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I have owned well over a dozen cars and driven a lot more, in numerous countries.
It seems to me that there are a limited number of reasons to own a car:
- As a tool of business where time is critical and tools of trade need to be carried about in a dedicated vehicle.
- Convenient, fast, comfortable, transport particularly to difficult to get to places not easily accessible by public transport or cabs or in unpleasant weather conditions, when cabs may be hard to get.
- Like clothes, a car can help define you to others and perhaps to yourself, as an extension of your personality.
- A car can make a statement about one's success in life.
- A car can be a work of art, something re-created as an aesthetic project.
- A car is essential equipment in the sport of driving.
Buying a new car is a dubious rational choice if the only objective is getting from place to place.
Rental cars can often resolve a short term need like when travelling overseas or interstate and when time is at a premium.
At home second hand cars are pre-depreciated and usually satisfy the primary objective: freedom to travel conveniently, speedily and spontaneously, particularly to places that are difficult to get to otherwise, for example, to the snow.
But personality, status, art and sport justify the marginal, or not so marginal, additional costs owners are prepared to pay.
If transport was the only objective, no one would buy a new car for personal use. The cost is too high compared to a combination of cabs and public transport.
My second car, soon after getting my first full time job, was a Renault 10. I foolishly 'purchased' it on a hire-purchase contract. In other words, it was beyond my means. It taught me a salutary lesson, one that has stood me in good stead everafter: Never borrow money on a depreciating asset.
Now, when considering a packet of those expensive multi-grain Weet-Bix, or a car:
1. Do I have sufficient funds to purchase this without going into debt?
2. If not, might its value go up sufficiently to offset the interest I will be charged to borrow the price?
3. If not, is there an alternative to this purchase that will achieve my objective?
In the case of the Weet-Bix I always decide to go ahead, because I can afford them, without the prospect of incurring credit card interest, and I prefer them to the plain ones.
Similarly, my present Holden is the only brand-new car I have ever purchased myself. I could afford it and bought it, on a whim, when I turned 60, as a birthday present to myself.
Public transport is often quicker as well in heavy traffic or if parking is an issue at the destination. Although I have my car conveniently to hand I often leave it in it's parking space and walk ten minutes to the village shops or public transport.
For brief periods since I learnt to drive in the early 1960's I have avoided owning a car at all on the grounds of cost, arguing that public transport combined with cabs, and in London and New York a push bike, are cheaper ways of meeting my primary objective. But I like the convenience and freedom cars bring; and where's the fun in catching a cab? So I have to admit that I have secondary objectives for owning a car.
But there is a trade-off, depending on how how much money you have available. If you go really cheap you may need to know how to: change a spark-plug; the brake shoes; a coil; an alternator; injectors or carburettor; the gearbox; suspension components and wheel bearings; the entire drive chain; do a bit of rewiring; or do some light welding; panel beating and spray painting.
This will involve both time, very dirty hands and potentially, bruised knuckles and other minor injuries. And it may require you to get out the tools and make temporary repairs to the cooling system and the electricals, that got sprayed with hot rusty water, early one morning, in the freezing cold, on the way to Guthega. Hypothetically of course.
Defining one's persona
Of course, the strategy of buying well performing cars second-hand, even luxury models that have seen better days, is great if you want to own a classic car for aesthetic person style reasons. Such a car, modified with one's own blood sweat and tears and many hours of contemplation can uniquely represent you in a way that something from a catalogue can't.
Among the second hand cars I have loved were two Citroën CXs that were a delight to drive.
The Citroëns followed an almost new V8 Leyland P76 that, despite its bad reputation, I loved to drive. It was better in the snow, had a lot more boot space and was more powerful than my present Holden. But it didn't corner as well; was heavy on fuel; had some amusing little electrical quirks, involving smoke and melting wiring; and it began to leak in the rain, resulting in the rust that contributed to its death; along with a woman in a large, out of control, Mercedes ramming another parked car into it while it was parked outside my house.
Owning second-hand cars doesn't work at all if your central objective in buying a car is to demonstrate how well you are doing in life - how wealthy and successful you are. A second-hand MG, Woolsey 24/80 or Jaguar doesn't cut it, despite the leather and wood-grain!
Demonstrating that you 'have arrived'
To demonstrate life success one needs to wander aimlessly into a posh showroom with a bag of cash and have a sales person show you the top of the range.
But how could I find a car good enough to represent myself as a winner in life? It seems to be demeaning to oneself if your one's trophy car is not a true trophy. To be a true status seeker, one's first goal must be to show everyone else how good one is at status seeking.
As I have mentioned my present car is a Holden Commodore. It’s a nice shiny black one, with tinted windows and all the extras. A Lumina edition. And although it’s now several years old I'm still pleased with it. But a Holden can never be a trophy car. It's too run of the mill to be owned by a status seeker. Holden produce tens of thousands of the things - see Holden - The Demise of an Iconic Brand elsewhere.
Maybe one of those nice new Bentleys would cut it, like the beautiful pearl white one one that lives around here somewhere, but even that is getting a bit too common, there's even one around here!
I've better things to do with $300,000+. And soon they'll be multiplying like rabbits, like those annoying, token wife driven, Porsche Cayennes, that seem to have joined in conspiracy with the decidedly down-market Toyota Kluggers, clugging up every surrounding street around school-time.
So having personally eschewed, for all time, the prospect of ever owning a car that says with sufficient verve: 'I have arrived!' Status has had to be relegated. I will never be able to afford a car good enough for the higher status I would aspire to if I could afford it.
Day to day driving as sport
Today my secondary objective in owning a car is the same as for any item of sporting equipment, simple enjoyment; the fun of driving.
Satisfaction is surprisingly easy to achieve with sporting equipment because like skis or golf sticks or tennis rackets, doing it well with old or inferior equipment is much more praiseworthy, and satisfying, that doing it badly with the best. But as the equipment improves so does the potential performance.
No one should aspire to be like those dodderers, doddering about holding up traffic in high performance Jaguars.
Like my new skis, the Holden was disappointing through the bends when I first got it. But once I gave it a set of performance Pirellis it suddenly excelled.
For much of my driving career I have been able to find a second-hand car that meets the essentials for the fun of driving - a car that: corners, breaks and accelerates better than average; has a fast transmission; is relatively fuel efficient; and is safe to drive at 160 km/h. But there came a time when I no longer wanted to spend time on my back under a sump or replacing a head gasket.
The last requirement, safe at 160 km/h, has become moot in Australia but is still essential when hiring a car overseas. During our overseas trips we typically consume motorway distances sitting on a constant 150 km/h. It's a nice easy speed that conserves fuel and leaves a little more room at the top for overtaking. Nevertheless we are regularly passed by Audis BMWs, and the like, going much faster.
Rental cars vary. Several times I have wished I had been able to bring along my poor constrained Holden, to clear out its lungs and let it have its legs.
Driving in Australia
These day's its not so easy to do a lot of things in Australia. I've commented on the restriction on fires, fireworks and even high children's slippery-dips elsewhere. One of those is to drive fast.
These days the fastest you will probably travel on land is during takeoff in an aircraft.
Although I have never tried it, hypothetically my Holden, that was mostly designed by Opel in Germany, can cruise at 200km/h. Someone on the web claims a top speed of 235km/h, properly measured, and someone else says 270km/h. My earlier Ford and the Citroëns briefly exceeded 200km/h on several occasions but that was over 20 years ago when speeding was still possible.
Wendy's first car at 17 was a Mini Minor and she loves to drive. Making a criticism of her Fangio-like driving style is a good way to find yourself hitching. But we were making such exceptionally good time on our way to Canberra that I took my courage in both hands and meekly suggested that the Goulburn police might be consider it quite a coup to catch her doing 190.
In mitigation, it was after an overseas trip and on a divided highway it's possible to forget what country you are in. Even the gum trees aren't a giveaway any more. You could be in Portugal, Spain or Argentina or California. She wasn't yet fully familiar with her new two door Citroën C4 and its, very subtle, physical indications of speed. In 5th the engine is still revving somewhere in the middle of the tacho, displayed prominently as a bar above the steering consol, and we hadn't yet worked out the cruise control, an unusual feature in a manual car but essential to avoid speeding fines these days.
It has a sports tuned suspension, is well shod with low profile Michelins on alloy, with a the biggest optional engine. It's her pride and joy, appointed in white leather, with everything that opens and shuts, including the heated side mirrors, and a delight to drive. But like a spirited horse, it's very naughty and takes off if you let it! More fun than the Holden.
Despite my remarks above about status, I confess, I once was a bit of a car snob. Bless me! for I have sinned: as a younger man I coveted one friend's Maserati and another's Morgan and I would have loved an E Type Jag or an XJ 120, even one of those completely impractical Porsche 911s.
There are of course some cars that have the opposite of status. Avis once rented me a one of those 'boxy' DL Volvos, not the cool 'Saint' sports car that made Volvo's reputation. I tried to change it, but they first claimed it was an upgrade, and then that it was all they had available at the moment.
All cars should aspire to be driven for the joy of driving. So greatest sin a car can commit is to be boring. This Volvo is regarded by many to be the most boring ever built, inside and out (Google it and have a look). It was marketed, very successfully, as the car of choice for the timid, who considered every outing to be dicing with death, and as a retirement car for accountants.
I was so ashamed. I had to park it around a corner and walk half a block when visiting a client, who's respect I felt it was important to retain. He was involved in engineering innovation and might think the Volvo was mine or that I had asked Avis for it.
Volvo like others mentioned above, also assembled in Australia back then, but there was something odd about the DL seat height, compared to other cars. I felt like a meerkat, peeking out over the window sill, and I couldn't turn off the side lights!