1991, the year of the first Gulf War, the collapse of Yugoslavia and Bohemian Rhapsody getting to number one in the hit parade for the second time. It was also the year I bought my first car, a green Mk2 Ford Escort 1.3.
Newly armed with a driving licence and a total lack of knowledge about cars, I eagerly scoured the classified adverts in the local paper, desperate to spend the £500 languishing in a Post Office account and enjoying an interest rate of around 12 per cent; not that I gave a bat’s thingy at the age of 18 about my personal financial growth. I wanted independence and mobility and I wanted it now.
How not to buy a car
Even then I had developed an irrational and wholly incomprehensible dislike of small cars, so I turned my nose up at anything that would have been remotely sensible for a first-time car owner to buy and, for some random reason that I can’t even remember, set my cap at the Ford Escort, beloved of teenage car park cruisers across the country. The green one at £495 looked like a bargain. So on a cold, dark night, I went to a small village near Oxford, all bright-eyed with anticipation and clutching my 500 notes, accompanied by my boyfriend and a friend of his who claimed to know a lot about cars. It was only later when I confronted him over this claim that I discovered he was actually an army mechanic, but had only ever worked on tanks.
The guy selling the Escort was impatient and shifty, but the tank mechanic gave the car a cursory glance over, shrugged and said, ‘It looks OK, you should buy it,’ so I handed over my notes and drove proudly home. My dad took one look at it and said, ‘Hmmm,’ before attempting to check for rust by sticking a screwdriver through the panels which wasn’t promising but hey, I owned a car! I was independent! I was mobile!
Mobility and independence turned out to be mutually incompatible with ownership of the Escort. The night after I bought it, it mysteriously refused to start, so I called the seller and demanded to know what was wrong with it. Of course, he took the only reasonable course of action for a dodgy second hand car seller and pretended the signal was breaking up before hanging up on me.
Then it went bang
The next few months were a crash course (in all senses, as I was a terrible driver) in car ownership. The car became the bane of my life, but I was determined not to let it beat me. When it wouldn’t start (which was often), I learned how to hit the failing starter motor with a hammer to get it going. I also hit the inside of the door with the hammer in a temper when that didn’t work. When I somehow shoved it into first gear instead of third at about 50mph and the engine screamed in protest at this ill-treatment before going pop, I nursed it to my local pub and left it in their car park overnight.
The next morning, when I tried turning the engine over, oil splattered from the sides of the bonnet. This wasn’t a good sign, so I got someone to tow me home then bought an engine from the local breakers and coerced several men in my circle of acquaintance by means of fluttering eyelashes and promises of beer into helping change it. The gearbox also turned out to be terminally unwell and had to be replaced, but at the end of a very long and fraught day the new engine spluttered into life. I went home covered in oil, exhausted and slightly more knowledgeable about engines to be confronted by my mother shaking her head and telling me with an air of disappointment that she thought she’d raised me as a lady.
What else did this car do for me? It got me to illegal raves, which were all the rage in 1991; it provided an endless source of amusement for the local constabulary, my family and my colleagues; it taught me how to mend rust holes in rear pillars with newspaper and filler, then sand and paint them so they looked okay; it taught me that when you break down at a busy roundabout when only you and your non-driving sister are in the car and you try to push it, only 2 out of 10 people will stop to help; it taught me that there should be more than two bolts holding a fuel tank on and that you shouldn’t rely on a rusty jacking point.
It also made me the best-known cruiser in my local town (because of course I hung around at the local supermarket car park with the other boy-racers and was the only girl over 14 there – incidentally, I also learned how to do handbrake turns in a Capri there – happy days) and it got me from A to B, if not always back to A again. It started first time for once and allowed me to drive away with dignity and through tears after my boyfriend binned me and I hung out in it at petrol stations like in the Pulp song to find out where the next rave was.
But all good – albeit unreliable – things come to an end and after a year of owning the Escort, it was due for an MOT. A friend was an apprentice mechanic at a garage close to where I worked and I gingerly asked him to have a look and let me know how much he thought it would cost me to get it through an MOT. He laughed. Not in an unkind way because he was my friend and that would just be nasty, but in a knowing, professional way.
The next Saturday was spent stripping the starter motor – I’d eventually had to get a new one when the hammer stopped working – the alternator and various other bits off the engine. My mum sighed and shook her head. It reminded me of the Saturdays my dad spent working on his Mini on the drive with me trying to help him in a ham-fisted toddler kind of way. I liked it but I was sad. It was the end of an era.
The last time I saw my first car, it was in the forecourt of the local scrap merchants, where I’d spent whole minutes of my life over the past year climbing precarious towers of cars to unbolt a solenoid or door skin. They asked me if I’d driven or been towed in and in a moment of inspired opportunism, I said I’d driven in. They gave me £25 as opposed to the £15 I’d have got if I’d been towed. I left quickly. I spent the money on a pair of shoes.
Then I bought a Vauxhall Cavalier.