The wheels of life: a short car history

Greasy car salesman

What was your first car and how did you come to be the proud owner of said vehicle? Did you form an attachment rather like a first pet; it caused some problems in the end, but you were heartbroken to see it go?

I’ve recently been through a long drawn out episode of car trauma. There were no crashes, no accidents and no real damage done to any vehicle. What was severely punished was my psyche; so much so, that I intend to never go car shopping again. I will hold on to current car until I can a) afford to buy a brand new car and thus select from a magazine or website b) pay someone to do all the necessary dirty work and arrive home with a beautiful car of my stated preferences c) trade it in a for a hoverboard.

My first car was a navy Renault Megane Coupe, a far cry from what I had been shopping for. I was just finished college and had gotten a job outside of our local town, so needed transport. I wanted to be on the road and it didn’t really matter what in.

As a female, it’s natural for the father figure in your life to advise or even take over the whole first car buying process. For one thing, you are carless and so need a lift to every car you want to go and view. Also, you’re so inexperienced; you know very little about engines, or timing belts, or clocking or power steering.

My Dad was only too delighted to help me with the process and even involved other family members who were mechanical experts. We spent much time visiting private sellers and garages looking for a little car that would suit a young one who could not drive yet. Copious car calls were made. Test drives were taken. Nothing seemed to fit.

Then one day Dad called to say a colleague of his was selling a car before his wedding and needed a quick sale. And along came my lovely little Megane. Much bigger than I had been shopping for, but a little dinger and my own set of wheels. All I needed to do now was learn how to drive.

I chose a driving instructor from the phonebook. She was small, blonde and chattered incessantly. She was so busy talking, she forgot to tell you how to drive and you felt rude interrupting her asking her where exactly you should put your hands or feet at that moment. Cars beeped and overtook at our lack of progress and she waved her hand at them, and said ‘don’t mind them, they all had to learn to drive once,’ without changing the flow of her story.

I had four and a half driving lessons and then I set off on my own. I spluttered down to an empty car park one evening, terrified, but determined, and suddenly it clicked; how you changed the gears as you changed your speed, how you clutch and brake to stop, how you start off in first gear, how you let the engine rise a little before you take off and how after a while, this driving thing isn’t really so scary at all.

I had my first accident about a week later. I merrily took off from behind a parked van and whacked the bumper. There was no damage done, but being the honest person I am, I turned the car, parked awkwardly and went to find the owner of the bruised vehicle. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said all smiles from behind the butcher’s counter. ‘These things happen, you’re a learner, it could have been worse.’

After turning the car again, I drove by the butcher’s shop and van to find the aproned owner who had been all smiles, scrubbing furiously at the bumper, with a face like thunder. I have never hit another vehicle since then.

With wheels came independence. Fancy a trip to the shop for an ice-cream? No problem. Anyone need lift from a to b? Don’t worry, I’ll pick you up. Petrol was affordable. I never felt so free.

I decided to apply for my driving test pretty quickly. It would do away with angst of being caught out alone without a fully licenced driver, and remembering to put the L plates back up after driving off the motorway (illegal). Of course, a full licence would make me feel like a total and utter grown up.

By luck, Ireland was suffering a massive backlog of driving tests at the time and had decided to establish a temporary test driving centre in my home town. This meant I could do the test on my home ground and save on lessons (and fear) in a town I was not used to driving in.

My test was set for 8.30am on a school morning. The tester took me in and asked me a range of questions, showing me colourful pictures of road signs with zig zags and round red circles with white middles. What does this mean? She asked. Blank. No parking?? I got them nearly all wrong. Not a good start. And I had studied for that part.

Out on the road, it was chaos. I had to wait and wait at junctions to get by as hoards of parents dropped their little ones to school. What’s wrong with fecking walking, I thought. I kept calm – with the confidence of a young 22 year old go getter and we arrived back at the test centre.

Congratulations. You have passed. Barely. A few more slight marks and I was a fail. Woohoo! Delirious, I left the centre and drove right over the pedestrian footpath at the entrance to the centre. Three driving test instructors stood at the corner, watching in horror. An automatic fail in a test. But I had the paperwork now. So long suckers!

I drove for the next few years without much incidence. The Renault was a super little car and I loved it. Slowly though, little problems began to arise. Like an aging parent, it began to annoy me. A leak appeared. The leak spread. Soon the mats were sogging wet and the windows were steamed up due to the moisture content in the car. My Dad, ever the home mechanic, power hosed the car while I sat in it trying to identify streaming droplets. No joy.

It started to cut out. I would drive to the shop, come back with my bread and milk and sit for ages trying to restart it. It was embarrassing. The NCT was due. It could take hundreds to get it all fixed up and passed. The future was clear. I needed a new car.

Due to recent work I had gained, I was in a position to buy something fancy. I identified a new Renault model, a convertible if you don’t mind and I drove to a garage in Dublin one day, to find my next car sitting in the courtyard, all sparkles and no roof. Sold! I haggled with the ancient old man who came out to sell it to me – a salesman who agreed his price, then upped it and promised to valet it but didn’t.

On the day of the sale itself, after all the normal mechanical checks and loan clearances, I handed him my now banger Megane and €8000. “Will you be going through the toll on the way home,” asked old man salesman. “Well, yes,” I said, a little terrified of driving off in a car I was not familiar with. I was practically a car virgin after all, having only ever experienced one other Megane. “€2 please,” he said, sticking his hand out.

The car was still registered to the garage. They would not by paying the electronic toll thank you very much. Shocked, I explained that it was the M1 toll, not the M50, and you could pay this yourself as you passed through. Ok then, he said and let me drive off. The tank was empty. I had to pull into a garage about a mile from the showrooms or I would have been left at the side of the road. Bastards – if only I was older and wiser at the time and could have told him what to do with his toll and empty petrol tank.

So what of this latest car saga? What happened to cause such trauma in my driving life? Well the bump of course. It was clear, even when it was only a tiny blip that a baby car seat would not fit in the convertible. Determined I carried on, refusing to look at ugly family saloons with their practical leg room and boot space. But the clock was closing in. Baby would be here in a few short weeks and like the reality that my figure was gone, the convertible too now needed to disappear.

Having no money doesn’t go too far when car shopping. Garages don’t want to know. You can trade in all right but only if you are waving your cheque book. And even then they’re not too keen on convertibles (hard to shift apparently – it’s all about the practicality in these hard –pressed times).

The clutch was going on my car. It broke down one evening on my way home from Dublin and I had to hire a tow truck to get me home. Climbing into the tow truck to sit with a strange rescue man at seven and half months pregnant was not the most pleasant experience of my life. It wasn’t the clutch, but it still cost me €500 to get it back on the road. The car was a ticking time bomb.

I spent hours on line trying to find a decent car at a decent price. I got car depression. We started visiting garages further afield. Faded cars, with no hub cabs and the possibility of free moss with the carpets, were all that fell within our budget. There was no hope in sight.

And then I got a private message on Adverts, the Irish version of eBay. “Would you like to swap your car for my Peugeot?” Well… yes. The car looked good. It was a year younger than mine. It was large and practical and… kind of free.

Email exchanges began; information on mechanical issues and NCTs and electronics. I did a car check on line – €30 and you get the full history behind the car. No outstanding issues. Three days later, we met in a KFC car park and respectively test drove each other’s vehicles. Happy enough, we signed the paper work and I arrived back from my lunch break with the new family saloon.

No loans, no missing hub cabs, no old salesmen demanding €2 tolls. I had taken a chance. There were no mechanics or Dads to take a look at what I had just bartered for. If something went wrong, I had only myself to blame.

Pulling into the driveway I proudly went to get Baby Daddy out to view the new wheels. I was nervous – like showing a sculpture or piece of art, I’d just spent six months working on.

“Well, what do you think?” I asked.

“You have a flat tyre,” he said.

And I did.

2 Comments on The wheels of life: a short car history

  1. Thanks Kate, yes, swap turned out great in the end, no issues at all. Still driving the family wagon!

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