I have always been interested in cars. Ever since I was able to drive, I have spent time reading about and lusting after high performance cars. I studied mechanical engineering at university, and took my cars to pieces as soon as I had the understanding and the gumption to do so. In my life I have only owned 5 cars, so mine is only a brief history of car ownership.
My desire to drive a taught, tight, responsive, engaging car came out of my relationship with my first, which was anything but. My grandfather kindly bought me my first car. Unfortunately he didn’t involve me in the process, or ask me anything before going down to the dealership and handing over far more money than he should have for a bit of a pup. I doubt you’ll ever read this, Frank, but if you do, they saw you coming.
I went down to the Audi dealership in Eastbourne, where my grandfather Frank lived at the time, to pick up my first car. It was a silver VW Polo C, G reg, with a 1049cc engine producing around 45 horsepower, and with 77,000 miles on the clock.
Early Polo’s are built like tanks, so 50 horses is really not enough to haul their considerable construction around at any decent turn of speed. Looking back, I can see where Grandpa was coming from; Frank comes from the motoring school of ‘buy a car and keep it until it falls apart’. His current car (as of Jan 31st 2015) is a White 1992 Mercedes W124, again renowned for their tank-like build quality. It looks as good as the day it rolled off the Bremen production line. With the small addition of a magnetic roof bar, it wouldn’t look out of place in the München Bahnhoff taxi rank.
Such a basis of car ownership then, leads to selection criteria based upon the following; longevity; heft of chassis and tank-like-ness; and a power plant sufficient to move said bulk about in the most thrifty manner possible.
While I hankered after a blue Renault Clio 16V (the one with the turbine wheels), I got the VW. Interestingly, that particular VW is still going strong (I looked up the number plate and it is still on the road) I doubt you can say the same about the french cars of the era.
VW updated the Polo mk2 in 1990, but I didn’t get one of those. I got one of the last run of the previous Mk2 with twin round headlights. It wasn’t a bad looking car, but it did look a bit like a smaller version of my dad’s Volvo estate but with two doors instead of four. Not what I would call cool.
But the car turned out to be very practical, and just what I needed. It had an ample boot for carrying stuff to university and for the mounting of subwoofer and amplifier, an unburstable but gutless engine, and it was slow enough that I didn’t kill myself driving like an idiot in my early years on the road. Learning to overtake was about understanding and mastering conservation of momentum. You read the roads more closely when you want to maintain your speed.
The handling was best described as ‘mattress-like’. In the late 80’s and early 90’s VW didn’t really have the suspension engineers that they have today. If you wanted a small car with decent ride and handling, you bought a french supermini; Renault Clio, Peugeot 205, Citröen AX and later the Saxo.
French cars were light, with wonderfully supple suspension as well as decent body control in corners. I remember marvelling at the combined comfort and composure of a box-standard 306 turbo diesel; “How do the French do it?” If you wanted sporty suspension in a German car, it meant that the ride was completely destroyed.
Taking my polo ‘silver bullet’, for a drive down local country lanes was a bit like taking a pleasure boat out on the Norfolk broads, and about as fast. I once managed to get 95mph out of my polo with a strong tailwind and a decent downhill run to help matters, but at those speeds, the bonnet started to lift.
I also noticed the car rocking forward excessively when braking and pulling to a stop. I decided to investigate further. I bought a Haynes manual, and took the rear wheels off to inspect the brakes. To my surprise, the drum brake pistons were completely seized up on both sides. Eastbourne Audi had apparently checked this car and MOT’d it before selling it, but the brakes were completely seized. I’m not so sure. They saw us coming a mile off. After I replaced the rear brake shoe pistons, the rocking and rolling was somewhat reduced, but the chassis still retained its nautical aspirations.
The polo was a great load lugger, and with a slightly sprightlier engine, and some decent suspension, it probably would have lasted forever. It even proved its crash-worthiness, after I reversed it into a lamp post after watching Titanic at the cinema in Southampton. It was truly an evening of disasters. I sold it on to a kind old gentleman without letting him know about the damage, and when he later discovered the crash damage and called, I denied all charges. I had many sleepless nights after such a dastardly act. Don’t worry I get my comeuppance (read on)