Post by Shy Ted
It was a chance comment that got me thinking. “What was your favourite car, Ted?” I was chatting to some car guys with big wallets, members of the Aston Martin and Rolls Royce clubs, one even a vintage restorer. I wasn’t even close to their league but friend of a friend saw me there. “I think it was a Volvo”. How they laughed. “A Volvo! Why?” One particularly agreeable chap knew I changed vehicles all the time and insisted on going for a drive in whatever the latest mode of transport was. He knew. So I told them the tale.
Later, in a quiet moment I got out the pen and paper and began to list them in order of ownership. From the relative poverty of late teens where a Mini with go faster stripes on the side and a small steering wheel was the bees knees to the relative prosperity of middle age and the choice of a range of slightly superior vehicles to that difficult bit of life where only a certain type with certain features would fit the bill, I wrote and rewrote the list, totalling 23 different ones, some of which were completely forgettable, some bland but functional and others where I nearly cried when I sold them such was my regret.
The Minis were great and that small steering wheel replacing the enormous standard one gave go kart-like handling. Such teenage fun and nobody cared about the discomfort of getting in and out or the necessity of putting a newspaper on the engine in Winter so it would start the next morning. Quite funny if you forgot to take it off on those freezing mornings.
The Ford Escort RS2000 was conquering all on the rally circuit and I snapped up the smaller version, the Mexico. Bucket seats, wide tyres and sharp handling but a little hard to live with on a day to day basis so it had to go. In my little circle of friends we’d buy and almost immediately put it up for sale at a higher price, trying to make a few quid and it wasn’t uncommon to own it for only a few weeks and this became a thing, buy and sell, buy and sell, trying to get ahead. While we thought we were cool with the hot hatch, the girls didn’t. “How can you get a baby seat in that?” they thought, even though baby seats hadn’t been invented. They wanted a bit of comfort and luxury and the men who provided that got the girl.
A disastrous career move and a big pay cut saw me in something basic but the first car that was just joyous, a Citroen Dyane, a cheap version of the iconic 2CV6. Going round the first corner I thought I was going to die. It leaned alarmingly as though it was going to fall over. But it didn’t. As my confidence grew I found you could throw it round any corner and feel like you were going to die. But you didn’t. Performance? Nil. Comfort? Nil. Style? Nil. Fold back vinyl roof to let the rain or snow in, the worst gearbox ever, locks that didn’t lock, truly awful but the most fun that could be had for peanuts. So that was what a car could be.
The early years in Oz saw a Datsun, Honda, Ford, another Ford but a V8 this time, that was more like it but did it push the joy button? No. Another of life’ hiccups saw me in a remote area and only a 4WD would do. Off to the big smoke, test drove a few which left me unmoved and found myself outside a used car dealership looking at a box on wheels. Salesmen see me coming and I avoid them like the plague but this was an interesting and funky box and would get the tick of approval from ‘er indoors as it was auto. Jeep CJ8, completely basic, 2 seats and lots of space. Can’t remember what I paid for it but it was towards the budget end and not easily sellable. “Er indoors” was suitably unimpressed until she drove it. “Right, we’ll have the doors off for a start”, they just lifted off the hinges and we had discovered open air motoring. It was fun, fun, fun and I didn’t even think about selling it. It had a terrible design flaw. If you drove it in 4WD on the bitumen it stripped the metal gear thing in a matter of metres. Two of those and lesson learned. Astonishing 4WD ability and so many adventures opened up to us. When it was time to leave friends were making silly offers because they wanted to be as cool as I had been. The fattest guy in town paid us more than what I had paid two years earlier and suddenly he was super cool and a hit with the two available local ladies. I might have been a bit richer but the loss of something that was “just so me” left a hole that took some time to fill.
More rural and remote areas, Pajero in which we died of boredom, imperious Merc SL500 for peanuts, still looking for the “one”. “Er indoors” had suffered a back injury, now we had to pick carefully and settled on my first new car, a Jeep Grand Cherokee 4.7L V8 and with the added bonus of salary packaging through work. Everyone told us the packagers were a nightmare but I submitted the paperwork and waited. And waited. After several months I was able to talk to an actual person and they had no record of it so paperwork resubmitted. It was to be her car and when the phone rang to say it was ready she flew off to the big smoke and picked it up for the 2000km return road trip. “It’s fantastic”, she texted at the end of the first day. “Hit an eagle and the windscreen is all scratched. No one can fix the wiper”. “Had to drive through floodwaters and a log hit the door. Sorry”. “Roo strike, we should have got the full bullbar, not just the nudge bar”. She made it home and the damage was just cosmetic. The next day the phone rang. Jeep dealer: “Your new salary packaged car is ready for pick up”. “We picked it up 5 days ago, it’s here in the driveway”. “No, it’s here on the lot”… Yes, the packagers had found the original paperwork and ordered us two. And they didn’t make the first or second repayment despite payroll deductions so every month saw a late payment demand and increasingly threatening letters from the dealership – “$10,000 on default”. I hated them, it and could barely get inside such was my loathing. We moved a year later and despite advising the packagers they made no payroll deductions but kept paying the lease. One more monthly threatening letter, a bulging bank account, increasing salary packaged debt. Never again am I buying a new car! In the third year the monthly deductions were double and it was heartbreaking to work for a fortnight and take home $200. Truth be told I had started burning the letters before opening. The kicker was the $20k balloon payment after three years. And $4k in penalties
What was the Grand Cherokee like? It was like being in a washing machine, it just bounced around. After several years we needed new tyres. “I hate it” I told the tyre guy after he asked what it was like. He put semi offroad tyres on and transformed it into the beast it was intended to be. Awesome capability and 3mpg off road.
But back to year one. “er indoors” had her car. Where was mine? Watching an episode of MASH, I thought “that’s it, that’s what I want”. Did my research and discovered there were several makes available, just don’t get the Mahindra Willys Jeep (in the top 10 of worst 4WDs ever). Seller assured me it was not a Mahindra (remote area, bought unseen/test driven). It was. Delivered to nearest town. WTF! (have I bought?). The drive home was the most traumatic of any trip I’ve done ever and I didn’t even sit in it for the next three weeks. Truly awful in every way. Put it up for sale and the interested buyer, who knew all about them, showed me it’s little quirks on the test drive and offered me one third of what I had paid. I was tempted but didn’t accept. I’d actually been quite impressed with what it could do. It was awful but it was also awesome. Kept it for 4 years, went everywhere Range Rovers couldn’t and even drove it across Oz at 10km/h and loved every second of it. Crap cars were my thing.
So, the finalists were:
• Citroen Dyane
• Mahindra Willys Jeep
• Jeep CJ8
• Volvo S80 V8
• Jeep Wrangler
• Chrysler Crossfire
• Mazda MX5
• Toyota MR2
3rd Place: Mahindra Willys Jeep Stockman
Supremely awful in every way. No doors, roof, suspension, seat adjustment, comfort, crap engine and mismatched gearbox but the places I went and the pickles I got myself exploring. Two clips and you folded the windscreen onto the bonnet. Almost impossible to keep it going in a straight line at 60km/h and even went up to 80 once and thought I was going to die. You don’t want to go much above 40 with no windscreen. If it could talk it would have said, “nah, we’re good” and just climb up or down what was there. Don’t think I washed it even once.
2nd Place: Chrysler Crossfire
Merc SLK350 running gear. No performance, hard to get in and out of, ugliest car ever from certain angles, terrible to reverse but the joy of simply driving, it must be like a slow version of a car race. You’re part of it and it’s part of you. It also had a small aerofoil which would rise out of the boot when you hit 100km/h or when you pressed a button. At traffic lights I’d press it up and down and any kids in the car next to me or behind would go mental. “Mum, Dad look at that. Can we get one?” Then they’d leave me in their wake in the Corolla or Astra.
1st Place: Volvo S80 V8
I needed a standard car with 5 seats to host and transport a few old friends. Camry, Falcon, Commodore all fitted the bill but premium prices and keen buyers and I missed a few. In my frustration at not being able to find such a car on Gumtree I, just for fun, searched “Lamborghini”. 2 matches. One a Lambo mechanic, the other a Volvo. “What on earth is the word Lamborghini doing in a Volvo ad? It read “when you put your foot down it sounds like a Lamborghini”. Ha! But it was only 500m from where I was that day and so I arranged, with an unbelievably reluctant seller, to see it within the hour. I’d always considered them Grandad cars but owners seem to love them.
He was odd, almost creepy. Russian, early 20s, pale as a ghost and with the coldest hand when we shook “hello”. Up went the garage door. “I love this car, I don’t want to sell it but I need the money and if you make a silly offer we won’t do business”. “Sure”. I was already sure my time was being wasted. The garage was in darkness until he flipped the switch. LED lights from several angles like a showroom. “Oh, wow. That’s a Volvo?” Black, tinted windows, sleek as, beautiful mags. I walked around it. Beautiful and understated from every angle. He was reluctant to start it. “I want to hear a Lamborghini”. “Oh, OK but we’re not going for a drive because it’s been raining and I’ve spent the last few days polishing it. Stand at the back so you can hear the exhaust”. “Oh, wow! Lambo! What’s it sound like inside?” “Better”. He turned it off and I sat in the drivers seat. “Press that button when you’re ready but don’t drive off”. Button pressed. “Oh, WOW. Just WOW”. A symphony of 8 cylinders like I had never heard. “We’ve got to go for a drive”. “Too wet”. “I’ll pay you the asking price if it goes like it sounds”. “It does”. It did. I gave him a cheque. 15 minutes, deal done. “One more thing,” he said as it sat in the garage, idling. He turned off the garage lights. He’d added LED lights to the bumper and wheel arches, it was a work of art rather than tacky. “You can have them on or off”.
A few days later I picked it up. I’d read and read every test drive I could find and they were all positive but not glowing. Maybe the reviewers were all deaf. We shook hands one final time, cold as death. I hadn’t noticed the cabin before but the dash lit up as the engine fired. WOW! Just right. Off I drove and after a minute or two the limit became 80. Press that pedal. VROOM!! I was wearing the biggest smile when a car pulled out of a side street across my path. Emergency brakes. So close. Wicked brakes too. “You’ve got no fucking lights on, you …” I hadn’t. Though Volvos have long had daytime driving lights and auto lights for the dark, the Russian had disconnected that relay and they had to be turned on manually. He’d told me but I was preoccupied with VROOM. Lights on, apologies, home.
Some days I’d start the car from the outside, just to listen. Some days inside with door open, others door closed. Three different but beautiful symphonies, four if you drove with the windows down. You blipped the throttle for no reason, not to drive fast or anything, just to listen. At traffic lights I’d pick up the phone, one of the old fashioned car ones, a handset. Not connected but I’d pretend to talk and pretend not to watch the faces from other cars. It had 3 modes – comfort, sport and track and each gave it a different feel as the suspension stiffened. Even the local kids would urge me to accelerate when they saw me. On a dark night, opening and starting it by remote from a distance was magic.
Had it for a year and missed it desperately so replaced it with a BMW 545i M Sport which had the same engine and was superior in every way but which I just didn’t like. Just too much tech to fiddle with.
So, yeah, my favourite car was a Volvo. How embarrassing is that?