Topless tales, part 2 – MG F a Desperado

The Eagles’ 1973 album track “Desperado” started out as a Don Henley song about a friend, with the opening line “Leo, my God, why don’t you come to your senses”. Henley played it for Glenn Frey, and the two of them decided to give it an Old West, anti-hero style, as told to Cameron Crowe. It was the start of their songwriting partnership.

But what was it about? There are many references to a cowboy who refuses to fall in love:

Don’t you draw the queen of diamonds, boy
She’ll beat you if she’s able
You know the queen of hearts is always your best bet

However, Songfacts says it’s perhaps a study of self-destructive life in the music industry. Whatever the meaning, this Western style song was made in Britain, at London’s Island studios, along with an orchestra of bored Brits who played chess between takes.

The Rover Group’s mid-engined MG F sportscar was also made in Britain, launching in 1995, and might have been “out ridin’ fences” in the US, had the then-owner BMW not decided against exports there.

MG had pretty much farewelled the 2-seater open top sportscar in 1980, but it wanted to return to that space and kept developing sports car projects in the 80s. Then in 1989, it drew the queen of diamonds.

My MG F next to my daughter’s MX-5. Both now gone

The launch of the Mazda MX-5 apparently brought one of the MG F designers close to tears, according to the excellent Austin Rover website aronline, but at least it motivated Rover management to put their own roadster into production.

A mid-engined design was given the green light (over a V8-powered rear-driven monster!) because of its effect on the handling. Instead of a Honda engine – via Rover’s dealings with the Japanese automaker – the 1.8 Rover K-series engine would do the job, even though it was normally placed at the front of cars. The K-series would get a reputation for needing head gaskets replaced.

As well, the MG F would use hydragas suspension which meant the car rode on a cushion of gas, instead of springs and dampers. The springs would win out, in the later MG TF.

When I felt like going topless in cars again, I wasn’t comfortable stretching to the prices for used MX-5s – but I could afford the MG F! They were often a lot less than $5,000, mostly due to the overheating reputation of the engine and the need to restore the hydragas suspension on cars that were now coming up to 25 years old.

So, I had to be cautious with my purchase – checking for head gasket issues, maintenance history and seeing if the car sat too low, with no suspension travel – a sign of a hydragas system that had no gas left in it.

I spent years as a desperado, looking at MG Fs – one had been imported from Japan as a used car, but had throttle problems on my inspection. Another was just a street away, but sat very low. And yet another had been well used, but with a roof that needed replacing. All the while, MG was becoming a popular brand here again, under its new Chinese owners – but for regular hatchback vehicles, made in China.

Then, one day Facebook Marketplace showed me a 1998 British-built MG F for sale in my favourite colour – British Racing Green – just a few minutes away. This one was high in kilometres but had its gas suspension removed, in favour of springs. To me, the high mileage meant that cooling problems had been sorted, and the springs meant there was one less thing to worry about.

But I Googled the VIN, and found this:

It was a photo of the same car, on a car auction house website. Google told me that the current owner had paid just a couple of thousand dollars for it – so I went to inspect it, armed with that knowledge. The elderly owner was selling it, after having had a fall and not being able to fully use his left arm to change gears. I told him I knew what he’d paid at the auction, but then he pulled out a pile of receipts, for thousands of dollars in work on the car at an MG specialist.

So his asking price was fair – and I paid it. A search of the tiny glovebox revealed another former owner’s phone number – I rang it and discovered that it had received a lot of care over the years. An MG F Facebook group searched the factory records, and found that my MG F had been delivered to Sydney, with cloth trim. So, a former owner had paid to have tan leather splashed around the interior.

It was a great car to drive – the weight of the engine behind you made cornering fun and, once warmed up, the engine would happily rev. The gearshift was good to use. The black soft top could be lowered without leaving the seat, although taking the time to put on the tan cover made it look better. The white dials on the dash were a nice touch.

The only problem I had was with the driver’s footrest. I found it was hard to put my foot on it, as it was too far to the left. I had the timing belt and water pump replaced, at quite the cost due to the inaccessibility of the engine. The clutch cylinders were much easier to find, for replacement during my ownership.

However, after nearly a year of only occasional driving, I had to put it up for sale. That’s because I bought 2 cars I’d wanted to own again: a Mighty Boy and a Niki. So, there’d be no garage space for the MG F.

See my farewell to the MG F here

There was one problem to solve, before selling it: the driver’s seat was sun-damaged and ripped. To get the roadworthy, I bought some similar leather seats, taken out of a later model, and installed them, one very hot day.

See my seat installation here

Given all the work done on the MG F, I asked top dollar. I had a couple of older people look at the car, before a young man had a drive – and just like my own buying conditions, it was the right colour and had the spring suspension he was looking for. He drove it away within an hour of arriving.

He’d drawn the Queen of Hearts, and my MG F was going to let somebody new love it.

Topless tales, part 1 – with Warren Buffet

“If you want to soar like an eagle in life, you can’t be flocking with the turkeys.”

So said Warren Buffet, who’s not one to flock around – he started buying stock at age 11 and became one of the world’s richest people, basically by doing his own thing and investing wisely.

So, too, did Renault when they turned the Renault 19 of the late 80s/early 90s into the Megane, carrying over the floorpan, engine and transmission to save on the new-look model for 1996. The Renault 19 I once owned had the world’s most comfortable seats – but unfortunately they weren’t carried over to the Megane.

There was an avian aspect to the Megane: the grille on the initial release was supposed to look like a bird beak, apparently in a throwback to the Renault 16, 30 years earlier.

wikimedia: Thomas doerfer

By the time I came to the Megane party in 2021, it was with an automatic convertible 2003 version of the facelifted grille design. The bird beak had gone, replaced with what you might call a moustache.

I was looking through local car listings when I saw it: being sold unregistered, with cold air conditioning and reasonably low kilometres. The asking price was a bit higher than I like, but an inspection would reveal whether it was worth it. So I arranged one.

I had some familiarity with the model: I’d looked at a Megane convertible at a dealer around 15 years earlier, but discovered in the logbooks that it was an ex-rental car and, based on that, not worth the asking price.

This black one was clearly not an ex-rental. The paint and interior were very good for an 18-year-old car, there was quite an extensive dealer service history in the logbooks and someone had gold-plated the badges. Most importantly, the convertible roof worked perfectly. A mum was selling it because she didn’t drive it any more, and her daughter hadn’t got around to getting a licence.

However, the driver’s side window didn’t fully close and the driver’s leather seat had a hole in it – both roadworthy issues that I would need to fix, before I could have a drive on the road. Plus, a couple of the tyres were almost as old as the car itself!

See my first impressions of the Megane here

With the car sitting out in the weather (under a car cover) the most urgent job was to fix the electric window, to seal the interior from the buckets of rain that were falling at the time. I found it wasn’t easy to source a window regulator for this model – the convertible used a different type to the hatch, which might have been because Karmann (yes, that Karmann) did all the coachwork for the convertible (making over 74,000 of this model, according to Wikipedia).

I found no secondhand parts for sale in Australia. Some in the UK through eBay were a hundred dollars, before shipping. Thankfully, Google found me one at a wrecker’s yard in The Netherlands, which would cost $100 including shipping. A PayPal transaction later, and the part was on its way.

After a week or so, the window regulator arrived and it was the (relatively) easy to install scissor type that I’d replaced on my Land Rover Discovery. But still, it wasn’t a 5-minute job.

See how I replaced the window here

The driver’s seat was next on the list. I got a quote from a mobile leather repairer and was shocked to be told it would cost hundreds to fix a hole that was the size of a 5 cent piece (and even then, they could give no guarantee on the repair). So I discovered a DIY kit that would fill the hole with hard-setting resin, that you coloured to match the leather. The kit was less than $50.

The result wasn’t perfect, but got rid of the hole on what was already a slightly worn seat anyway.

See how I fixed the seat

With new tyres and a roadworthy, I was able to have a drive of this convertible which could go topless within 30 seconds or so. But watch out: in the summer heat, grabbing the handle on the windscreen to unhook the roof could burn your fingers!

Unlike the Ford Capri I previously owned, I found the Megane had a surprising lack of “scuttle shake” (when a car without a solid roof wobbles over bumps). The 1.6 litre, 16-valve engine was pretty spritely on locals roads and handled the on-ramp to the freeway with ease. The only letdowns were lack of rear passenger space for the odd passenger (yes, there were complaints) and the hard-to-access rear boot (where space has to make way for the folded roof).

See my road test of the Megane here

I was thinking of keeping the Megane as a low-cost first car for my son, but he was also taking his time getting a licence – and I had too many cars to register and garage. So, it went up for sale online, for pretty much what it owed me. I was absolutely inundated with buyers. Just 2 hours after listing it, I took it down and stayed in contact with the first buyer, who looked at it the next day with his wife.

He took it home, with the roof down – soaring like an eagle.

Murphy’s Law and the Citroen C4

The Murphy from “Murphy’s Law” was either a US Navy cartoon character (as remembered by astronaut John Glenn) or a US Air Force engineer, who found that G-force sensors had been installed incorrectly during a test.

Dr Karl explains in “Great Moments in Science” that the engineer said “if there are two or more ways to do something and one of those results in a catastrophe, then someone will do it that way”.

He says that the often-quoted “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” is actually “Finagle’s Law”. Plus, you can add in to this mix of mishaps “Sod’s Law” and even “Reilly’s Law”.

I became acquainted with all of them one day, after buying a Citroen C4.

The car itself was a great buy: it had been a $36,000 luxury pack when new in 2006. Now it was 5 years old, with just over 100,000 kms on the clock. When I came along to a dealer yard in 2011, looking for a lower-kilometre car to replace my VW New Beetle for a daily highway run to a new job, it was the car with the style and features that lured me away from the new car purchase of a runout Kia Rio at the same dealer – and saved me $2,000. For around $12,000 I had an all-leather, glass-roofed feast of technology.

I’d gone to a dealer to get a car with no worries for my new job – and this Citroen came with a basic warranty: 2 years with up to $1,000 worth of work for each claim. The day I bought it, the salesman offered me the chance to upgrade to higher repair coverage, for quite a few hundred dollars more. I didn’t think a car in such good condition would be having any claims, let alone a large one. Murphy would prove me wrong.

This C4 was a manual VTR spec with a bigger 2-litre engine. It had cruise control, climate control, power driver’s seat (with memory), a large central LCD speedo and a suite of safety measures. The design feature I admired most was the fixed centre hub of the steering wheel.

The central area of the wheel – with the horn, buttons and Citroen logo – stayed in place, while the wheel itself rotated behind that setup – so you always knew where the cruise or stereo buttons were. Sadly, Citroen deleted this from later C4s. Maybe it was just too weird for some, but I loved that feature.

Being a manual, and with throws between gears that were a little slow, it was a bit of a chore to get it up to highway speed – but once there, it cruised very well. The 2-litre engine was reasonably thrifty, averaging just under 8 litres/100km in our ownership.

It was a joy to own, even though it did have some minor work under warranty: a new temperature sensor was the biggest job.

Then, driving home one day in early 2013, I was doing 100 km/h in the right lane of the highway when the engine stopped. Thankfully, traffic was light and I coasted over to a handily-placed breakdown bay. I used the starter motor to bring the car back behind the guardrail, and waited for a tow.

There was one tow off the highway to an underpass, then – a while later – another tow by my auto club, straight to the dealer who’d been looking after the warranty items. They put it on a code reader, while my auto club paid for me to have a rental car for the next day. Then word came back, that the problem was most likely the timing belt.

Repair work would cost many thousands, as the engine would need to be rebuilt. They asked, with my $1,000 limit on repair coverage, did I want to proceed? I said no, of course. Then (with the car still in their yard) I set about looking for an exchange engine.

Ebay told me that a company based in Brisbane could source and fit a 2-litre engine from a wrecked C4, which had lower kilometres than mine. The engine was on a pallet in Sydney – the total cost (with a new clutch and timing belt) would be under $1,800. I gave the go-ahead right away and had the car towed to their yard.

Around a week later, the 150,000 km Citroen was back on the road, with an engine that had done just 70,000 kms. I went to the Citroen dealer, whose early service stamps were in the book, and they claimed the timing belt had been changed at 100,000 kms, as required. So Murphy’s Law meant that it broke at just over 150,000 kms.

After a couple of years I was back working from home, so my wife drove it daily after selling the family truckster. Eventually, it became just a household runaround and sometimes-learner-car. By early 2021, it had over 260,000 kms on the clock and had received another new clutch and timing belt.

It went up for sale, and a buyer from way out in the country contacted me, asking questions about the car over the phone. He said it was difficult to find a nice car out their way, and this would suit his wife. He asked to meet at Gympie in a week, for the handover of cash and keys.

I wasn’t sure if this transaction would actually happen, so I had other buyers lined up behind him, just in case. However, true to his word, he and his family were there to take delivery of the car, and hand over just a few thousand for it. It all went without a hitch, and without any evidence of Murphy’s Law.

Watch my YouTube goodbye to the Citroen here

Lexus RX330 a luxury Dynasty

Aaron Spelling’s TV soap “Dynasty” first aired in January 1981 as competition for “Dallas”, but didn’t really take off until Joan Collins joined the cast in series 2 as Blake Carrington’s scheming and forthright former wife, Alexis.

“Dynasty” was the number one show on US screens by 1985, but in 1989 with falling ratings it was abruptly cancelled – just as characters, including Blake and Alexis, were facing various deadly situations (being shot and plunging from a balcony, respectively). A later TV special wrapped up all the loose ends.

Click here for S*** Alexis Says

Alexis could have been the name of the luxury arm of Toyota – Lexus – which was founded in late 1989. According to Jonathan Mahler‘s book “The Lexus Story”, “Alexis” tested well in US focus groups (ahead of other frontrunners like Verone and Chaparel) but there was concern it sounded too much like a person’s name than a car. So, the first letter was removed and the “i” replaced with a “u”.

It’s also said that “Lexus” was either a combination of “luxury” and “elegance”, or the cheekier acronym “Luxury Exports to the US”. Either way, Toyota was able to follow Nissan and Honda in offering upmarket brands to US buyers. Lexus wasn’t a brand in Japan until the mid-2000s.

Flickr: LS400, loefflerw

I remember Lexus launching in Australia in 1990 with its LS400 large car (complete with white gloves in the boot, in case anyone had to change a tyre and didn’t want to get their hands dirty). The car had cost a billion dollars to develop over a number of years (including Toyota staff literally living the lives of wealthy Americans in California to understand their needs), and was aimed squarely at German luxury marques, promising a ride without cabin noise and engine vibration, at lower cost.

It went on sale Down Under, just as “the recession Australia had to have” hit in 1990. So I wondered how a fairly bland looking large sedan would find buyers, even if it had a price advantage over European limos.

How wrong I was. Even if the LS400 wasn’t in every driveway, the brand itself took off around the world. In 1996 Lexus got into SUVs with the LX450 (a thinly-disguised Toyota Land Cruiser) before launching the smaller RX series of SUVs (with the Toyota Harrier stepping up). Some Lexus websites say that the RX stands for “radiant crossover”.

In mid-2020 my wife was looking for a new daily drive, with some more features (and better leather seats) than her SAAB. I was looking for a four wheel drive to tow trailers, after selling the Range Rover. We thought we’d found both in a 2003 Lexus RX330. Even thought it was older than the SAAB, it was free of its plasticky rattles and packed with features: like touchscreen controls and navigation, a reversing camera and a power tailgate. One other thing it had (that pretty much every early RX330 has) was cracks in the dashboard. A dash mat covered them up.

Under the skin it was like the Toyota Kluger. Under the bonnet it had the V6 from the Camry. So it seemed like a safe choice for parts. And as it turned out, it was.

We paid a little under the going rate, because the RX330 had quite high kilometres for its age (266,000) although it had been reasonably cared for, apart from tiny leaf litter in the sunroof drain and the cabin filter, from the tree it was parked under. There was a slight whine from the engine bay, but it was just a replacement power steering line (it whined while in park, so wasn’t a gearbox issue).

I noticed some oil leaks, and was told they’d be looked after when the roadworthy was completed. After a day or so, a rear tappet cover seal was changed and it was ready.

A few weeks on, we noticed that the oil leaks continued. Our mechanic had a good look and said he’d first try to re-seal the tappet cover (his experience with Toyota’s V6 was that if there wasn’t sealant dabbed on particular corners of a genuine gasket, it would leak). He also found that the replacement power steering line was cracked and leaking. Those issues he could (and did) fix. But worst of all, he found that the “rear main seal” between the engine and gearbox was leaking. This would mean removing the gearbox to replace a $50 seal – a huge job he wasn’t willing to take on.

Luckily, a mechanic he recommended was able to do this – and also replace the front shock absorbers that happened to give up at the same time. The bill there was over $2,000.

At the same time, the air conditioning buttons either side of the dash refused to go up – just down. Handy in summer, but not so much in winter. My research on the net found that the soft silicon buds behind the buttons had cracked after 17 years. A company in Taiwan made plastic replacements (at quite a cost, considering how small they are) but I bought a set and then pulled the dash apart to replace them. It wasn’t as hard to do as you might think. I made a YouTube video to help other owners.

However, by now my wife had decided it wasn’t the car for her. It was wider and obviously higher than the SAAB, so not that easy to park. She hadn’t discovered how to get the mirrors to dip while reversing (I found it later, after reading the manual). A smaller car was now her focus. I now had a high-kilometre, 17-year-old, expensively-maintained Lexus to sell.

I put it on the net for top dollar (more than other examples with lower kilometres, but they had paintwork or interior damage) and explained that it had just seen $3,500 in maintenance. COVID had pushed used car prices up 20%, so it wasn’t an impossible ask. A man from the Sunshine Coast wanted to have a look, saying he’d be catching a train down. I offered to pick him up from the station, but he arrived (with 3 friends in tow!) in an Uber. So if they weren’t buying, they’d all be hitching a ride home!

They were impressed by the room inside, and the clean condition of the car. We all packed in for a test drive, and on our return they were ready to buy. After a $200 discount on the asking price, the deal was done and they drove off. I pretty much got back what we’d put into the ownership.

So, like Alexis.. the Lexus pushed on powerfully to new adventures – and we were ready to find the next member of our car dynasty.

For a YouTube walkaround of the Lexus Rx330, click here

You Always Remember Your First… Number Plate

My own very unscientific survey, spanning many years and workplaces, reveals plenty of people do, even if they have trouble remembering what’s on the car they own now. 

Granted, remembering personalised plates (or “vanity plates”) that you choose yourself won’t get you very far with my argument here — although according to Netflix’s The Good Place, they will get you into The Bad Place.

After decades of driving, I can still remember the number plate on my first car in the late 80s: a 1977 Toyota Corolla sedan. The Toyota was bright yellow, and Queensland number plates for much of the 70s were black and white. So there was a bit of a bumblebee vibe going on with my ride.

As a car-mad teenager, at 3pm I would walk out of high school to my yellow freedom machine, parked on the street, and see that black-and-white plate beckoning me.

The rego was OZL-766. Yep, I couldn’t make a word out of it either. Still, it was better than an old Falcon a friend owned, which had the unfortunate number plate letter grouping: POO. “Here’s the poo!” we would say on his arrival. To make matters worse, that Falcon ‘might’ have been brown.

By the mid-70s, plates changed to the “Queensland — Sunshine State” slogan, and started with numbers instead of letters. And perhaps a transport bureaucrat decided to skip POO on the plates, this time around.

These days, plenty of plate combinations are skipped because they might be rude. Buying a personalised plate can sometimes be tricky if you own a 1969 model, or you were born in ’69. However, I can personally report that just a few years ago they were handing out regular number plates with the lettering “SAD”.

In an automotive tragedy, my first plate would end up lasting a lot longer than the Corolla. Within months of buying the car, much of the yellow paint bubbled up with “bog” filler and fresh rust spots. So it turned out, a rusty Corolla had been bodgied up to sell (for a little too much) to an unsuspecting first-time buyer. 

I tried to repair the rust holes myself on my days off from uni, but after wrestling with one panel and not making a very good job of it, the Corolla was taken down to the local car yard to be traded in. My dad took pity on me, and helped pay for a slightly newer Mazda on the lot.

And I still remember the rego number of that one too.

These days I do my best to remember the plates on our cars, by making words out of them — whether they like it or not. So sometimes I drive BIB-ZIFFER, or even T-BITS-EYO.

If I really wanted to, today I could buy a black-and-white OZL-766 personalised number plate for hundreds of dollars.

But as they say: nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

WD-40: well driven, 40 attempts

In 1953, US missiles needed protection from rust. At the same time, Rocket Chemical Company staff came up with a product that’s probably in your cupboard right now, and very protective of weapons of mass destruction: WD-40.

It wasn’t until their 40th attempt that they got the water displacement formula right. So, the name WD-40 stands for “water displacement, formulation successful in 40th attempt.”

Its formulation was never patented, so it would never be revealed publicly. WD-40 was sent to soldiers in Vietnam, to look after their weapons, and has even been used to free a tongue stuck to cold metal.

With my cars, I’ve also had experience with rust, water displacement spray, and the number 40. In late 2020, I brought home the 40th vehicle (in 33 years of driving) that I’ve bought for my own use. Cars bought with the wife only add to this list!

The 40th purchase: a 1995 Land Rover Discovery 3-door V8

Number 40 is a familiar 4WD. I have owned a Land Rover Discovery (diesel) before, but this one has the V8 burble of my recently sold Range Rover, without the fussy electronics. It’s also a 3-door, which I’m told is rare these days – especially in the 90s series 1 update that I have. The paint is much, much better than my last Disco, but still not as good as the Rangie’s royal sheen.

But back to those 40 cars over 33 years. You can read here about how I was in a big rush to get my licence in January 1987 and how my first car was a rusted-out, bogged-up disappointment.

You might think, at more than a car a year, that I constantly bought cars – but I did keep one for around 10 years. In recent times, the internet certainly made it easier to be tempted to purchase (and sell) more often. Those search terms now make it easy to find a mostly unknown Niki, Grandeur or Copen. Back in the “olden days”, you had to use newspaper classifieds, spy cars for sale on the roadside or rely on word-of-mouth to find those “penny dreadful” cars that no-one else wants. That was the case for the first 7 cars I bought, until eBay and Gumtree tempted me for dozens more.

Do I have a favourite? No, I like all sorts of things about all sorts of cars I’ve owned. However, this post reveals the car I most regret selling, even now that I own one very similar in looks and features.

So, just in case you’ve never been to the ‘about‘ page, here is the list of 40 cars.. and counting. Unlike WD-40’s formulation, you can read all the details on my fleet below. Bring on WD-50!

2. 1981 MAZDA 323 WHITE (BOUGHT 1989)
6. 1989 FSM NIKI – WHITE (BOUGHT 1996)
8. 1990 FSM NIKI – RED (BOUGHT 2004)
10. 2001 FORD KA MAROON (BOUGHT 2007)
14. 1994 DAEWOO 1.5 SILVER (BOUGHT 2009)
29. 2003 PEUGEOT 206 WHITE (BOUGHT 2016)
34. 2004 SAAB 9-3 LINEAR SPORT 1.8T SILVER (BOUGHT 2019)
36. 2003 SAAB 9-3 ARC SPORT 2.0T SILVER (BOUGHT 2019)
37. 1999 HONDA HR-V 1.6 WHITE (BOUGHT 2019)

..and more since this post.

My WD-40

PT Cruiser: never meet your heroes

The “Madeleine Moment” (Madeleine as in cake) is what flashbacks, or “involuntary memory”, have become known as, thanks to French writer Marcel Proust.

It’s a prominent theme in his novel series “In Search of Lost Time” (also translated as “Remembrance of Things Past”) that he started publishing, out of his own pocket, in 1913.

Proust wrote about experiencing a flashback as he dunked a madeleine in his tea, prompting him to remember a moment from childhood, that occurred while eating madeleines dunked in tea.


Flickr: Karen Booth

He’s also credited with creating the saying “never meet your heroes” in his novel: “Never meet the people you admire (or look up to), you’ll be disappointed.”

Proust died in 1922. At the end of the 20th century, the motor industry was having a Madeleine Moment: the New Beetle was launched for 1998, the Mini concept was about to bring the Mini hatch to market, and Chrysler unveiled its PT Cruiser.

Of course – and this is a common theme for me – I could never afford any of these cars, new. However I admired them all, and made a note to own a PT Cruiser, one day. They looked like a giant-sized Matchbox car from my childhood. A co-worker who owned 2 of them, both tricked up, just made my obsession worse. For around 20 years I would keep an eye out for cheap PT Cruisers – but they were either not running, or not cared for.

The PT in the PT Cruiser apparently stands for “Plymouth Truck”, as there were plans to release it under the Plymouth badge, until the brand was shut down in 1999. With push-button door handles, bulging wheel arches and a nod to side running boards, it looked like something from a 40s gangster’s garage. The 4-cylinder engine wasn’t overly powerful, but did the job. Inside, it had clever folding rear seats and a rear parcel shelf that could turn into a picnic table. However, most PT Cruisers were made in Mexico (although some for the right-hand-drive market were built in Austria) so fit and finish isn’t always perfect.


Just before Easter 2020, as everyone was being told to stay close to home due to coronavirus and I was on holidays, I found a manual 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser listed at an auction place. It wasn’t up for a “live” auction – it was listed for online bidding. It had been through the system once without a sale, and was now listed with a low starting bid of a few hundred dollars.

I was happy to risk that – but when the auction finished without any other bid, I was told it hadn’t reached reserve. They could sell it to me for a few hundred more, which I initially rejected, due to the added fees.

However, a second look at the auction photos showed a car with a service history, almost perfect paint, and a clean leather-accented interior.


I rang the auction place back and agreed to buy it, without ever having sat in or driven a PT Cruiser.

The auction place was just inside the 50-kilometre virus distance limit from home, so I got driven down to pick it up, right away. After dealing with social distancing between tow truck drivers at the delivery gate, and quite a delay, the PT Cruiser arrived. “We had to jump start it”, the driver said, “so keep it running”.

The air conditioning was working, so the first thing after leaving the gatehouse was to shut the driver’s window. It took me a moment to find the switches.. at the very top centre of the dashboard. Then, there was the radio – it played for around 30 seconds, before re-starting. It would do this all the way home. After arriving on our front lawn, I put the PT into reverse to move it back, and it didn’t go into gear easily.


So I probably needed a new battery, and a check on the gearbox. I was worried the latter would cost me, big time. I took out the battery after removing the air cleaner from the very crowded engine bay, had it checked and it was indeed no good. A new battery made the radio happy, but I was still having trouble with reverse.

Thankfully, Google revealed that a damaged reverse gear shift cable bushing under the centre console would be the problem, and I just needed to order a tiny rubber-lined part to screw in. For $50 via eBay, the part would (eventually) arrive from the US. The only remaining problem was fog lights that would come on if you flicked up the indicator – the end of the stalk (the light switch) had worn a little. Pushing it in fixed the problem.

A month or so later, I “helped” my mechanic as he installed the bushing (meaning I held back the plastic centre console for him) and the PT Cruiser was ready for a roadworthy and rego.

It easily passed, with both my mechanic and the roadworthy guy commenting on how clean the engine bay was. This was a car that had been loved. The books showed that for the first 15 years, it had been owned by a trucking company, and regularly serviced.


But here’s the “never meet your heroes” bit: when I sat on the front seats, they felt like they were too short for my long legs. It was like I was hanging over a cliff while driving. I was used to more supportive seats. Plus, one night as I drove home, I discovered another problem: without my glasses on (which I don’t need for driving) the lit-up speedo’s small numbers were hard to read. I had to keep putting my glasses on, to make sure I was doing the right speed. Daytime speedo reading was not a problem.


So, while it had fulfilled my dream, it wasn’t a dream for me to drive. I listed it for sale, at top dollar because it was a very good example, complete with aftermarket touchscreen radio and reversing camera. It didn’t really get noticed on Gumtree, but when I listed it on Facebook, within 2 minutes I had an enquiry.

The older lady looked at it the next day, along with 2 other people. They’d done their homework: they knew I’d priced it higher than the going rate on Redbook. I explained that it was above the standard of most 19-year-old cars, and we came to a middle ground that suited us both.

So I’d met one of my car heroes, and was disappointed – but the profit was the icing on the Madeleine cake.

Watergate and the Range Rover

The Watergate leak from “Deep Throat” brought down US President Richard Nixon, but for sheer size it’s hard to go past the April 2016 “Panama Papers” leak to a German newspaper. That was over 2.5 trillion bytes (2.6TB) of data – the biggest ever breach.

The 11 million leaked files from the database of a Panama law firm included the details of a close relative of the previous owner of a 1996 P38A Range Rover, which I bought a few months after the Panama Papers appeared.

As the Guardian explains, being named in the papers doesn’t mean you’ve done anything illegal – just that you’ve used secretive offshore tax regimes. Even former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was listed, over a long-discarded tech company directorship. However, some people would have these arrangements for very “specific” reasons.


The former owner of my Range Rover certainly had some adventures in the finance world: he bought the luxury 4WD new (for $115,000) in London in 1996, then took it with him to South Africa for a while, before importing it into Australia himself in 2008, as a used vehicle. Then it seemed to spend much of its time, sitting in a Brisbane garage.


So when I bought it, the petrol V8 Rangie was 20 years old with just 73,000 kilometres on the clock, shiny green paint, and a good interior with almost perfect leather. At the time I owned another green Land Rover vehicle – exactly the same age but diesel-engined, riddled with rust and very used. The contrast was striking.

The Rangie had apparently made way for a new Porsche SUV for the Panama man, and gone to the nephew for a few months. However, the nephew said he didn’t want to worry about his young kids damaging the Connolly leather, so the family bought a Toyota Prado instead. I paid what his uncle had (apparently) charged him for the Rangie: $9,000. It was around $3,000 more than the used examples I’d been looking at, but fair enough considering the top condition and extremely low kilometres.


I’d done plenty of research on the P38A Range Rover: its vulnerable V8 engine, its unpredictable computer brain and its fussy air suspension. However, such a low-kilometre example would be safe from those problems, right?

Even during my test drive, the dash would flash up an occasional warning that an indicator bulb was blown – yet on inspection, it flashed fine.

A few months after driving the Rangie, one afternoon the left blinker turned on – and didn’t blink. The bulb simply stayed on, even with the key removed, and could only be stopped by taking out the bulb. A visit to the auto electrician revealed that the computer under the driver’s seat (the BECM) needed a new transistor that was such old technology, it would have to be ordered from overseas.

Then when I picked up the truck and paid the $1,000 bill, other faults occurred, which were blamed on cracks in the solder, disturbed by removing the computer board. Thankfully I was able to convince them to fix the board for no extra, seeing as the faults weren’t there before.


Other than that issue, other ownership costs were mostly maintenance, but expensive: the brake accumulator was replaced to stop a spongy pedal, the airbag suspension was renewed and the engine seals changed. Each visit to the workshop was at least $1,000 and sometimes close to $2,000.

I did pay for a new battery too, but only after the Rangie refused to electronically unlock at the airport one night and was then towed to the mechanic (I later figured out a simple jump start would have got me on my way). The Rangie is very particular about voltage!

The 4.6 litre V8 (in the HSE model) is based on a old Buick design, doesn’t go below 15l/100km fuel usage and can suffer from slipped cylinder liners if the engine gets too hot. It’s an eye-wateringly expensive repair for that. I always kept a close eye on coolant level, and the temperature gauge.


I took the Rangie off-road for some light work, and with its “viscous coupling” (a virtual diff lock, to stop wheels in the air spinning uselessly) it handled steep rocky tracks well. However I was always worried about the electronics or airbags giving up in a bad place, so as the Rangie neared 100,000 kms on the clock in early 2020, I put it up for sale for what it owed me, which was a lot more than I paid for it.

A local man rang me about it, then said he had to “check with the minister for finance”. I expected she’d veto him paying so much for an old 4WD, but a month or so later he made contact again. After inspecting it, he was sold and made a day to pay and pick it up.

That same week, a woman in a southern state rang me, desperate to own it. I told her it was set to sell to the man, and she hoped he wouldn’t go ahead with the purchase. She’d end up disappointed.

I was sad to see the Rangie leave with a new owner, but happy with the price. I used part of the proceeds to buy another example of British motoring: an MGF roadster. A convertible like that would fit right in, on the streets of Panama.

Trade in the Corona: best bog roll cars

In challenging times for toilet paper, how are you going to carry that 12-pack home from the supermarket fortress, in safety? Choose your car wisely.

You might think the perfect transport to tackle the breakdown of societal norms at this time is Toyota’s Corona. It was featured in the movie “Snowtown”, after all.


It came in a hatch or wagon big enough to handle your Kleenex and hand sanitiser stash, but the Corona was taken off sale in the late 80s, so you’d have to wind up the windows by hand to stop market marauders.. or zombies.

Maybe inspiration from Hollywood will give you some style and an “I’m parking right here at the supermarket doors.. so move the checkouts” mindset? You could follow in the bootsteps of Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider”, and turn up in a heavily fortified Land Rover Defender.


The 4×4 capability might come in handy to tackle the mountain of unwanted plant-based sausages blocking the carpark. Lara’s Defender came equipped with a V8 in a long-wheelbase version. However, with no windows at all, will your Quiltons unroll in the breeze on the way home? Maybe her arch-enemy Powell’s Range Rover would be better to keep the TP nice and tight.

Do you want social distancing with your supermarket bounty? Well, a design so awful it hurts your brain – long after it hurts your eyes – could be the perfect camouflage for the trip home. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then it seems no one beheld the original Ssangyong Stavic people mover.

It was like bad photoshop in real life. Like a Sarah Lee apple Danish that’s gone off in the freezer after rioters cut your power: layer upon layer, but not tasty at all. Apparently it was supposed to look like a yacht – but it sank in sales. However, there was plenty of storage inside for your precious Sorbents to get a seat. People stayed away when they were new, and they’ll stay away now.

You could always confuse the bog roll bad guys: put the engine where the boot usually is, and the boot where the engine goes. That’s the layout of a Volkswagen Beetle, or a Fiat 500.


Bull-Doser / Public domain

The joke goes that the mechanic opens the front bonnet and says “that’s why it’s so slow, they forgot to put the engine in”. And that’s the beauty of this idea: when someone is staking out the supermarket AND the carpark for loo paper, they don’t have time to figure out why there’s an engine in the boot. Plus, the old Beetle might have the fuel tank over your knees, so you could create a handy “rescue me” bonfire with the triple ply under the bonnet.

If it’s the end times, maybe it’s time to get that piece of Aussie automotive history, the Leyland P76, out of the garage? It was Wheels’ Car of the Year in 1974, but ultimately the car and the company failed. However, the P76 famously had a boot that could enclose a 44-gallon drum, which means a lot of room for dunny rolls.

But a note of caution before you brave the bench seat in the P76: the car was notorious for filling up with water, so your loo paper collection could be ready for the sewers before you are.

Honda HR-V: drive, Forrest, drive!

1994’s feelgood hit film “Forrest Gump” made the line “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get” one of the most popular movie quotes – one which proves itself true, with some trivia on the film’s IMDb page.

The idea of life being a “chocolate box” had been featured in a film nearly 20 years earlier: “The Likely Lads” movie spin-off of the 1960s BBC TV series.

Watch The Likely Lads movie clip here

However, the very first sentence in the 1986 adapted “Forrest Gump” novel is “Let me say this: bein’ an idiot is no box of chocolates”.

So, you never know what you’re going to get. I certainly discovered that, while watching an online car auction late in 2019.

HRV front edit

A 1999 Honda HR-V (the letters stand for High Riding Vehicle) was up for auction, and unloved: it had been through the auction lane a couple of times before, but its age, relative rarity on the roads and high kilometres (356,000) meant it wasn’t getting a sale.

I was interested in the HR-V when it was launched in 1999: 4WD on demand, a slab-sided 3-door body and a high riding position in a small car (a rare combination at the time) caught my interest. As usual, I couldn’t afford to buy one then. The public wasn’t all that interested: Honda was selling the more practical CR-V with the same 4WD system, so the original HR-V was taken off sale within a couple of years.

HRV rear edit

I would later see one in the foyer at Underwater World on the Sunshine Coast, with its doors welded shut and the cabin filled up with water and exotic fish, as a tourist attraction.

So I’d seen the white manual HR-V Sport on the auction list, was interested but hadn’t gone to inspect it. However, it looked OK in the photos and had a sunroof. Plus, it was rated a “2” by the auctioneers – just shy of the perfect “1” status. So how bad could it be then? “You never know what you’re gonna get.”


The HR-V hit the auction lane again, and the auctioneer tried to talk it up as best he could, but couldn’t help chuckling at its odometer reading and popularity with buyers. He started the bidding at $200 and waited, saying “Really? No interest?”

I hit the button to bid $300, thinking that the Honda would be passed in at that price anyway. Then the auctioneer paused the “going once, going twice” commentary to say “You know what? It’s on sale. We’re selling at $300. Any further bids?” I froze for a few seconds until the hammer came down: “SOLD to the online bidder!”


The fees were more than the final bid, so after paying just under $700 all up, I went to collect the HR-V. I drove it home on a permit – the air conditioning and radio worked fine, but its dusty and dirty interior would be a big job to clean. This was rated a “2”!?

There was a payoff to cleaning it: I found a butterfly pendant in the boot, which a jeweller confirmed was 9K gold, and worth probably $50. I also found a large sticker of Ronald McDonald’s face behind the sun visor. That gave me a laugh.


On cleaning up, there was one thing I knew would have to be replaced: the steering wheel. It was rough and spongy, from years in the sun. A wrecker 4 hours’ drive away pulled a pristine steering wheel off an HR-V, and sent it to me in the post for around $60. YouTube videos showed me how to remove the airbags, and then the wheel in the car needed a very big nut taken off for removal – my mechanic was able to help with that and the wheel was swapped over, with the original (checked) airbag reinstated.

Some tappet cover, sump and driveshaft seals were replaced to stop oil leaks, along with an annoyingly-placed (and expensive) passenger side engine mount, before I was able to get the Safety Certificate and get it back on the road.


It was fun to drive, with great visibility – although the high centre of gravity meant you didn’t take corners too fast. The 1.6 litre D16W1 engine certainly liked to rev, running at a buzzy 3,000rpm at 100km/h. I’m pretty sure the 4WD kicked in one wet day, as I took off fast from the lights, front wheels spinning. There was a clunk at the back of the car that was so loud, I thought I’d stalled it. However, the HR-V kept moving forward.

It was my first Honda, and I did notice that nearly everything (interior and engine bay) was put together with pure Japanese precision. I took the driver’s door panel off to tighten the side mirror mount, and it was so easy: loosen 2 screws, then pull off the panel.

Just when I thought I could drive it locally for some fun, my daughter’s Honda Integra was off the road with issues and she needed a car. So of course, the Honda owner would drive this other Honda! She ended up putting over 2,000 kms on the clock with her daily driving, before I had to get another RWC to be OK to sell it.


A few buyers looked at it – one mum was all set to buy it for her son, but then stopped messaging. Another P-plater was interested enough to inspect, but didn’t go ahead. Then in late March 2020, a businessman looked at it for his female friend, who wanted to carry her dogs in it. The HR-V was dirty from sitting on the driveway for days, but I didn’t touch it or clean it so he could be confident there was no COVID-19 on it. Even the keys were in a plastic bag.

A day after inspecting it, he rang back to talk a deal – and even though I was probably $100 out of pocket, with the virus shutdown happening I took the cash (and took the money straight to the bank, then went home and washed my hands well!)

So between the car purchase, the gold pendant, the daughter’s car trouble and the star of Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks, being diagnosed with Coronavirus, Forrest’s Mama was right: you never know what you’re gonna get.