Technician’s Update : When the Cavalier stopped laughing!

Is there any real point of owning a classic or retro clunker unless its going to get a decent journey now and again? Mike Humble shares a thought or two about running a mature motor…

My own 214 GSi with mega low miles is only just coming back to life following a period of running in and thorough fettling.
My own 214 GSi with mega low miles is only just coming back to life following a period of running in and thorough fettling

It’s always nice to have nice comments bestowed upon your retro or classic clunker as you go about your daily commute. I don’t claim to have the most perfect condition Rover 214 – far from it in fact, but it is what I would quote to be in a happy condition, of perfectly usable daily fettle and of course rare enough to be special owing to it being the top of the range GSi trim. The car wasn’t wrestled from the clutches of the previous jockey Neil Rapsey to be locked away hidden from view, it was bought to enjoy and use whenever I please and because I regard the R8 Rover 200 to be one of Rover’s finest moments in its history.

Just this morning during one of those brief ‘at the pump” conversations discerning gentlemen of automotive taste have at filling stations, a mature chap mentioned how nice the car looked for its age. The conversation spilled into the kiosk whereby he mentioned about his own Rover 200, bought new from the dealership which is tacked onto the petrol station – a former Rover main dealer of long standing. He was driving a Hyundai – which of course proves what I have said all along about just who swept up MG Rover’s customer base post-2005. But then, the conversation took a bit of a metaphorical nosedive.

I was almost accused of being environmentally unsympathetic for driving an ‘old” car – as he stated, continuing to almost berate me for being unkind to the car for using it on a daily basis. After this I could feel the dribble running from the corner of my mouth so I bade him a farewell and got the hell out of there tout de suite. Now this left me thinking – why shouldn’t I enjoy the car? And what makes me wrong in opting to use it in a semi-daily smoker manner? Cars, after all, are designed to be used daily and providing you adhere to normal periodic and preventative maintenance, they plod on quite merrily offering near equivalent levels of dependability and satisfaction as a newer car.

My own Rover has racked up an amazing 32,500 miles since that day back in 1991 when she drove out of Longbridge under her own steam. The first owner was your usual stereotype Rover pensioner, who poured unconditional love upon it despite accruing an incredibly low mileage under his stewardship. A shortish period of ownership in South Wales followed, prior to me becoming the adoptive parent. Either way, by the time I owned it, the car still felt tight and barely run in. This is why I have been using the car as often as feasibly possible, a period of increasing distances and speeds in order to gently condition it towards full performance and decent reliability.

You see, my argument is this… what’s the point of having a car, be it retro or full fat classic, to not actually drive the damn thing? Sure, I’m not for one moment saying you should buy a ‘barn find” 2000 mile 1.5 Maxi and then use it for your 20.000 miles a year lifestyle – you’d be a buffoon and very quickly become bitterly disappointed if you did. What I am saying is enjoy the car and give it a decent run out now and again because leaving a car to fester, even in perfect storage conditions causes havoc on any car and ultra low mileage retro-classics can be more hassle than you could ever imagine if they are not run regularly and properly from time to time.

I took the risk on the Rover as a result of a twofold calculated decision. Firstly, I had built up an element of trust with the previous owner and secondly because I have the skill set and the ability to repair if the car was to unluckily suffer a trauma. A prime example comes in the form of a truly A1 condition Cavalier 2.0i that came up for sale a little while back, being sold by an 84 year old chap who for medical reasons had to hang up his driving gloves. The car in question was a MK3 example that was original in every way – right down to the factory-fit Philips wireless. It was owned by a friend of another elderly gentleman I did servicing for and I had considered it for myself.

Buying a one owner Cavalier MK3 with just 17000 miles should have been fun - The owner soon stopped smiling though!
Buying a one owner Cavalier MK3 with just 17000 miles should have been fun – the owner soon stopped smiling though!

In the end, the 17.000 mile odometer reading (yes, you did read that correctly) made me baulk but I did put a contact in touch who was after a decent saloon car. Said acquaintance bought the H plate Luton flyer for just £1000 and seemed pleased as punch initially, but the honeymoon period soon ended. After a month or so of daily grind the plug leads failed followed by the coil pack and a nasty oil leak that developed from the cam carrier. Yours truly was hired to cure the leak and I fitted a timing belt and water pump at the same time, further fun and frolics continued when the alternator decided to draw a current rather than generate about two weeks later.

By now, this bloke had bombed considerable money into the Cav and he was convinced the car would settle down by now for sure – but it went downhill whilst going uphill, if you get my drift. A tow bar was fitted to the red rep-mobile after he inherited a fairly big caravan from a deceased in-law, so the wife, along with two fed up children were packed into the car for a week in the Lake District. My memory tells me his holiday was cut short after his wife got caught short on the M6 after stopping for a ‘splash ‘n dash” at Corley services. Anyone who intimately knows the various rest stops on the M6 will know that Corley has a gruelling bank when heading northbound.

It’s a long grinding gradient that has many a truck on its hands and knees crawling though the gears, though chances are you wouldn’t really notice in the average car. A fuel injected 2.0 Vauxhall Cavalier loaded to the gunwales with an ABI Monza nailed to the bumper should still give a good account for itself in all fairness, but soon after building up speed on a hot summer’s day the Cavalier decided enough was enough. From what I was told and without any warning, the Vauxhall started knocking like Woody Woodpecker followed by everyone’s friend – the oil lamp illuminating and a quick rise in in temperature. At this point, evasive action took place by pulling onto the hard shoulder.

As they were rattling along at a snail’s pace trying to make it to the next call box, there was an almighty BANG and that – my friends – was that. All around the car and in its wake was a combination of oil and metal pieces and, after lifting open the bonnet, a jagged hole in the engine block that, to quote my mate ‘a Fox could hide in” was painfully revealed. To cut a long story short, the car was recovered and a second-hand engine was fitted after which his missus decreed that the car was to be sold at any cost and his brief flirtation with the MK3 Cavalier was curtailed before any more expenditure took place to threaten his wallet, marriage and sanity!

A similar thing happened on a much bigger scale. I recall a family haulage firm cascading a fleet of ERF EC11 tractor units from an easy-going contract they had existed on since new that came to an end. They were placed into a very different and very hard-working enviroment whereby, almost one by one, they suffered engine and driveline failures- nothing to do with the trucks (the Cummins – Eaton combo is superb) but more to do with the fact they were never worked hard on their previous job. Now they were seriously earning their corn in a new role, they simply had never been given the chance to run in properly – this unfortunate event cost the company tens of thousands in a relatively short space of time.

The moral of the story is that, yes, it’s nice to bag a cheap mega-low mileage car but you have to treat them almost like a new relationship, go slow and easy at first – go at it full pelt from the start and all hell will be let loose and the love affair will soon end in tears. Cars are meant to be used and not abused, but by ignoring the aforementioned, a low -mileage older car will be much more problematic than a well used and well serviced example. And don’t be bothered about PC nimbies because you actually like to drive your old glory now and again…

You pay your road fund licence and stupid rates of VAT every time you give it a drink – enjoy yourself!

Mike Humble


  1. A very good article. And in my experience, the same rules apply to classics which have spent the last 15 years doing 200 miles between MoTs!

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve had fewest problems with the classics I drive daily and have been used plentifully throughout their lives.

    The odd under-used example (I remember in particular an MGB GT and a mk3 Escort which had been left in a garage for 20 years) were total, costly nightmares.

    If you want a museum piece, good for you, that’s fine. Just don’t expect to revert back into a car again without complaining!

  3. I am that buffoon who, in Summer 2008 bought a low mileage and tatty 1981 Maxi that had sat still on the previous owners driveway for two years and then once road legal, pressed it into service as his daily hack. Now this would not normally sound too far out of the ordinary except I was a Germany based serviceman who thought regularly commuting between NW Germany and NW England would be fine. And minus one or two low points between 2008 and 2012 it was. After towing it back to Germany and getting it on the road including replacing a front displacer it’s first big trip was bringing me home on leave prior to going to Iraq. 70 miles into the journey and just approaching the outskirts of Dortmund at 2am and the release bearing disintegrates. Wonderful,600 miles without a clutch low point number one. Low point number two came post Iraq when the other front displacer sprung a slow leak. That said once all the niggles were sorted , apart from running a bit hot at Motorway speeds I found it dependable and never felt like I had to drive everywhere with my fingers crossed. In 2012 under orders from my then girlfriend (now my wife) I brought her back to England where she is currently hibernating in my garage. My daily hack these days is a 1994 Rover 216 Tomcat with 110,000 on the clock. Apart from some bother with the drivers window regulator and a mysteriously suddenly dying battery the car has been 100% dependable since I bought her in May this year.

    • Thanks Mike. Ive never had the pleasure (or otherwise) of driving a 1500 model. My dad had a cable changer from 1980-84 and he was never one for speed, at least not whilst it was his car and fuel bill. I think I’ve inherited that off him at least. My own cars very rarely see much above 70mph even when on the autobahns. “Company” cars however a slightly different matter or at least until they all got trimbled (fitted with snitching machines as we call them).
      With my Maxi in it’s role I can’t say I was ever disappointed but some people on here may have thought I was certainly certifiable. Even my dad used to shake his head lol.

  4. Sometimes cars just don’t get on with their owners! I had a Mk4 Escort 1.4LX for 18 months, during which time it cost me a shed load of money on servicing and repairs. In those days I did ~25,000 miles per year. Escort maladies included dropping a core plug on the way home from work, fortunately 400 yards from home. I was about to trade it in when my brother offered to buy it off me. I pointed out the problems I’d had but he still wanted it and it was very reliable for him doing mostly short trips. He later sold it on to a neighbour about 7 years later with 108,000 on the clock. She ran it for another 18 months before writing off in an argument with a lamp post.

    I similarly offloaded a W reg Mk4 Golf as soon as the warrantly expired after it exhibited a propensity to leak, knock, have electrical gremlins and eat Lambda sensors. And yet, the DVLA database shows that it is currently MOT’d and taxed until October 2015 which will make it 15 years old. Yet for me it had been in the dealers every 6-10 weeks for warranty work.

    • It also about the perceived value of the car. I ran a Skoda that seemed to need new track rod ends every couple of months but it was “worth it” because it was a “reliable car,”

      Contrast that with the dificulty I had persuading the mechanic to fix the leak in my rover 45 diesel power steering rig.

  5. It’s interesting what a change in driving styles can do to a car, I’ve occasionaly heard that “low mileage of the year” used cars can give trouble due to the number of short trips, especially if the engine never gets a chance to warm up.

    My current car has been fine even though it normally gets used 2-3 times a week for short trips, with the occasional long journey over a weekend.

  6. I remember the MK3 Cavaliers very fondly. I think they are way better than anything Vauxhall has produced since. Our firm ran them to 200,000+ miles with very little servicing and found them to be completely bulletproof. Give me one of them over the latest DPF, DMF sporting diesel gizmos anyday.

    • Agreed. The latest generation of diesels are a load of expense waiting to happen. My Golf is on the verge of an £900 clutch/DMF jobby. Nonsense

  7. The comments you received about being environmentally unsympathetic for driving an old car are very questionable anyway. An enormous amount of energy is consumed making a car, so once it has been built, it makes sense to use for as long as possible. Noxious emissions are another matter of course. They will only go away when we’re all driving electric cars and power stations are all running off clean renewables. “Never comes the day” as Justin Hayward once sang.

    • This is so true. People (and governments) forget to mention the raw materials which go into new cars, where the special batteries come from and what they’re made with, or where the electricity to charge up an electric car comes from!

      My ’91 Mini does 48mpg on a long run. People are astounded.

      I could buy a new one and squeeze a few more out of it, but how would that make sense environmentally or financially (for me)?

      • I’ll go along with that. It makes my head shake until it’s close to falling off that I have to pay £240 plus to tax my Tomcat on the basis of “it’s old and therefore polluting” when new cars have either nil or next to nil tax on them and lets face it, would you still want their exhaust emissions piped directly into your lungs? As for electric/ hybrid cars , As Richard says until we are all driving electric cars made from recycled paper mache and the worlds electricity is solar sourced all we are doing is moving the poluution source from the exhaust pipe to the power station. Also lets assume that an alternative fuel is found and demand for petrol and diesel tails off , be prepared to watch other taxes climb rapidly. Same with people that smoke. Personally not my thing but if it was outlawed (and lets face it if it’s as bad for you as the do gooders would have us all believe then it should be) I’m sure we would have scenes similar to the Poll Tax Riots because of the massive taxation increase in other areas.

        • As long as they don’t give us a blanket ban on classic car use then I’ll be happy. I don’t even mind if they limit use in cities like London to a few days per year for special events. Just not a total ban please!.

          Use of historics should be encouraged! After all it’s a hobby which is excellent for business as well as a source of pleasure and even education, culture etc. The environmental impact is negligible as already discussed above.

          However I think it’s inevitable that VED for petrol powered cars and indeed tax on petrol will rise sharply when petrol powered cars become the minority. A bit like tax on smoking as you say. This is fair enough. Just don’t ban us!!!!!!

          • Lewblew : I think you have misunderstood the position. It is not petrol powered cars which are now seen as posing the danger, but diesels , with their particulate emissions and Nox emissions . The government stance is to persuade people back to petrol

  8. A great article. If you know what the car has been used for thats half the battle. If you get a classic thats done a lot of motorway journeys then you know if its been looked after that it’ll get you safely to your destination on a long trip. Totally agree with Mike about running in a low mileage classic as opposed to simply doing 20000 miles a year.

    • Absolutely Paul. I also think that their are a number of classics that are more suitable to everyday use than others. I like to think of myself as somebody who likes old cars in general, but If I had the choice of running an older (lets say pre 1985)car as a daily with a certain level of modern day expectation, I would certainly consider a number of subtle (ish)upgrades. Consider the following scenario:

      I am given a choice of pre 1985 classic to use as a daily. In my case my choice depends on the following factors:

      Does it have 4/5 seats, doors and a good boot?
      Can it handle motorways comfortably ? (70mph with a good bit in reserve)
      Is it going to try and kill you if driven in the snow?
      Is it simple enough to maintain (without having to grease up every week)
      Are parts easy enough to obtain and a reasonable cost?
      Is it comfortable to travel in on long journeys?
      Is the MPG reasonable?

      Personally my choice as has been highlighted happens to be a Maxi 1750. I’m sure a 1500 would be fine but I only have driving experience of the 1750. However upon discovering my barnfind the following would happen prior to blasting it across Europe.
      A thorough service including renewing the brake pads, shoes, fluid and changing the points, HT Leads and coolant and hoses.
      Renewing all tyres with a set of good quality replacements
      Electrical upgrades consist of halogen headlights, rear fog light fitment and a decent stereo with four decent speakers. For a pre 79 Maxi the addition of twin column stalks for wipers and electric washers is essential.
      Fitment of rear seatbelts if I have a family.FYI with the Maxi there are pre drilled and threaded holes for these
      Finally yes, unless you really are adventurous to the point of borderline insanity spend a few weeks pottering about in it ironing out all the bugs before heading off into the great unknown.

  9. The day I bought the 214 from Birmingham and drive it home to south wales was a butt clenching experience, as it was owned by an elderly gent who had passed away and his wife decided to sell it as she couldn’t drive and it held to many memory’s.

    With the car only having 18,000 miles on it when I bought it in 2012, and only doing the odd shopping run of 3 miles every week or so, the trip home to wales was taken very consciously, the thought of a 20 year old timing belt working harder than ever by doing 50-60 miles an hour on a motorway keeps your speed in check. The car had never been on a motorway since it left the showroom in 1991.

    But slowly the car came back to life with a new timing belt of course, and was used on a semi regular basis, but then the thought of using it and racking up the miles made me retire it from regular duty.

    But as i needed a car for regular use I decided to offer it to Mike in return of his 75.

    In mike’s hands it has gradually come back to life but it would have been a different story if the car passed onto regular and unsympathetic ownership

    • Totally with you there Neil. My Tomcat which I bought in May has just had the timing belt renewed. It’s been on my to do list since purchase. I first came across the car in 2010 when it was owned by somebody who looked after it but nevertheless wasn’t afraid to use it. It then passed from him to another one or two less enthusiastic owners who left it parked up for about 3 years gathering dust, rust and bird poo. It was resurrected earlier this year by a neighbour of mine who needed a cheap runabout and just before I left Germany he sold it to me for the princely sum of E400. Yep not £400. Minus a few trim rattles and some rust in the front arches the car has been fine. Upon returning to the UK and since it was MOT’d in July, Ive had to renew both front wheel bearings and the drivers door window regulator and electric motor. I’ve replaced all the perishables such as the power steering belt, dizzy cap, HT Leads etc as a matter of course as I do with any secondhand car and had the engine and gearbox oils changed so I now know where I stand with it. I find the car goes very well with a nice rasp through the exhaust yet will return in excess of 40mpg on a mixture of town and motorway driving, the boot is big enough and does have folding rear seats although not as practical as a hatchback. It also came with a spare set of steel wheels with good quality winter tyres so the car is fully prepared for everyday winter use. The only time it let me down as such is when the battery mysteriously died one day. Went to get into the car, central locking not working, no interior or dashboard lights, in fact no life at all. The previous day all had been well. A quick test of the battery showed 2.5v across the terminals. One replacement battery 3 months ago and all has been fine since.

  10. The Mark 3 Cavalier was an excellent car, perhaps the last great Vauxhall, and there’s still quite a few around today. Also as a practical classic, these make sense as they were designed for long motorway journeys and will return 40 mpg on the open road.

  11. Great article,i recently got rid of all the cars i had around me save for the Marina coupe and a Carlton CDX which i use quite a lot nowadays despite its 19 mpg from a 2.0i!
    The car is mint everywhere reads 6 ppm on HC’s on emissions tests and is probably one of the greenest cars around in terms of its “carbon footprint”- 21 years old and not had to have another car built to replace it.

  12. Cavaliers of all generations were built for high mileages and motorway work. I had a Mark 2 that had done over 110,000 miles. liked its oil and was getting rusty, but never refused to start( except when a wire came loose from the starter motor), never broke down and the interior was free of rattles. Amazing as I didn’t service the old bus properly, beyond an oil change every six months, but it just kept going. Ended up selling it to someone for £ 150 who kept the Cav alive for another year( it would have been ten years old when I sold it).

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