This may be a blogpost that is of no interest to anyone else, but I’m going to write it anyway. This is a very unfashionable thing to admit nowadays, but I’m a petrolhead. I love cars. Not quite as much as my partner John does, given he has more than a dozen of them, but my car is my main luxury in life. We don’t go on expensive holidays, we don’t eat out at expensive restaurants and don’t live a lavish lifestyle, but I will pay whatever it takes to buy the car of my dreams.
Passing my driving test on 17 November 1979 was perhaps the most anticipated day of my life at that point. I was 17 years and four months old. I had had only two formal driving lessons. I figured I didn’t really need any, given I had been driving a car since the age of seven years old. That’s one of the main advantages of being brought up on an Essex farm. My first driving memory was of my Dad buying me one of those stick-on steering wheels so I could pretend-drive alongside him.
My second memory was of a holiday to Devon in 1971 when I was 9 years old in our Ford Cortina Super, and me spending the whole journey changing gear for my Dad. he’d put the clutch down and I’d change gear. There was a lot of gear changing on the A303.
Two other cars from my childhood belonged to my godmother, Eleanor, who to all intents and purposes was my mother’s sister and best friend. She’d spend one night a week at our house and would take us on lots of daytrips to the seaside in her eggshell blue Morris Minor 1000. I still remember the numberplate 00 2163. She sold the car in 1971 for £65. Imagine how much that numberplate would be worth nowadays.
She replaced the Morris Minor with a blue Triumph Toledo. My mum told me she always imagined Eleanor would give it to me as my first car when I was 17, but by that time she was driving a ghastly light brown Austin Allegro.
Stubble burning was a particular delight. I’d drive my Dad’s Morris pick-up truck with someone sitting on the back holding a sack dowsed in petrol. The straw would be lit and we’d watch as the whole field would burn. I remember once making a potentially life threatening mistake. I had about 8 of the village kids in the back of the truck as we burnt a field, but got surrounded by flames. I had to shout to them to duck down and then drive through the flames to safety. Those were the days. My Dad would probably be arrested nowadays.
My Dad changed the Cortina for a Wolseley 6 in 1972, a car he kept until 1980. It was as heavy as a tank but had the most comfortable seats I’ve ever experienced in a car. It was the car I learned to drive in properly. It was an ugly beast, and not exactly reliable, but I took huge pleasure in washing it and polishing it most weekends.
It was in 1979 that my love affair with Audis started. I went on a school exchange trip to Bad Wildungen in West Germany and my host family had a lime green Audi 100. It was the nicest car I had ever been in and when I got home I begged my Dad to buy one. As a war child, he had never been very well disposed to what he called the “Jerries”, but he got on really well with my penfriend, Jochen. My Dad had never been one for luxuries in life. I think we were the last family in the village to get a colour TV towards the end of 1979, but when the Wolseley Six finally gave up the ghost at the end of 1979, I found a lime green Audi 100 for sale in the Cambridge Evening News. It was a T reg (1978) but had done quite a high mileage. From memory it was listed at £2250. Eventually I persuaded my Dad to have a look at it and off we toddled to Meredith, near Royston. There was only ever going to be one outcome from this trip. So we’d got a colour TV and a new Audi within a few months. I was highly delighted, not that I am materialistic, or anything!
I was in the Upper Sixth at Saffron Walden County High at that point and soon found an excuse to drive the car to school. OK, I was a show-off.
About a year later I came back home at Easter from Bad Wildungen where I was spending my gap year, working in a Stoke Mandeville type hospital. I was determined that I was going to buy a car, and ended up with an orange Ford Cortina Mark III. It soon became known as the Big Jaffa. I drove it back to Germany with my Mum and I remember we had a bit of a problem in Holland when the water overheated. I loved that car. I loved driving on the other side of the road. When I went to university that autumn I became very popular with my fellow students at the Fifers Lane student residences in Norwich, which were a good few miles from the UEA campus. I’d stop at the bus stop and pick up about 7 people each morning.
In July 1982 the Big Jaffa met its maker. On my 20th birthday I was driving to the pub with my two sisters to meet some friends when a Ford Transit van decided to overtake a parked Volvo on a bend. The first things I saw of it was when it was on my side of the road. I hit it head on at 50mph. None of us were wearing seatbelts. Quite how none of us were killed, I still don’t know. My sisters were taken to hospital in an ambulance, while my Dad, who had arrived on the scene in his truck, made me drive it home on the basis that if I didn’t I might be too scared to ever drive again.
The orange Cortina was replaced by a yellow one, this time a more luxurious GL model. I kept this car for four years, and took it with me when I spent another year in Germany. It didn’t like the cold weather and would often refuse to start. However, I drove it all over the country at the weekends and it proved a loyal servant. Spookily, it’s numberplate was JOH 392N. JOHN. My partner of 23 years is called, yup, John. It was meant to be!
By 1986 I was working in the House of Commons and needed a new car as the Cortina had become too unreliable. I had fallen in love with VW Sciroccos and was desperate to buy a white top of the range Scala model. It had spoilers, and given I was from Essex, the spiritual home of the XR3i, I rather liked a few “improvements” to the main model. Anyway, I simply couldn’t afford it, so ended up with a £3000 Y reg red 1.6l CL model. But I was a proud as punch. OK, it was five years old, but it looked (and smelled) like new.
In 1988 I decided to upgrade and bought my first Audi. And it was no ordinary Audi, either. I can’t remember how I came across it or who I bought it from, but it was an Audi Quattro Coupe in dark blue. D52 VJN. It had a 2.2 litre and a really deep hum to its engine. I paid £9000 for it, which I remember being very nervous about.
By that time I’d been working for the British Ports Association for over a year. I was doing well and they then offered me a company car. I was really torn. I loved the Audi, but it was a real advantage to be able to have a company car in those days. The only disadvantage was the car that was on offer was a Ford Orion Ghia 1.6i. It had two advantages. It was like shit of a shovel in terms of acceleration, and it had an onboard trip computer. I do like a car gadget. Unfortunately it was also grey. Anyway, I did actually rather like it but in the summer of 1989 I walked out of my flat in Walthamstow to drive into work and it had disappeared. Stolen. Never to be seen again.
I then went back to Audis and bought two brand new Audi Coupe Quattros. By this time the old wedge shaped ones had been discontinued. I bought a bright red one - a fairly basic model, then upgraded to a more luxurious one, in turquoise!
In 1990 I went to America for a few weeks and had the use of my friend Mark’s Pontiac Trans Am. What a car. It had a six litre engine. I’ve never driven anything like it since!
In 1995 I decided to go one step further and I ordered a brand new Audi Cabriolet. This was the car to be seen in in those days. I had ordered it to be delivered at the beginning of July in order to go on a European motoring holiday with my American friend, Daniel Forrester. A week before the car was due to arrive the dealer rang up and informed me it would be delayed for a month. I cancelled it and immediately went round a host of London Audi dealers to try to find an alternative. I saw one on the forecourt of Dovercourt in St John’s Wood. It was turquoise with a black roof and white leather seats. It was almost new and had only done 4,000 miles. I couldn’t understand why anyone would trade in a car like that so quickly. “What’s the story behind that car?” I asked the salesman. He laughed and informed me it had previously been owned by Princess Diana. “Yeah, right,” I said. He then proceeded to show me the documentation and pictures of her in it. “I’ll have it,” I said. And so started a love affair with Audi Cabriolets. It was the first of three I owned over the next ten years. A year later I sold this one at auction, expecting to make a big profit. I didn’t. Had I waited another year, I certainly would have, given Princess Diana was killed in the August of 1997. Indeed, I was told that the person who bought it from me sold it for £1 million. I was never quite sure whether to believe that. It’s come up for auction a couple of times in recent years and earlier this year failed to reach its reserve of £50,000.
I replaced it with with another Audi Cabriolet, a company one, which was dark green and had about every available extra on it. Unfortunately less than a year later I had fallen out with my business partner and left the company. The Audi, which was on contract hire, had to go back.
A year earlier I had met John, who’s been my partner ever since. Indeed, it was the Princess Diana Audi that brought us together. A mutual friend introduced us as he knew John, a total car nut, would really like to see it.
Anyway, when I left The Waterfront Partnership I had very little money so John helped me buy a horrible white Ford Sierra, which I absolutely hated, which was replaced after a few months by a dark green Rover 800 Vitesse Coupe.
I still think that was one of the best cars I have ever had. It was incredibly comfortable and very wide!
In 1997 we started a new bookshop business, Politico’s. We bought a dark green VW Caddy delivery van and also a new Mercedes C Class. We learnt a valuable lesson on that. Never trust a car dealer’s finance department. We very stupidly bought it with a ballon payment at the end, which we were assured we’d never need to pay because Mercedes’ always held their second hand value. That cost me £5,000 and I’ve never bought a car on the ‘never never’ since.
We then had a coupe of Volvo Estates, which were mainly because we had the book business. I must admit I felt a bit middle aged driving them, but in all honesty they were brilliant. Totally reliable and incredibly comfortable albeit not very pretty. And in all honesty I generally buy a car for its looks rather than its engine. Yes, I’m that shallow.
A black three door Golf GTi followed (and a horrible red Ford Mondeo car to drive to the station), before, in 2002, I went back to Audi and bought my sixth one. It was a TT.
I didn’t keep it long, partly because it had a very hard ride and I got too many speeding tickets. I swapped it for Audi number 7, another Cabriolet. It was a dark grey colour, which I didn’t like, but it was so fully loaded and was at such a reasonable price I’d have been a fool not to buy it. It proved to be a great buy and I kept it for six years.
However, in 2003 I was selected as a parliamentary candidate and I didn’t think an Audi Cabriolet was quite the right look, so I effectively mothballed it and bought a dark green Audi A6 estate. That was Audi number 8.
In 2006 John and I bought an Audi Q7 - a red one. However, the engine kept cutting out for no apparent reason. The dealer couldn’t fix it and in the end agreed to swap it for another one. A blue one. However, as the price of petrol climbed beyond £1.45 John decided we should get rid of it as the second hand values of cars like this was beginning to dip markedly.
In 2008 I changed the Cabriolet for a brand new dark blue Audi S5. I’d inherited some money from my Godmother which helped me afford it. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford such an expensive car again. I absolutely loved that car and kept it until the summer of 2014. I know it’s ridiculous to say that you can have an emotional attachment to an inanimate object like a car, but I loved that Audi.
So that was Audi number 11. In July 2014 I went with John to the Land Rover garage in Norwich as John was buying a Discovery. While he did the paperwork I went next door to wander round the Jaguar dealership. I was looking at the new F-Type and admiring its sporty looks. The salesman offered a test drive and I thought it’s be rude not to. Half an hour later I ordered a new one. I’d never drive anything like it. A couple of months later a British racing green F-Type was ready to pick up. It really was a beautiful specimen. The trouble was, I started picking up speeding tickets like it was going out of fashion. And I know this is going to sound funny, but I became slightly afraid of it. I wasn’t enjoying driving it, even though it attracted some very admiring looks and comments. I decided it had to go. I lost £20,000 on it. So much again for salesmen telling me it would hold its value.
I’ve forgotten the bronze coloured Fiat 500 John bought me for my 50th birthday. I’d always wanted one, but unfortunately I couldn’t fit in it. The bottom of the driver’s seat couldn’t be lowered, and as I am blessed (or cursed) with a long back, my head was literally fixed against the roof unless I put the back of seat almost horizontal. I’m afraid it had to go.
In 2015 I had intended to go back to Audi and buy a Q7, but ended up with a BMW X5. An Audi dealership in Eastbourne had an ex demonstrator with the exact spec I wanted but they wouldn’t recall it from a customer so I could test drive it. Sod you, I thought. So I went down to the local BMW garage and test drove an X5. Much to my astonishment I really liked it, even if I did feel like a traitor to the Audi brand. I’m nothing if not brand loyal.
One lesson I did learn from the BMW purchase is that it’s often good to buy a car on the last day of the month. This dealership needed to sell one more car to make their quota and earn a bonus. So I got a brand new car for the price of a demonstrator, saving me nearly £9,000. I figured even if I didn’t like it, I could sell it immediately and still be quids in. In the end I really liked it and kept it a couple of years.
My current car, Audi number 12, is a black Q7, which I bought fifteen months ago. It’s a beast of a car and an absolute pleasure to drive. It took me a long time to find it, and eventually found it at the Audi dealership in Guildford. I had two stipulations - it had to have the right wheels and it had to have running boards. Q7s without running boards look a bit naff. The only thing it didn’t have was full leather seats, but in theory I could have had them done later. I haven’t by the way. I figured I was saving £1300!
I suspect this Q7 will be the last time I buy a fully loaded expensive car, but then that’s what I thought when I bought the S5 in 2008.
The only other car I look at rather enviously nowadays is a Bentley. I can’t think I’ll ever have one though given they are so over-priced. Nah. Stick to Audi. There’s nothing like a bit of Vorsprung Durch Technik.