TechieDude remarks on the subject of parents, kids, and cars:
You never, ever give your kid a car. Especially when they first get their license. I let my kids use mine, if I didn’t need it, back in the day. They wanted a car? Get a job and pay for one. No better lesson can be had than watching your bank account get hoovered out by repairs, gas, and insurance. There’s more to owning a car than just possession.
Wise words indeed. Getting your first car is, or at least used to be, a rite of passage for a young man and it made a big difference if you’d bought it yourself rather than being gifted it. In my case, it was the former.
I didn’t get around to buying my first car until 1999, when I was 22. This is partly explained by my not having passed my test until I was 20: I failed the fucking thing 3 times before I passed on the fourth attempt. To be fair, my tests took place in Chichester (with complicated one way systems and dual carriageways) and Manchester; a lot of my contemporaries passed their tests in sleepy country towns with a single roundabout and no box junctions. When I passed my test I couldn’t afford a car, and nor did I need one. Then I got that job delivering cars for Danny and I didn’t have to buy one of my own.
All that changed when I had to spend the first semester of my fourth year at university doing an industrial placement, and the one I found was in Weaste, a suburb of Greater Manchester between Salford and Eccles. Getting there by public transport from Fallowfield was long, complicated, and probably about as safe as taking a bus through Syria today. So I needed a car. Fortunately my job with Danny involved going to various dodgy garages and repair shops, and one of them had a car outside for sale. To be honest, I can’t remember how I found it or who I paid, and I certainly don’t remember test driving it. What I do remember is paying £300 for a white, 1l Fiat Uno with 3 doors and skinny tyres with moss on the sides. I can’t recall how old it was, but it had been around plenty. It had an MOT for a few months, but no tax disc. That became my first car.
I quickly found out that to get a tax disc you need insurance. I called Direct Line and they were happy to insure me (it wasn’t obscenely expensive, but not cheap either), but it would take a while for a cover letter to reach me. They said the process could be sped up if I came to their office in central Manchester and picked it up in person. But what to do in the meantime? You’re not supposed to drive a car without a tax disc. I ended up putting a hand-written note in the window where the tax disc goes saying “WAITING FOR INSURANCE COVER LETTER”. I have no idea if this would have saved me a fine or not, but I got the letter in a few days, then the tax disc, and I was motoring around legally in my own car for the first time.
As could have been expected for £300, the car was not without problems. It suffered from what’s known as “run-on”, meaning the engine continues to fire long after you’ve turned off the ignition, withdrawn the key, locked the door, and walked off. Somebody said it might have been running too hot, but I don’t know for sure. I then decided to do whatever I could to make it run better, so went to Halfords and bought a new distributor cap, points, and a coil. Back in those days, replacing parts like these was a routine thing to do. I don’t recall it making a blind bit of difference, but the parts were cheap and it couldn’t hurt.
Then I thought I’d take it for a wash, so went to an automatic car wash whose owner I knew. I drove forward, wound down the window, and tried to insert the token. I couldn’t quite reach so opened the door, put it in, then closed the door. Something clunked. I drove forward, and started to wind up the window as the car wash rumbled into life. Only nothing was happening, and the handle seemed rather too easy to turn. I wound a bit faster, but no window appeared. By now the car wash was fired up and water was pissing through the open window. I put it in gear and drove out the other side, getting soaked in the process. The owner came over and asked what was going on. I had no idea, and was rather distressed as well as wet. We looked down the door seal and saw the window mechanism wound fully up but there was no pane of glass. We got a screwdriver, pulled off the inside door panel, and found it lying on the bottom of the car door. The clip holding it to the raising mechanism had broken, and when I slammed the doors shut it had fallen off. We put it back on as best we could, wound it up carefully, and worked out that you could shut the door – but only with the window wound up. If you did it with it down, you’d lose the pane in the door again. That happened a few times over the course of my ownership. The engine also used to flood, and you’d need to be careful with the manual choke. Many a time I found myself stuck, sometimes in traffic, the engine stalled and unable to restart for several minutes.
Such is life driving around in £300 cars. But it served me well enough, at least for a few months of daily use, until I drove it down to London in December. A few miles outside Manchester on the M6 I realised the brakes didn’t work very well and when I pressed the pedal I’d hear a lot of grinding but without much stopping. There wasn’t much I could do, so pressed on. I worked out that if I was careful I could slow down using the gears and pull the handbrake if I had to, once slowed enough. Then the heavens opened, and the road turned into a river. There was I, in my decrepit Fiat Uno, driving down the M1 with no brakes in a cloudburst. Young men are stupid and I was no exception, and looking back I’m surprised by how unconcerned I was by all this. I slotted in behind a lorry doing 55 mph, kept a respectful distance, and followed it most of the way to London. Quite how I survived that trip I’m not sure, but I did and I got a new set of the cheapest set of brakes I could find the next day. The old ones were completely shot through.
I learned a lot about the costs of running and maintaining a car with that Uno. At the end of my industrial placement I sold it, for £300, to my mate who drove it all over the place for a year, loaded down with Royal Marines and military bergens. He burned through the brakes in short order, and complained bitterly to me for installing cheap ones. He eventually sold it to some sucker for £400. By then, I was driving around in a 1973 lightweight Land Rover, which deserves a post all of its own. Nowadays I ride around in something fast and German, but I appreciate it all the more having once being utterly reliant on a £300 banger with no brakes and a window that kept falling out.
What was your first car?