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

PT Cruiser: never meet your heroes

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

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

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

madeleine

Flickr: Karen Booth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watergate and the Range Rover

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

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

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

exterior

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.

Trade in the Corona: best bog roll cars

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

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

snowtown03892

imcdb.org

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

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

lara

imdb.com

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

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

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

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

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Bull-Doser / Public domain

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

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

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

Honda HR-V: drive, Forrest, drive!

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

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

Watch The Likely Lads movie clip here

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

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

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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.