Category: Classic

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ford Taurus: overweight, over-styled and over here

World War II saw almost a million American service personnel pass through Australia, starting in December 1941, for training or preparation for the Pacific front.

For a nation worried about defending itself, their presence was initially welcomed: they introduced soda fountains, hot dogs and hamburgers to Aussie life. However they also brought along their better pay, smarter uniforms and exotic provisions, which apparently impressed the local ladies.

There was a saying – some believe it began in Australia – that the Americans were “over-sexed, over-paid and over here”.

Read more about the Yanks down under

Disagreements sometimes ended in major confrontations on the street, such as the “Battle of Brisbane” in November 1942.

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Brisbane is where I bought a piece of American motoring history, that most of the locals didn’t love: a 1996 Ford Taurus, up for auction. I’d discovered an app which allows you to bid and hear the auctioneer, without being present at the auction site. The Taurus was low on kilometres (150,000) for a 23-year-old car, but there was very little detail on the website about its condition, apart from it having 2 keys, air conditioning – and a single service record from 1997. So, before auction day I inspected it at the yard – without starting or driving it.

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The Taurus in the auction yard

I’d always been interested in the Atlanta-built Taurus and its blobby look – partly because no-one else liked it! However it was only ever sold here in an upmarket Ghia trim, so it cost way more than I could ever afford ($42,000+, more than the locally-made Fairlane). It was a sales failure here, despite Ford’s reported hopes that it might one day be a replacement for the Falcon. Being front-wheel-drive didn’t help it win fans.

 

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This Taurus looked like a car that had been cared for: the paint was near perfect, the leather seats had very little wear, and the carpets had mats on top, which looked like they’d barely seen use. The V6 in the engine bay was remarkably clean.

A couple of days later, the auction was on and I was logged in to hear it. In between looking at the car and auction day, I’d Googled its VIN and discovered that it had been up for auction there a couple of weeks earlier, and presumably hadn’t reached a reserve – or even received a bid.

So, when the Taurus was driven into the auction room again, the auctioneer made comments like “when’s the last time you saw one of these?” which I can imagine only reminded any dealers in the room, about how tricky finding parts might be (tricky in Australia, parts are plentiful in the US for the Taurus and its clone, the Mercury Sable).

The auctioneer opened the bidding at $1,000.. and there was silence from bidders (even I wasn’t going to spend that much on it, considering the extra auction fees). Then he reduced it to a $500 start – I pressed “bid” on the app and put in my $600 bid. Then, more silence. “Going once, going twice” couldn’t attract more bids, and my Taurus bid was “referred” to the vendor, or “passed in”.

However within minutes I had a call from the auctioneers, telling me the reserve on the car had been $1,500 and asking if I could increase my bid – I said considering the added fees of nearly $500, I couldn’t. They went back to the seller, then back to me.. saying if I could move just a bit, I’d probably get a deal. So I went to $700 and the car was mine.

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The same day, I was emailed an invoice for nearly $1,200 (including fees) which I paid online, and the receipt followed the next day. That meant I could pick up the Taurus.

So, one afternoon I took a train to Brisbane, and hopped off at a station near the auction yard. I just had to show my receipt, plus my unregistered vehicle permit, and the car was released – with the bonus of half a tank of fuel in it.

As it was driven up to me at the gate, I heard a loud squeaking sound from the suspension. Was this car hiding a big problem? The trip home, in air-conditioned comfort, didn’t reveal any dramas, apart from having to change the temperature readout from Fahrenheit to Celsius by pressing the right buttons together on the dash.

The 200 horsepower V6 was smooth (the same Duratec 30 engine was in the Jaguar S-type that we owned, plus the X-type and XF models) but the soft American suspension gave this long car a floaty feel – so much so, I dubbed it “the land yacht”.

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A sticker with a slogan big in the 90s: “Queensland loves a Ford”

Luckily, the Taurus had the original books, with the name of the original owner (well, his southern Queensland cattle property, at least), who’d bought it in 1997. I Googled the property name and it brought up a number. I rang it, and the woman who answered didn’t know anything about the car. However, when I mentioned the property name, she recognised that and gave me a surname – the White Pages gave me their number.

The original owner told me his wife had mostly driven the Taurus, and she now wanted a shorter car with a reversing camera. So, he traded it in on a new Toyota, a couple of months before the auction. So I’d bought the Taurus from a country car dealer.

I asked him about the single dealer service record, in 1997. He explained that the car had been serviced all these years in the workshop on his property. I told him that I’d found 6 CDs (Loretta Lynn, etc) that he’d left in the boot CD stacker. He told me to keep them.

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The roadworthy on the car revealed a couple of issues: the squeaking sound might be worn suspension, and there was a problem with the handbrake not locking into place. I had 2 weeks to fix those problems, to get the OK for registration.

My mechanic discovered that the squeaking sound was simply old grease in the suspension, having gone hard over time – so he cleaned and re-greased, and the noise was gone. The handbrake was a similar problem: the old grease around the ratchet prevented it from locking. So, after removing the centre console, he cleaned the ratchet, re-greased, and it was also fixed.

I drove the Taurus locally, enjoying the smooth engine and the big steering wheel buttons for the cruise control. It also had automatic headlights, with the light sensor in the top of the dashboard. Plus, being made in the carjacking-prone US, the doors locked when you put it into drive.. and the remote only unlocked the driver’s door on the first push.

After a while, I put it up for sale – at a high price, but one I’d seen another low-kilometre Taurus listed at. After some low offers, an older couple came to look at it – the man revealed he already owned a Taurus, but it was playing up – and he so loved the model, he wanted to buy another one.

We went for a test drive, agreed on a lower price, then they transferred the money to me, right there on the driveway, using their phone’s bank app (they seemed like a low risk for fraud). Within hours, the money did appear in my account (so then I could sleep).

The American Ford Taurus might have been overweight, over-styled and over here.. but I was happy it had appeared on the streets of Brisbane, for me to sample its luxury.

 

Anne Elk’s theory on the SAAB 9-3

The Monty Python sketch “Anne Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses” first appeared in a TV episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in November 1972. A month later it was released on vinyl record (“Monty Python’s Previous Record”) but this time the sketch ended with “A. Elk. Brackets Miss, brackets” being shot on the verge of another theory.

Click here to hear Anne Elk’s theory

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Anne took a long time to reveal her theory and state it was hers.. but in the end it was a pretty obvious line of thinking. However, Anne’s theory lives on: it’s used by the American Psychological Association style guide to show how to reference an article.

Click here to see Anne Elk get the recognition she craved

The Swedish automaker SAAB ended up having a lot in common with Anne. It was born in 1945, just a few years after Anne’s alter-ego John Cleese. Both had experience with the elk family: in SAAB’s case, it was for the famous “elk test”, where a car has to veer around an imaginary elk at up to 80 km/h. And both came to a stuttering end, just as they were about to unveil something new. SAAB production officially ended in 2011, as there was the promise of a new “Phoenix” model.

I’d seen the famous SAAB versus a jet TV ads in the 80s, playing on SAAB’s aviation heritage, plus Jerry Seinfeld’s SAAB 900s Cabrio, but my in-the-flesh introduction to SAABs came in the early noughties, when I bought a used 90s SAAB 9000 CS for my wife to drive around, because I had taken back my SEAT Ibiza from her.

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A similar SAAB 9000 CS. Pic OSX [Public domain]

I found the SAAB in a corner of a caryard, cheaply priced (SAABs and depreciation, see below!) for its seemingly-safe length and bulk of thick metal. But terrible tyres on it (imported used ones, I think) meant that in the wet, this long hatchback was scary to drive (once I heard the ABS kick in, approaching a wet roundabout). New tyres couldn’t shake our fears, and once the air conditioning gave up, we traded it in on a Renault Scenic.

Then in mid-2017, a year or so after selling the “family truckster” Hyundai Trajet, my wife was growing tired of driving my “spare” manual Citroen, so we started scanning online ads. We were coming back from a disappointing Gold Coast journey to check out a Honda and a Volkswagen, when I said we could stop and inspect a SAAB 9-3 at Eagle Farm, right by the Gateway. I got some pushback, and stories of that “other” SAAB, before I said we should inspect it anyway – we were going right past.

So, we met the owner of the 2006 SAAB 9-3 turbo 2-litre automatic, and my wife test drove it for just a few hundred metres, before announcing it was a great drive, and she wanted to buy it. So, for $5,100 we had an 11-year-old car that had cost $54,000 new! It’s been a great drive: the smooth turbo boost is quite addictive, as is the sunroof.

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So our love of SAABs was reignited. Everything from its ignition key between the front leather seats, next to the handbrake and shifter (aviation-inspired, but also to save your knees from hitting the keys in a crash), to the “freewheeling” sensation of the turbo (on a flat road with no push of the pedal, it wants to keep going).

I kept an eye out for any SAAB bargains, and I found one on the Sunshine Coast for about $900. It was silver, had a minor back door dent and less turbo pressure than my wife’s 9-3. It was badged as a 1.8, but both have the same 2-litre engine – just with different turbo outputs.

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I test drove it, and it was pretty much the same driving experience as our own SAAB. It had renewed air conditioning, however it needed oil leaks and the driver’s seat adjustment fixed, so I went home to think about it. A couple of weeks later, the price dropped and got my attention.. and after some bargaining I got my unregistered SAAB for $700, delivered.

The driver’s seat height adjuster just needed a screw tightened, but the oil leaks were coming from everywhere! My mechanic replaced the tappet cover seal, the oil pan gasket and a brake vacuum pump seal, before the leaks continued and his attention turned to the timing cover seal.

He removed it, to see that 2 plastic timing chain guides had snapped, and the chain itself was rubbing a tensioner. Usually, there is a rattling noise when the timing chain has trouble, but this SAAB had shown no symptoms.

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Under the timing cover

My SAAB was in my wife’s garage spot, so we couldn’t wait for spares to be sent from overseas. I had to buy these expensive bits of plastic, an equally expensive tensioner, and even more rubber seals from a northside SAAB expert.

With all four brake rotors replaced as well, repairs had cost me a lot – but the SAAB got its roadworthy and was put back on the road. While I drove it, I took the time to lubricate the sunroof to make it better behaved, plus fix its fold-out cupholder in the dashboard, after some intensive Googling on how it works.

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Cupholder: fixed

After I’d had my fun with the turbo boost and sunroof, I put the SAAB up for sale. The price wasn’t low, as I had spent so much on fixing it up. After a couple of insulting offers and an invitation from the SAAB Club to join a run, I had a local buyer asking about it.

The young lady had been intending to buy a car in Brisbane, but the seller was rude to her on the phone. So, she looked again locally – and found my car. She drove it briefly through a shopping centre carpark, then went away to think about it. With another buyer asking about the SAAB, I let her know as a courtesy.. and she said she would buy it.

I broke even – just.

SAAB cars have now gone the way of dinosaurs like Anne Elk’s brontosaurus. And just like her theory on them, money on SAABs can be small at first, much much bigger in the middle, and then small again at the end.

Ford Ka one cool cat – but keep cats away

The early 1800s were an exciting time – in how to spell and say “aluminium”.

English chemist Sir Humphry Davy first named the metal alumium in 1807, then changed it to aluminum, before deciding on the more “classical” aluminium in 1812. It later became aluminum again, just in the US and Canada. This was either due to Noah Webster’s dictionary spelling, or, as Mike Powell reveals in his book “Amglish”, an engineer’s typo.

Click here for more on “Amglish”

The car world also has pronunciation differences. When I heard radio ads for a local RSL club, saying one lucky member would win a “Ford K.A.” (kay-ay), I knew what they were talking about, despite the odd name. It was what I called the Ka, as in “car”: a funky little hatchback in Ford’s “new edge” design philosophy of the time. This pronunciation did make it difficult to explain what car you owned.

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A similar Ford Ka

However, in researching this post, I’ve found out that Ford’s “top brass” said the name should be pronounced like “cat” but without the “t”.

Click here for autotrader.co.uk archived article

And funny I should mention cats, because an ad for the Ford Ka’s “evil twin” – SportKa – featured a computer-generated cat coming to a grisly end in the sentient car’s sunroof. It wasn’t supposed to be released, but made it onto the web, where it’s stayed.

Click here to see SportKa ad on YouTube

Despite its lack of engine power, I was a fan of the Ford Ka when it was released in Australia in 1999. The outside look of this Spanish-built car was unlike any other small hatch at the time (but a similar theme to the AU Falcon, sporty Ford Cougar and soon-to-be-released Focus). The Ka had grey bumpers as standard, or optional painted bumpers. There was a wheel at each corner in the spirit of the original Mini, plus they came with air conditioning and that cat-catching sunroof.

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Inside was just as weird as the outside. There was retro bare metal on the tops of the doors, a swoopy dashboard with an analogue clock, and instead of a glovebox, a little rotating storage hutch: you either flipped it over, facing up, to open the storage for (say) sunglasses, or flipped it down to hide it, and have a flat area for (say) a phone.

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The Ka didn’t have power windows, mirrors or central locking, but still sold for over $16,000, quite a bit more than most competition. With a mortgage to pay and a second child on the way, I couldn’t afford to buy one new. So of course, I kept an eBay search going.

In late 2007 an orangey-bronzey Ka (the colour was called “Kaligula”) come up for auction, unregistered, in Bundaberg – 4 hours’ drive north. It checked out with online vehicle history searches, and looked good in the photos. I’d just sold my Daihatsu Copen so had the money to buy it – I bid against a couple of other people and eventually won it, without having inspected it or ever driven one, for a little over $2,000. I just had to get to Bundaberg to pick it up.

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One Friday morning (I worked Sunday to Thursday at the time), I hired a car for a one-way trip to Bundy, met the seller at the local Transport Department carpark and paid for the Ka, after we’d both gone inside the building to transfer ownership and get it re-registered. It was as good as it looked in the listing.

There was just one problem: the car’s battery had been unplugged while it was for sale, and now the radio wanted a code put in – and of course, the owner hadn’t found the piece of paper with that code. Without a radio or CD, it was a VERY long trip home, with just songs in my head for company.

Owning the car was great – with wheels at each corner and so little overhang, it handled beautifully. Swooping down onto the highway along the on-ramp was a lot of fun, even if it took forever for the old-style iron head pushrod engine to get the Ka up to 100 km/h. The 1.3 litre 4-cylinder design apparently dates back to the Cortina and Escort! It made just 43 KW, slightly less than my SEAT Ibiza, but the Ka seemed to use it well.

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The seats (just 4 of them) were comfortable

After a while, I’d had my fun with the Ka – plus my purchase of an old Ford Capri meant the Ka was now sitting out on the driveway. So, up for sale it went – and it soon sold as a first car to a young lady, who drove all the way from Capalaba to look at it with her dad.

I’d had to buy a new battery and maybe 2 tyres, plus I recall paying my local Ford dealer a small amount of money to look up the radio code – which I then wrote down and kept in the car! So I made a small profit on the sale of this registered Ka.

Some months later, on a family drive, we were stopped at traffic lights at Capalaba, when we saw it go around the corner, with the young lady at the wheel. This K.A. or Ka car was still nice and shiny, like freshly smelted aluminium – or aluminum.

New Beetle still has the love bug

Although it was Adolf Hitler’s pet project with Ferdinand Porsche in the 1930s, the Volkswagen Beetle only took off after World War II – and only after British car manufacturers declined an offer to have the German factory packed up and sent to the UK. They turned up their noses at this “unattractive” car.

The rest is history, with the millionth Beetle rolling off the production line by 1955. Strong demand in the US prompted VW to build them there, and Australia was among a handful of other countries to also build them locally.

Making them was simple, with just one stamping for the main body shell. An air-cooled engine at the back meant there was no water-filled radiator to freeze up in cold weather.

2018 Memorial Day Parade in Ardmore, PA.

A Herbie replica: Flickr/dmuth

In the early 60s, writer Gordon Buford wrote a story about a car that thinks for itself, after growing up on a farm and seeing how cars seemed to have day-to-day personality and performance changes, like the horses. Disney bought the rights, and ‘The Love Bug’ starring ‘Herbie’ the Beetle was authorized for production by Walt Disney himself, shortly before his death.

Read 11 facts about Herbie here

However there was still a casting call of cars before the movie went into production, with a Toyota, MG and Volvo among those joining the VW. The Beetle was the pick, when it was noticed how people liked to reach out and touch it. 

The budget for the first Herbie movie in 1968 was $5 million, and it grossed ten times that amount, locally. 4 sequels and a TV series followed. As a child, I was a big fan of the Herbie movies.

Germany stopped making the Beetle in the late 70s, sending production to Mexico. That’s where my New Beetle would come from, over 20 years later.

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A similar 2000 New Beetle on sale in Japan

The 1994 North American International Auto Show saw VW unveil a retro-themed Beetle concept car. I saw it in the news, and loved the fresh take on the original design. However when the New Beetle was launched in Australia in 2000, it was way too much for me to afford – costing close to $37,000. Even the VW Golf, which supplied the basic car platform for the New Beetle, only started in the mid-20s.

So I put it on my wish list. In very late 2010 I was browsing eBay when I found a manual red 2000 New Beetle for sale a few suburbs away – for $5,000 with low kilometres, rego and a roadworthy. With my teenage daughter in tow, I went to look at it – and loved it. The Beetle sat low and drove very similarly to my VW-based SEAT Ibiza, meaning it hugged corners and felt very planted on the road. The 2-litre engine had plenty of punch too. I’d recently sold my Mum’s former Hyundai Lantra so I put down a deposit and brought it home on Christmas Eve.

While it handled well, it wasn’t perfect: being based on the Golf meant it only seated 4, to allow for those rounded wheel arches at the back. The rear seat headroom was tight under the low sloping hatch, with only millimetres between the headrests and the glass.

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Nods to the original Beetle included a hint of a side running board (which often got dented by running over large objects or kerbs – mine had a small indentation on one side), fake (plastic) metal interior finishes to the doors in the car’s colour, where you could rest your elbow.. and the tiny clear plastic flower vase, next to the steering wheel, that was popular with the original models (mine still had its fake flower from the dealer – I found it in the glovebox).

vw steering wheel

There was no engine temperature gauge on the instrument cluster – just a blue light that came on when the engine was cold, and disappeared when it was at running temperature. The manual said not to rev too much until the blue light was out. The engine – now positioned in the front, just like the Golf – was also squeezed between those iconic fender and bonnet curves.

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I found the biggest issue with the New Beetle was its build quality. The solely Mexico-built car lost bits of aged plastic, had door trims come loose.. and the top of the “soft feel” dash go sticky in the sun.

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The seats, however, were good and the air-conditioning was up to the usual VW cooling force. I think the only maintenance my Beetle needed was a couple of tyres and some work on engine sensors.

By late 2011, I’d started a new job which saw me travelling down the highway early every morning – so I now wanted a car with cruise control. Unfortunately, the Beetle didn’t have that, and it went up for sale. My roadworthy guy suggested selling it via “Consign a Car” at the caryard mecca in Kedron, where you leave your vehicle in their yard and they sell it for you, taking a commission.

I took it there and within a fortnight the Beetle had been sold (via their other yard on the Gold Coast) for $7,500, which meant that after the commission was paid I even made a small profit. Someone else had easily caught the love bug.

Barina takes off like Road Runner

Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner started their desert adventures in 1949, in a Warner Bros theatrical short film by animator Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese.

Jones later claimed there were rules for depicting the pair, including that the Road Runner would never go off-road, anything the Coyote used had to come from ACME Corporation, and the Road Runner couldn’t harm the Coyote except by going “beep beep”. However, these rules eventually were broken.

In 1968 US carmaker Plymouth was being told by an ad agency to call its new sports coupe “La Mancha”. Instead, it chose Road Runner because an assistant had seen the bird on kids’ Saturday morning cartoons.

Plymouth licensed the design from Warner Bros, after an official visited with a list of the “rules” for Road Runner. The character appeared in the engine bay, and on the massive rear spoiler of the “Superbird” model.

Read about the man behind the Plymouth Road Runner here

There was even a “beep beep” style horn for the big V8:

1969 Road Runner original Beep Beep horn

Plymouth wasn’t the only car company to license the Road Runner character. Holden did so in the mid-80s, with its Suzuki-built Barina small car. It also made use of the “beep beep” catchphrase.

1991 Holden Barina ad

I’ve now bought and sold 2 of the second generation, which debuted in 1989.

The first one was on eBay in 2011, up for auction out in the nearby countryside at Kilcoy. Bidding barely moved from the $500 starting bid. After just a little work, the 18-year-old automatic 5-door was eventually sold to a local family.

Then in December 2018, I got up early one Saturday morning and was browsing Gumtree when I saw a rare 1990 Barina GS manual model, with low kilometres for its age, in a reasonably local listing from the night before. It was offered for $600.

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It had an older owner, who’d bought it off the original owner 18 years earlier. Now she didn’t need it any more, and her grandson had lost interest in taking it off her. Perhaps it was because the Barina had no power steering, and wind-down windows. It was registered, but being sold unregistered, as it needed a CV boot and other minor work.

I rang her a little after 7am – she was up and happy to show me the car within the hour. So I drove over for an inspection, and noticed the front driver’s side fog light was broken. “You’ll never find one, they don’t make them any more,” she said. I thought otherwise, but it would take a lot of searching to prove her wrong! The tyres were good, the seats were clean after removing tired lambswool seat covers.. and the paint was chipped on the bonnet, but OK.

We went for a test drive, initially with her behind the wheel. She made a point of telling me she never revved the car, and it had taken her across Australia (there certainly was some evidence of bulldust around the body). When it was my turn to drive, I wound it up a bit as I took off. “Did you hear that,” she said, “that’s the noise when you rev it too much.” I couldn’t hear it, but drove it sedately from then on.

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Back in her carport, I asked if I could rev the engine while we were stationary. She said OK, and as I took the revs up beyond 2,500 RPM the exhaust line made a rattle. That’s all it was, a vibration from somewhere under the car, at a certain rev level.

I was happy enough, and offered $500. “No, $525,” she insisted, “and I’ll drive it up to your place and remove the number plates.” That saved me on the unregistered vehicle permit, and as I drove her back home, her phone kept buzzing with buyers asking about the car. She didn’t want to remove the ad until she was behind her computer at home.

One other thing she did point out to me, was to pump the accelerator pedal before starting the car cold (I found this in the owner’s manual too). This Barina had no fuel injection – just an old school carburettor – so needed some help to start.

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The seats in this GS 3-door model were somewhat sporty, even if the 1.3 litre engine wasn’t all that powerful. Plus, the powerplant sounded a little tinny (I recalled the other Barina I owned having a similar engine note).

To get the car registered, I’d need to get the CV boot replaced, along with the rear brake cylinders and the broken fog light. The first 2 on the list were easily done, but the fog light was tricky. Research on the net revealed that only the Barina GS came with the fog lights, and they seemed to be the same as a Suzuki Swift GTi. With no wreckers able to supply one from either car, and owners on an overseas Suzuki online forum also without right-hand lights, I turned to an online parts store, based in both Russia and Japan. “Megazip” would send me a new fog light from their Japanese warehouse, for $225. Yikes, expensive for a light.. but at the time there wasn’t much choice. Of course, in the weeks after I ordered the light, 2 Suzukis were put online locally for wrecking.

The fog light arrived (a slow journey, due to the Christmas break) and I installed it into the bumper. Then the Barina passed the roadworthy, and I got it registered. After driving it around locally, I put it online to sell.

barina rear

Within days I had a buyer asking about it as a runaround, then looking at it, then calling to say they’d been offered another car by family, then calling back again to say they’d rather own a car than borrow it, and can they bring all the kids over to see how they fit in the back? Yes they could, they did, and they were happy.

Just like the Road Runner, this Barina went down the road in record time. Beep Beep.

No French fallout in comfortable Renault

There have been well over 2,000 nuclear explosions worldwide since 1945, and that’s been brought home by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto in a chilling animation, that went viral a few years ago:

Australia hosted nuclear tests on its soil in the 1950s and early 60s, with the effects of the “black mist” still being felt.

However by the mid-1990s, Australia thought nuclear tests were something that happened in very distant lands – until Jacques Chirac was elected French President in 1995.

Chirac resumed nuclear atoll explosions in the South Pacific, and Australians were among those getting angry – in a way that’s quite different to the social media protests of today.

It was a brave person who left their new Citroen, Peugeot or Renault parked outside on a city street in 1995 – I recall reports of damage to French cars. As well, some restaurants with French names changed them, to keep customers and stop vandalism.

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And, as detailed in the book “A Brief Madness: Australia and the Resumption of French Nuclear Testing” by Kim Richard Nossal and Carolynn Vivian, even businesses that offered “french polishing” found themselves receiving angry phone calls.

There was also a campaign called “Fax the French on Fridays”, designed to tie up the fax lines of the French government and its diplomatic missions.

TV star Andrew Denton, who hosted a late night show on the Seven Network at the time, had two tonnes of manure dumped on the driveway of the French embassy in Canberra. Newspapers included headlines like the Sydney Morning Herald’s “Merci, for our radioactive blanket”.

Sales of Renaults fell 30 per cent off an already low base, and the brand left Australia in 1996 (for 4 years) amid a dispute with its distributor. The nuclear tests ended in the same year.

I was reminded of this Aussie anger, when I saw a silver automatic 1992 Renault 19 for sale on eBay in 2013. It had a starting bid of $300, and I ended up being the only bidder.

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A Renault 19 for a left-hand-drive market. Pic by Rudolf Stricker [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

It had been bought new by a Melbourne woman (for $28,000 in 1992!), and her son was selling it on the Gold Coast after her death. It had just over 100,000 kilometres on the clock, and had clearly escaped any anti-French vandalism. However, it had rust bubbles starting at the rear.

The Renault was being sold unregistered (although it still had Victorian rego on it) because a broken indicator and stone-chipped headlight needed replacement. It came with a new blinker, but the son didn’t want to change it over. So, after some post-eBay negotiations, the sedan (called a Chamade by Renault) was delivered to my door for a hundred or so more, where the plates were removed.

I’d never taken much notice of the Renault 19, but our family had experience with the brand: In the mid-2000s we bought a secondhand 2003 Scenic (at a great price from a dealer, because few people knew about them) which we’d found to be very cleverly designed and great to drive.

The 1992 Renault 19 was, however, very conventional in design (except for putting the electric window switches on the dashboard centre), and hardly a brisk drive, despite its 1.7 litre engine.

. renault dash

But sitting in it, everyone was struck by how soft, yet supportive and ultimately armchair-like the seats were.

renault seats

Replacing the blinker housing was simple, involving just the release of a plastic hook by the back of the headlights. It took minutes. A wrecker supplied me with a replacement headlight, which went in easily too. I also sprayed some sealant inside the boot, to slow the rust bubbles.

I drove the Renault locally for a few months, and put it up for sale. Seeing as I hadn’t paid much for it, the asking price was good for an air-conditioned low-kilometre automatic. Soon, a fellow who was buying on price instead of brand rang about it, then had his mates drop him off by the highway near my place. I met him there, and we took it for a drive on the highway. Then he paid up and dropped me home.

I reckon the Renault 19 is now an old bomb, if it’s even still on the roads. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that the plutonium 239 at Mururoa Atoll will be toxic for 240,000 years.

Vortex draws me back to the 80s

In 1974, physicist Stephen Hawking thought that a black hole might not really be a vortex of nothingness. He said in the mess at its centre, charged particles – which would normally be together – could become separated, with one beyond the event horizon, and the other swirling around just outside. This faint glow in the vortex was dubbed “Hawking radiation” and experts are still arguing over whether it exists, after his death.

In early 2018, I found myself facing a Hawking moment, with cars. I had long wanted to own a 1980s Subaru Vortex, with its wedge shape, asymmetrical steering wheel and fighter jet dashboard.

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Incidentally, the Vortex was only known as a Vortex in Australia and New Zealand. In the U.S. it was simply an XT, but for Japan it was the Alcyone: that’s the central and largest star of the Pleiades constellation, which makes up the Subaru logo.

Video tour of my Vortex here

When a blue 1985 Vortex came up on Gumtree nearby, needing some engine work, I pounced on it and bought it from an old couple for a few hundred dollars. The husband was almost blind, so they were downsizing to just one car. Their Vortex’s engine had started leaking water one morning as they backed out, so it stayed in the garage and went up for sale, after a mechanic said (on the phone) that it could be the water pump. The old man got teary as I had it towed away.

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For a 33-year-old car, it wasn’t too bad: it had some minor scratches and dents, some rust around the boot welds, sunroof and front chassis rail, and it needed some attention to the paint/clear coat. But it also had something I wasn’t keen on: shiny auto store hubcaps. The original hubcap was a very 80s blocky design, so as the engine was brought back to life, and the rust and paint was done, I went looking for those hubcaps.

Gumtree provided me with a very nice one in Brisbane from a parts car, but I needed another 3. That’s when I rang a fellow on the Sunshine Coast, about his ad for all types of Vortex parts. He said on the phone he should be able to “dig up” his hubcaps, which no-one had wanted for many years.

I arrived at his place (a farm being turned into a housing estate) and he showed me 2 hubcaps, covered in soil and rusty around the wheel rim clamps. I don’t think he was joking when he said he would dig them up! I bought them, and as I left he mentioned that he had to vacate his farm soon, and he had a “complete” automatic Vortex in the shed, along with a car shell. “Make an offer for both,” he said. He’d salvaged some parts off the silver shell for his own car, and had bought the White Vortex in Brisbane in 2010 – driving it home to his shed, where it stayed.

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I thought I might be able to use the shell to fix the rusted chassis rail in mine, so with my wife’s permission I later made him an offer for the compete car and the shell. It was a cheap price – towing them home would cost about as much as buying them – but he was moving off the farm in just a few weeks, and needed them gone.

The day I went to pick up my “accidental” Vortex purchase, it was not long after a week of heavy rain, so we had to use his tractor to get the 2 cars up a hill to the tow truck.

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On closer inspection, the white car had more rust than mine, damage to the front bumper, and dirty wet carpet. It would need a good clean, once the tow truck brought it home.

dirty

On my lawn at home, it became clear that the white Vortex was an unusual purchase: it had “TURBO” written on the dashboard speedo – along with an air intake on the bonnet – but no turbo in the engine bay. However, there was a suspicious hole in the exhaust line going from the engine, which was probably for the exhaust gas “dump” from the turbo. I reckon the old man had harvested the turbo from this Vortex, for his own car.

White Vortex “handy” video

As well, this Vortex was made in mid-1985 (some months earlier than mine), had no sunroof, but did have a wiper/washer on the back window. It had a ‘height’ button on the dash, but no air suspension. It had a 4WD button between the seats, but was front-wheel-drive only. It even had a different font for the Vortex badge.

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There was some talk in online forums about how 1980s Subaru executives brought out some cars from Japan early to show off to dealers, before the official on-sale date. Was this White model the first (or one of the first) Vortex cars in Australia? Subaru Australia didn’t have any information, and Subaru Japan never got back to my Facebook message.

I did find an old bank card in the car, with a woman’s unusual name on it. I Googled her name, found her number and texted her: she was the owner who’d sold it to the old man in 2010. Her mum owned a restaurant, and had bought the Vortex off the original owner, who was a regular customer there. However, she couldn’t help with any more history.

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There was one more surprise with this car: when I opened up the boot, there were 4 hubcaps stacked in there. So I could now fit out my own car, with a couple to spare (of varying quality). My mechanic got the white Vortex running (rough) one day, after a lot of encouragement, but we didn’t put it into gear: I simply wanted to see if it would start.

With my Vortex now back from the body shop, and running OK after a rusted-though coolant pipe was replaced, it was time to get it registered. Plus, the Vortex shell had been cut up by the body shop for me to keep the spare panels and glass. I didn’t want to do up another car.. so I put the white Vortex online to sell, for a few hundred dollars.

I had offers for bits of the car (I believe the rear disc brakes are popular for upgrading the Subaru Brumby from its drum brakes) but I didn’t want to have a car in pieces on the lawn. Eventually, a local car detailer offered to buy it, at a hefty discount, and arranged to get a tow truck to pick it up. His wife had seen the car advertised, liked the look of it and wanted to get it going. The husband wasn’t a fan, but they towed it away anyway.

A couple of weeks later, the call went out on a Subaru forum for an un-cracked dashboard for the white Vortex – they’re dubbed “unicorns” by owners, as they’re so rare. So I’m guessing that call went nowhere. Then a week or so later, the white Vortex was up for sale on Gumtree – initially for more than I was paid, then it was reduced, and then it disappeared.

So for me, the white car went into a black hole.. but my blue Vortex is still shimmering like that Hawking radiation – in theory at least.

Watch the YouTube walkaround here

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Hand built by robots: Proton Gen.2

English singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner had striking ginger dreadlocks and a top 10 hit on his hands in 2007, when he released the percussive guitar-driven “Dream Catch Me” from his album “Hand Built By Robots”. It’s been voted one of the top 100 songs of the 2000s.

Newton Faulkner – Dream Catch Me

Because the song was such a hit, he had to become a robot: rushing the last few tracks of his debut album, in just a few weeks. The album title has stayed in my mind, because of the idea of robots “hand building” something.

In the 2000s, Malaysian car maker Proton was using robots, to put together about 60% of each car it made. It had built a new factory, to make the Waja sedan, and the Gen.2 hatchback (which were similar under the skin). Both were imported into Australia, but strangely enough the $27,990 Waja didn’t sell well. However, the sub-$20,000 Gen.2 did, and it started to appear on streets from late 2004. Its headlights were apparently inspired by a tiger’s eyes. I liked the look of the Gen.2.

Proton GEN2 LE

I was wasting time on eBay in 2012, when I saw a manual orange 2007 Gen.2 offered for $2,300 unregistered, at a Nambour car dealer. A 5-year-old car (with aircon, central locking and alloys) for $2,300!? The ’07 model was selling used for around $5,000, registered. You might think “what’s wrong with it?”, but I knew the dealer wanted this trade-in gone because it was an unknown model to have to resell. To be fair though, it did need new tyres.. and the push-down door lock replaced on a rear door. Proton parts weren’t found anywhere near Nambour.

I’d changed jobs the year before and still had some funds from my unused holiday payout, so I was able to talk my wife into letting me buy it – and driving me up to get it. With the dealer paid and a Transport Department permit obtained, I drove it home.

Proton launched in Australia in the mid-90s, selling copied Mitsubishi designs as a “Wira” with the slogan “People go on and on about Proton”. However, despite a million kilometre warranty (yep, you read it right – but only over 3 years) not many people went on about them – or bought them in those early days.

At around the same time, Proton bought a majority stake in British sports car maker Lotus, and had them help create new models – one of which was the Gen.2. Driving home in my orange buy, I could feel the Lotus influence on the handling (a lot of fun to drive, very tight on the road), but I could also hear the road rumble due to lack of soundproofing, and see the cheapness of the seating and interior plastic.

proton int

It looked very funky, with aircon controls stacked on 3 dials at the bottom of the dash, a sporty steering wheel, and an analogue clock at the top. However if you ran your fingers over the dash, door trim and steering wheel, it had all the roughness of very used Tupperware – and none of the flexibility. Plus, the driver’s seat might have been built by the Flat Earth Society – it was like sitting on a hard park bench, leaving you hanging on for dear life while going around a corner. So it handled well, but you’d be brave to demonstrate that.

With 4 new tyres and (after some weeks of waiting) a new lock for the back door from a dealer near me, the Gen.2 was registered and used as my second car. I eventually put it online to sell, and a young lady (not all that local) bought it for a handy profit – this time.

Incredibly, not long after I sold it, this car built by robots was stalking me like The Terminator. One morning as I drove into the city along a very western route (to avoid the traffic of the main one), a blob of orange appeared in my rear vision mirror: it was the Gen.2, being driven by the young lady who’d bought it off me.

My dream (sale) did catch me.