Nostalgia – it’s not what it used to be

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble 

I guess that, as a youngster, many of my hobbies, interests and pastimes were probably not those normally associated with a teenage boy growing up in the 1980s. You see, when many other kids my age were playing football in the park on those seemingly long summer evenings, I was ringing church bells. 

When most other, dare I say it, normal boys were playing computer games or building model planes, I would spend hours walking along miles of disused railway lines trying to recapture in my mind the sight and smell of hissing steam. I would often spend what seemed to be hours leaning over the footbridge near to Darlington Bank Top station waiting for the scream and the smell of an HST Inter City 125 departing for Edinburgh or London King’s Cross on notch five (full throttle), revelling in the glory of a face full of hot diesel fumes as she passed with gathering momentum just a few feet beneath me. 

I did, of course, have other interests which conformed more  to the norm, like bikes and swimming, and, yes, I did have a girlfriend – although her dad did work for British Rail! One thing I did have a passion for was collecting car brochures. I would literally cycle for miles visiting Car Dealers of all marques for the latest monthly range brochures or information on new models. 

My home town used to have a large VAG Dealer which was also a quattro agent and I got to know one of the salesmen, Malcolm Longstaff, quite well. Car sales staff in those days were mature, middle-aged people, experienced in the trade and often full of character. 

A local Honda Dealer employed a salesman called Ian who took me and a friend called Gareth Evens along the A66 in the new twin-cam Honda CRX at speeds you wouldn’t believe after he shut up shop one evening. Another time, he showed off his superb driving skills in a brand new Prelude 2.0i-16. Mind you, in all fairness, most of the dealers I used to ‘pester’ were welcoming and, providing you didn’t make a nuisance of yourself, made you feel like a grown-up – Ian Sale, Graham Mayes, Roger Chinnery, Peter Rowe, Alasdair Machonachie and many more – I salute you! 

I still have many of the brochures collected all those years ago and will never part with them, not even for a gold pig – a phrase often used by my missus. When I first started selling cars for a living, I remembered my childhood hobby and never used to throw out kids that would sometimes ask for a brochure in the showroom – today’s enthusiast is tomorrow’s customer. 

I recall that a now long-gone local dealer, who had a reputation for not exactly being the first at customer care, tried to charge me £1 for a brochure and then told me to **** off when I queried why. Sod them, I never wanted a Mazda 323 anyway. 

The local salesman's attitude was not the only reason why I never owned one

I was forever being told off for not clearing my room up as a child, brochures scattered all over the floor, Blu Tac trodden into the carpet and small patches of missing wallpaper from where I had removed the XR4i poster and put up the Rover SD1 Vanden Plas EFi. 

I had a conversation with a friend recently during which we reviewed all the cars we had owned – some good, some awful – and came to the conclusion that nobody makes a really bad car any more. Indeed, I had a similar conversation with Keith Adams back in the summertime. However, that has not always been the case… 

Back in the 1980s, the comprehensive school which I attended had a large catchment area and, consequently, all makes and models of cars would ferry the inmates to and from our school. I’m sure many readers of a certain age will remember the horror and embarrassment of mum or dad taking them to school especially if the family motor resembled something from The Beverley Hillbillies. 

Around this time, Yugo first started to import a range of cars based on the obsolete Fiat 128 model. I had a friend who’s dad bought one of these bargain basement Eastern Bloc charriots –  he would beg his dad to drop him off short of the school to save the shame of us petrolheads ribbing him rotten about his dad’s car. 

Even some of the teachers had some iffy cars, the most comical of all being Mr Kirby – our music teacher of well over 6ft. Every morning he would pop and fart his way to school in his wife’s 76/P reg powder blue and rust Fiat 126. Every now and again we would open the boot to swap the plug leads over for lots of hilarious backfiring at home time – Sorry Sir. 

Back in days of old, there were some truly dreadful cars to be had. My family lived in Suffolk for a while in 1985 and a few miles outside the town you could find a really run-down looking village garage which also happened to be an FSO Dealer – you simply wouldn’t believe me if I went into the details but on proud display in the dark, dank and dusty showroom sat a doom blue 125P saloon complete with its miserable vinyl upholstery. 

Just a few miles the other way was a little Skoda Dealer with an elderly owner who was the kindest man I’d ever met. Skoda brochures were one sided A4 pamphlets in those days, one for each model with witty statements on the front such as ‘the hardy 120LSE’ or ‘the sporting Rapid coupe’. I kept it to myself but I had a soft spot for these rear-engined cars and, over the years, I have driven a few too and no smell is as evocative as an Eastern Bloc car with nylon upholstery – if I close my eyes, I can still smell it. 

I still have a soft spot for these rattling cars!

All of the above lead me to think about modern cars versus old cheap and cheerful stuff. Take the Lada Riva for example, if the urban myth was true, they had the best heater of any car around at the time – I disagree. I owned two Rivas many years ago, the first being an 86/D 1300SL followed by an 87/E model. 

The earlier one was the better car but, even still, so many things went wrong, broke or simply snapped off. You couldn’t fault the overall body and chassis except for its habit of rusting around the wings, but its chassis and general solidity was almost to Volvo standards. Where the wheels fell off, so to speak, was the interior quality, fit and finish. 

Yes, the Riva had a good level of equipment such as a rev counter, headlamp wipers, volt meter, comfy high-back front seats and acceptable refinement, but the standard of the plastics used inside was truly shocking. The interior trim of most early Soviet or Communist cars had such sharp edges you could almost have a shave, while some of the panel gaps were so large, you could enter the car and drive away with no need to even open the door. 

I remember fondly that, on one occasion, I was bowling along the A45 at speed on a winter’s morning when the heater valve split soaking my left leg with boiling hot coolant, turning the inside of my car into a Turkish sauna and leaving me with zero visibility thanks to the condensation inside the windows. Repairing the part that very afternoon, I gashed my hand quite badly on a sharp, unpainted piece of metal underneath the dashboard – don’t talk to me about Lada heaters! 

A good friend around this time ran an E-plate Skoda 120LSE – I was so jealous of his five speed gearbox. He owned the car for about two years in which time he had the whole braking system overhauled, cylinder head gasket, exhaust, throttle cable and heater matrix. His previous car, a Series 2 Marina 1.8 was not even half as much trouble. 

My dad’s friend Carl bought a brand new FSO 125P saloon that needed reconditioned rear brake calipers fitting to it after 18 months. I fitted the aforementioned parts and remember being shocked at the car’s plastic seats, strip type speedometer and ponderous steering – all this in a car that was registered in 1990. 

Lada moved the game forward slightly in the late 1980’s with its hatchback Samara range but, even so, these were truly insipid cars with alarming habits of either blowing up or breaking down. One mechanic I knew well-described the Samara as a car that brought Russia into the 1970s – in 1986. 

Yesterday's car at yesterday's prices today!

Yes, there were some truly dreadful cars to be bought, even as recently as 15 years ago. Who remembers the advert for the Skoda Favorit? Another Eastern Bloc take on a five door hatchback. They ran a press advert saying ‘brand new Skoda or a second-hand Golf.’ Erm…. I’ll take the Golf thank you, but how ironic if you ponder for a moment. 

However, the Russians and the Slovakians weren’t only the guilty parties – who recalls how dreadful the early Korean stuff used to be? The Hyundai Pony made falling on a sword a more appealing experience than driving whilst the early kit from Proton was as up to date and pleasurable as kneeling on rosemary beads. 

I know these cars were built to a cost and offered a new car to the masses that could historically only afford used ones, but the pay off quite often would be hysterical laughter, miserable reliability and the feeling of being a social leper. Lada ceased importing cars into the UK in 1997, Yugo disappeared following the atrocities and political uprising and FSO no longer produce cars. 

One last hurrah for the bargain bucket car came in the form of Daewoo. They marketed themselves as ‘the biggest car maker you never heard of’ with a range of cars based on the old Astra, Belmont and Cavalier Mk2. Everything was included in the price, namely road tax, long warranty, free servicing, free collection and delivery when requiring oil changes. 

Someone within this once massive Korean company thought it would be a really good idea to offer cars with no price haggling and all maintenance catered for by Halfords, two recipes for disaster. Initially, sales were quite good but the rest of the motor manufacturers closed ranks and tales of rival makers or dealers refusing to take in Daewoos for part exchange became legendary, slowly killing sales, and service bays run by Halfords simply couldn’t cope. Daewoo went bust and were bailed out by General Motors which re-branded the marque as Chevrolet. 

Zero trade in value? That'll be the Daewoo!

Suffice to say, after looking back at some of the horrors on four wheels – some of which I have owned – I can safely say that, in my opinion, no one in today’s motoring world makes a really bad car anymore. 

There quite simply is no market for nasty, badly made cars. We look back on Eastern Bloc cars with rose tinted spectacles in pretty much the same way as we do with our own British cars, but one thing is true – we still love them and we always will thanks to nostalgia!

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications


  1. @Peter Westley
    Yes, me too!

    I used to work for a Skoda Dealer in the early eighties – they were good cars really, but not a long-term proposition. The Rapid Coupe was very smart.

    Has anyone ever seen a UK-market only Rapid Convertible? It was the cheapest convertible on the market back then.

    • @Richard
      Yes, I do remember the Rapid Cabrio – am I right in thinking some company in Kent did the conversions for Skoda?

      A very good friend ran a 120LSE while a colleague ran an earlyish 105. I drove the former a few times and, so long as you drove it sensibly, the suspension was soft and comfy and it returned reasonable fuel consumption – but boy, oh boy, those Jikov carburettors were bloody awful!

  2. Ahh, old cheap cars. Lovely…

    Wasn’t the Rapid Cabriolet the one that had Velcro as the only security feature on one of the back windows? I did lust after one of those tuned Rapid 130s – the one tested by Motor and described as a poor man’s 911 or something. I think it was a Dealer or someone who offered the conversion. The super trimming of the inside, the instruments which more or less fitted to the panel – kind of like the way the Daewoo Tacuma’s panel didn’t quite fit either. Delightful…

    I had a Samara hack for a week back when they were brand new as a discourtesy car when my Metro was rear ended by a Fiesta. Most new cars have that smell – glue or something. The Samara, with 50 miles on it, smelt more like a blocked up loo combined with some very damp carpet and several weeks of rain.

    It was supposed to be one of ‘the new wave’ of cars from Russia but was awful. The steering was heavy and the wheel had a line of sharp plastic from the moulding all the way round the edge – in fact all of the plastic resembled that hard stuff you find very cheap Korean toys made out of, and all brown. Very, very brown except for the visible untrimmed plain metal – white in this example with strange yellow stains coming out from under the (brown) door trims. Oh, and when it rained it didn’t want to go. I was happy to get my 1.1 Metro back.

    The early Favorit was nicer even though its front end kind of looked like they had left some parts off. The guys moulding the interior certainly didn’t like to do too many curves or use too soft a material. The estate was a brilliant workhorse though.

    You do, of course, have to compare these to the late 1980s/early 1990s Mini when it ‘gained’ the Clubman instrument pack and Allegro 2 steering wheel. The tacked-on switch block on the driver’s side for the fog lights was such a delight and you only laughed as you caught your knee on it – again. The radio which was mounted in front of the passenger and a bit of a reach for the driver was another key safety feature. Much of that car was a wonderful opportunity to spot the BL circular logos on various parts fitted to this brand new car made by Rover.

  3. I believe that Lada’s peak year for sales in the UK was 1988.

    I recall that, oddly enough, it was profitable to buy Ladas in the UK and export them back to the Russia at one point. I remember an episode of Top Gear in which Quentin Willson did just this, buying one from the classfied ads and driving it to Hull docks where it was put on a ship. He made £50 all in, but then vowed to drive one never again…

    • @Adrian
      Interesting that – I often take Quent’s remarks with a bit of salt. I recall that, back in the early days of Top Gear magazine, he described the Riva estate as “anti-establishment” motoring and almost praised the car.

      The Lada saloons of the 1970’s and, subsequently, the Riva were possibly the best East European cars – they were far less agricultural than the FSO 125 and conformed more to the norm than the Skoda Estelle. Later Riva 1300s were unique in having a belt driven camshaft (the same belt as a 2.0 Ford Pinto lump none the less) and an electric cooling fan – these models were much quieter and more fuel efficient than the 1200 and 1600 which had the noisier, rattling timing chain power unit.

      My own E plate 1300 SL was retro-fitted with a 5 speed box from a scrapped 1600SLX and made 70mph cruising a joy with a shade over 3200rpm on the dial instead of the normal ear-splitting 4000rpm. The steering wheel was thrown away in lieu of a nice smaller padded type from a Fiat Regata (same splines).

      I had some brilliant fun with the two Rivas I owned. Testimony to the ruggedness of the design was demonstrated when I drove over a manhole with a missing cover at speed. It ripped the tyre and inner tube to shreds and bent the wheel rim like you wouldn’t believe. The spare was fitted and the only other work that was necessary – and I kid you not – was that the tracking needed setting again.

      I can’t say the same about the later Samara, though. My ex-girlfriend’s mum ran a 1.5 Flyte. It was the most unreliable car I have ever known in my life. Her local dealer, Longmarsh of Wellingborough, did everything possible to cure the endless faults that kept cropping up, but her patience ran out and she subsequently got rid of the car and purchased a 106.

      I ran Lada’s for almost 3 years and, in that time, yes, they used to play up now and again, but nothing was impossible to cure or put right. Loads of cottage industry Lada “specialists” used to exist too. One notable outfit was Carrington Cars in Kettering, Northants – a brilliant bunch of lads. When I sold my last one, I sold them all the spare parts which had accrued in my shed.

      Oh, happy times!

  4. The irony is that, back in the 1980s, we mocked these cars and ridiculed the fact that they were based on obsolete, recycled Fiats. Fast forward to 2005 and, while Skoda is still around making decent cars, our own beloved Rover is selling recycled Hondas and even some heap imported from India. Rover became Britain’s Lada and, if you had suggested that in the 1980s, you would have laughed all the more.

  5. Mike, I collected car brochures when I was young too and still have many of them (mainly Ford and Vauxhall) and a few copies of Vauxhall’s in-house magazine called “Vauxhall Motorist” from the mid/late 1960s. The Workshop Manager at our local Vauxhall Dealer used to get them for me when my dad’s VX4/90 was in for service.

    I also remember that, on family day trips out, I was more happier being taken to car showrooms than museums! An early anorak??

  6. I actually used to work in Huddersfield’s Lada/Proton Dealers in the mid 1990s as a young Trainee Salesman. I was only 18 and, even at that age, I was a fully fledged car geek. I drove a hearing aid beige ’86 Fiesta Popular Plus 950cc so any car that went faster than that was cool.

    The Riva, Niva and Samara were all still in production and, even though the majority of sales were now coming from Proton owners, there were still a few loyal Lada buyers.

    I have very fond memories though I do remember my first experience of driving a Samara. The brakes were EXTREMELY unresponsive and didn’t do anything until the pedal was very near to the floor which caused a few very hair raising moments! The cars were generally reliable but the interior plastics were made of very hard, flimsy and brittle material. Special editions became the norm with loads of tacky colour-coded add ons including skirts and spoilers.

    I also remember having weekly visits from a couple of Russians who would literally buy any Lada part exchange we got in and have them sent back home -mainly old Rivas and a few of the original round light saloons from the 1970s. Condition not important! LOL.

  7. I would disagree that there was anything bad about the first generation Protons, although the basic LE version was rather stark and basic.

    I bought a 1992 1500 GLS model in 1998 after the engine on an Austin Montego blew up – the car had to be scrapped and I needed a cheap, reliable car for work. I was offered the Proton with only 45,000 miles on the clock and a full service history for two grand.

    I owned the Proton for two years and its Mitsubishi drivetrain ensured nothing went wrong and also provided it with quite a bit of power, reaching 100 mph with ease on the A66. All I had to spend on this car was two services, a new cambelt at 50,000 miles and two new tyres – it never went wrong. I’ll admit it wasn’t perfect: the handling was a bit wayward, it looked old-fashioned and the fuel consumption could be heavy around town, but the Proton was a reliable five seater saloon that was quite good to drive, well-equipped and never let me down.

    I had a SEAT Ibiza 1.9 SDi after that – that could better 60 mpg at times and was quite refined for its size, but suffered from slack build quality and annoying minor faults which were lacking in the Proton even if it was quite good mechanically.

  8. @Glenn Aylett
    I never said that Protons were bad – they were as reliable as a Swiss watch. Simply, the big issue with Protons was that they were a CLP (cost-lead purchase) that no one aspired to own.

    Pretty much in a similar vein to the Ladas and Skodas of olden days…!

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