It’s decrepit but it moves
You know you’re in for a rough time when the used car salesman tries to manage your expectations about the car you’ve just called to enquire about.
You know you’re in for an even rougher time when you show up for the viewing and the first thing he says after introducing himself is: “Why are you buying this again?”
So, this car, then. You might be wondering about his consternation, given what it looks like on paper. It’s a mid-engined rear-wheel-drive, has relatively low mileage (just under 15,000km a year) and here’s the crazy bit—it’s a genuine one-owner car. In its 20-year lifespan, I was to be only its second owner.
Now, I say ‘car’, but what I actually mean is ‘van’. Specifically, a 1998 Daihatsu Hijet microvan.
You also know how they say “you get what you pay for”?
Well, what do you think paying SGD3,000 for a car gets you in Singapore, a place where a semi-decent new car costs in the neighbourhood of SGD100,000?
Not a whole lot, sadly. Its paint, bodywork and upholstery, according to the salesman, was “in its original condition”, which is code for “the previous owner never maintained it all that much”.
And it looked exactly as I expected a two decade-old workhorse to look. That is to say, an agglomeration of peeling paint, rust and putty filler. Not so much abused as it was used as God intended.
Of course, I had to have it. Because science demands to know what owning something truly abysmal is like, but mostly because I needed a car to drive and there was nothing else on the market I wanted at the time after scrapping my Renault Clio RS.
Just to veer off-topic slightly, I drove up to view the Hijet in the Clio, which probably explains the seller’s confusion.
But anyway, I handed over the money and got a vehicle (albeit a ratty one) in return, which is an incredibly liberating experience, when you consider most car purchases here involve mortgaging your firstborn.
There’s also something liberating in owning a car that’s so disposable. For instance, in the course of my ownership, the Hijet got keyed really badly by a neighbour and I couldn’t care less. They could’ve blown it up and I would’ve just shrugged. Owning a car that’s worth more as scrap metal or as an insurance payout is certainly an experience.
In even more liberating news, I haven’t driven something so rudimentary in awhile. But calling the Hijet rudimentary would be charitable. I’m sure there are washing machines out there that are more mechanically complex.
It’s almost refreshing, since many cars I get to drive in the course of my work have features lists that are a mile long. The Hijet, well…it doesn’t have cup holders (unless you count the plastic box zip-tied to the wire cage separating the passenger and cargo compartments), or a trip meter, or a rev counter, or a radio antenna you don’t have to manually extend/retract, or central locking, or power-adjusted side mirrors and windows, or power steering, or airbags...
Or, for that matter, a working airconditioner. I can live without all the
above and I thought I could live without air-conditioning, too. I was wrong. Here’s a pro tip, kiddies: never, ever buy a car without a working air-conditioner. Just don’t.
But, and this might be surprising, the Hijet is not the worst car I’ve driven. This is in spite of how it has quirks up the wazoo.
To start with, its steering. It’s incredibly vague, considering it has no power steering and you can see the pinion moving around between your legs as you drive along.
As for power, it helps if you like to live life in the literal slow lane because, being registered as a goods vehicle, it’s prohibited from travelling in anything but the left lane and no higher than 70km/ Not that it matters anyway, because it has a little under 50bhp… when it was new. After 20 years of hard use, well, as with most things in life, I’ve found it best not to ask questions you might not like the answers to.
People often ask me what the 0 to 100km/ acceleration time on the Hijet is like, and the answer to that is: it doesn’t exist. Again, in the interest of journalistic science, I have contemplated journeying to the fabled land of triple-digit speed.
But without a rev counter to know how close I am to blowing up the engine located under my bum and sending a piston into my nether regions, it’s a risky proposition. To say nothing of how anything above 70km/ in this thing is also kinda illegal.
Then again it’s a good thing it isn’t particularly fast. You see, the Hijet feels like it’s made of recycled Milo tins, has a front crumple zone made of your knees, a distinct lack of basic safety features (its seat belts seems to be merely cosmetic) and is taller than it is wide. I can’t imagine it being particularly crashworthy at speeds of anything above a brisk walk.
Then there’s the heat.
Having no air-conditioning is bad, but absolutely hellish in Singapore. Add to that engine heat radiating out of the parking brake’s boot and you have a rolling torture chamber.
Despite all that, I still regret nothing. The Hijet is starkly honest in a sea of cars that pretend to be sporty, luxurious or upmarket. The Hijet is none of the above and proud of it.
Actually, I tell a lie. The Hijet isn’t completely without artifice. Its seats, while they seem to be upholstered with fabric, are made of vinyl. Why someone would go to the trouble of making faux cloth seats—complete with a multicoloured woven print—is beyond me. Pleather I get, but pfabric?
For all the complaints I have about it, I’ll just say this—it costs SGD3,000. Repeat after me, a SGD3,000 vehicle. In Singapore. In 2018. And that fact alone can forgive a great deal of ills… except perhaps a busted air-conditioner.