Michael J Cale

The trouble with cars 

There’s something wrong with cars today and I’ve finally worked out what it is. They don’t go wrong.

I’ve always been a bit of a car nut. I blame it on my Dad. He loved cars and some of my earliest childhood memories are of following him around car yards, kicking tyres, pressing thumbs into bodywork and bending down to peer underneath the chassis. I still have no idea why we did any of this stuff, but, back then, it was natural that, as soon as I was old enough, I’d be driving. My first car was a Ford Popular, bought for thirty bucks. This car was known as the ‘sit up and beg’ model, owing to some lunatic designer’s decision to try to make it taller than it was wide. It had lots of old-fashioned ‘design cues’ (as they call them nowadays). These included headlamps on top of real mudguards and ‘idiot stick’ indicators. The latter were illuminated plastic arrows that, in theory, popped out of the side of the car when you clicked an indicator switch on the dashboard. Don’t get me wrong when I say ‘in theory’: the stick indicators worked fine. It’s just that their working didn’t seem to have any connection to my clicking the switch.

This loveable idiosyncrasy set the tone for my relationship with the car. There were many others. The windscreen wipers were short of power, which meant they only really worked well when it wasn’t raining. Come a decent fall of rain and you had to drive with one arm sticking out of the window, pushing the wipers across the glass. Likewise, the headlamps were really only comfortable with themselves during the hours of daylight. As soon as it got dark, they came over all bashful and you were generally better off relying on starlight.

In time, the Pop got upgraded. I bought a Mini. I stripped off its bumpers and added a loud, loud muffler. It sounded like a Ferrari. When it went. Which wasn’t often. Friends of the Mini will remember that these cars also had a problem with rainfall except that, in a half-decent shower, it wasn’t the wipers that stopped working, it was the whole car.

The Mini had to go. I bought a Morris Minor. When you engaged first gear on this car, it made a noise like a psychopathic concrete mixer. A lady friend suggested that I should always start from second gear because that didn’t make a noise and (this is the god-honest truth), after a while, the car would get used to it.

The Minor had to go after it went for a warrant. The mechanic invited me to climb into the inspection pit. We stood peering up at car’s chassis and the mechanic, with that sort of Satanic glee that mechanics always assumed when they saw one of my cars, started tapping the underside of the boot with his screwdriver. A series of neat round holes appeared as flakes of rust drifted past my head. After a while, there wasn’t much boot left and the car was on its way to that happy lube-bay in the sky.

There was a story going round at the time that Morris had invented rust and Ford had improved on the product. Naturally, I bought a Ford next. The Cortina had a magnificent run of nearly three weeks without a breakdown. Then, on a long decline, I did one of my super-cool flick-wrist gear changes and was mildly surprised to discover that, when I raised my hand back to the steering wheel, the gear stick was still in it. Have you ever tried to drive a hundred miles in third gear?

The Cortina was followed by a Vauxhall Velox. This car resulted from a misguided British attempt to build a Yank Tank. It had a bonnet on which you could have landed a space shuttle. Unfortunately, what was under the bonnet wasn’t exactly space age stuff. It had a cracked cylinder head, which meant that, after a mammoth trek of, ooh, ten miles, all the water in the radiator disappeared and the engine would start to go into meltdown. You then had to stop, try to remove the radiator cap without it – and your hand – going into orbit, wait until the engine cooled down and then replace the vapourised water. Fortunately, the Velox had a cavernous boot, which was just as well as it was filled with plastic water containers.

In time, of course, I climbed the corporate ladder and it seemed the quality of the cars I drove was improving. This turned out to be an illusion. When I was given my first-ever company car, it happened that the firm I was working for had negotiated this brilliant trade deal with Russia, so my company limo turned out to be a Lada. The Lada was brand new but shouldn’t have been. Forget everything you ever heard about these cars being bad. They were much worse than that. Among the Lada’s little foibles were a tendency for things to just fall off. Bits of the engine, seat belts, driving mirror, the instrument panel, they all just dropped off as if they were embarrassed to be seen on this car. (A Lada-driving colleague told me not to complain too much. It seemed the steering wheel had come off his…)

Here’s the thing though. Thanks to my cars and their breakdowns, I got to spend time in lots of different parts of the countryside. And this is the thing, isn’t it? As the poet said, what is this world if, full of care, you have no time to stand and stare and wait until the cylinder block of your Vauxhall Velox stops glowing red?

Nowadays, with modern cars, you just expect everything to work. Well, that’s OK if all you want to do is get from A to B in one piece. But here’s the thing. It’s just no fun anymore.

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