Category: Classic

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 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.

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.

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.