What is the most important factor to consider when buying an old car? Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? It’s the price, because if you can’t afford it everything else is pretty irrelevant. Or maybe it’s the car, because if it’s not the right car for you, what earthly point is there in buying it? Or perhaps it’s the condition because even if the car and price is right, if what you’re actually buying is a loosely assembled pile of wreckage with no more hope of passing an MOT than winning the Australian Grand Prix, then what you have actually bought is not a car, but a project.
I could go on: maybe the most important consideration is where it’s going to live because if it is one of those cars that turns into iron filings when it rains, you don’t want it living out. Or very far away – when I lived in London and had a beautiful, if somewhat battered, Aston Martin DB2/4 MkIII, it had to live a 40 min walk away, which meant I never used it.
Actually I think a strong contender is not the car, but what you’re going to do with it. I have a long history of buying cars that I have absolutely adored but which turned out to fit my life as well a gorilla shooting for size zero. There was the Aston I never drove, the 1929 Alvis Silver Eagle with the open dickey at the back, in which my children froze and therefore refused to travel, and the 1995 Porsche 911 Carrera RS I once got into in March only to realise the clock was still set on British Summer Time. It was a car there was very little point climbing aboard unless you were going to do at least a couple of hundred miles, and if I was going that far there was always some altogether more dull modern car I’d need to take because my day job is to test every new car on sale.
But actually there is one more question without the answer to which I would not now buy an old car. Who is going to look after it? I know old cars tend to be simpler than new ones and I am continually humbled by chums who spend their weekends covered in oil, proudly professing to be able to rebuild anything from component form. But I just don’t have the talent, the inclination or the time. I like driving cars because that’s what they were built to do. At gunpoint I can change plugs, pads and oil but that’s about it.
Of course there’s always the trusty local mechanic, and he’ll be able to do a lot of it, but old cars are curious things and often built before consensus said there was only one right way to do anything. They are not just old, they are quirky and that is why we love them.
Take my Citroen 2CV. You’d think it so simple the aforementioned primate could probably have a reasonable crack at spannering it. But you’d be wrong. This is a very old, 1950s 2CV and utterly different to later, more familiar cars. Before I bought it, the car was restored by people who restore all sorts of cars all the time, and I’m not going to get stuck into them here because they did their best with the knowledge that they had, to a very high standard and when things went wrong, they promptly and without complaint did their best to put them right.
I have no problem with them at all. But it still left me with a car with issues that included trying to jump off the road when it went around a corner and an inability to charge its battery. It also stalled all the time and, because it has a centrifugal clutch and six volt electrics, it can be started by neither bump or jump. So if stalled when the battery was low, that was it. Game over, sit at the side of the road for two hours and then go home in a truck.
‘I have a long history of buying cars that I have absolutely adored but which turned out to fit my life as well a gorilla shooting for size zero.’
And, for a while, I got quite down about it, until a friend of a friend put me in touch with someone who, for these purposes, we’ll call Fred. I knew I had the right person when he diagnosed the handling problem by doing nothing more than look at the car. The ride height was too high at the back, too low at the front. I think it took him five minutes to sort that out, which is approximately four minutes longer than he took to get the car to register a positive electrical charge for the first time since I’d owned it. In less than ten minutes, he’d achieved more than others had managed in months.
And now I know the car will be looked after by someone who knows its every eccentricity and who lives and breathes these cars and these cars alone, every day of his working life, the quality of the ownership experience has gone through the roof – because I don’t worry about it any longer.
I will never again buy another old car without first identifying the person who can fettle it. A Fred doesn’t cost any more than the local garage (though he should) but the service he provides is beyond comparison.
So now I have a Fred for the Citroen, to go with the Fred I already had for the ancient Land Rover. The 205GTI is sufficiently modern and conventional not to need a Fred, which just leaves the 1965 Fiat 500D as currently Fred-less. If you know one living within a hour of Chepstow, I’d be delighted to make his acquaintance.