I knew that it was probably better to calm down, slow down and chill out. I was a mature man now, and I should have a mature man’s car. I bought a Mercedes coupe. Just the 2.3-litre engine. Supercharged.

Mercedes-Benz CLK


Mustangp.s. While working in Atlanta, I rented a Ford Mustang. I was happy to get home to my Calibra.

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