13 Nov 2012

"Living with a classic car" - Sharon Endacotte Column

Sharon Endacotte muses on the fantasy and reality of life with a classic car, how her Triumph Herald misbehaves at every opportunity and the qualities required in a person who think they may dip their toe into classic car ownership.

There are many types of classic car, from smelly old Land Rovers with trees growing out the front (I’d rather like one of those, actually) (I've owned one, it wasn't much fun - Matt) to beautiful veteran Bentleys. Walk around somewhere like the motor museum at Beaulieu and you are confronted with classics of every conceivable form, the air redolent of engine oil and leather polish, and the light glinting off a muted palette of shades long since passed from fashion. The panoply of cars is as varied as the people who love them, lavish time and money on them and give them names.

Sometimes, they even get to drive them.

I am one of those people, and I live with a 1967 Triumph Herald 1200 convertible. He’s a particularly old fashioned shade of green, a couple of shades lighter than could strictly be described as ‘British Racing’, and he’s called Gerald.

I didn’t name him; I should like to make that clear from the outset. The lady I bought him from introduced me to him by name and I didn’t have the heart to call him anything else after that. He might have been offended. He cheerfully burbled and popped his way around Bournemouth and because he made me smile, I gave his owner a substantial bundle of my English Pounds.

And on the way home, he repaid me by having a catastrophic bottom end failure.

This, of course, opened up a massive can of mechanical worms. By the time I got him back on the road, not only had the engine been rebuilt, but he’d also had a new clutch (because I noticed it felt a bit worn), gearbox (because the synchro was a bit iffy, especially on 2nd) and – as a special bonus – a new radiator (the old one, it transpired, was cracked). The repair bill was truly eye-watering, as there was no way I was going to attempt anything on that scale when I hadn’t even had a chance to get to know the car. Still, it was powerful inducement to learn my way around the insides.

For a little while, all was well. The car did feel like it might split down the middle, but I’ve read enough LJK Setright to know that Heralds just feel like that because of the suspension setup. However, Setright’s wisdom aside, the front wheels did feel a bit wonky.

So that’ll be replacement wheel bearings then.

My next encounter with the Very Nice Man was sort-of my own fault. I might have got slightly lost on my way to visit a local mechanic and ended up driving around in circles for a bit before taking the wrong exit on a roundabout and arriving in the middle of a deserted building site, where the engine suddenly lost all power. It was quite interesting trying to explain where I was, given that it was dark and none of the roads had names. Most of them didn’t even have surfaces.

Still, now I know that the fuel gauge doesn’t work properly.

Simple trips to the supermarket have proved challenging too. Once I got caught in a torrential rain storm less than a mile from home and all the electrics suddenly remembered that they were made by Lucas. Only the liberal application of WD-40 and swearing got me and my shopping home that night. Another time, there was a bang and a roar and I ended up driving over my own exhaust pipe as it fell off.

Gerald is currently off the road again and I’m in need of an angle grinder. When I bumped him up a kerb getting him onto the drive from an awkward direction, his rear bumper fell off, taking a large lump of the valance with it. I have the new panel, but I just don’t have the time at the moment to sort it out, and to be honest, you don’t really want me getting my hands on power tools. It can only end badly. I should probably save myself the bother and just call We Buy Any Car already.

And yet… and yet… there are good days. Days when the sun is shining, the electrics don’t go a bit Lucas, all parts remain attached to the car and I can drop the roof and listen to the pops and crackles of a barely run-in engine and the snorts of the exhaust. Gerald doesn’t have a radio, but in those moments where everything works, he really doesn’t need one. There’s a real sense of connection between car, driver and road, with everything held together by mechanical linkages and hope. The rare journey when everything comes together is what makes having a classic car worth all the inevitable heartache.

The qualities of a classic car owner are many – stoicism, bravery, pragmatism, an inability to admit defeat and an ability to automatically work the extra time for breakdowns, recoveries and ‘oh, I had one of those!’ conversations into any given schedule. But most of all, the classic car owner is an optimist, looking forward to that one perfect day when the sun shines, everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.