This website might be called ‘WeBuyAnyCar,’ but I’m not sure anyone would want to buy the very first one I ever owned, even though it only cost 5p.
Today there’s a plethora of really good first cars; like the Toyota Aygo/Citroen C1/Peugeot 107 trio, VW Up! and Hyundai i10. They’re safe, frugal, and unlikely to go wrong. Most will be pretty new too.
Re-wind thirty years, to the grimy recesses of the early 1980s when I started driving, and most first time car owners cherished wheezy old heaps. These health and safety nightmares (forget anti lock brakes and airbags) went rusty, went wrong and were often wheeled cornucopias of bodged maintenance and filler.
My first car was a case in point. It was a tiny, Honda Z600 coupe. Today the few survivors are highly prized, but in 1982, an eight-year-old Z600 was just a slightly weird, cheap old car. Little bigger than an original Fiat 500, it had a beautifully engineered, motorcycle-like 600cc air-cooled engine driving the front wheels through a gearbox that didn’t have synchromesh, which meant carefully judging the changes to avoid making loud crunching noises. The Z had tiny, tombstone vinyl seats, a silly roof console with a useless swiveling map reading light, a rev counter, and seatbelts that tied themselves in knots.
Shaped like a duck egg and featuring TV screen-shaped back window/hatch, Honda only sold the Z in violent orange, with the option of huge, curling black go faster stripes down its sides. It was faster than it should have been, had a habit of locking its wheels in the wet, and I loved it.
My dad had owned the car before passing it on to me for that nominal 5p, having bought the thing after the previous owner had left it in a car park by the River Thames, which one very high tide flooded the little car up to its door handles. My dad had rescued it, using a hair dryer amongst other things, and for the first few weeks we sat on old newspapers as the seats dried out.
Japanese cars used to go rusty, and the Z’s river dunking meant galloping rot. The car had also been re-sprayed a horrid yellow, and as the rust holes appeared the paint flaked and fell off. When the exhaust rusted through my dad repaired it with an old bean can and a couple of Jubilee clips. Those were the days.
A week after taking it on, I collected a builder’s Ford Transit van as a bonnet ornament, which did not improve the Z’s front end, but all the panels were bolted on, so I acquired some scrap replacements and using a 10mm spanner, fitted them. These were the original colour, so the end result looked like a jaundiced dwarf wearing an orange party nose. Later, when the engine died I paid £50 for a terminally rusty Z and swapped motors.
For some reason I was regularly stopped by the police. ‘Are you carrying any drugs?’ asked one traffic cop. Later, when the battery died I revenged myself by getting a motorcycle policeman to try push starting the car. Still in his boots, waterproof gear and crash hat, bright red face pressed against the back window, he manfully clomped up and down as the car refused to start.
When it worked my ratty, rusty little Honda was huge fun, gave me a newfound freedom, took me to interesting places, and was part of my coming of age. And the sheer excitement I felt at owning it still produces a warm glow of nostalgia.
Now few parents would choose to let their kids loose in such a piece of wheeled decrepitude, which is progress, but I hope today’s sensible, stylish, safe first cars will give their owners the same frisson of pleasure that dodgy old banger gave me. I suspect for many, that’s one thing that hasn’t changed at all.