Here’s why I enjoy bad old cars. 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 InterCity 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.
Cars, cars, cars…
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.
Dealers didn’t mind being pestered by an enthusiast
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.
So many motors on the bedroom wall
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 Ford Sierra 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.
Loving the Yugoslavian imports
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 chariots – 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.
And the old-school Skodas
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 Skoda 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.
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.
Appreciating Lada’s wonderful Riva
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.
There’s nothing like a Lada heater…
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.
Learning to dislike the FSO 125P
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 1980s 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.
Yes, there were some truly dreadful cars to be bought, even as recently as 20 odd 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.
The East Europeans weren’t the only sinners
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 while 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.
Let’s not forget Daewoo’s bad old 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.
So… you can’t buy a bad new car anymore?
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!