I drifted off to sleep last night counting, not sheep, but cars. There have been a few.
I passed my driving test (first time!) roughly 42 years ago. It’s all a bit jumbled in my mind, because I would have been 20 then and I know I started driving earlier, at 17. I don’t remember exactly the sequence and timing of events so long ago, but at some point I lost my licence after being breathalysed in Knightsbridge at two a.m. by a pair of beat cops while struggling to push my new BSA motorbike home in the pouring rain, stupid drunk after a party. So much for two-strokes. That year’s enforced suspension obliged me to take to a humble pushbike, that I would have done better and got a lot richer by sticking with for life, but it also persuaded my trustees to buy me a tiny house nearer work, so there was some compensation.
My first car was uGLY, my mother’s much-loved Austin 1100, which she gave us as a wedding present. Her new husband, Gerald had bought her a little sporty number, an MGB GT, which she drove for over thirty years. Some people are lucky that way. (His cars were a 1937 Rolls Royce Minerva, a Daimler Dart and a 1946 Triumph Roadster, which I coveted but couldn’t afford to restore.) Then I bought an elderly Mark II Jaguar off one of the DJs at the radio station for £50 – two weeks’ wages. It had an automatic gearshift, as I recall, and something went wrong, so I stupidly left it in the rain in the car park with the sunroof open a crack and after two weeks the whole of the inside, which was lined with grey felt, was being eaten by furry black mould and I junked it.
We then acquired a Vauxhall 101, a great, wallowy saloon built on American lines like a Sherman tank, only more lethal. It featured a bewildering, push-pull, three-speed gearstick mounted on the dash, and a wide bench seat in front , for which reason anyone involved in a side-on collision would probably die. Things now start to blur. We moved with work in 1975 to Portsmouth, where I was allocated a company car, a podgy old-man’s Triumph Dolomite saloon with a bent propshaft. In keeping with my management status, I acquired instead a bright red, 3-litre sports convertible, a Triumph TR6 Stag. You still see them around, they’re a classic car now. Classically, the engine seized up several times, owing to a basic design flaw everyone else seemed to have known about all along. Broken by the expense of keeping it on the road, I swapped it for a Peugeot 204, which I owned for six months until the rear coil springs appeared one day in the luggage compartment.
And so on, through the Talbot Sunbeam (the what?), the shit-brown Ford Cortina 2.3 estate other drivers kept running into, blinded presumably by pity; the Vauxhall Cavalier my boss maliciously made me take as a company car, whose interior Rupert the Rottweiler percipiently sprayed diarrhoeia all over, shortly before I told my boss where to stick his job and handed back the car; the brilliant little VW Scirocco, that I commuted thousands of miles in without the slightest effort; the Audi 100 Avant I exchanged it for, whose hydraulic suspension master cylinder when it eventually failed turned out to be worth more than the car; the short-wheelbase Mitsubishi Pajero, a ‘grey import’ whose gearbox failed after four months and was funnily enough not covered by the warranty; the rotting Mark-I Land-Rover we christened Fred POG and guiltily sold on to some hippies; the reliable Mazda 626 I was forced to trade after our company went bust for a huge, wallowy Volvo 240 and some cash to pay the rent.
After Rollo the Retriever chewed the carpets and roof lining out of that, came the Saab 900 I craved, whose turbocharger blew in a huge cloud of white smoke less than a mile from the garage I had just bought it from with money I didn’t have, and they refused to take it back. I now knew what the 900 stood for: the exact cost in pounds of a new turbo. We fell back instead on a terrible-looking, 20-years-old, 1-litre VW Polo saloon inherited from my late father-in-law, which performed heroically for 18 months as I commuted 160 miles into England twice a week. Who knew they could get 95 on the flat?
In more recent times there have been the unexceptionable Renault Laguna, whose side was taken off by a salesman nudging out from behind a van on one of our special Welsh A-roads and had to be replaced, owing to lack of funds, with secondhand doors and panels of a contrasting reddish hue, so that the essentially dark bluey-mauve car became known as The Bruise; my employer’s Land-Rover Discovery, a great 7-seater, gas-guzzling, 4-litre brute (they say cars come to resemble their owners), complete with a permanently leaking hydraulic ‘cornering enhancement’ system, whose nearside rear wheel fell off one Christmas while driving, fortunately slowly on ice, somewhere in the wilds of Cardiganshire; and the Mazda6 Sport, not a bad car at all, if a bit flimsy, that I finally managed to sell this year at a huge cost in depreciation, about £1 for every mile I had driven in it. So much for the Age of Austerity.
There were other cars, their fascias blurred by the smog of time. Yet, out of all those infernal machines – let us take into account also the many more, basically criminal efforts of the auto-engineering profession that I ‘borrowed’ on a free testing basis while working as a journalist – I had never once in my life experienced anything so disrespectful as the driver’s door handle actually coming away in my fucking hand, until the current one: my pretty red, four-years-old Alfa 147, last weekend.
With that, I’m afraid my long unrequited love affair with the iconic Italian marque was over. It’s on the market as I write. I am, in the immortal words of so many parrot-sick sports personalities, completely gutted, Brian.
And with that, goodnight.