Sweet Music?

Owning a selection of cars is a lot like managing a rock band. Probably.

You need the right ingredients. After selling my Citroen BX, the ‘band’ that is my fleet felt out of balance. It was like the drummer had stopped mid-track and dropped his sticks. Don’t get me wrong though – the BX was no Keith Moon. Rather it was a bit of a Ringo Starr. Didn’t do anything spectacular really, but kept everything together (most of the time), though I don’t think the BX would be any good at narrating Thomas the Tank Engine. Sure, the stripey nature of the car and the trick suspension was perhaps a bit of an Octopus’s Garden, but generally, it provided the rhythm to fleet harmony. With the car gone, harmony departed with it and the fleet was unable to continue its career in any meaningful way. There was only one thing to do. Scout about for a new drummer. The Saab was chosen to fit that role, and while there have been some teething troubles (always tricky when a new musician joins an outfit) it’s poised to take on the Ringo role. Maybe a bit more jazzy like John Densmore of The Doors.

I did try a V8 Land Rover in the role of bassist, but it proved lacking in the thundering bass department, despite 3528cc of American-bred, aluminium engine. Perhaps that was the problem because the Scimitar fits the role rather well. The heavy V6 Essex engine bellow a strident bassline at the world. It isn’t the most exciting of bassists perhaps, lacking the zaniness of Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers or sheer oddness of Roger Waters from the mighty Floyd, but it adds that all important lower level noise with plenty of style, while looking good in Seventies vinyl. Suzi Quatro it is then.

The colourful guitar stylings are naturally the home of the Citroen 2CV. It may only pack 602cc but crikey does that light-weight engine sing and scream! It’ll hurt your ears with its force, but don’t let the bark fool you – it’s all cuddly and nice really. Only one band fits the bill for me, being the only force of music that I’ve ever seen that left my ears ringing two days after the concert. After the final song, the lead singer/guitarist just stayed at the microphone and pleasantly asked whether everyone was having a nice time. Aw, he did seem nice. That man is Robb Flynn of Machine Head.

All this leaves the Mini a bit like Linda McCartney in Wings. Pointless and not really necessary. She needs to go, so if you can offer Betsy the Mini a new life, perhaps launching a range of vegetarian food and guest-starring in The Simpsons, please feel free to come and visit with your chequebook open.

The trouble with crap cars

In theory, cheap, crap cars are great. People just don’t want them, and so don’t rate them in the slightest. This makes them cheap. Cheap is good. The knack to buying a good cheap car is to find one that’s been in a long ownership. Don’t buy one that’s already done the rounds amongst the tight-fisted or unbothered – those who want a car to be as cheap as possible and therefore won’t spend a penny on its upkeep.

Tinkering with a Renault 21 Monaco

When owning older cars, be prepared for plenty of tinkering

However, you still need to be prepared for trouble to strike. Like my Saab. It hasn’t taken much work to get the cooling fan fixed but it was a day of my time (though I had to fit it around writing and actually earning some actual money). I don’t mind because that enforced tinkering helps me get familiar with my new steed. I now know it has a surprisingly good toolkit – immaculate and unused until yesterday. I know it now has fresh engine coolant and that when the temperature gauge goes up, the fan WILL cut in. I know where both fuseboxes are, and which relay is involved with cooling fan operation.

Saab's tools

Saab 9000 packs a mighty useful took-kit

Tinkering is an absolutely essential part of older car ownership. It saves an absolute fortune for a start. I used to suffer from a severe dislike of tinkering, but I think that was due to poor facilities and not enough tools. That and my own uselessness. I have little patience with myself. But while you don’t need to be a certified mechanic, it really does pay to know your way around your steed.

Is that knocking noise something that can be ignored or is the engine about to breathe its last? I have no tools and precious little equipment with me, can I still effect a repair using only shoelaces and gaffer tape? Even the art of limping home in a poorly car is an art form which thankfully, I possess. Driving a Mini with a failing condenser is an interesting experience and I once naughtily drove to a 2CV specialist with the brake lights operated by the headlight switch after a fault developed on the fuse panel. Several times, I’ve driven through city streets with no clutch. That’s always fun.

But I love it. Cars are so much more than tools to get from A to B. Yes, they demand attention almost as much as the bloody cat (but thankfully catch and shred less mice) but they reward as well – in financial terms, but also in spirit.

Ok, maybe this is me trying to put a gloss on the fact that the Saab could do with a new timing chain, the 2CV needs cylinder head work and the Scimitar has wiring (no, really?!) and steering issues. Clearly I must be wicked.

Smitten with a Scimitar?

So, I’ve finally collected the Scimitar, but is it as good as I hoped?

Scimitar and BX load space

Scimitar joins the fleet, with a load of parts. BX off to pastures new and already working hard

After the 120 mile drive home, I think generally, the answer is yes. Ok, so electrical gremlins are already rearing their head with a low reading on the voltmeter when lots of kit is on, but the combination of tight handling and lusty Ford Essex V6 have already started to make an impression. As has the load carrying capacity – the back is still full of spares and literature so I’ve got more than the car to get familiar with.

The first full day of ownership has allowed me to prove that the voltmeter is telling fibs – it’s actually fine – and discover that it’s a pig to start from cold. If there’s a best technique, I need to discover it. Mind you, the previous owner seemed to struggle too! There’s a sweet spot on that choke setting somewhere…

Fuel crisis? Maybe not

The rise in fuel prices is worrying for those of us who drive for the sake of driving, rather than just to get somewhere. Yet it pays to look at more than the headline figures, or that way madness lies.

Filling up

Fuel prices are on everyone's mind at the moment

I still maintain that nothing is cheaper to run than a classic. Yes, you need to be able to tinker with it yourself to reap the maximum benefits and yes, you’ll find that you have to tinker with it more than a modern car – when a brand new car only needs servicing every 2 years and your trusty classic needs an oil change every 3000 miles, the advantage does seem reduced.

That said, good old fashioned mineral oil is still very cheap to buy – sometimes as little as £6 for 5 litres. That’s a cheap service, especially if you’ve upgraded the distributor to electronic and therefore don’t have to worry about the points and condenser anymore. You also get the buzz of doing the work yourself rather than be left reeling with a main dealer service bill.

Depreciation is the biggest cost with a new car, and if you don’t buy sensibly, your shiny new car can cost thousands per year, even if you don’t drive it! That’s why I always go for an older car. Let someone else pay the depreciation and then you’re only liable for servicing and running costs.

On the face of it, it may seem that selling the Land Rover proves what a hypocrite I am. Here I am saying don’t worry about fuel prices when I’ve sold my fearsomely thirsty V8 powered Landy just as fuel prices get as high as they’ve ever been. Not so. Anyone who knows me well knows that boredom is the biggest danger for any vehicle I buy. Is the Landy value for money? I don’t think so. That’s why it’s getting the heave-ho.

To entirely banish any thoughts of me trying to save fuel, I should point out that I’m selling my 54mpg Citroen BX diesel. Replacing both vehicles is a car that comes somewhere between the two – the Reliant Scimitar. This should achieve anywhere between 20 and 32mpg – I look forward to finding out which figure it ends up nearer. Sure, I’m somewhat daunted by the possibility of a £100+ fill-up thanks to the 77-litre fuel tank, but whatever the fuel prices do, I’m determined to keep enjoying 0lder cars. At the end of the day, higher fuel prices don’t scare me – the thought of the stuff running out really does though…

Buying with plastic

Oh gawd. I’ve gone and bought a new car, BEFORE the Land Rover has sold. Well, I’ve left a deposit anyway. The balance needs to wait for a certain Land Rover to finish on Ebay – which it’s close to doing.

Scimitar SE5a rear

Another new purchase, will this Reliant Scimitar GTE prove reliable?

The new car? A 1975 Reliant Scimitar GTE SE5a in a bright shade of red. It seems to be a good one and I’m waiting for it to have a fresh MOT before collection – which hopefully leaves enough time for the Land Rover to sell and for the new owner to hand me a load of cash.

I felt I had to move quickly on this Scimitar. The owner may have just been pushing me into a sale, but it sounded like others had spotted what a good buy it could be – it’s had an enthusiastic club owner for the past 14 years, and isn’t wanting for very much at all. Even better – everything seems to work as it should! That’s not always the case with Scimitars. As values are traditionally low, neglect is sadly very much something Scimitars become used to.

I will be paying very slightly more than I paid for the Land Rover – and the Scimitar feels like much better value for money. Don’t forget that the Land Rover may have covered half the miles (78k v 153k for the Reliant) but it has no service history with it, and is a touch scruffy in places. It should still do well though – scruffiness is after all a look that suits the Land Rover rather well!

Scimitars continue to offer excellent value though. With every parts bin raided, the beauty is that you can still get a huge amount of parts – the drivetrain is Ford, the brakes Rover, the front suspension Triumph TR. The bodywork is rust-free glassfibre while the steel chassis is fairly easily repaired should rust strike – as long as you get on top of it before it eats everything.

Are they cheap for a reason though? I guess I’m going to find out…