Serendipity city, part 1: Vortex XT

Sir Richard Branson ran crying down a London road. He’d just sold Virgin records for a billion dollars in 1992, to found his airline, but was upset over saying goodbye to it. Despite the serendipity of a fortune to fly planes, Reuters reports he felt like he’d sold a child.

Selling my automotive baby wouldn’t take a billion dollars (I have had offers recently) but it would have to be a healthy figure, considering it’s only a few years ago that I finally achieved my childhood dream of owning a Subaru Vortex XT, albeit the stock standard version.

Along with the strikingly shaped car were some standout patches of rust: in the left side chassis rail, around the boot and on the edges of the sunroof.

The Vortex on the day I bought it

I had repairs to all 3 areas in 2018 before getting the car back on the road, but in the last 40+ months they’ve all begun bubbling again. They were repaired quickly at a somewhat low cost, and now it shows. Let’s just say chassis rust was simply covered with new metal.. and body rust was just moved aside for filler putty.

Therein lies the problem – it seems that in neither case was the rust properly removed, with the metal then sandblasted and fully sealed. I’ve been learning a lot about oxidation this week, by studying the skill that another local body shop is putting into repairing my ride. The man behind the operation grew up in a cold country, repairing rust on cars which drove on salted roads. He knows how to stop the rot.

Previously repaired chassis rail, eaten out by the rust that was simply covered up in 2018

After a day at his workshop, the chassis rail was renewed and will be sealed inside with a particularly noxious substance, which has many warning labels. So that’s the underside done.

New chassis rail, with evidence of some other repair at the front – but we’ll keep an eye on it

New rust spots around the body are also being revealed under plastic trim and will get the sandblasting treatment. There’s one nasty outbreak under the rear glass, perhaps caused by a hasty previous windscreen removal, with a sharp tool, that scratched the metal surface which was then left untreated. Add to that oversight, insufficient sealant – and rust will come. That’s a lot more glazing knowledge than I had last week.

Rear right hand side windscreen rust spot

Which brings me to my serendipity (apart from finding this very thorough body shop). The sunroof is a heavy metal lid, which has been gradually rusting on the passenger side.

Sunroof after 2018 repair, would rust again on this side

Given that it can easily be removed, I didn’t expect it to be much of an issue to repair. However, on checking in at the workshop, I found my metalworking god scratching his head.

He said the sunroof was too eaten away at the edges to be restored. I’d have to get a fibreglass lid made, or have new metal cut to the ever-so-curved design, or just go with a piece of glass. Any of those options would cost a bit – and it’s then that I mentioned I had a spare sunroof at home.

This sunroof was salvaged from the Vortex car shell I bought, along with a “barn find” Vortex, when I went to see a man about buying hubcaps. I’ve had it for sale for years, and it’s sat unloved in the shed, until I pulled it out today to show to the body shop.

At first he didn’t say much, and I thought he was in shock at how badly rusted the spare roof was. But once he was able to put sentences together again, he revealed how marvellously preserved this metal was, for my car’s purposes. He grabbed a wire brush and immediately made positive noises, as he checked the shallow depth of the top rust spots. It made his day – and it will make the sunroof-sized hole in the roof a lot more leakproof.

My spare salvaged sunroof, which looked all rusted out, to me at least

Even the rubber seal around the outside was in good condition, just needing a good soak in an anti-mould solution.

I also learned the importance of looking at welds, and cleaning down bare metal before covering it. My body maestro put on his detective hat, while attacking a small rust spot in the passenger door sill.

Door frame: evidence of a new panel

He said the car looked to have had a new rear quarter panel at some time – with the Vortex a coupe, this covers quite a large area. He noticed that the welds on this side were not as precise as the robot-regulated shots on the driver’s side. Plus, the panel edge that’s usually under the plastic trim looks a bit rough.

There was one other thing he found, while going back to bare metal: what seems to be the fingerprint of whoever replaced the panel in the past. It matches up with where a hand would have placed the panel edge. In their haste, they didn’t clean it off before coating it. So the tiny amount of dirt or moisture from their thumb has left its mark on the metal, over the years.

“Fingerprint” circled

So you never know how a previous owner or repairer will literally leave their mark on your car. That’s a lot more body shop knowledge than I had last week.

With so much attention going into the rust spots around my Vortex, I don’t think I’ll be doing a Branson and selling it. Anyway, he’s into rockets now – and I already own one, made in 1985.

Decent proposals – should you say yes?

The 1993 movie “Indecent Proposal” might have starred Warren Beatty as the man who buys a night with Demi Moore for a million dollars. But as imdb reveals, Robert Redford got the role, and he “walks better than anybody on Earth”, according to director David Lyne (who also made Flashdance and Fatal Attraction).

Twice in as many weeks, I’ve received very “decent proposals” to buy my cars, straight up from strangers who are admiring them.

The first was at Cars and Coffee with my Suzuki Mighty Boy. Friends beckoned me over to it, as I looked at other vehicles. A man standing in front of the little yellow ute was eagerly awaiting my arrival. He said “I like your car, how much would you sell it for?”

I said “I’m not really interested in selling it, as I’ve only had it a few months!” That seemed to put the brakes on his plans. He repeated how much he liked the Boy and moved on.

Then the following week, as I drove to the petrol station to fuel up the Subaru Vortex XT for a different car meet-up, I had another decent proposal.

As I waited to pull out into traffic from a business car park, a man in a 4WD pulled over and motioned to me. I thought he was saying “you leave the driveway and I’ll pull in.”

Once traffic cleared, I got onto the road and drove 200 metres to the servo. The driver followed me on the road and into the forecourt. Then as I filled up, he came over to chat.

Turns out, he used to own a Vortex XT, but sold it some years ago. He just happened to be driving down the road as I was waiting in the car park driveway, in the rare car he regretted selling (I know what he means). Surely a million-to-one chance.

This time the proposal was more direct: “I want to buy your car, how much would you sell it for?”

I gave him my usual response to family members, asking about my plans for the fleet: at the right price, anything is for sale. So it would have to be a very good price – many thousands – to tempt me.

In the end, he gave me his card and asked that I call him if ever I was selling it. But seeing as he was really looking for a turbo XT, I gave him some leads on a couple for sale online.

He’s a local mechanic who’s worked on the Subaru’s EA82 engine, so I said I’d give him a call the next time it needed work.

So, he may yet get to experience my Vortex XT like Robert Redford with Demi Moore (well, not exactly like that), but without a million dollars changing hands.

Alfa Romeo makes the earth move

Two things were eerily moving back and forth by themselves in the backyard of our Perth home on Saturday, June 2nd 1979: the water in the swimming pool and the wheels of an old Alfa Romeo 2600 Sprint.

An earthquake, northeast of the city, had just cut power to the family home in Balga, bringing an early end to “Swiss Family Robinson” on the Kreisler TV.

I raced outside, thinking the ground would keep moving and the house might even collapse. However, it was just a few seconds’ worth of wobbles – even if the pool and car carried on. I later heard that the Perth high-rise, where my father was working that day, also had a bad case of the fidgets when the ground shook.

The quake had happened near Cadoux in Western Australia, with a magnitude of 6.1 on the Richter Scale. It was enough to finally get the 1960s Alfa moving, after months of it sitting on the back lawn and playing host to my childhood driving dreams.

I would sit in the (probably leather) low brown seats, in the early morning before anyone else was awake, turning the silver-centred steering wheel and flicking black dashboard switches on and off. Hinged windows, front and rear, were opened and closed. I’d also try to figure out what the logo on the front grille meant – a person being eaten by a snake?! We didn’t have any Funk and Wagnalls to explain it.

The 2600 Sprint had a six cylinder 2584cc engine with twin overhead cams and a triple carb. It was capable of very high speed. Shannons reveals that it was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, then employed as chief stylist by Bertone. Fewer than 600 were made in right-hand drive. Shannons also confirms it would be worth quite a bit these days.

In 1979, the Alfa was patiently awaiting some restoration – firstly of its engine and then the paintwork.

My dad had somehow agreed to a friend’s suggestion that he should buy the dark blue Italian stallion, after a Frenchman had apparently “cooked” the engine during a trip across the hot Nullarbor with coolant issues.

I’m not sure how Dad got this purchase past Mum – the car cost $500, which was a lot more in the late 70s than it is now. She also worried that a 6-cylinder engine with a triple carb would drink fuel like Hannibal Lecter went through Chianti dinner accompaniments. She wasn’t wrong.

It was eventually brought back to life under the bonnet by an Italian workshop in Perth, after waiting on parts for weeks.

Then, the body had a basic respray. However, poor workmanship meant the paint on the roof bubbled badly, so it later sported a vinyl roof covering – such a 70s auto augmentation.

The Alfa on the day it was sold. The more economical, brand new Mazda 323 replacement is next to it.

The Alfa went with us as we moved to Queensland in 1980, but within a short time its running costs forced Dad to consider selling it. He had to fill up twice a week to travel into the city. At first a 1960s Toyota Corona took on the daily commute, before a new Mazda 323 replaced both cars.

He sold the 2600 Sprint to a member of the local Alfa club, so at least it went to an enthusiast. Before it left our garage, he took us for a drive in it around the block. It had a nice exhaust note, and I think no rear seatbelts, which was a novelty for me.

Aged just 12, I never got to drive the Alfa I’d pretended to steer in the backyard.

However, it did give me a love of all sorts of cars that rock my world, more than that earthquake ever did.

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!

1. 1977 TOYOTA COROLLA YELLOW (BOUGHT 1987)
2. 1981 MAZDA 323 WHITE (BOUGHT 1989)
3. 1989 DAIHATSU CHARADE GREY (BOUGHT NEW YEAR’S EVE 1991)
4. 1992 MAZDA 121 CANAIPA BLUE (1992 DEALER DEMO)
5. 1995 SEAT IBIZA RED (BOUGHT NEW 1995)
6. 1989 FSM NIKI – WHITE (BOUGHT 1996)
7. 1988 MITSUBISHI COLT BRONZE (BOUGHT 2003)
8. 1990 FSM NIKI – RED (BOUGHT 2004)
9. 2003 DAIHATSU COPEN GREEN (BOUGHT 2005)
10. 2001 FORD KA MAROON (BOUGHT 2007)
11. 1991 FORD CAPRI GREEN SPARKLE (BOUGHT 2007)
12. 2000 HYUNDAI GRANDEUR BLACK (BOUGHT 2008)
13. 2002 SMART CITYCOUPE RED/BLACK (BOUGHT 2009)
14. 1994 DAEWOO 1.5 SILVER (BOUGHT 2009)
15. 1991 HYUNDAI LANTRA WHITE (BOUGHT 2009)
16. 2000 VW NEW BEETLE RED (BOUGHT CHRISTMAS EVE 2010)
17. 1993 HOLDEN BARINA WHITE (BOUGHT 2011)
18. 1990 DAIHATSU CHARADE WHITE (BOUGHT 2011)
19. 2006 CITROEN C4 DARK BLUE (BOUGHT 2011)
20. 1996 FORD FESTIVA WHITE (BOUGHT 2012)
21. 2004 PROTON GEN2 ORANGE (BOUGHT 2012)
22. 1996 FORD FESTIVA BLUE (BOUGHT 2013)
23. 1992 RENAULT 19 CHAMADE SILVER (BOUGHT 2013)
24. 1986 SUZUKI MIGHTY BOY BLUE/WHITE (BOUGHT 2013)
25. 1996 LAND ROVER DISCOVERY GREEN (BOUGHT 2013)
26. 1996 HOLDEN BARINA WHITE (BOUGHT 2014)
27. 1992 TOYOTA CAMRY MAROON (BOUGHT 2015)
28, 1995 MITSUBISHI VERADA VXI DARK BLUE (BOUGHT 2015)
29. 2003 PEUGEOT 206 WHITE (BOUGHT 2016)
30. 1996 RANGE ROVER HSE V8 GREEN (BOUGHT 2016)
31. 1985 SUBARU VORTEX XT BLUE (BOUGHT 2018)
32. 1985 SUBARU VORTEX WHITE (LEFT IN A BARN – BOUGHT 2018)
33. 1990 HOLDEN BARINA GS WHITE (BOUGHT 2018)
34. 2004 SAAB 9-3 LINEAR SPORT 1.8T SILVER (BOUGHT 2019)
35. 1996 FORD TAURUS GHIA MAROON (BOUGHT 2019)
36. 2003 SAAB 9-3 ARC SPORT 2.0T SILVER (BOUGHT 2019)
37. 1999 HONDA HR-V 1.6 WHITE (BOUGHT 2019)
38. 2001 CHRYSLER PT CRUISER LIMITED SILVER (BOUGHT 2020)
39. 1998 MGF ROADSTER BRITISH RACING GREEN (BOUGHT 2020)
40. 1995 LAND ROVER DISCOVERY 1 V8 IN GREEN (BOUGHT 2020)

..and more since this post.

My WD-40