In a driving career spanning 25 years and over 150 cars, Keith Adams highlights some of the highs… and lows.
In the first of the series, it’s time to recall a couple of months in 1989 behind the wheel of a Škoda Estelle 120L, a car that did its best to put its owner off driving for life.
Czeching my sanity
My first foray into Škoda ownership came pretty much by accident. How could it not? My early years of car ownership were defined by my lack of money, willpower and an aversion to walking and public transport. By that, I mean, I earned far too little cash to own anything approaching desirable; with no willpower, I was completely unable to save any of the meagre funds I had; and, as for walking, I’d done far too much of that before I passed my driving test. So, why would I want to do more?
Between 1987 and 1990, I went through a hair-raising collection of snotters that would turn the stomach of the most ardent of car enthusiasts – but my string of mobile munters definitely hit its nadir one summer weekend in 1989, when I thought it would be a good idea to swap my broken Vauxhall Chevette for a bright orange Škoda Estelle 120L. I was staying at my girlfriend’s place and, after fretting about my three-speed (and no top) Vauxhall Chevette, saw salvation when I spotted a local trader heading to my tame mechanic’s place in said Škoda.
Sensing a deal, I put my trousers on, dashed over the road and explained my predicament. I was skint, I had a Chevette with no fourth gear, and I needed to be back at work (in Doncaster) on Monday morning. Clearly, he saw me coming, offered me his Škoda, for my shiny Vauxhall, plus £50. To be fair, I’ve always been curious about the Estelle – it was a rear-engined, had the look of a BMW 5 Series (when viewed through beer goggles), and this one proudly wore an X-plate registration, compared with my aged Vauxhall’s tired old V-plate. It’s funny how when you’re desperate, you’ll do anything to justify a crazy decision – and this was mine… I was getting a newer car, with the correct number of gears, to boot.
A quick look round the Estelle revealed that all four tyres had just enough tread to pass an MoT, the bumpers and bodywork were reasonably straight, and the interior was in one piece, even if it was unremittingly black inside. The paint had lost all of its lustre, and matched a new-build Wilson home in hue, and to anyone even half-way sane, this car had all the kerbside appeal of a freshly-laid pile of derring-do.
Needless to say, when I crossed the road back to my girlfriend’s house, and explained I’d cleverly done a deal to get me back on the road, she seemed pleased. Until she asked me what the car was. Back then, owning a Škoda was akin to admitting you were a were a serial nose-picker. Or maybe not. But when she clapped eyes on my new steed, she exploded with silent rage, leaving me to enjoy the rest of the weekend in silence – and alone…
Still, at least, I was properly mobile again. Phew!
After that, I decided I really should take my new steed for a drive. And at that point, things actually started off pretty well. The body panels felt cheap and the doors were thin, but it seemed like a reasonably cohesive structure. The driving position (off-set pedals aside) and visibility were first class and, although it was stark inside, I didn’t mind the interior’s back to basic feel and lack of style. I quite liked the floor-hinged pedals and the choke lever located by the handbrake, too – and, when the engine burst into life after a relatively few churns of the lazy starter, it did so with an endearing clattery hum (from the rear).
Once underway, it went well enough too. The steering was impossible to fault, and the gearchange relatively pain-free through the wand-like lever. The ride was firm, but well damped – and, in all, I began to wonder why people held these cars in such low esteem, as it all felt so solid and planted.
However, that honeymoon of discovery soon faded. A random homebrew switch hanging in the footwell on the end of some mains flex had me wondering. Flicking it soon revealed a bodge – the engine cooling fan came would come on with it, humming so insistently, the body started vibrating. But, hey, that’s not a problem – just stick it on in traffic jams. It soon became clear this car had cooling issues, with it running hot at the merest whiff of traffic. The best way to deal with that was by leaving that fan on permanently, and turning the radio up a little more. Fixing or even investigating the issue wasn’t going to happen – even if I did depend on this old heap.
Sadly, my Škoda adventure turned for the worse after a bit of a front-ender involving a hapless soul in a 1978 Mazda 323, which left it looking the worse for wear, and the radiator even more damaged than it was before. But my way of straightening it out and fixing the Škoda was to take it into a friend’s garage, unscrew all the front panels, remodel them the best I could with a rubberised hammer, and put them back on. Liberal amounts of duck tape gave it a desirable (in my mind) Lancia Montecarlo-style black rubberised front-end – and on I carried motoring.
With its cooling system knackered, it was only worth driving at night, when the temperature was lower. Travelling during the hours of darkness also meant fewer people would see me in it, too. Despite that, I was stopped by the police in it. Regularly… Once, when travelling through Halifax, I was pulled over by a traffic officer who clearly just wanted to know what kind of a loser would drive a car like this. There was no reason for him to do so, and when I clambered out of the car, he turned to face me with the question, ‘what are these things really like to own?’
Then there was another time in Blackpool when, after throwing it round a 90-degree bend near the railway station, pleased with my on-limit driving at 30mph, I was pulled by the Rover 827 driving traffic cop behind me. A breathalyser session was the reward for my efforts. Obviously, I was given the all-clear with the parting message, ‘take it home sonny, and buy a new car.’
The final straw came in August 1989, when I ended up driving down to Milton Keynes. My girlfriend (yes, she hadn’t left me) had bought a couple of tickets to see Bon Jovi and, against her better judgement, refused to accept my offer of rail tickets, insisting that we drive down instead. The journey down was uneventful – I did it at night with her sleeping alongside most of the way down. We parked up at the MK Bowl in dawn’s early light, and went on to enjoy a brilliant show. It was an unseasonably warm weekend, though, and by the time it was time to head back (we stopped over night, worn out after a packed programme of Europe, Bon Jovi, Skid Row and Vixen) the following morning, temperatures were pushing 30 degrees.
That vinyl and nylon-clad interior soon became a hot-house torture chamber and, within miles of leaving Buckinghamshire and heading back to the civility of the North, the overheating Škoda started to protest at such a stern drive. I decided to find the A6 and stick on it all the way home – but the Bank Holiday traffic was no help. It was gridlock, and that was further punishment. The Škoda overheated regularly – in fact, about every five miles or so. It consumed water like a dying man in a desert, and my own sanity began to falter. My girlfriend, ever stoic, remained sane, and refused to be brought down by our limping progress.
The hellish heat continued to punish the Škoda, though, and at some point just north of Leicester, I decided the best thing to do would be to dump it in a field, set fire to the sodding thing and catch the train home. But she wouldn’t let me – and persuaded me to pitch up at a road-side cafe and wait until dusk. It wasn’t a bad idea – and, as the day cooled into evening, we resumed our journey, making it back to Blackpool in one easy drive.
I was free the next weekend and so did what was right: I scrapped the Škoda.
The strange thing is, though, I look back on this few weeks of car ownership hell as character-building. From that point on, I’d look on basic maintenance and repairs as a necessary evil, as opposed to something to be ignored. I also learned that, no matter how desperate you are, never, ever give up. I think I’d also have another Estelle, and give it a proper chance. The poor thing did have some redeeming features and, now over 20 years on, I think I’m recovered enough to have another go…
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