For the longest time, I didn't own a car, or at least own one long enough to make the relationship between man and metal a legal one. Perhaps the painful memories of previous car relationships had made me reluctant to commit to anything more long-term than a rental. However, that changed last September when I decided that the time had come for me to accept my responsibility, settle down, behave like an adult, and get myself a vehicle.
My previous union of man and motor ended one snowy December night with an extremely loud bang on the A10 just outside of Buntingford in the South of England. The trauma of waiting for a tow truck to come and rescue my green Mini and I was perhaps the last straw after a string of failed relationships with automobiles.
I didn't need a car back then, so on the odd occasion that I had to go somewhere out of range of a walk or bike ride, I went by either bus or train. Thanks to Merseyrail's budget cutbacks, the trains became free of charge because they couldn't afford to pay anyone to check that passengers had valid tickets. This made the shockingly bad service seem like good value for money. And on the odd occasion when someone would ask to see your ticket at the exit to the station, you could always partake in another well-practiced Merseyside tradition and just leg it!
Most of my cars came with stories pre-installed. With one I had to try and avoid turning right because the battery would fall out of its place and the engine would stall. Another was so loud that I could only drive it in the day. If the police were to stop me, as often they did, I was always on my way to the garage to get it fixed. One car had an annoying habit of filling with smoke, while another required me to push start it, and often just push it wherever I was going.
Perhaps one of my most well-known cars was the one that required the assistance of a milk bottle to start, or maybe the Fiat that resembled a go-cart and had a worrying tendency to lose a rear wheel while going around corners. Then of course there was the Mini that couldn't go any faster than 40Mph in the rain which, at times, made it the source of some considerable frustration on Britain's busy motorways.
These cars and their stories were of course from when I was much younger. When I was without the responsibilities associated with being a mature adult. Back then I was still a crazy longhaired hoodlum with no money, no job, and no email address. The years since have bought with them all of the above with the possible exception of money! So, with those crazy days behind me, I decided that the time had come for me to reflect my newfound level of maturity and responsibility by purchasing a car suitable for the man I now was. This time I would buy from the forecourt, not the small ads.
Two days and one hundred and fifty pounds later I was once more a car owner. A slightly shabby thirteen-year-old gold Cavalier with six months road tax and MOT (Safety Certification) along with insulating moss growing on the rear window rubber seal. Sure, it wasn't the prettiest car on the forecourt, but the sales guy told me in his friendly scouse accent that it would easily get me "from A to B". Presumably, the other 24 letters of the alphabet cannot be purchased at this price level, but 'A to B' suited me just fine.
My friends, all owners of shiny new cars, were quick to dismiss it as a "piece of shit." I was still in that honeymoon period though. Learning about the car's little ways and quirks that made it unique. Okay, so it whistles in a crosswind, the heater makes a sound like a dying chicken and yes the radio doesn't work while the engine is on. It may well be a "piece of shit", but it was my piece of shit, and my ticket to freedom.
Since September the gold Cavalier has served me well. I've driven over 8,000 miles in six months in a car that costs far less than a cheap set of four new tires! What's more, those miles have been mostly trauma-free. All in all, this newfound relationship is working out just fine, the bond between man and machine is there and we are as familiar with each other as an old married couple. I've even grown fond of the chicken sound it makes when the heater is on.
The thing about owning a crap car though is that once a year you have to go through a deeply stressful and often financially painful experience. The annual vehicle road safety check, the MOT. For me today was that day.
I liken this experience to the way I used to feel when waiting for my Mom and Dad to return home after parents' evening at school. It wasn't a question of whether or not the report would be bad, it was a question of exactly how bad it would be.
I left the car at the garage all day so that the mechanics could do the test at their convenience. My thinking here was that if I was agreeable and easy-going, maybe they would have the same attitude when testing my car.
At 4 PM I returned to hear the bad news. As I stepped out of the cold and into the electric warmth of the garage office I was greeted by a sun-bleached topless babe with a mustache drawn on her paper face, and the sound of local radio blasting Eminem around the workshop while the mechanics sang in badly tuned voices claiming that they were the real Slim Shady.
Clearly no one had seen me enter. I could rob this place blind of its pile copies of 'Max Power' magazines and one nasty-looking cup of sugar, or I could ring the oil-blackened bell. I shouted through to the workshop and someone came out to the office.
"You're the Cavalier aren't you?" said a man wiping oil from his hands on an equally oily rag.
My confidence in this man's ability to recognize a car from a human being was momentarily shaken. But I knew what he was getting at.
"Yes," I answered.
"Yeah right, well I'll be blunt mate, it ain't the news you were wanting I don't think," he said while looking at the ominous 'Notification of Refusal to Issue an MOT Test Certificate.'
He stated that the car had failed on several things, but that the engine and subframe were not only intact but also in extremely good condition. We chatted about my 'options' and good scrap yards where I could pick up some parts I needed that would help drive the price of the work down. The guy seemed genuinely motivated to help keep me mobile. I told him that I would be back next week and that in the meantime I'd check the scrap yards for parts. He gave me his card which not only had his name on but now also an oil thumbprint, perhaps a deliberate sign of personal service. I took it and left to mull over the price of freedom.
So as I sit here writing this with the folded failure notice next to me, I am wondering whether a car is that important. Maybe public transport has gotten better since last year. Maybe they have cleaned the Dazzer 4 Shazzer declarations from the walls of the buses. Perhaps the trains are on time these days. And maybe taxi drivers don't try to engage you in trite conversations anymore. Maybe? But could I go back to the 'convenience' of inconvenience? Could I regress to the days when I didn't need or care about a car? I'm sure that if need be, I could. But right now, the truth is that as crap as it might be, I love having a car, and for the time being at least I plan to keep on motoring.
Perhaps a goal for the 'thirty-something' years of my life should be to get a car that won't be interesting enough to bring up in conversation for any other reason than to comment on how uneventful it is. Maybe I should consider the benefits of gleaming new cars complete with a factory guarantee and free roadside assistance for one year. Perhaps I should start upping my expectations from a heater to heated seats? Maybe I could become one of those people who routinely clean their car every Sunday at 2 PM.
But then again, if I get a shiny new blue Ford something, would 2.4 children and a wife come pre-installed in that package just as the adventures and stories do on old bangers? How long would it be before my dream of a gleaming new sports car with a soft-top would be replaced by the reality of a gleaming new Minivan with baby seats!
On reflection, as attractive as rust-free metal might be, I think I'll stick to the old bangers for just a little while longer.