Thursday, May 04, 2006

R#23: The Simple Life


The idea of running a small, simple car often appeals to me.
It’s common for this to occur when I’m standing next to a petrol pump, watching the digits tick over and the 520’s seriously enormous fuel tank swallow 60 quid without even needing a complete refill. I really start day-dreaming, however, when something goes wrong with it, and the BMW starts nuzzling me with repair bills.

To be fair, I’ve owned the big white whale since two Christmas Eves ago. It cost £800, and hardly anything has gone wrong. The servicing costs aren’t too bad, and the novelty of driving a (reliable) “premium” segment vehicle for so little certainly has its appeal… But it’s not perfect. The drinking problem is an issue – especially given that most of my journeys are innercity-centric at the moment – and intermittent faults in the electrics are a little draining; not knowing for sure if the dashboard is going to work whenever you turn over the ignition gets somewhat tiring after a while.

Still, I don’t want to complain (though others might suggest this is my one true calling in life – Hello, Dad). The BM is generally great fun to drive – so long as you ignore the creaks in the suspension – eager enough at motorway speeds, zipping along the country lanes very nicely. They know how to make a rear wheel drive chassis, those Germans. But it is just so big. It’s not so much fun zipping about in the urban jungle – even if the body size does offer a fair degree of protection in the event of a mishap – especially when I don’t really need four seats, let alone four doors.

I love this car. It’s probably the best car I’ll ever own. It cost practically nothing, goes well, is built solidly, and isn’t too bad to look at (it bests the majority of the current BMW line up, that’s for sure). The boot’s huge, too – something I’ll probably miss if I downsize, even if I don’t fully appreciate it at the moment. And yet, I can’t help thinking that driving this car is so terribly wasteful; I could get by with so much less than I’ve got.

Currently it’s broken. It’s not even in Coventry with me. Instead, it’s sitting in a garage work area, having various bits of it appraised for flakiness and general no-good don’t go performance; time, perhaps, to find another motoring companion, something a little more lightweight and frugal – but still fun.

There’s a problem. You see, the reason I ended up with the BMW in the first place is because when we went looking, there just wasn’t anything else available for similar money that was actually any good. We’re always being told – by industry experts and so on – that the second hand car market is in crisis, that there are bargains to be had on every street corner. And maybe it’s true – if not on the street corner then if you take the time and risk to go looking at an auction. Whenever I’ve been looking, however, all the cheap stuff consists of rust buckets you wouldn’t jeopardise your worst enemy in, or, conversely, perversely, whatever you like, over-complicated ex-high end motors that scream high maintenance and hefty fuel bills.

I’d be happy with a Mini – an old one. Or even a well look after early Fiesta – something along those lines. The trouble is, good small cars are so expensive. Everybody wants them – usually to put their dearly beloved, recently passed teenager into, never mind that safety isn’t exactly a strong point. Where’s the crumple zone in an original Mini? Between the front bumper and the rear window… I looked at a nice red one, fake minilites and a recent re-spray: the simplicity is so appealing, but £1300 for a 1.0 litre?

I guess it wasn’t too bad – so long as you didn’t count the wonky doors, ill-fitting bonnet and the lack of MOT. The trouble is it’s kind of hard to justify to yourself after you’ve spent the last couple of years tooling around in Teutonic…well, I was about to say Teutonic efficiency, but I’ve already complained about an absence of that. See how unfortunate this situation is? Either way – it cost £500 less.

So, at the moment I’m carless. Situation unresolved. Facial designation: bemused. And I’m not the only one – for my situation may well serve as a metaphor for the motor industry as a whole. Over-weight, over-complicated, and under-efficient is the status quo; lightweight solutions that aren’t over-expensive – too often seem like a distant dream.




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