Monday, 21 April 2014

Hooked on classics

Like most people, getting my driving license and my first car was like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Suddenly being faced with more freedom than I knew what to do with, and the delight in the feeling of being in control (mostly) of a car was an amazing feeling. As these were the days when petrol was actually affordable, it seemed perfectly acceptable - nay, obligatory - to go out for a drive just for the sake of it. Not going anywhere in particular, just there and back to see how far it is via the most interesting and invariably wiggly route possible, just for the sheer pleasure of driving.
By contrast, these days I drive because I have to. The pleasure and enthusiasm has been swept away on a tide of repetitive and tedious commuting and overcrowded roads, compounded by the fact that modern cars are so dull and lacking in character that choosing your next one is about as exciting as choosing a new washing machine. Cars have become boring. Just like white goods, except a shit-load more expensive to own.
With the rose-tinted spectacles firmly installed, I consider that the older cars I've owned were infinitely more entertaining and bursting with character, but in reality it's quite likely that this could be simply translated as 'unreliable'.
The old cars were a labour of love, but at the time the countless weekends spent under the bonnet fixing the latest fault didn't really seem to matter because the more I worked on them, the more I learned about them and the more I became attached to them. The nagging problems, the bad cold starting, reluctant gearboxes, blown gaskets, leaks, and that annoying rattle I could never locate the source of all lent each vehicle a character all of its own, which made me like them all the more. Whatever you pick from the incredible range of cars available today, you can be pretty confident of getting something which will start every time you turn the key regardless of the weather, and perform faultlessly day in day out with just a once yearly service at which point it will have consumed no oil whatsoever. Reliable, dependable, predictable. And boring. Unless of course you've got deep enough pockets to afford something as utterly mind-blowing as a Pagani Zonda or similar, then maybe you will manage to get a big silly grin on your face provided you can find an empty road free of potholes, speed cameras and horse shit....
There's a certain element of excitement about getting in a car in the morning and having to cross your fingers that the damp hasn't got into the distributor cap (remember those?) preventing the bugger from getting a spark. You feel a connection with the car when it splutters to a halt on a cold dark night in the middle of nowhere with a blocked carburettor jet, even if that connection is just the one between the radiator grille and your foot. You can dice with death, wondering if the overpowering smell of petrol will prevent you from reaching your destination; disappearing from this life in a spectacular explosion that propels you into oblivion with your arse on fire. And you can throw an old car into a series of bends not knowing for certain what combination of skill, courage, and sheer luck will see you emerge unscathed, having put youself at the mercy of a chassis and suspension setup that was specifically designed to kill you. Now that is exciting. You may be able to hustle a Focus RS through a series of twisties at insane speeds and still come out the other side both calm and alive, but try doing the same thing in a Morris Ital even at significantly lower speeds and if you live to tell the tale you will have significantly honed your skills and probably be on the lookout for a drive-through laundrette and some air freshener.
This may make it look as if old cars were nothing more than unreliable death traps, and there may be an element of truth in that. After one awful winter evening when I fought my way from Sutton to Haverhill and back on unlit backroads riding an ancient Suzuki 250 in the pissing rain with a headlamp that had only slightly less power than a candle, to get a replacement distributor for my stricken (again) Austin Metro so that I could get it running again before work the following day, I decided that I'd had enough and it was time to invest in something rather less demanding on my dirt and grease ingrained fingers and my frazzled nerves.
These days I rarely need to touch the cars for anything more than cleaning them and topping up the windscreen washer fluid, which in its own way is wonderful. But the hankering to have an old classic sat on the drive that needs regular care and attention lavished on it to stop it being carted off to the big scrapyard in the sky is still strong, and if I can get to the stage that my only need for a car is the occasional run out somewhere unimportant at the weekend, then perhaps I'll give in to temptation.

Morris Ital. Design, built and possessed by Satan.
But at least the paint matched my trousers after a 'spirited' drive.