I love cars. No, it’s not just that. I love motorised vehicles. They don’t have to be sleek, fast and expensive to be lovable. I can love big trucks, old tractors and one-off, V8 drag bikes. I haven’t owned any of those machines but I have owned cars. Okay, I also once had a super-bike - and I have a small tractor.
I have owned and loved some sorry old heaps. Only one was purchased in dire need, after my spotless Rover SDX was T-boned by an adulterous couple who went through a red light, in the late eighties. I mention the morals of the other party because they wanted to avoid any publicity. I feel like naming and shaming them here. Ultimately, I got shafted by the cunning low-lives and the crash eventually cost me a bundle. While my Rover was being repaired, I sold some irreplaceable assets and bought a twenty-eight year old VW Beetle, for two thousand Rand, ‘voetstoots’.
My wife could use the car for the kids’ commutes to and from school and I would work on it every few days, to keep it on the road. The brakes were the weak, old drum type. It had a rotten, six-volt electrical system, the generator was shot and a new battery was priced at nearly triple that of the normal twelve-volt kind. I was already broke, so I scavenged one large diode from some industrial scrap and made a starter cart with my welder. If the car was started once in the morning, the battery would usually last for the afternoon trip to fetch the kids. My wife quickly identified the parking spots at the shops that had a usable slope, for a back-up option of getting the Beetle to start. It was purely a temporary means.
When the first tire wore out, I discovered that the obsolete nineteen-inch replacements would cost a fortune. I replaced all four rims and tires with fourteen-inchers, for close to the price of two of those nineteen-inch tires alone. The car was pale green and had been reupholstered in white before I got it, so I bought white rims as well. The tires looked so much fatter than the original ‘marie-biscuits’. I polished the car and ultra-cleaned the interior and engine. When I stood back, I suddenly realised that this was one of the most beautiful cars I had ever owned. I pampered and massaged it for another fifteen years after that. Then I sold it to one of the labourers who helped me build my house - for five hundred Rand. He had it painted bright yellow, the last time I saw it. Neat as a pin!
Another beloved crock was a red Fiat Uno. My two eldest kids learned to drive in my car. In fact, I could cope only with the first son. I recall, to my deep shame, giving him an earful of my wrath after he stalled for the umpteenth time from a standing start. Eventually, my wife took over and I tried not to imagine what my poor Nissan was being subjected to. The second child’s trainer was thus automatically selected as a consequence. Again, I pretended that they weren't torturing my four-wheeled pet.
I bought each of them in turn, their own BMW. Sounds rich, I know – but you didn't see those cars! When you see a tired out, twenty two year old, faded classic, smoking at the lights, that’s what I’m talking about. One was a 318i and the other was a 320i – both of eighties vintage. Each of those cars was bought in a decidedly un-roadworthy state. Each was whacked. I spent the price of the car again to get it through the test. And the price again to fix it up so that, by the time I was finished, neither of the kids wanted to trade them in for lesser new cars. This did not happen overnight, of course. The lengthy restorations obviously contributed to the relationship I formed with these classic beauties. Eventually, as each child did decide to buy a new car, I bought those BMW’s back at the dealer’s trade-in offer. I had to part with them eventually, of course, one at a time. I really miss those ladies, though …
Maybe I should mention at this stage that I have always been a homebody. When other guys went fishing or golfing, I pottered in the garage – or studied. No interest in sport, a very limited circle, okay, two, of similarly-minded friends and ten, or less, days away from home on annual holidays. Between my wife and me, a bottle of wine could sometimes last a month. Neither of us smoked. My ‘allowance’ went on tools, machinery, electronic components and in later years, PC’s and all of their paraphernalia. When I built a garage it was big. I had a lathe and a furnace. I made stuff.
Some years after the older two, kiddies three and four were ready for their driving lessons. By this time, I had finally figured out that I should buy a suitable donor car before they learned to drive. I could then be anxiety free as they ground away the innocent starter motor, crunched the gears, banged the rims into kerbs and laid down short, black streaks with panicky stops or clumsy take-offs. With a mind freed of desperate anguish for my expensive Audi, by that time, the kids could have the benefit of my vastly superior driving knowledge and highly skilled training techniques. Mom could stay at home. So I bought a Fiat Uno.
That poor, poor Fiat! I first met it at a cramped, ‘cheapie’ used-car dealer in an area where you just know the yard owner will have gold teeth and speak with a foreign accent and a surprising number of swarthy, thick-set gentlemen in dark shirts, wearing diamond-studded watches and heavy gold jewelry with rubies, will sit in a back office, maybe playing cards and sipping clear liquids. Somehow, you ‘sense’ that they have multiple business interests.
Fortunately, they sent out a nattily-dressed black chap to deal with me. The world is a small place. This bloke turned out to be ‘Sandman’, a marvelous guy who I had employed when he was still a schoolboy. He had helped me tame my wild garden, after my third son had been born. His name was Sam, but my kids thought I was calling him ‘Sand’, as kids will logically deduce at that age. And for a year and a bit, Sandman had been part of the family.
Things took their course; we had a delightful reunion in the office. Sandman generously introducing me as an old friend, to the dubious-looking, grizzled owner, got me off the hook as just another catch. Hearing my requirements, the decidedly-non-eastern-european-mafia owner, Fizzy, a relative-with-complex-links to Sandman, led me eventually to the Uno.
It crouched there like a whipped dog. The most notable thing was that not a single body panel had escaped some impact – repeatedly. As if it had been on the receiving end of a hundred and seventeen carefully aimed cricket balls. It was faded red but remarkably rust free, since it was only eight years old. The windscreen was badly cracked, but that hardly mattered because there was the deep, double-fan-shape of scratches gouged by the wipers. This was because the wipers ran in the ‘intermittent’ mode whenever the ignition was on. The front carpets were saturated with brake fluid, dripping off the both the clutch and brake pedals. The seat upholstery, originally black, had an almost-even coat of greasy, brown filth. The door locks were broken. As were the rear, side windows, both steering column stalks. Anything else that could be opened, closed, flipped or switched was damaged. The gauges didn't work when I turned the key – but the engine started!
It eventually idled bravely but any movement of the accelerator was met with a reluctant series of shudders, stutters and after some delay, a slowly rising thrashing sound from the engine bay. After opening the bonnet, I saw why. Somebody had ‘rebuilt’ the engine – from the evidence, with not much more than a shifting spanner and a pair of pliers. A testament to the abilities of a desperately under-equipped mechanic. I won’t painstakingly describe every rotten pipe, broken exhaust, burned wire and coating of oily filth – but believe me, it was bad.
Fizzy told me that the car had been through a few owners’ hands. I eventually found out that there had been four. The last two had lived in a ‘township’ and had not been able to ‘keep up the maintenance’. I stood back and tried to see this car rejuvenated, in my mind’s eye.
I still bought it! I bought it out of sympathy for Fizzy and Sandman. I like to think that they appreciated my custom. Just because I saw Sandman later in a year-old E-Class Merc, doesn't mean that he didn't need the sale at that time.
One last anecdote about that car, because this story is already way too long. I got it home, long enough to fix almost all of the electrics, glass, lights, engine, exhaust and some bodywork myself. Then I drove it to the car wash. I told the owner my story and bought the most expensive service that they offered. His team did a wonderful job, let me tell you. It was miraculous. I’m pretty good at pressing out dents and had fixed a lot of them. When that Uno was vacuumed, scrubbed,washed and polished, with its new glass and tires, it was gorgeous.
There was just one, tiny problem.
The car would not start. I had cleaned the engine rather well already but the service had included a steam clean anyway. The car-wash owner had tried everything to get it going, sprayed a can of moisture repellent into every electrical socket and joint. Checked every wire that he could see. When I arrived to fetch the car, he was visibly drained. After some intensive trouble-shooting, I traced the problem to a dead ignition controller. It had lasted through so many abuses but it decided that enough was enough when they had tried to start it while wet. Of course it was too late in the day to find a spare. The next day was wasted trying to find one anywhere. It rained on my nice clean Fiat. The car wash crew kindly washed it again the day after that. I was delighted to finally find another Uno in a scrap-yard – with its ignition module intact. A block the size of a large toffee. I drove home victorious.
It was the last thing I ever had to fix on that car again. It ran like a sweet little bird. A willing little go-kart that ran on the smell of petrol. What a delight that small bundle of joy gave to us – my two youngest learned to drive within the same week! I was really sad to see it leave home with my son. Sadly, one year later, it was stolen from outside a hospital, where my son was visiting. A heartbreaking loss for me – and my son, of course. We got a pittance from the insurance, naturally. Oh - a tip for driving lessons! When teaching someone to drive, pick a circuit through a convenient neighbourhood. Drive that same circuit over and over and over again. Within an hour or so, the learner has completely absorbed the route, steering and turn signals. Their focus is the smooth gear-change, the smooth stop, the smooth take-off. Maybe everybody knows this – it was certainly a discovery of note to me. The teachers I've seen still seem to think, as I once did, that variety is very necessary. I've found that it might not be.