Ownership, 26 years in the making

In July 2022 I picked up the car I had to ring my local Suzuki dealer about, in 1996, after driving past and seeing one up on ramps out the front. I was stopped in my tracks by the Vitara-based targa-topped X-90, but couldn’t afford it at the time.

I’ve kept an eye out for X-90s for over a decade and come close to buying many times, but things never worked out.

They did this week: after selling
my Land Rover, what should pop up on Gumtree? An X-90 with a low price, some dents but a seemingly strong engine.

I rang the owner in northern NSW and it had been in his shed for 4 years, not on the road. He bought it locally, but never got stuck into it.

My daughter joined me to look at it, leaving it idling for quite a few minutes, without any cooling problems. The roof panels were out, as was the driver’s glass due to a problem with the window regulator. So it wasn’t perfect – I figured if I could look past the dents, it seemed like a good buy.

After a test drive on the front lawn to test the brakes and agreeing on a price, we discovered that an unregistered vehicle permit wasn’t a quick online form like in Queensland – I had to line up at a “Service NSW” shopfront for one. Thankfully, they’re open on Saturday morning. The permit itself cost a fraction of the Queensland charge, so the wait was worth it.

With the permit on paper, it was time to drive 165km home. Clouds were rolling in, so I put the glass panels back in the roof – and then discovered a nasty bit of rust on the trim of one. There’s also a tiny bit of rust on the passenger side C-pillar.

As I left the driveway, the engine made a bit of a racket, but after some fresh fuel and running time it drove home just fine.

The window will be the first order of business, to seal up the interior.

I’m not sure I’ll be keeping the “sexy lady” devil and angel mudflap adornments. They were already out of date, 26 years ago.

Test driving, but never buying

Carl Benz’s wife Bertha is credited with the world’s first test drive. Without the “father of the automobile” knowing, she and their 2 sons drove to see her mother.

As drive.com.au reports, the journey was to prove to Carl the car could be commercially viable. And we can also thank Bertha for standard brake pads!

I’ve owned dozens of cars, but I’ve test driven dozens more. There are many reasons why I didn’t buy a particular car.

Nissan Micra

In the mid-90s, Hey Hey it’s Saturday was still playing and the show made a big deal of the new Nissan Micra. I think Pluckaduck might have driven one around the studio. I was in the market for a new car (BK, or “before kids”) so I went to the Moorooka Nissan dealer and asked to test drive the poverty pack 3-door.

The test drive began with the salesman driving and literally throwing the car through turns, to demonstrate its similarity to the Mini “wheel at each corner” philosophy. When it came time for me to take the wheel, I was a bit more reserved. However, I didn’t buy – the trade-in may have been the problem.

Mitsubishi Lancer with unpainted bumpers

Also in the 90s, the late 90s after I’d bought a SEAT Ibiza, I looked at trading it in on a just-released Mitsubishi Lancer 3-door. This model had vinyl seats, plastic door trims, unpainted bumpers and not much else. The salesman at the Mt Gravatt dealer directed me to drive up Mt Gravatt itself, which I did as he extolled the virtues of the “anti-submarining” seats and drop-away engine mounts in an accident – things I’m 99% sure the SEAT already had.

The car did drive reasonably well, but the trade-in on my SEAT was truly awful. This was the first time I’d heard a salesman say my car didn’t “book well”, which I’m now presuming was a reference to car value guide Redbook. So, the SEAT stayed with me and got a canvas sunroof.

Proton Waja

In 2008, as Beijing hosted the Olympics, I test drove a car I’d always wanted to experience, purely based on the chutzpah of the Proton chief who said it would sell well (at an inexplicably high price). The Proton’s problems were admittedly bigger than the model name – Waja – but it was fitted with leather seats and Lotus fettling, so I thought it was worth a look, especially at the rock bottom prices the circa 2000 models were fetching.

I turned up at the Moorooka dealer (the place with cars on dirt/road base that sold all the penny dreadfuls) and they got the Waja out for me. I’d only gone a few hundred metres up the road when I was stopped by a police roadside breath testing unit.

I was as sober as a judge (of cars) so I had no worries there. But just as I was about to drive off, an older copper stepped forward to issue me a ticket for driving with the windscreen view “obscured”: I’d allowed the car yard to leave the $5,990 price and features written on the glass. No amount of assurances that I could easily see enough to drive would persuade him. I called the yard and they sent a guy up to scrape off the paint texta. There was no offer from the yard to pay my fine. The test drive ended there.

Holden Barina Spark

In 2011, the opportunity/need to buy a new-ish car surfaced on a change of job, so I test drove a new Nissan Micra and a Holden Barina Spark – both around a $15,000 purchase, on-road. I also test drove a Chinese-made Chery J1, but the less said about that, the better.

The Micra drove well for a 3-cylinder light vehicle, however my wife said it was an “old lady’s car” – even in the gold colour I liked, with a roof spoiler – so that option went out the window. Then I went to the local Holden dealer to try out the new model I’d seen launched: the Barina Spark. At the time I didn’t realise it was the modern version of the Daewoo Matiz, sold by Holden under their dubious reselling of Korean cars. With its Italian styling and quirky engine I didn’t mind the Matiz – and with a motorcycle-inspired dash on the Spark, it also looked like a fun car to own (and you know I like micro-cars).

However a test drive soon showed up its shortcomings: in the engine and the driver’s seat. I didn’t expect the Spark to be a bright spark in performance, but it didn’t have much to work with at all, much like the Chery had seemed all-noise-and-no-action. The Micra had been a much better drive. Plus, my long legs were left hanging off the Spark’s seat, unsupported like sitting on a ledge. So that purchase didn’t happen and I bought a 5-year-old Citroen C4 which had huge amounts of leather trim and had seen huge depreciation.

A similar LeBaron

I often look for cars via price, rather than model. That’s how eBay informed me around 2017 that a Chrysler LeBaron convertible was for sale, unregistered, at a Nambour dealer, for around $1500. This car wasn’t just interesting because it was American – someone had spent a small fortune on it, converting it to right-hand-drive. The roof worked and it ran just fine.

One strange result of the drive-side conversion was that the passenger now had heaps of controls for their electric seat plus bonus buttons for the power windows, while the (non-factory side) “driver” had very few controls to play with. The dealer said they just wanted enough to cover what they’d paid at auction, hence the keen price. Due to it being so rare, I chickened out on buying it – even though an internet search showed it was worth 2 or 3 times as much. Regrets, I’ve had a few.

Daihatsu Sirion

There are 8 million stories in the naked city – these have been some of them. In used cars sold privately, you can add in test drives of an 80s Ford Meteor, Mazda 121, 90s Volkswagen Passat, Daihatsu Sirion, Mercedes A-class, Holden Astra convertible, Land Rover Freelander and even an early 90s Holden Commodore (long before they were collectible).. plus fresh checks on cars I’ve (previously or subsequently) owned, like the Suzuki Mighty Boy, FSM Niki, Daihatsu Copen, Ford Ka, Range Rover and Toyota Corolla Seca.

Bertha Benz took the first test drive – I don’t think I’ve had my last.

I’ll pay you, in cars..

A character in the old Popeye stories, Wimpy, would try to con others into buying his meal, saying “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”.

That was the promise of a little payment that would not be kept. However, a bigger promise that was kept involved a strange little Eastern Bloc car that went on sale in Australia in 1989, which was apparently supplied here as payment for services to the Polish government.

My Niki

That car was the FSM Niki 650 – and I’ve now owned 3 of these Polish-built Fiat-licenced 1972-designed cars, known in Europe as the PolskiFiat 126p. They have a tiny 2-cylinder air-cooled engine in the back – an arrangement like the VW Bug.

I got to hear about the payment in cars when I went to a Niki graveyard in Brisbane to scavenge some parts from a group of Nikis before they’re scrapped in a few months.

Niki graveyard

They’re all owned by Fiat mechanic Angelo from APF Motors – he used to run the Autostrada dealership in Macgregor to sell them new.

ADR tester

He says the white one above was the car they used to get Australian Design Rules (ADR) approval in 1988. Angelo pointed out that it has slightly smaller side vents. The ADRs on the cars went OK, but required the plastic bumpers.

Niki sales brochure

Angelo says Nikis were around $3,500 landed here – and sold for $7,990 as Australia’s lowest priced car. There were plenty of red and white ones imported, but only a handful of blue ones.

He says the importer, E. Kandt of Queensland, was a woman working for the Polish government here, and getting paid in cars!

Apparently she couldn’t call them Fiat in the Aussie motor marketplace due to legal issues (even though Fiat wasn’t selling here then), so went with the Polish manufacturer FSM and called the car after her nickname, “Niki”.

A “Niki” badge was among the items I picked up today at the wrecking yard. Australia was the only place in the world where you’d find this model name on sale. I also grabbed some Niki-branded headlight protectors.

Spare indicators and other bits

I paid Angelo for the parts, and it’s not even Tuesday.

International Car of Mystery – with bullets, baby!

Is it possible somebody died in your car? Peter Grove replies, “possible? Possible.”

The north Brisbane retiree is the owner of a 1969 Rover 2000 TC, which left the factory the year after the Steve McQueen movie “Bullitt” gave us one of the most exciting car chases in film history, with a Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger slamming the streets of San Francisco.

However, Peter’s British car – with a clever bolt-on body design and a 2-litre twin carb engine – could arguably suit the “bullet” nickname more than Steve McQueen’s ride: because it has 2 bullet holes, which begin at the front driver’s side and finish at the rear passenger wheel arch.

Peter bought the car on the internet in 2011 and decided to have some rust looked after, around 3 years later. The lifetime engineer stripped the car of body panels and interior in his own homemade “rotisserie” before sending off the skeleton to the body shop. And that’s when his classic car turned into a conundrum.

“I got a phone call from the people doing this and they said ‘umm, got a slight problem. I think you’d better come down and have a look’,” he said.

“When I got down there, somewhere they had got hold of some police tape, taped it off. All part of a bit of a gag on their behalf. They put this dowel rod in (to the bullet holes in the rear wheel arch).”

“It came back, straight through about where the driver’s head would be,” he said. “The trim on the two seats was different to the back seat, so I think it’s been redone.”

I put it to Peter: “It is possible somebody died in the car.”

He replied: “Possible? Possible. But there is no other damage – superficial damage – around the car. If that had happened I’d expect it may have gone off the road, rolled over, you would have found major structural damage. There wasn’t any.”

I asked, “so that doesn’t worry you?”

“No, you can’t confirm it, it is just one of those things.”

There were two holes in the rear wheel arch, and the dowels provided evidence that their journey had begun through the front windscreen, fired from some height. The body shop also found lots of glass fragments in the heater core area under the windscreen.

The exit point was under the rear passenger wheel arch, so the bullets missed the wheel rim and tyre.

With the trajectory solved, the bigger question was how a Rover gets a couple of bullets, obviously aimed at the driver?

Owner’s name edited out – but very Anglo

Peter already knew from the car’s books that the Rover’s first owner was in Belgrade (Beograd), Yugoslavia, with a notation that the person’s address is “Austral. Embassy”. The first ‘free’ service record makes reference to “authorised services in Yugoslavia”.

“I know the car was sold direct to a person. Right hand drive (in Belgrade) is not the norm,” he explained. “This would be ideal for driving over there. The driver could get out very quick and open the back door, straight on the side the passenger would get out onto the pavement.”

At the time, Yugoslavia was known as the “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”. But just when you think perhaps some European Cold War spy games could be behind the bullets, the action moves to Africa.

Peter explained: “Then somebody said ‘well this car was in Sudan at one time’. How do you know that? I haven’t been able to verify it. The only thing I’ve had the verification of, is when I was doing the rotisserie and turned it, and took the back axle housing out, I got showered in sand – a hell of a lot of sand. Which I don’t think is normal (for Belgrade).”

Obviously the car was imported to Australia as a used vehicle at some stage, and then spent time with various owners (at one point, forgotten in a shed), before Peter had it restored and available for daily use whenever his more modern vehicle failed him. He says the Lucas electrics and the Rover engine haven’t failed – touch wood.

It’s this somewhat frequent use which brought the Rover to my attention. Peter parked it in a commuter car park and someone scraped the side of it – the rear passenger corner, in fact, where the car had already seen those battles with bullets.

He took it to the same rust and body wizard I use, and I first heard the story about the “spy car” from the body shop owner. It’s a fitting car for Peter. He’s worked as an engineer for everyone from VW to Ford to Massey Ferguson to the railways. And he also helped with the dish installation at the Pine Gap US satellite surveillance base near Alice Springs. He knows where the dishes are, under those spherical screens, but he has to keep it a secret – just like his car’s past.

Watch my video on the bullethole Rover here

Serendipity city, part 2: Toyota Corolla

Here I was, thinking serendipity simply meant “happy accident”. But as The Teknologist writes, there’s also the educated guess side of it. Serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, based on inspiration from the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip”. The Princes make some very good guesses, in their travels. There’s also a story in there, about dividing up eggs with a Queen, that Benny Hill would have been proud of. Let’s just say testicles are mentioned.

I wrote previously about how repairs on my Subaru Vortex XT were helped by a serendipitous sunroof. Well, just a few weeks earlier, the legend of the three princes helped with a Toyota Corolla that was running rough.

The 1.6 litre engine (carburettor, no EFI) in the 1991 Seca seemed like it was missing, with fuel not being burnt in one cylinder. So I had my mechanic take a look at it. After inspecting the distributor, he figured it must be the leads or spark plugs playing up.

Cylinder-by-cylinder, he got me to start the car while its lead was disconnected. The problem seemed to be pointing to (I think) cylinder 3. So, as a final test, he changed the plug and lead for that cylinder – and found that the problem remained.

Just as he was about to throw his hands up in the air and curse an automotive mystery, he was visited by a very old memory: that Toyotas from 30 years ago often had a diaphragm in the carburettor break, and this allowed fuel to get into an area where it shouldn’t be, causing what seems to be a misfire.

He said it was something he hadn’t through about in many years, as fuel injection is so common now. He dismantled the carburettor and sure enough, the diaphragm had just a tiny tear in it. It was barely visible, but enough to allow fuel through.

The solution was to order a carb kit for the Toyota from the auto store. He got on the phone and was told it would take a day or so to arrive. This prompted him to recall how, decades ago, auto stores would have carb kits sitting on the shelf because they were in demand. These days, not so much.

On arrival, it was but a small part of the carb kit that was needed. I’ve kept all the rest of the kit in the glovebox, for future use if required. Unlike the Princes of Serendip, I can keep those eggs in the one basket.