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
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