Permanent Tourist

The personal website of Mark Howells-Mead

C is for Car

(This is one in a series of essays I’m writing about my life. A specific kind of autobiography, I guess. The rest of these essays are here.)

“Man sits in car; dribes.”

Judging by this early statement from my childhood, I’ve always been a driver.  Whether it was the little red plastic Beetle pedal car in the back yard of a house in London or my father’s and uncle’s toy cars, temporarily rescued from an under-stairs cupboard on each visit to my grandparents’ house, I have always been drawn to driving.

As was to be expected, I itched to be allowed behind the wheel of a real car and after a handful of lessons with a driving instructor and quite a few miles in front of a blue learner plate affixed to the back of my mother’s car, Dad accompanied me to the driving centre near my school and waited whilst I took my test. After being unexpectedly tested on my emergency stopping skills when a car pulled across the road in front of me, I was convinced that I’d failed and so completed the rest of the defined route under no pressure at all.

I passed with flying colours and on hearing the news, Dad congratulated me before having me take him to the station to be put on a train to work. I therefore drove home from my driving test on my own; nervous but excited and uncharacteristically sensible of the rules of the road.

According to my driving licence, this was (scarily) on the 9th August 1989. Twenty-four years ago this year.

My first car cost £600 and what it lacked in engine power, it made up for in volume. The white Mark II Ford Escort with its 1100cc engine had been fitted with a big-bore exhaust, bucket seats and a small racing steering wheel by a previous owner, so I could pretend that I was zooming about much faster than I actually was. (I always did my best to match reality to my imagination.) A friend’s sister lived nearby and he later told me that when I came to collect him, he could hear me coming through the neighbouring roads from half a mile away.

Car number two was one of my favourites to date. Even in the early 1990s, my brown Ford Capri wasn’t the height of fashion and its saving grace was having been thrown around a lot at speed in 1970s t.v. series The Professionals.

Although in excellent condition, having had the legendary “one previous owner”, it lacked any kind of sportiness but was markedly quicker than its predecessor thanks to an additional 500cc under the bonnet. Like its predecessor, I remember that it was particularly adept at power-sliding around wet corners, thanks mainly to a rear-wheel-drive transmission.

Although I don’t recall precisely the reason why I decided to sell the Capri, I do remember that its excellent condition was seriously depreciated by being driven around at high-speed so often: most memorably across the open field which served as a car park at the Brands Hatch motor racing circuit, which obligingly provided plenty of dust to make the event even more visually effective. My fond memories of my second car led me to buy a further example: a blue 2 litre Capri S, which was horrifically unreliable and which therefore didn’t last long.

My memory fails me when it comes to remembering all of the cars I’ve owned, so the remaining ones on my list will have to be presented in the order in which they come to mind.

The yellow MG B GT, with a full-length leaky leather sunroof and temperamental “overdrive” switch instead of a fifth gear, saw me to Cardiff and back to visit friends at university and gave me a taste for a more classic kind of car. It also introduced me to the world of the classic car meet-up at a pub, where it was abandoned overnight on many occasions whilst we wandered home in a zig-zag fashion at the end of the evening.

A white Rover SD1 with a monstrous 3.5 litre engine was the biggest waste of money to date: no more than a couple of hundred pounds, as I recall, but with an automatic gearbox that brought me less than a hundred miles before giving up in a mass of smoke. Its final ignominy was being winched onto the back of a lorry from the local scrap yard.

I do remember thinking that my Renault Fuego was a good car. The boot lid was entirely made of shaped, reinforced glass, allowing would-be thieves to survey their haul before taking it away. I do remember the reason why this one had to go pretty clearly: the fuel tank began leaking like a sieve and its replacement would have cost more than I’d paid for the car.

My all-time favorite car was, as luck would have it, also the one which caused me the most heartache. For the princely sum of £1500, I bought an MG Midget at the age of 20 through the pages of the Auto Trader – the late teenager’s book of dreams in the 1990s – and used the time it stayed alive to tear about in all weathers with the roof down. Happy memories of a two-seater convertible with assorted and tatty bits of leather trim; of driving to work in winter wearing a leather jacket, gloves and hat to keep out the cold whilst the unidirectional heater melted my shoes; of three friends fitting into a two-seater thanks to the gap between the seats and the folded-down roof.

As is the way with classic cars, money soon fulfilled a starring role in this relationship and I learned why few people in their early twenties own twenty-five-year-old two-seater convertibles. First the head-gasket blew catastrophically, so the MG received a new engine courtesy of a tiny, oily garage in the fields near Reading. Then the gearbox blew because of the extra strain put upon it by the new engine, so it had to be replaced along with the rear differential which almost fell to pieces when it saw the new gearbox.

Finally, and with great despair after investing a further £2000 on top of the £1500 I’d paid for the car itself, I was advised that the slight list to one side wasn’t being caused by a suspension problem but by the fact that a front chassis member was twisted. Most likely as a result of an unmentioned accident which had befallen the car before I’d bought it. So not only had most of the mechanics been worthy of replacement, but the chassis was irreparable and the bodywork was starting to rust its way back to nature.

In a moment, I was reminded of an episode of Only Fools and Horses, in which Trigger comments that he’s had the same broom for twenty years, although it’s received 17 new heads and 14 new handles. The futility and more-than-bare bank account meant that I had to call it a day and give up on my little convertible.

Having gained a penchant for nippy little cars, the Mini was one which I was certain to buy at some point. In fact, I have owned two of the classic models. A silver one from 1986 took me to the south coast as part of the 1997 London to Brighton run, and held up perfectly.

A yellow model from 1983 served beautifully and took me whizzing around the country lanes with great glee for a long time, in particular around the tighter corners, until I stopped whizzing one day and the person behind me didn’t.

The resulting impact crushed the rear end into the back seat, which in turn bent the frame of the driver’s seat, giving me occasional lower back problems to this day. This makes me hesitant about owning such a car again, although the neighbours’ blue and white 1990 Mini Cooper does get adored from afar quite often.

The most reliable car of my younger life was the one which I had for the couple of years before I moved to Switzerland: a Honda Accord Aerodeck. Say what you like about the Japanese, but they do know how to build reliable cars.

This was the first car I’d ever owned which was entirely waterproof, which was quick – thanks to a 2 litre fuel-injected engine – and which was reliable enough to take across the country with little concern. It saw many hours parked up at viewpoints in the Lake District whilst I waited for the weather to change and many trips up and down motorways and dual-carriageways in the middle of the night on the way to and from friends’ houses. It was comfortable, quiet, it had a proper heater and a good sound system.

It also had pop-up headlights, which were fab for “flashing” at people as it looked like a reversed “wink”.

It was with dismay that I had to bid it farewell, when the front brakes failed when approaching a roundabout and it ended up entwined with the car in front. The insurance company said no, and so it had to go.

The replacement, a creaky 1980s 5 series BMW, sounds a lot more glamorous than it was; but it at least got me to Switzerland. Like so many of its predecessors, repair costs hove into view and so, after considering the stringent safety and emissions laws here, it was consigned to the back of a breakers’ lorry and carted away.

I tried out leasing for a while some years ago, which is more prevalent here than in the U.K. I signed a four-year contract with the local dealership for a BMW Mini Cooper and although it was lovely to be able to drive a new car of my own for the first time, the novelty soon wore off. Despite the fact that I enjoyed driving it, the costs of keeping it on the road and in my garage proved too much and so I sold it on in order to pay off the remainder of the leasing contract.

Once established in Switzerland, I bucked my driving trend for a long time. I used public transport for a number of years and enjoyed not having to pay garage bills, insurance premiums or tax fees. I still long for the days of using the train to commute alongside the lakes, but the doubled amount of time to get to work and back always wins out these days, now that I have become used to the half-hour trip into the city by motorway.

It seems a strange coincidence that 20 years after a friend bought a silver Mark 1 VW Golf, I bought a newer version of the same car. I’ve been batting about since 2010 in what I christened my “four wheel tripod”, heading over mountain passes in sunshine, fog and blizzard; around cities; into the landscape to find views for my landscape photography; over the border into new territories.

My Golf has taken us to the island of Elba, off the coast of Tuscany; to southern Germany on a few occasions and to the Czech Republic for a fleeting “been there” visit; to France for a weekend away and for two weeks in the Camargue; and back to the U.K. for a family wedding. It cruises up and down the motorway between home and the office every day with nary a blip; the cruise control is clicked on when I pull onto the motorway and my daily timing outside rush-hour peaks allows for a constant speed almost all the way to the city. I would only be without cruise control under protest now. It takes away one more effort of driving, which is all to the good.

It’s hard to believe, but I am around a thousand kilometres short of a major milestone. (Or kilometre stone, I suppose.) After buying the Golf in September 2010, I will have clocked up 100,000 kilometres in a couple of weeks’ time. To save you the maths, that’s an average of around 108 kilometres per day since I bought the car.

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