Our secret car dealer reminisces about the ‘good old days’ when new Fiat’s windscreens fell out after a PDI and Lada buyers knew exactly what they were getting
There’s not much going on out there at the moment, so to avoid the tumbleweed, I’m taking a ride down Memory Lane to a time where we didn’t have to dress up like a highwayman to go out of the front door.
So yes, it’s on with the rose-tinted specs – but then immediately off with them because first of all, I can’t see a damned thing without my normal glasses on, and second, because the good old days weren’t always that good.
As a car dealer, at least in the modern world you can be fairly confident that once a car leaves your forecourt, the chances of seeing it again with a raging customer behind the wheel are few and far between.
And that even happens at my end of the trade – where more of the buyers I see are a car’s last owners rather than its first.
After all, there’ll always be a market for previously cherished and sometimes too-well-loved old motors, because you can buy them for cash and not worry too much about the cost of their upkeep. Or their upkeep at all, for that matter.
Today’s old bangers will still run forever if you let them, especially if they’re Japanese or Fords.
The downside to both of those is that they’ll eventually succumb to corrosion, which doesn’t seem to affect unreliable cars at all.
A lot of older German rubbish, for example, will still look factory-fresh well into their second decade but are nothing more than garden ornaments when the gearboxes pack up or the electrics go on strike.
Likewise, you never see a rusty old Renault, but that’s often because the dashboard electrics have gone west well before the ferrous oxide makes an appearance.
There are, though, some wonderfully dependable gems that you can’t go wrong with at my end of the trade.
A 1.6-litre eight-valve petrol Vauxhall might not be the most desirable car you can think of, but a Mk 4 Astra, Corsa or Meriva will keep on going through a nuclear apocalypse providing you keep tipping oil into it.
I buy them all the time and recommend them to any of my customers who have no interest in cars, because as pure transport they’re great.
Then there are the old VW diesels, not to be confused with the above-named German rubbish.
Anything with the engine in it might sound like a nervous skeleton shivering outside the headteacher’s office when at idle, but you can run them on chip fat and they’ll still do half a million miles.
Older Saabs and Volvos are good news too, although the best Volvo of recent times was actually the original S40 – a car that was based on the Mitsubishi Carisma.
Don’t tell the Volvo purists though or they’ll come and bore you to an agonising death for even thinking of it as a Volvo in the first place.
As a used car dealer, I don’t have half the hassle I used to get from returning customers expecting me to put right everything that had packed up through old age and general wear and tear, and for that I’m ever grateful, because it’s actually quite a novelty for me, despite the fact that I began my career in new car retail.
In fairness, my main dealer days were in the early Eighties through to the early Nineties, and I worked for some franchises whose brands were renowned for their interesting approach to letting their customers do their development work for them.
Austin Rover at first, then Fiat, Citroen, Lada, back to Rover and finally Kia, but in the days when they made recycled Mazdas with whitewall tyres.
Indeed, I’m one of only a handful of people in the world to have ever owned a Kia Pride van, but we’ll discuss that one another time.
In terms of overall quality, Lada was the worst, but the good thing about that was that anyone who bought a Lada wasn’t expecting perfection to start with, so if something fell off in the first few weeks of ownership, they either brought it back to us and laughed it off or just gaffer-taped it back on themselves.
Lada owners were brilliant – completely pragmatic, usually massively laid back and completely accepting of the fact that they’d bought a car they knew was rubbish.
Most of them had a great sense of humour, too, but then you needed one. And customer loyalty was astonishing.
Owning a Lada was like being part of a club. Because Lada owners’ expectations were in the gutter, it was never an issue.
Selling new Fiats in the mid-1980s, though, was.
Back then, the Italian brand was on a bit of a roll. It had the Panda and the Uno, both superb little cars, and the buying public were looking at them as genuine alternatives to Ford Fiestas and Vauxhall Novas.
They were quite easy to sell, but they often led to customers coming back disappointed as trivial things went wrong with them.
I experienced that disappointment firsthand one day when delivering a new Uno to a customer who had asked us to take it to his home as we were late doing the PDI (we actually weren’t; it’s just that the PDI had thrown up so much rectification work that we were late getting it out of the door).
I set off across the Birmingham Ring Road at dusk in a new Uno and after three or four miles I noticed something unusual flickering in my field of vision, like an occasional flare.
At first I put it down to reflections from the street lights on the car’s shiny new paint, but it carried on, so I pulled over to check that it wasn’t anything wrong with the car.
It was. The driver’s side headlight had – quite literally – popped out of its socket and was lolling around like a cartoon eyeball, meaning that every time I went over a bump in the road it would swagger around like a drunkard looking for a bar stool.
So being the professional and customer-focused car salesman that I am, I slotted it back into place, gave it a bloody good whack with my right shoe and checked it wasn’t going to fall out again before delivering it to the customer – who brought it back to us the following Tuesday with its comedy searchlight once again displaced.
But that wasn’t the worst one. The worst was a Fiat Croma (remember those?), which some gullible retail customer had decided was a safer place in which to put their money than a Ford Granada (it wasn’t), Vauxhall Carlton (ditto) or Rover 800 (er…maybe).
On the day of collection, the proud buyer turned up for his new pride and joy, only to drive it off the forecourt, over a speed hump and no further, as no sooner did he hit the traffic-calming device than the windscreen fell out.
Happy days indeed. It’s kind of perverse, but I miss them.
Who is Big Mike? Well, that would be telling. What we can say is he’s had more than 40 years in the car trade so has probably forgotten more about it than we’re likely to know.