Coffee-Break Memories : The magic of the self-repairing car

Minimize that spread sheet and flick the kettle on for a coffee-break smiler. This time Mike Humble ponders for a moment on that mystical motoring phenomenon… cars that fix themselves.

Full electrics and pepper pots - The Sierra Ghia was once a fully loaded bargain in every sense. You wont get even a half decent one for under two grand today!
Full electrics and pepper pots – the Sierra Ghia was once a full-loaded bargain in every sense.
You won’t get even a half-decent one for under two grand today!

Let’s be truthful, how many of us have gone to look at used car only to be fed a load of old pony from the vendor about how the car only needs this or requires a little bit of that to make it perfect? You see it in the online adverts, too, where the faults are mentioned and the remedy is also mentioned – for most of the time, it’s all utter tripe. There’s a very true saying that every used car has its story…

Blimey, if some of mine from when I was a pup could speak, I’d be writing this from the comfort of a prison library! I once travelled across the Pennines to view a used Saab that was so full of little niggling problems that, having listened to the dunderhead owner tell me all about what needed to be done for half an hour, I put the journey down as half a day out in the countryside and ran off.

However, sometimes these snag-riddled rattlers make a stunning bargain purchase, especially if you are savvy with a spanner. That said, just as with an advisory issue on your MoT, these need to be addressed if you want to avoid trouble with your Triumph with a capital T – faults just don’t go away by magic. And yet how many of you have heard that smile inducing quote ‘oh, it’s sorted itself out’?

Plenty I would imagine… If you cut your finger on a Spam tin, it bleeds like a machete-frenzied massacre but, after a week or so, the wound heals and you would never know – the human body is quite remarkable. If only you could park your Marina in the garage after clobbering a bollard and come back a week later to find a similar miracle… Nope, that front wing still looks as bent as an expenses-fiddling MP.

My mind takes me back about four stones ago when my good mate, but often spectacularly useless; Richard bagged a really cheap 87/D Sierra 2.0i Ghia. All the boxes were ticked so far as it was gold metallic, had a gutsy injected Pinto, a slick-shifting five-speeder and had what lesser-badged Ford owners had wet dreams in the night over – pepper pot alloy wheels.

There were, of course, some downsides in that it required a fair bit of welding and, thanks to that other Sierra trait of knackered compliance bushes on the track control arms, it cornered with all the pin-sharp precision of a Tesco trolley. There was also the issue of its MoT being even shorter than the lifespan of a mayfly, but the car was bought for pin money and destined to be nothing more than sold on for a modest but worthwhile profit.

The classic Ford Pinto plant - as DIY friendly as they came. The 2.0i was never the first word in refinement or efficiency but boy would they take some abuse not to mention having some serious low end grunt.
The classic Ford Pinto plant – as DIY friendly as they came. The 2.0i was never the
first word in refinement or efficiency but, boy, would they take some abuse not to
mention having some serious low-end grunt

After burning a few holes in our finest Fruit of the Loom T-shirts with a Clarke Mini Mig and some fettling of the front suspension, the all-important ticket was issued, but then another problem came up. Every now and again it would simply splutter and die – my mate was convinced it was muck in the fuel while I was betting my last Rolo it was the coil or something electrical breaking down under heat/load owing to the fact it seemed time/distance related.

However, this was my problem as it wasn’t my car and my labour was provided as a favour. Well, that was until one weekend when my friend’s parents went up North visiting family. Plans were made to spend Saturday night terrorising the residents of Northampton with the Sierra, grab an Indian take out and some tins and duly fly back to his house to watch something ‘educational’ on the VHS.

For reasons I can’t remember, we had a spin out to Rugby in the end (some 18 miles west) via our test route of choice – the A428 via West Haddon and Crick. It was getting late by now and about half a mile shy of Althorp House, where the Euston – Birmingham railway line crosses the A428, the Sierra lost all its power as if someone had turned the key off.

Freewheeling onto the verge some furious engine churning failed to coax some life back; that’s ok he said; she’ll go again in 10 minutes. The allocated time came and went but the car point blank refused to run and, by now, the battery was fading fast. I remember getting somewhat irate as I had taken it as red that he’d fixed the fault only for him to reckon that, because it hadn’t packed up in a few days, it must have surely cured itself.

Thanks to those pre-mobile ‘phone days, we enjoyed a long six or seven mile walk in pitch darkness with about three cigarettes between us back to his parents’ house to grab my car and drag his sick Sierra back to civilisation. We did, of course, try thumbing a lift but, quite rightly, who was going to stop for two lads in the middle of nowhere rapidly approaching the middle of the night?

Arriving back at the scene of the breakdown, the Sierra’s hazards were dimmer than a glow worm. My hefty jump leads crackled and sparked as some badly-needed amps were shovelled back into the recipient’s 085 battery. Out of curiosity he turned the key and the damn thing kicked into life immediately and was driven back to Northampton without any further drama.

By now, all the purveyors of fine spicy cuisine in a carton were long closed and we were simply way too knackered to watch any TV. We laughed it off back then, though, just as we did a few weeks ago when recounting our many mayhem-filled motoring mishaps – over, of course, a well-earned Indian meal.

Oh, and by the way, it was the coil!

Mike Humble


  1. I had some experience in that area aswel:

    My SD1 vitesse works better in the UK and fixes itself overthere!

    When i have had the car for a year me and a mate decided to take the car to its birthground with the ferry from hook of Holland to Harwich.

    It had always had a few small problems: – starting (warm and cold) would take quite a bit of tries and cracking time.
    – passenger window wouldnt open
    -rear foglights would only work if you kept pussing the button
    – hazzards and indicators required ‘a special touch’

    As soon as we where in the UK al problems started to go away.
    Al the windows worked no problem. The car would start when just flicking the keys and the fog lights and indicators presented no trouble.

    What a joy! …till we drove of the ferrey when we got back in Holland. Starting wasnt as trouble free anymore and the passenger window hasnt worked anymore… and as you can guess, both foglights and hazzards got back their trouble aswel.

    Self repairing car or magic energyfield in the UK, you tell me?

  2. “Lets be truthful, how many of us have gone to look at used car only to be fed a load of old pony from the vendor about how the car only needs this or requires a little bit of that to make it perfect? You see it in the online adverts too where the faults are mentioned and the remedy is also mentioned, for most of the time its all utter tripe.”

    One of my pet hates, you see loads on ebay that says minimum work to get MOT or I think it would get a ticket if I took to the centre.

    Really, you haven’t got a spare hour and £50? I always ask when the car last had an MOT and what it failed on. The evasion or silence generally reveals the truth, that the seller is trying to pull a fast one.

    The other give away that you’re dealing with a lemon is a classic car which has two paragraphs on the mechanicals and the bodywork isn’t mentioned, or just says good condition for age.

    Since most of the cars of that age have been scrapped, merely existing is good condition for age. So basically the seller wants to get around sites like ebay’s not as described rule by selling a pile of rust as if it was in good nick.

    Anyway, rant over.

  3. Merlijn
    You say ‘magic energyfield’ – well, I do wonder, Back in the 1990s I had a much loved Rover 827 Fastback, which gave me 5 years faultless service, but it did have one strange characteristic. It was normally parked on my drive in a North-South alignment, and always started up perfectly, running smoothly from the off. However, on the odd occasion that something else was parked in its normal slot, I had to park it facing East-West. Whenever it had a night in that alignment, it always had a slight misfire on starting, which took about two minutes running to clear. Condensation on ignition leads or something ? I don’t think so, you could never see anything like that, and it happened regardless of weather conditions.
    Earth’s magnetic field, Leylines ???

  4. Once looked at an Accord saloon – “Definitely no engine lights” said the oddly specific message in the used ad. Went and had a look. Turned the key – glowing engine light. “Oh I’ve a mate up the road who can turn that off again for you…” I shook my head at his lack of care for mechanical maintenance and ran away.

    Jag X type similarly on a test drive, the coil/glow plug light kept flicking on – “Oh it never usually does that”. That was the one with the 2 o’clock straight line steering – “Oh it just needs alignment”. Then why didn’t you? This needed a chassis puller probably. Legged it.

    Of my own faults that “went away” then came back, the Accord coupe kept dying much as your pals Sierra, 10 minutes and it started right up. Main relay.

    And the current Saab annoyance of sometimes making helicopter noise impressions at motorway speeds, yet when I take it to the mechanic it is as quiet as a mouse in a cats home. “Nothing wrong with it mate” as he briefly shakes the wheel and the bearings hold up. ‘But there is’ I say to myself in despair….

  5. The Sierra photo is probably from the car’s early years and you can tell it’s a Ghia because of the different and better looking lighting arrangement. Never, except in V6 estate form, a car I really cared for looks wise and like all Fords, you needed to go up the range to get some luxuries like velour seats and a cassette player.

    • I drove the Cortina and Sierra for my work, I preferred the Cortina over the Sierra accepting they were both “average” cars. My final comment, the Sierra was simply mutton dressed as lamb

  6. Another Sierra picture used a lot is a side profile of a red one showing the airflow across it.

    At the time of launch it must have had a low drag co-efficiency, certainly compared to the Cortina’s wardrobe level of streamlining.

    One of my school text books used this picture.

    BMW & VAG were also short of features unless you ticked the optional extras list, though the Japanese makes went ouf of their way to have some things as standard.

  7. @ Richard Davies, until the nineties, BMW wouldn’t even fit a radio as standard and cars which were ordered without options tended to be as meanly specced as a Sierra L. The Japanese always were best for value in the 80s, even the smallest Nissan came with a radio, tinted glass, clock, lighter and cloth seats.

  8. I remember my Dad mentioning one of his friends bought a BMW 3 series in the 1980s which didn’t have a lights on buzzer, when his wife’s base model Nova had one as standard.

    Datsuns in the 1970s often had a radio & heater when these were optional extras on many cars.

  9. @ Richard 16378, you’d buy a basic 316 in the early eighties and it had little in the way of standard kit, some even lacking tinted glass. I think it was BMW’s way of making you go further up the range, where also you’d get better performance.
    As regards heaters, I think nearly all cars had these as standard by the seventies, but radios weren’t very common on British cars until the late seventies.

  10. @ Glenn Aylett – sorry to be such an anorak about it, but the following fact took me by surprise at the time which is probably why I remember it.

    The last car NOT to be fitted with a heater as standard in the UK market, (in 1975) was ‘Britain’s Cheapest 4-wheeled Car’ – the ‘basic trim’ Hillman Imp – although it could have one fitted as a cost option.

    Rather strangely for the time, this model did come with a heated rear window, which does have a certain logic about it, but was the opposite of what other car makers were doing then. Probably it worked-out as cheaper for Chrysler.

    Either way it was a rare beastie – one of those models that you could order in theory but would wait a long time for delivery, which is why the few remaining new Imp buyers by then went for the ‘DL’ version instead.

    I thought Ford was always the worst culprit for mean equipment levels in those days – the lowest Escorts and Fiestas still not having HRW’s fitted until the late 1980’s…

  11. I knew Ford used to have “poverty spec” base levels to make sure customers chose a higher spec, though a few managed to be ordered.

  12. In some ways Dacia is the equivalent of modern “no radio” poverty spec, spend a bit more and get a Renault from the same showroom…

  13. We seem to have veered off-subject, but when talking about lack of basic equipment, some of us oldies will remember the time when Ford sold roadholding as an optional extra! I’m referring, of course to radial ply tyres…

  14. The Mk2 Populars were very low spec, with cross ply tyres, stickers for badges & 4 wheel drums, along with some other penny pinching.

    Vauxhall had a limited edition poverty spec Viva due to an oversupply of bodyshells that needed clearing.

  15. When I worked for GEC in thr 70s our fleet manager bought a bunch of Escort Populars. No sound proofing , radio or parcel shelf. A dire place to spend any time.

    Those brake and cross ply tires were awful, several of the fleet cars were written off in accidents.

    I almost managed to almost flip mine at less than 10 mph into the headge-rows, got it up on 2 wheels before catching it and apart from a drivers window, wing mirror and a bit of paint I got off easy.

    However when the car was returned from repair it had michelin radials installed. They learned their lesson no more Populars were added to the fleet after that .

  16. I had a Mk2 Golf 1.6GL that had the mysterious loss of power syndrome. It would run fine for several weeks and then the power would simply fall off until you were left trundling at 25-30mph with the engine sneezing & coughing. It would then just as randomly pick up and run like a good-un.

    Plugs, leads, dizzy cap, condenser etc plus total cleaning out of the carb, lines and even the tank and fitting a fuel filter also made no difference. Nor could the dealer find any electrical gremlins on the diagnostics. Needless to say it would run impeccably every time anyone looked at it!

    Thought we had sorted it until on a long run back to Liverpool from Basingstoke it died just short of Frankley services. I limped into Frankley at 20mph to find a friendly RAC man (I was a member) who did various things to the carb and lo and behold it picked up and ran. He followed me a couple of miles to make sure I was ok and then peeled off at the next junction.

    About 10 miles from home it did the same thing again, but mysteriously picked up after about 2 miles (on the A580).

    After 6 months woth of messing about with it, I duly traded it in on a Ford Escort 1.4LX (Mk4 CVH – not Fords finest hour either) but before I could pick up my new car the Golf was written off by a drunk driver (that’s another story) with no sorrow on my part.

    However, the insurance inspector (who was quite happy to write it off and pay a good wedge for it) did say that he thought it had been in a crash previously and repaired.

  17. My late lamented Robocolt – a Mitsubishi Colt with all the character of a Jack Russell – would oil up no.1 plug badly, in the end it needed changing about every 3000 miles. Suddenly it stopped oiling up. I conclude that a valve stem seal must have split, then the split blocked up with dirt!

    Can’t resist adding another story: One evening I was leaving my work car park with the alternator belt singing a merry song, as it did for about two minutes every night. I waved to my friend Carlos; when I saw him in the office the next morning, he said “Ken – your car! It makes an awful noise”
    “Which one?”, I replied…

  18. A workmate who was very handy with the spanners purchased a Peugeot 205 GTi at a scrapyard price from an exasperated owner, a car which was something of a mechanical Christine ( reference the film), a car back and forth to the dealer with engine shutting down problems , the dealers had replaced many parts including an ECU switch to no avail, he found the problem to be in the OBDII plug loom, bare melted wires shorting and paralysing the ECU. 5 minutes work with heat shrink tubing to fix the fault. Another example of the DIY mechanic outwitting the professionals

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