DESPITE being somewhat of a CarDealer newbie – and having only ever bought one car before in my short little life – I was surprisingly unperturbed by the task of having to locate this year’s Car Dealer banger.
After all, I spend far too long on the usual classified sites playing around with imaginary budgets, so it was never going to be too difficult, right?
Sort of. Trouble is, all these £500 wonders may look lovely as you’re casually scrolling past them with Emmerdale in the background, but as soon as you start asking yourself little questions like ‘Do I trust this to get us to Spain and back?’, things get a bit trickier.
Even more helpfully, CarDealerEd himself had given me some constraints to work from. ‘It needs to be an estate, and ideally German,’ he told me. So, I immediately went online and purchased a 1995 Rover saloon.
In fairness, there was some method to my madness. Firstly, as any Longbridge nerd will tell you, most 1990s Rovers are so full of Honda bits that they may as well be Japanese – hello reliability.
Secondly, we’re not talking any old Rover barge here – an 827 Sterling in gold, no less: the very same model chosen as the personal transportation of a Mr Alan Partridge. That’s our fancy dress theme in the bag, then.
So off to the Midlands Batch and I popped, expecting to find a heap of a car in a heap of an area – numberplates dangling off and neighbours’ Rottweilers-a-barking. Surprisingly though, things were far rosier.
The neighbourhood wasn’t – Batch later described the owners’ home as being ‘like Onslow’s house in Keeping Up Appearances, only 20 times worse’ – but the Rover was remarkably sound.
The electric seats, windows and sunroof all worked beautifully, and the old girl started without complaint. Only a broken CD changer and dodgy fuel flap showed the car’s age – backed up by the distinct aroma of stale tobacco from every orifice.
I’m sure you can see where this is going: we bought it there and then, not least because of Batch’s keenness to leave before having to accept a cup of tea from a severely chipped mug.
A ‘quick’ trip back to Gosport at a steady 61mph followed, the Sterling getting a solid thumbs up for its smooth ride and armchair-like seats. It would’ve been wonderfully relaxing, Batch told me, if only he wasn’t scared a wheel might fall off.
Having not personally experienced three French motorway breakdowns followed by brief incarceration in a lift, I wasn’t the least bit worried about such things – and so on the morning of our departure, I gave the old girl a good thrash.
Clearly it worked – despite leaving rather late, and our borrowed sat nav trying to persuade me that Batch lived in a field of wheat, we arrived in Dover just in time. From here on out, as my ever-positive co-driver reminded me, the car was the AA’s problem.
Suspecting Batch might be more right than wrong, I decided to make a beeline for the AA chaps upon boarding the ferry – perhaps hoping that if I made friends they’d be keener to come to our Rover’s rescue.
Evidently, my plan wasn’t entirely necessary. Two of the four – Brian and Andy – had already rescued Car Dealer from HMS Ark Volvo last year, while father and son team John and Todd gave our Honda-engined 827 their preemptive thumbs up.
More familiar faces soon appeared – this time in the form of Wags and Rob from the West country, CD’s saviours in a Hyundai XG from last year.
The pair certainly couldn’t be accused of not putting in the effort this year – arriving in a Thunderbird 2 inspired Nissan Maxima QX, complete with operational fins and a a B&Q-style rear afterburner.
As it turns out, they weren’t the only ones. Contact Advantage’s suitably Scottish Honda Civic was looking mighty fine too, dressed in – guess what – tartan with a fluorescent ginger roof. Even Cooper Solution’s graffiti-covered Astra estate was getting looks.
Next to these, our distinctly unmodified Rover was starting to appear a bit dull. A quick survey of ferry passengers revealed that nobody really understood our costumes either. Still, at least we tried.
Off the ferry and out into northern France we went – enjoying an admittedly brief stint in a convoy with BEN’s Kelly Neal and the AA chaps; Batch attempting to get his money’s worth from the Partridge mask we’d brought along.
As the others peeled off into the services, we weren’t to see another British numberplate for a few hundred miles: tackling the dreadfully dull French autoroutes alone, all the way to our overnight stop in Limoges. Still, at least the mighty Rover made it without complaint. I think that’s all that Batch could have hoped for and more.
Thankfully, day two brought with it some far more interesting sights. Discussed over dinner, the idea was to head to Barcelona via the famous Milau viaduct – perhaps even sneaking in a few photos while we drove over it.
As is the case with all good plans, this immediately failed on execution – the French equivalent of the Highways Agency helpfully closing two of the lanes.
On the upside though, the views from the visitor’s centre were spectacular: showing the sheer scale of the bridge to its full extent. I personally found it hard to take in – it’s difficult to comprehend the sight of a structure so vast.
The perhaps accidental bonus of this visit was – surprisingly – the roads we used to get there. Abandoning the toll roads that were quickly starting to bankrupt us, we were treated to drives on a whole manner of different routes – through quaint towns and villages, and along twisting stretches of tarmac that saw us pass barely another road user.
It was on such a stretch that our Rover decided to terrify us. Driving along at 60mph with Je Suis FM or something blaring from the parcel shelf speakers, we were suddenly met by an alarming noise.
It wasn’t a warbling Brigitte Bardot, Edith Piaf or similar – but the front offside wheel, which had seemingly decided to impersonate the sound of an industrial lathe.
So, out we jumped to survey the source of the noise. It was at this point that we realised we had no idea what we were looking for; so gave the tyre a quick kick, hopped back in and declared it to be ‘probably fine’.
It was. Many, many hours later we hit Barcelona just in time for sunset – making the pleasantly warm Catalonian city feel even more welcoming.
A few very expensive beers with the rest of the competitors and a visit to the famous Gaudi-designed cathedral-that-isn’t-a-cathedral followed, sandwiched by two hair-raising taxi journeys. In Barcelona, it would seem, the ultimate car is in fact a Seat Altea XL.
It was the next morning that we got on with the real reason for visiting, though. Setting off at GodKnowsWhat o’clock in a bid to bypass the Spanish rush hour, we set our sights for Sabadell – just north of Barcelona.
There, in a maze of streets, we eventually found our destination: the Església de Crist church, where we’d be handing over our shoeboxes. I must admit, it’s not quite what we were expecting.
Turning up with our convoy of cars and hastily distributing boxes of what were in essence basic, low priced ‘essentials’, I’ve never felt so out of touch in my life.
To us the six cars we’d brought along were effectively scrap – bits of metal and plastic we were quite prepared to simply toss away if they broke.
Inside the church’s lobby, though, here were people rifling through things other people didn’t want – not out of want, but necessity.
It didn’t help that, while Batch was trying his best to communicate with the one elder who spoke English, I was wandering around inside trying to be David Bailey carrying £600 of camera with a ridiculous microphone on the top. Quite how insensitive I must have looked I don’t dare think about.
Luckily our donations were well received, but it was still a humbling experience for Batch and I – made even more so by our time restraints, turning it into rather a drop-and-dash affair.
Still, job done so off we set – opting for a more direct route back to Limoges. While other teams decided to go high into the Pyrenees, we weren’t feeling quite so adventurous, perhaps fearful that the Rover’s brakes would throw a strop halfway down a hill.
We did at least prove to be a useful sat nav for the CvWow team and their Astra, who followed us (sort of) successfully out of Barcelona and into France.
A particularly surly French policeman – complete with gun – simply wandered straight out in front of our car, and uttered something along the lines of ‘Oi, have you come from Spain?’
‘Je suis Anglais’, Batch said to him amenably, if slightly panicked.
Roughly translated, what got spat back at us was ‘Yes, and I’m French. You’re in France. Try leaning my language before you come back again’.
Needless to say, he’s not on the Car Dealer Christmas card list. The two other officers who looked over the car were far more accommodating – even if they did seem to enjoy rifling through Batch’s underwear a little too much.
Despite all this, we did make it back to our mid-France stop in record time: allowing us a few hours to wile away at the hotel’s pitiful excuse for a bar.
It was here that Batch and I (mostly Batch) got chatting to a friendly oriental lady, who enquired as to what on earth we were doing in Limoges.
‘It’s mostly a place of business,’ she explained to us. ‘Nobody really comes here except for work, so to see people here for tourism is pretty unusual!’
Effectively, our bonkers six-car convoy had rocked up in the French equivalent of Stoke-on-Trent.
As Batch flirted with her and I sipped my mojito, we were joined by John and Naomi from Cooper Solutions. Bypassing the mountains to take a different route, they informed us they’d even dropped into a southern French village to stock up on wine.
I was naturally quite jealous – until they explained it was just the one bottle, cost three euros and came from Spar. Don’t think any of us had quite got the hang of this booze cruise business.
That’s nothing compared to the journey the rest of the teams took, though – their Pyrenees adventure had brought with it tiny roads, immovable cattle and even snow.
The views en route more than made up for it – or so I’m told, anyway – facts that went no way to dispelling my envy. And just to add insult to injury, the mint in my man-drink wasn’t even that fresh. Tsk.
While I’d been a social recluse and headed to bed the night before, he’d popped out with the CvWow chaps to enjoy the one bar Limoges had to offer – and things had become a bit lively.
As such, I volunteered to do the majority of the day’s driving while he got some shut-eye in the passenger seat – half because I’m just a nice person, but mostly because I could drive a bit faster if he wasn’t looking.
After a quick photo-shoot in the car park – helpfully accompanied by a BMW 3 Series driver who insisted on parking his car right in shot – we were on our way, desperately trying to make up the time spent snapping.
Judging by the sat nav’s estimates, it wasn’t going to be enough. We’d arrive at 5:45, it said – 30 minutes after our ferry departed, and nearly an hour after the final check-in.
Not if I could help it. Breezing along the French A-roads and flashing many-a-lorry to ‘get out of the sodding way’, I knocked that down by over an hour. Until, that is, we hit Paris.
As we discovered on the first leg of the trip, you’ve got two options when travelling to Southern France. One is to drive around the Paris equivalent of the North Circular; the other is to get out and walk.
This time though, the abominable sat nav decided to create a third choice – sending us right through the city centre. It was, surprisingly, a rather nice little detour. Sunroof open, we watched Parisian life as it happened – even if that did include some slightly evasive driving.
I enjoyed it very much. Batch, I suspect, did not – or at least that’s the impression I got from the copious groans as I threaded our sedate Longbridge barge through the hyperactive traffic.
Lovely as it was, though, the lead I’d worked so hard to build up was now completely gone. What’s worse, with smaller, busier roads now making up the majority of the route, there was less opportunity to regain some time – we really were up against it.
Driving at some slightly ridiculous speeds – and getting flashed by what I thought was a wheelie bin at one point – the journey to Calais wasn’t a pleasant one, but we eventually made it with quite literally seconds to spare.
Other teams weren’t quite so lucky. We met the Contact Advantage Scotsman and a less-startlingly dressed Wags and Rob aboard the Pride of Kent, but there was no sign of any other teams – or the AA vans.
As we now know, they’d quite sensibly decided to get a later crossing. It really is true what they say – you drive for the ferry like it’s the last journey you’ll ever take.
Still, arriving in Dover I couldn’t help but think what an astonishing task we – and the car – had achieved.
What’s more, it wasn’t alone. Not a single breakdown occurred over the entire four days – an amazing feat in its self.
With next year’s event already being planned though, and a trip to the Nurburgring on the cards, choosing a car isn’t about to get any easier.
After all, much as Batch and I loved having the Sterling as company, I’m not sure either of us fancy piloting it around Germany’s most fearsome race circuit…