My crush on cars

We wear our cars like jumpers: the saggier they get the closer the attachment, even if, or especially when, they don't quite fit the requirement any more.

Cars piled up for scrap.
Cars piled up for scrap. Credit: Peter Geschwill / Alamy Stock Photo

No doubt we drove off with something newer, better, but it’s the car we left on the forecourt that I’m thinking about. All those years of partnership – it and me, the radio, the sun and wind blowing through its open windows. The long journey north with kayaks perilously balanced on the roof. Even all the times it let me down are somehow no longer its fault. I felt edgy and slightly tearful in anticipation of the part-exchange and now that it’s gone there is a faint, guilty, sense of absence at home.

My husband couldn’t care less. He hated the last car, partly because I made him swap an Audi for it and partly because although it looked blue when we got it, it soon became apparent that in sunlight it shifted to a two-tone lilac, like a 1980s Laura Ashley shot silk ballgown. But I feel that we wear our cars like jumpers: the saggier they get the closer the attachment, even if, or especially when, they don’t quite fit the requirement any more.

I’ve always preferred cars to other things. I still have my most adored Matchbox cars: a blue MG 1100 with a dog in the back and a gold Mercedes saloon circa 1973. I rolled the MG 1100 so much its wheels are now too thin to spin. The gold wore off the Mercedes, so my father and I repainted it ourselves with some kind of enamel paint which does the job but is not the same. It lost the lid of its boot about 48  years ago and never got another one.

My mother and grandmother encouraged me. My first car was inherited from my grandmother – a lime green mini with a brown leatherette roof and citrus carpet everywhere inside. It wouldn’t go in the rain so I spent hours camped under motorway bridges on the M6. Finally, its shock absorbers seized and punched a hole in the subframe, which collapsed onto the wheels. The following day the head gasket blew. I was in Wales. Still, I forgave it. I had several minis in those early days, and part exchanged none of them because they all became, through different experiences, write-offs. One of them was my mother’s and I am still sorry about that.

In newly free East Germany in the early 1990s a friend of my landlady had heard there was an English girl around and offered to sell me a right-hand drive red Ford Escort. It was like a gift from God. I bombed around cobbled streets, exploring every nook of that suddenly opened (to me) landscape of hills and lakes. It never broke down, although it did grow old. It was quite tricky to get rid of in the end, because it became clear it was a ‘ringer’ (stolen with a new identity, a bit like Jason Bourne) or a ‘cut and shut’ (one new car made from the front and rear ends of two old cars which have been involved in some sort of accident). That would explain why there was a different registration number etched into several of the windows. It turned out it didn’t exist. Thankfully my younger sister had honed her disposal techniques on the Minis so she found a way.

My dream car was my biggest disappointment: a smoky pale blue Morris Minor convertible with a cream roof and what might be called in America white wall tyres. It was hopeless: the roof blew off onto the hard shoulder of an M4 slip road; the brakes failed causing me to jump red lights at a big junction on London’s Westway; the windscreen wipers sprung off either side one dark rainy night as I drove past the Royal Albert Hall. I tore the front wing on a concrete pillar in an underground car park, so my father and I patched it up with fibreglass.

I was lucky to sell it for the price I bought it. That was when I had my bright idea: a disposable car. There was a four month gap before I went abroad. If I got a car with four months MOT and tax I would have no further expenses. I stretched my £200 budget to £250 and bought a red Golf from a man with gold teeth in Stoke Newington. It turned out only to be firing on three of its four cylinders. I had to jump start it every time. The driver’s window fell into the door frame when I wound it down at a supermarket car park barrier at the top of Ladbroke Grove and I couldn’t get it out again. It is amazing how many people are up for pushing a girl in a red Golf down the road until it starts, and despite four months on the side of the road with no window, no harm ever befell it. It was even almost financially sensible; my brother in law managed to sell it for £125 to an automotive engineering school. A fine ending.

The only car I have ever bought new was a Saab. A navy coupé, half Capri, half Volvo. I took it on the boat to Hamburg and drove to Poland. It had a button on the dashboard labelled simply ‘Black Panel’ and if you pushed it everything went dark. I never knew what it was for but it was very relaxing. I drove it twice across the continent through snows and floods. I reversed it into a pile of bricks. One day in a harsh East of England winter it refused categorically to go backwards. I tried to part exchange it for a Subaru, but the dealer said he would pay me £500 to take it away, so instead I put it on eBay and got offered £200 by a man who dealt in body parts. It felt like a ransom demand. I sold it in the end for slightly more to a young man called Mr Speed from Grimsby, who intended to soup it up. I like to think it is still going strong up there but I fear it isn’t.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I got another Morris Minor in Pakistan. It was red and pretty and cost a small fortune to fix. Its ancient brakes made it feel like driving on roller skates on Pakistan’s chaotic roads and the lack of air conditioning was an unpleasant experience in summer. It was no match for the white Toyota Corolla in which I drove up and down the Grand Trunk Road every week. Nothing is a match for a Toyota Corolla. That will still be running after the apocalypse.

The old Defender was a spontaneous Saturday morning purchase, found in a field in Herefordshire. Apart from a problem with the slave cylinder just outside Drax power station in North Yorkshire, she has never let me down. And hopefully she never will. But, for my husband, one slushy January trip south over Scotland’s Drumochter pass with a hole in the passenger footwell was enough to make him snap on the Bradford ring road and buy the Audi. The Audi brought us our first experience of an Audi dealership: like floating around a car-themed weekend spa retreat or heaven (for the believers), all-white leather furniture and cappuccino machines. It was too freaky and had to stop.

We inherited my mother-in-law’s old Polo called Tommy. Like a small dog which thought it was a big one, Tommy’s little revs had the spirit of a roar. He drove up and down the motorways for 18 years until finally he had a fatal heart attack which left me parked up on the pavement in Tooting alongside an abandoned sofa outside a fried chicken shop. I was thankful for the sofa and the chicken as I had to wait five hours for the RAC. The final condemning of Tommy by the VW dealer was a terrible moment; we left him in the pound with his little headlights downcast looking small and afraid. It haunted us and still does. Where did he go? Squashed?

And now I am thinking of my brassy lilac Subaru, full of glitter and shimmer, stuck in a pound hoping for the chance of a new life. I hope it finds new friends. I’m at the right age to have a Volvo. I am having to accept, on actuarial logic alone, that I may never own a Porsche, but I still have my MG 1100 and Mercedes saloon, driving my memories along the mantelpiece.


Suzanne Raine