I wrote this in the early summer after reading a piece about ‘The Great British Car Journey’ – a heritage centre which has opened in Ambergate in Derbyshire. Then I stuck it to one side because it’s not like my usual stuff, then the other days I thought I’d tidy it up and stick it here anyway.
I’m not really a car person, I only really know the ones I or friends have driven or owned. This collection piqued my interest as it cover a lot of our recent social history; cars from the last 50 years or thereabouts and that bit is how they exist in our own personal car culture as artefacts of memory; and to a certain extent how they are generally reflective of facets of society in terms of appearance, size, cost and perceived social value and what we buy them for during which bits of our lives. Despite nostalgia being a word I’m not that keen on and it’s a bit of an uneasy bedfellow now because of the way it’s often utilised these days, but as a vehicle, it made me think about my own relationship with cars I’ve owned, or have owned me.
All the cars I’ve ever known
Cars, for me, are pretty much a means to an end – a method of getting from one place to another which costs less than public transport should do. I quite like some of them as objects, or shapes. Like most people, I have developed a set of different relationships with them, there are ones I’m fond of in this arc of ownership, and ones I still utterly detest because of either an association with an event, usually negative, occasionally not, or the facts that surrounded that deed of ‘owning’ an expensive untrustworthy piece of metal, plastic and rubber. This is especially true during our abject poverty years in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s when we first had children and were in flaky employment situations. At times we could barely afford energy and food bills let alone car repairs, but they were and are more or less a necessity if you wanted to do things like shopping, or taking numbers of kids anywhere at a point where privatised rail fare profiteering ramped up and supermarkets scaled up and moved to the edges of our spaces.
Buying a car when you are skint is always surrounded by a set of slightly devious and/or painful transactions, the one that’s always stuck in my mind is selling a bass guitar and amplifier to finance replacing a previous ‘deader’. And taking out some really high interest credit on something that wasn’t worth it fairly quickly as it fell to bits – I’m not a good tyre-kicker, and ended up buying a few cheap and not so cheap dreadful howlers along the way.
I’ll start with the worst one, which was in or around 1994 – an Austin Maestro decked out in pale blue metallic. I bought it from a friend’s mum who was upgrading, which means she was about to buy practically any other car on the market at the time. It was a total skintness deal, complete desperation after my fairly well loved Fiat Strada 85 Super dissolved one night when it drizzled a bit.
The Maestro was singularly the worst car I’ve ever owned; bits fell off it incessantly, the ones I could locate were glued, taped or screwed back into place – other pieces of trim bounced away in the rear view mirror and were lost, scattered and squashed all over the edges of Norfolk’s b-roads like unlucky badgers. It broke down more often than a reality TV star in the tabloids – a tyre came off, the suspension went one wheel at a time over a period of about four weeks, the brakes bled blue fluid onto the patchy tarmac and gravel I parked it on making stopping a spongy terrifying game of Russian-roulette which involved pumping the brake and changing down fast, I fixed it myself. Finally the dash just stopped working – luckily you could always assume it was under the speed limit because generally it wouldn’t go that fast – it needed a run up at hills, and wobbled madly over 60mph when it eventually got there. It was gutless, badly put together, and had velour seats which absorbed anything the children dropped or leaked into it. I hated it.
The swan song occurred one autumn night. I’d parked it in the resident’s car park opposite our council house and left it to slouch there in the dark. When I went out in the morning to limp it to work someone had taken the driver’s door handle, a quick panic check revealed they’d removed all of the door handles which wasn’t an ideal way to start the day. I managed to jemmy the driver’s door open with a bit of coat hanger which I then left in the hole and just left it unlocked from then on, perhaps a vague latent hope that it might get stolen had entered my head, even though I couldn’t afford to replace it. But no, nobody would even take the thing. In the end it made a burning smell and shuddered to a halt on the Cromer Road and ended up being towed by another mate’s dodgy Astra to Hainford Hall – exchanged for around forty quid, it ended its life on a pile of other broken and eyeless Austin Maestros, the lowest ones on the pile slowly disintegrating into the oil and petrol soaked earth, headlights peering balefully out from between the oil-packed weedless soil and the sump and grill of the upstairs tenant.
When I think back, a lot of cars I’ve had and the ones my dad had previously declined the same way, gradually being stripped of anything useful in a yard, what’s left either rusting into the ground or being compacted. We had a Hillman Minx until I was about 5, it had a centre column gear shift and always smelt of old leather, stale cigarette smoke and nail varnish, the pink and cream two-tone paint was crazed and faded – but it looked quite cool, like a child’s idea of a 1950s American car. It ending up in a field at my brother’s council house in Horsey alongside my sister’s green Mini van – a strange beast she’d decorated with Fablon fake orange wallpaper flowers, each cut out and stuck on, a flash of lurid 70’s flower power slowly melting into a Norfolk field.
My first car was a Morris Minor Traveller – previously my dad’s, it had replaced the Minx. The same age as me it was the car I grew up in the back of, the one that drove us very slowly to London every couple of years, the one we sat in in rainy seaside car parks eating egg sandwiches and drinking cups of tea out of a flask, the boot used as an extra seating area for kids when family stayed. I inherited it when my dad died, it followed suit shortly afterwards, multiple everything failure. Scrapped for a few quid to a small car yard at the end of a loke.
The scrap money along with a small life insurance policy my dad had was just enough to get another car. I bought the EDP and scanned the classifieds, ending up hitching to Aylmerton to view a Morris Minor 1000 van. I’d been bitten by the jelly mould car bug. It was hand-painted dark blue with a Matt black tonsure, and fitted with brown furry Datsun hi-back seats with fluffy covers, wide wheel arches but no wide wheels, the back, door linings and head lining were brown fake fur. I was 18 and it was brilliant. It became a mobile party, house, bus, and taxi. A cheap car cassette stuck in the glove compartment wired to some dodgy speakers sound-tracked the end of 1983 right through into 1985 from Killing Joke, Bauhaus, Teardrop Explodes and Joy Division to Bowie, Husker Du and Neil Young.
In 1985 I drove 6 people round the country for three days looking at degree courses at art colleges, Liverpool, Birmingham, Coventry, Chesterfield, and Sheffield spring to mind. 6 people in one Morris Minor van, roll-ups, a flask of tea, sandwiches, and some sleeping bags. The car broke down between Birmingham and Liverpool, I hastily joined the AA on the side of the road dialled from an emergency phone in sheeting rain, they turned up and showed me how to set your points with a pack of Rizlas against a blur of wet tail lights reflected in the M6.
We got lost in Liverpool at 11.00 at night and got stopped by the police so many times I lost count, finally in desperation they sighed and said follow us, we were escorted to our destination. We all slept on a tutor’s living room floor near Lodge Lane in Toxteth, a huge half-derelict house half-rented out to self-professed burglars, a couple of who were also boxers. They advised me to park the van with the back doors against the wall and take out the rotor arm to stop the other scallies thieving it. Tattooed giants, social, entertaining, scary and friendly, they got us a bit drunk and stoned, safe with them in that huge city. Just up the road stood a derelict garage an upside down car and scorch marks still on the road from the riots only a year or so earlier. Then we came home again. – I don’t think anyone got into any of the colleges. Wasted youth on a wasted trip.
A friend Maisie and I from the group drove back to Liverpool for what turned out to be a failed interview apiece at Liverpool School of Art, we ate in the cafe Echo and the Bunnymen, Pink Military, and Julian Cope used hoping they might be there, and went in pubs the Beatles had frequented knowing they wouldn’t. We stayed two nights with the boxers and thieves who made us stew, considered a third but drove home instead. The chassis folded up as I braked on the roundabout at King’s Lynn, someone had mended it with concrete laced with iron filings and painted it over with underseal. The car sat outside my mum’s terrace in Chicken Town for a few months and was pitilessly scrapped for beer money in the Autumn, I took the cylinder head off as I’d just paid £70 to have it skimmed, eventually selling it to a bloke called Simon in the Plasterers Pub one night in the late 1980s. I still have the bonnet badge, and the ignition key is still on my key ring, worn smooth by pocket change and lighters in the flow of life.
My third car was a Renault 4 van. Basically like driving a fridge with the personality of a tortoise using a series of inexplicable umbrella handles, it had a ladder hatch which fell in or out repeatedly depending on how it felt about existing, it made me jump and swerve every time. I had my first accident in it, sliding to a halt on a crushed sugar beet slick near Hingham, the car behind slid straight into me, it wrote his car off and slightly scratched the Renault. Six of us went to Glastonbury in it in 1987, two small ones hiding under a pile of sleeping bags to get in for free. When it died a friend and I graffitied it with cartoon skulls and tags and left it on Cowgate, someone stole it. They were welcome to it, I didn’t care, being in your early 20s in the early 1980s almost everything was transient, it was a luxury I couldn’t really afford, and I had a thumb to get about if needed.
There was a gap, another carless time of hitching, borrowing and driving other people’s vehicles at the end of which my brother offered me a cheap red and rust VW beetle with caustic yellow fibre glass wings. It was an early 1960s model with an 1100cc engine which smoked and sputtered a lot. The six volt electrical system meant at night it was like driving behind someone holding a candle, it was horribly unreliable and awful to drive on ice, pirouetting down side roads due to it’s low centre of gravity. It did however mean I got lessons in welding from the same brother. In the end I swapped it with my him for a Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1, my nephew had the VW, it later was our wedding car with red and yellow ribbons over the rust patches.
The Cavalier was a red 2 litre which looked enough like an Opel Manta which made it vaguely cool. It turned out that despite having a broken driver’s side window when I went to pick it up it was totally fucking ace; comfy and quick. As growing up had started in earnest it was the first actual car which I had to fit a child seat in. My main memory is how fast it was after everything else I’d owned, driving to Widnes, Liverpool and Sheffield, or in fact anywhere long distance was actually quite good fun. I have a particularly strong memory of playing Isn’t Anything, then freshly released by My Bloody Valentine on the cassette player on the M6. It was a really nice slightly beaten up car. Shortly after that while I was in hospital having my appendix out somebody stuffed into it outside our flat, completely stove the whole front in, pushing the radiator hard into the engine and completely wrote it off before somehow driving off – leaving it bleeding oil and water onto the hill like tears. Suddenly it wasn’t nice any more, cue another trip to Hainford Hall this time dragged behind a mate’s old knackered Land Rover.
My brother, the appointed family car person gestured in the direction of a no longer wanted a Citroen Diane. It was free because it was occupying a garage space, I just had to go and get it. A friend took me over in and we got it started. I drove back feeling like I was flying a biplane. It was the most economical car I’ve ever owned, outweighed by being cold, noisy and draughty. It caught fire on the M11 – I tore the offending cardboard heat exchanger out and stamped them out, it survived to be a shed on wheels for another day. My workmates loved it, they all had Nissans or Ford Escorts and thought it was the most hilarious thing. I left it with the the roof rolled back one sunny summer day, they wrote free skip on the side and filled it with pallet wood and paper clippings. It terminated when it fairly spectacularly blew one of the cylinder heads off it on Hurricane Way, I managed to drive it home like a winged pigeon, After an attempt to fix it I ended up selling it for £50 to someone who had a spare engine in their shed, because it was that sort of car.
The Fiat Strada 85 mentioned above was next, bought with a slightly iffy finance at some second hand dealership down the road. Italians apparently make really good engines, it was mad fast, as was the speed it turned into rust in front of my eyes. Our weather was less accommodating than the Italian sunshine for its rather feeble bodywork, chassis and indeed all the other metal bits. This led to the the aforementioned Austin Maestro, which was as suggested, shite.
I managed to scrape enough money together to buy a cheap Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 from a friend. Scotty had recently started a business and got a lease car, so he’d left the Cavalier under a tree behind a church in Thorpe Hamlet for over a year, he basically wanted so little for it I handed over the money without seeing it. It was allegedly white, when I bought it it was largely green with slime and completely covered in bird shit, ostriches possibly from the state of it. It took a bit of cleaning even to see to drive it home. Under the thick coating of cack it had a rubber fin on the back, alloys, and stickers proclaiming it was an LXI something or other, plus some stripes which symbolically meant it would go quite fast, it actually did, It scrubbed up nicely in fact. It did however make me look like a slightly shit small-time drug dealer, but I liked the car because I don’t know why really. And nobody filled it with wood and wrote free skip on it. In the end some suited plank stuffed into it doing some illegal overtaking and then did a runner, I was third party only so I couldn’t repair it – I sold it to some dodgy looking herbert from Felthorpe who I think was possibly a slightly shit small-time drug dealer.
The next phase was serious family car territory, the switch to diesel, and the first car I insured fully comp rather than third party and a prayer. A Citroen BX19, – quirky French car, zoot alors. It was the one where the suspension pumped up and all that. When it stopped pumping up one day it cost me more than buying the car had to get it repaired, retrospectively I should have avoided it. This was also the first time I actively upgraded a car, selling it intact to someone complete with receipts for the suspension which had cost an internal organ.
We now had 4 kids, which is stupid adult to child to car seat ratio, I had to buy a car which would allow for this, so I bought what I thought was a boring car to accommodate a slice of life governed by what worked with the practicalities of the situation. It was my first Volvo, a 940GL. It was bright red, had a very high mileage. Quite unexpectedly it became probably my favourite grown-up car and might still be, and was dutifully named The Speed Brick, Christ it was quick. I retrofitted a 7 seat set, so two children could theoretically vomit onto the inside of the rear window simultaneously, or both pretend they couldn’t hear you yelling at them to stop shouting Spice Girls songs or whatever noisy annoying thing they were doing on long drives. It survived me owning it more or less intact, I sold it to a friend who had got herself into a similar situation with fecundity and seat number allocations.
The ‘upgrade’ was a VW Sharan which was actually a VW/Seat/Ford/fuck knows what Frankencar. A necessary anodyne evil due to my early onset Old Father Hubbard syndrome and the fact that children get bigger and no longer want to go everywhere like a tail gunner in a doomed Flying Fortress that smells faintly of sick. It was quite new, broke down repeatedly and made one of the kids throw up constantly. I hated the bloody thing. I crashed it quite badly, partly because the sight lines were to terrible, had it repaired, and sold it because it was horrid. Kid A, our eldest went to university, so I no longer needed a vomit comet anyway.
The next car harked back to my surprise love of the Volvo, I bought a V70 D5 with a low mileage, under 500,000 miles is low on a Volvo or Peugeot diesel so I’m told. This was my first speed hearse, it was less square than previous having that Euro-car rounded, more homogenised, actually boring styling, but was still a black box on wheels with tinted glass and nice stereo. Lovely, comfortable, faster than BMW diesels back then which made me laugh a lot at times. After ten years service I finally blew the engine on it on St Crispins roundabout in Norwich and limped it home. This was immensely annoying because I’d probably still have it. A Volvo enthusiast in Bungay bought it off me for £250 and spent £3000 repairing it. It wasn’t worth £3000 even when it worked properly but I do actually get it, some cars are like that. Thereafter I hummed and harred, toyed with other smaller things, then bought another one but an automatic for extra added laziness. It is my current steed, or donkey, a nice, featureless, safe, comfortable thing, ideal for old goths who like getting speeding tickets and get a bad back sometimes. I’m not sure I need it though, and I have spotted a Morris Minor 1000 saloon I quite like the look of, I wonder if I can get to Liverpool in it…
Image 1: The Hillman Minx being used on a family picnic before I was born, I’m guessing from this my dad had it for about ten years.
Image 2: Me sitting on the roof of the Hillman Minx eating a toffee apple at an air show at RAF Coltishall in about 1969.
Image 3: The Morris Mini, probably not long after my sister bought it but before she covered it in hippy stuff.
Image 4: My Morris Minor van with me rolling a fag and looking one-hundred-percent the moody art student in the monastery car park, c1985. This was taken by Tom who I shared a space with in the Garth studios for a year. Tom was one of the crowd of us who went on the strange Liverpool trip.