When an old banger’s best

Of­ten given af­fec­tion­ate names such as Betty or Al­bert, scruffy sta­tion cars have long been the ve­hi­cle of choice for sea­soned com­muters, finds Ge­orgina Rus­sell

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Il­lus­tra­tions by John Holder

It’s true,’ in­sisted the gen­tle­man to my left at a re­cent din­ner party. ‘My car is so de­crepit, I can only drive to the sta­tion in first gear.’ this, just mo­ments after we’d been hear­ing about the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of his child’s first term at one of the coun­try’s most ex­pen­sive pub­lic schools.

I shouldn’t have been sur­prised, of course. spend­ing money on sta­tion cars has long been anath­ema to the Bri­tish commuter. A re­tired Guards of­fi­cer, Maj David sewell, who lived op­po­site me when I was a child, used to squeeze his 6ft frame into a ve­hi­cle so tiny it was known as ‘the mo­torised mess tin’. A late friend of his, Char­lie, in Ox­ford­shire, was equally no­to­ri­ous: a ‘terrible cheat’, who drove an an­cient diesel and al­ways got to the sta­tion exit first be­cause ‘the clouds of diesel par­tic­u­lates, as he at­tempted to coax his re­calci- trant en­gine into life, pre­cluded any for­ward vi­sion from any of those be­hind him’.

Rows of an­tique hatch­backs have been dec­o­rat­ing ru­ral-sta­tion car parks for decades. that their own­ers might be emerg­ing from them in be­spoke pin stripes on their way to top City jobs mat­ters not in the least. Vin­tage num­ber plates are the en­sign of the no-frills sea­soned commuter, ‘some­thing to be cov­eted,’ says one self­con­fessed new kid on the block, Chris, in suf­folk (who’s still fu­ri­ous with him­self for in­vest­ing in a three­years-young ‘mis­take’).

My neigh­bour, Martin, makes his daily so­journ in an­cient Betty, whose water tank leaks so badly, he has to carry a large plas­tic bot­tle on his pas­sen­ger seat for emer­gency top­ups. My cousin, Piers, re­mains staunchly loyal to his old banger, even though he’s had to drill a drain- age hole in its boot to stop rain­wa­ter col­lect­ing in the spare tyre. Wives in Hamp­shire, I’m told, have so lit­tle faith in their hus­band’s ven­er­a­ble ve­hi­cles that they re­fer to them as ‘widow-mak­ers’.

‘I ought to have been on my guard,’ Nick from Suf­folk re­calls, ‘when my wife said she had been re­search­ing cars. She’s an artist and wanted some­thing that would take a large can­vas.’ He ended up driv­ing what he de­scribes as ‘Post­man Pat’s van’s poorly bred cousin’, a sur­pris­ingly square-shaped num­ber with walls of the ‘thinnest tin’. It blew up after only a few months. ‘My wife trav­elled in it once, declar­ing it so aw­ful she wouldn’t go near it. Did it carry a large land­scape? Not once.’

The fi­nan­cial ar­gu­ment for go­ing vin­tage is solid. Why would you in­vest in a shiny ve­hi­cle, only for it to sit in the sta­tion car park all day, de­pre­ci­at­ing faster than the In­ter­city ex­press? As Hugo from Sur­rey puts it: ‘It’s a wasted as­set—and, be­sides, I’ve got school fees, au pairs and pen­sions to think about.’

How­ever, there is more to this love af­fair with six-fig­ure mileages than mere purse strings. Com­mut­ing is a re­viled sport, deemed en­tirely un­wor­thy of any non-es­sen­tial in­vest­ment. Those at the wheels of th­ese run­down runarounds would will­ingly spend twice their value on 18 holes at Went­worth or a day in a grouse butt.

Make no mis­take, plonk­ing a scruffy lit­tle rust bucket on a sta­tion fore­court ev­ery day is an act of pre­med­i­tated re­bel­lion—a protest against sea­son tick­ets, park­ing charges and desk jobs. It’s also a chal­lenge to the small elite group of se­ri­ous high­fly­ers, who buck the trend, drive fab­u­lous 4x4s and, on cold win­ter evenings, swarm to their heated front seats with a quick zap from their key­fobs as they alight from first class. If you can’t beat them, trade down.

As a re­luc­tant commuter who’d rather be shoot­ing, my hus­band, Jamie, finds his en­gine’s agri­cul­tural rat­tle rather re­as­sur­ing. For 12 glo­ri­ous min­utes each morn­ing, he can pre­tend he’s in a Land Rover, clos­ing in on his first peg. A fel­low re­luc­tant in Sur­rey re­mains stub­bornly un­per- turbed by the anony­mous threat­en­ing notes he comes home to on his wind­screen. Crafted from let­ters cut out of news­pa­pers, they warn him to move his ‘filthy truck’, as it’s de­valu­ing houses nearby.

There is a bal­ance to be struck, how­ever. One’s trusty old friend must ac­tu­ally pass its MOT. The line be­tween dream mo­bile and night­mare on wheels is a fine one. Cross it and you’ll face the hu­mil­i­a­tion of the hire car, with gar­ish flu­o­res­cent brand­ing up the side, or the ul­ti­mate shame of be­ing dropped off by the sleepy fam­ily you’ve had to turf out of bed against their will, after yet an­other false start.

Al­bert, Jamie’s relic of a car, hit an all-time low last month when, in­stead of go­ing back­wards while in re­verse gear, it stub­bornly ad­vanced. The AA man called it a link­age prob­lem. The vil­lage garage called it be­yond re­pair—so an­cient is Al­bert that his parts are no longer in pro­duc­tion.

Thank­fully, my fa­ther-in-law is com­ing to our res­cue. He’s hand­ing down his 15-year-old es­tate, with 270,000 miles on the clock and a con­demned gear­box. I can’t think of a bet­ter can­di­date.

‘Spend­ing money on sta­tion cars has long been anath­ema to the Bri­tish commuter

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