By James Wong
I may have been driving my 2006 MkV GTI for quite a while, but my car ownership history indicates that the average age of my cars is 15 years old. I’m no stranger to something from the 1990s – I have been observing and appreciating cars ever since I could say car brands. In fact, I could still remember telling my dad that I liked the ‘lion’ logo on the back of a Peugeot 406 when one was in front of us at the drive-through McDonald’s at King Albert’s Park. No kidding; I thought it was the most beautiful car in the world. Strange era indeed.
My first 90′s car, the NA Miata MX-5, didn’t feel like it was nearly 20 years old. The gearshift was click-clack slick, something that I only came to appreciate only a few years after I sold the car. The engine started every single time, the suspension supple and robust and the exhaust throaty. In fact, I took for granted every single aspect of the car. It had such a store of perfect balance and exploitability that I never dipped into. Every single day, I still wished I had it in my garage.
One thing I especially took for granted was its reliability. Sure it had some rattles from the interior, but otherwise it ran just as well as any modern car. It must be the Japanese engineering. I was thinking to myself, hey, why are people buying new cars at all?
Fast forward to 2010, when I was on the front porch of a man from Hackbridge, London. He jumps his car to life (which took a couple of tries), pumped up his tyres (which must have been left flat for several days) and said the second gear crunch I heard was normal for all Mk2 GTIs. Oh, and where would normally be a radio I see a bunch of wires. ‘I took it out after someone tried to break into the car’, he quips.
So despite all of that, I bought it. Why? The car’s exterior and interior was immaculate, especially the interior. Maybe they replaced all of it. I don’t know. But I liked it. And I was desperate for a car before my reading week was over. Coming from Singapore, it seemed rather cheap too. How mistaken I was. Anyway, I handed over 1500 quid and happily drove it home just like that. I was so intrigued and thrilled at the same time that I could buy a car from someone’s porch and drive it home on the same day. I was on a high – I had a car, it feels good, I bought it for a fraction of what it sells for back home. If my MX-5 was so reliable, and this car looks and goes rather normally, all should be well. Right?
Sadly, in the following 6 months, I had to call 999 to help me push my car to the side street after I got stranded in the middle of a 6-lane thoroughfare in the thick of winter, replace my tyres, replace my brakes, replace my cooling system, my clutch cable, exhaust and a whole assortment of suspension parts. And a whole lot of other things I rather not remember. Then I opined: what a fool I was. Thankfully, I had this experience which taught me a couple of good lessons about buying used cars.
After all the fixes, the car felt great. Sure, it isn’t particularly fast, but I like how it flows down a road. Very chuckable, very easy to drive and place, extremely practical and a great daily. In other words, it’s some kind of magic. But cheap prices and servicing aside, owning an old car isn’t all easy. There’s still this fear lingering in the background every single time when I unlock the car (can it unlock?) and twist the ignition (does it start?). The heart always skips a beat when the car first cranks but thankfully the car has spared me from the heart-stopping moments so far. Well, apart from one time when it died and only started again after a good ol’ prayer…
There are other foibles. Parts might be difficult to come by. Standards we’re used to in 2012 may be so far ahead of the benchmark in 1990 that it’s laughable. You aren’t doing very well in a 90′s car by way of safety either. And 9km/l from a 1.8L with 116bhp (probably far less today)? Not great. So we car enthusiasts shouldn’t totally discount modern cars. We’ve come to lean on them, forgetting that just only a decade or two ago, our cars were built very differently from today.
That said, old cars are still the bomb. I like to draw parallels, just like everybody else who found out just how old my Mk2 is, with my age. In the past 22 years, I have grown and matured to be a man. In the past 22 years, my Mk2 has witnessed an inevitable decline into old age. The reality is, as the years tear past, old cars are just going to be rarer, more troublesome, more impractical and in all just a headache. But you know what? It is worth every bit of the trouble. Just be prepared for an adventure (ie. inconveniences), a laugh (say, a broken clutch cable) and lots of love (when it is 2am and the car wouldn’t start). As car enthusiasts, I don’t think that’s too much to ask of us.