May 22, 2012

My Life In Cars

My first car was a silver 1978 Toyota Corolla hatch bought by my parents for about $2000 – which was about the most that parents spent on cars for their kids back then. A clapped out old banger of a reliable make (as Toyota was then), basic Third Party insurance, and you were done.

1978 Toyota Corolla coupe 

1.6l, Manual 2-door. Silver with red and black racing stripes and grey and black interior.

I was about to write that there used to be far more old cars on the road than there are now. It's probably true but I can't be sure, because in those days old cars looked old. They were all made of metal, you see, and often with shoddy paintwork and exteriors that dented and rusted. These days a fifteen-year-old car still looks pretty decent with its molded plastic exterior so maybe old cars just don't look as old as they used to.

My old Corolla was definitely old; it ran on leaded petrol (though that wasn't unusual at the time and to give you an idea of how long ago we are talking, I was still able to drive it to a full-service petrol station if I wanted to). But I loved it.  Even without any of the “extras” that newer cars had as standard. I’m not just talking airbags and cup holders here – it didn’t have a tape deck or intermittent wipers. I didn’t mind at first. I would sit at red lights in light rain flicking my wipers on and off in intermittent time, and I brought along my little Sony portable stereo on the seat next to me when I wanted to listen to a cassette.

With those old Toyotas the body would eventually start to fall apart but the engine would have carried on forever. A review I have just found even now describes it as having a "seemingly unbreakable motor and gearbox", which was true. I drove it for years.

As bits and pieces of the exterior started to deteriorate and as I became increasingly aware of its deficiencies I no longer loved it quite so much – in fact it was starting to be embarrassing – so I took to parking it without the steering lock in the hope it would be stolen. No such luck of course!

When I went to Europe it passed to my sister and she and her boyfriend drove it for awhile. It was eventually stolen but unfortunately recovered by police a couple of days later. Honestly, who steals a car without crashing it or setting fire to it?

Finally, I killed it in spectacular fashion – I crashed it.

By that stage I was married and Y and I were living in a one-bedroom flat with one car – one killed, smashed car.

Shortly before my accident I had a startling realisation about driving around in a clapped-out old car. I was listening to a story on the radio about how much driver safety had improved over the years, and the difference in the road toll between the 1970s and the 1990s. And I suddenly thought, driving around in this thing I’m living in the 1970s statistics, not the 1990s ones. Sobering thought.

1988 Toyota AE82 Corolla Hatch

1.6l, Manual. Red with dark grey interior.

By now I had intense brand loyalty for Toyota, so my next car was a red 1988 Toyota Corolla hatch, bought through The Trading Post with the help of a loan from my parents. At that point it was the early nineties so a 1988 car was almost new – it was definitely a step up. And it was a good buy. As everyone knew back then, Toyota was the most reliable car on the market. The word "Toyota" was basically a synonym for "reliable", in the olden days before the shocking safety recalls starting in 2009.

I drove that one for many years as well, and did look after it rather better than my first car. I grew very fond of it, and it was an intensely practical, good car. It was quite roomy inside and had huge windows all around so seeing everything and reverse parking were a cinch. Of course it was still a car of its time, so was lacking in the extras: no aircon, no airbags, no electrics, no side mirror on the left, no CD player, no cup holders. It was a manual and without power steering just like my last one, so turning a tight corner was still a bicep workout.

Then at some point in my mid thirties I decided I “needed” and “deserved” a brand new car. Everyone else seemed to buy new cars. Work was going well. Things looked bright. Why not? (Classic pre-GFC thinking of course). I had also just had a miscarriage after struggling to conceive, and was possibly looking to treat myself out of my sadness.

2004 Holden Astra CD Hatch. 

1.8l, Automatic. "Papyrus Gold" with dark grey interior.

In 2005 I bought my one and only brand new car from a showroom – a beautiful, brand-new, shiny, sweet-smelling caramel-gold Holden Astra hatch. It had electrics (though I didn’t actually want them – as I'm scared of driving into a river or being trapped in floodwaters and not being able to open a window – but when I asked if I could have manual windows the salesman gave me the crazy-lady look). It was also my first automatic car. What a treat! It had air conditioning, a Blaupunkt 7-speaker CD player, cup holders, even an outlet for an MP3 player. (At that stage I didn’t even own an MP3 player, but cool!).

The dashboard lit up like a flight deck console whether it was light or dark. It had an outside temperature gauge, light-touch indicators, variable intermittent (and gorgeously silent) windscreen wipers, power steering, cruise control, ABS brakes, auto-lock doors, 'follow-me-home' headlamps, warnings for doors ajar and seatbelts unbuckled, front and curtain airbags, foldable key and a light in the boot. I could run the air con or the heater without fogging up the interior windows. I never had to check or change the oil, just do the regular servicing and all was well. 

It was perfect.

Perfect until I got pregnant with twins. At first I thought it wouldn’t be a problem – the interior and boot were very roomy and it seemed there’d be room for two car seats and a double pram and accoutrements. After all, weren’t these used as family cars in Europe and increasingly here?

Not quite. I could fit two compact baby seats in and probably even two squashed toddler/booster seats later on, but there was no way any double pram on the market would fit in that boot. I tried every pram available at Baby Bunting, and none came close to going in.

I live in the suburbs. Public transport is patchy and there is nothing decent in walking distance. There was no way I was not going to be able to put a pram in my car and get out of my house during the day.

So I only owned my beautiful new car for 8 months (sad face).

I swallowed my bitterness and traded it in (at a massive loss) for a 2002 Holden Commodore Acclaim. Sigh.

But it does have excellent boot space.

2002 Holden Commodore VXII Acclaim. 

3.8l V6, Automatic. Dark blue with dark blue interior.

At first, my new not-new car was a boring let-down. I reminded myself it was still a massive step up from my old Corolla and still a lovely car – but I missed my temperature guage, snazzy touch controls, MP3 outlet and lit-up flight deck console. Everything was of a more mundane, old-style design: the shape of the indicator lights on the dash, the dully-shaped air vents, the gear-stick which no longer looked like a leather-encased penis, the boring round dials on the stereo. It was also much thirstier on petrol, so more expensive to run.

And it has a major problem: the petrol gauge in this model is faulty and doesn’t give an accurate reading. When it shows just under half full, it is actually empty. Apparently this is a known fault corrected in later models – which I was helpfully told by Holden after running out of petrol on the freeway a couple of months after buying it. The fault is also not covered under warranty because it’s a known problem. And it would cost $500 to fix. ( I have “fixed” it by filling up every time it gets down to three-quarters full and this works OK).

A couple of things were better though. I had to admit the Astra had its weaknesses – the fan always blew a bit of a gale even when it was turned off, the hubcaps were made of weird stuff that rendered them filthy black in no time, the cup-holders were useless and the small rear window wasn’t great for visibility.  The older but as-new more expensive Commodore didn’t have those faults. It even had the odd unexpected extra, like a stereo that had a CD player and a tape deck, so my husband could still play all his old Greek cassettes (actually probably not such an advantage from my perspective). It was very roomy and comfortable, like a nicely worn taxi. And it was powerful - it has fast take-off and accelerates smoothly, which means you can easily and most satisfyingly take over aggressively revving P-platers trying to beat you at the lights. (I don't do that anymore, by the way).  

The Commodore is, in fact, a very good car, and I have become somewhat fond of it.
There is a reason these big old sedans were the car of choice for families and businessmen for nearly three decades.

They are spacious, comfortable, easy to drive, powerful and among the safest cars on the road.  They are great for long drives, grocery shopping, or outings with a twin pram and a nappy bag the size of a military duffle bag.

And it only took me six years to learn how to reverse park it!

Recently General Motors announced it will soon stop making the Commodore, which makes me a little sad. There is just no longer the demand. Everyone wants an SUV these days – including me.

But it’s a little sad to see them discontinued. They are truly an excellent car, probably superior to SUVs in many respects (e.g. safety), and their end is the end of a driving era.

It’s not yet the end of an era for me though. With money tighter now that I’m contracting  and with the tremors of economic crisis still rippling through the world, we are in no position or mood to upgrade our car just yet. So I’ll be tooling around in my Commodore for a while.

What’s been your car history?
What have you loved or disliked about your cars?


  1. What a lovely 'drive' through your history, Jackie!

    Hmmm, mine:

    * a 1971 poo brown Renault bought for $1600 in 1989. Sold in Jan 1991 when I went to London;

    * a 1971 burnt orange volvo found by my Dad and bought for me as a Grad Dip Ed student. Cheap to run as it had been converted to gas;

    * a 1991 white (girly) Suzuki vitara, purchased by LC and myself in Darwin in 1995. Air conditioning!! Sold the day before Sapphire was born - LC was out taking the buyer (a florist) for a test drive as I was pacing the living room floor between contractions!

    * a 1996 white magna station wagon bought in 1999 for Sapphire's baby gear, frequent trips from Melbourne to Adelaide and to lug around lots of renovation stuff from Bunnings. Sold in May 2011 for $600!

    * our very first brand new car, purchased here in Geneva - Pierre the Peugeot 207SW. Spunky silver. I still can't believe how cute he looks and yet, unlike your good self, I can't reverse park anywhere in anything!

    1. The volvo was bought in 1993

    2. Cool car history Kath! I like the gradual improvement in colours over time :)
      Love those Peugeots - gorgeous. SURELY not hard to reverse park though ;)

  2. What a great walk down memory lane!
    My first car was a Suzuki Mighty Boy, ran on a $5.00 tank of petrol and was classed as a "lorry" with the RTA. The boys at uni used to pick it up and put it in between two trees so I couldn't get it out.
    My favourite car was my brand new VW Golf, with sunroof and leather seats. It was my baby. Unfortunately I had to give it up when I became a mum, but one day I'll buy another. One day...

    1. Thanks Melissa. That's like me - I tell myself I will have a cool new smaller car day!

  3. First car was Edna the lawn green 1966 EJ Holden - which was a tank to drive and could double as a horse float with the boot space. Tootled around my teenage years with that.

    Shared a blue Mazda 929 that used to be my grandmothers with my sister until she pranged it.

    My first real car of my own was a white 1988 Ford Fiesta which I bought off a friend in London. Her name was Phoebe and I sold her as I was leaving London in 1999 for 400 quid.

    Next was Colin the white 1994 Diahatsu Centro, all 650 cc engine and could easily pass for a covered lawnmower. Sold on when some arsehole drove into him in the middle of the night.

    Andrew the 1999 white Toyoto Echo came next, which I loved. Great car, easy to drive and just a joy - never any trouble, but was going to start to cost me money, so I traded him in for.

    Neville, the trusty 2009 Mazda 2, in a silver grey. The first time I haven't had a base model car, I love the electric windows and the spoiler and the alloys. Just have to finish paying him off. JOy.

    1. Cool car history Pand. And raises an interesting side issue - to name one's car or not?
      Neville is beautiful and I AM jealous.

  4. Buying a used car doesn't have to be risky. If you know what you want then it becomes a lot easier.



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