Like most people, I remember my first car well. It was a 1964 Ford Cortina, and it was finished in red. On its own fairly unspectacular, an icon of bread and butter British motoring, albeit one with pretty ‘ban-the-bomb’ taillights.
But there was a very specific reason I bought the Cortina, and even more of a reason why I had a red one. And that was my love of motorsport. For while Jim Clark was cleaning up the British Saloon Car Championship (the forerunner of British Touring Cars) in his white Lotus Cortina and John Whitmore was kicking some European arse in his red and gold one, I was in my pokey little lock-up in Quinton, Birmingham, using gold Hammerite and a set of reverse-rim steel wheels to turn my Cortina 1200 into something resembling Sir John’s giant killer.
It never did, of course, thanks to its puny but dutiful little engine, though the addition of some racing harnesses did have what today’s youth often refer to as the ‘Vicki Butler-Henderson effect’ on my then girlfriend’s cleavage – something for a thrusting young buck to admire as we negotiated the perils of rush hour on the Hagley Road.
I was led on this rather indulgent jaunt down memory lane just the other day, when a twenty-ish fella-me-lad wandered onto the lot to look at a 2005 Chevrolet Matiz I’d picked up for a song – an ex-courtesy car from my local bodyshop, it appeared to have been in the custody of people who were used to bending their motors if the front and back bumpers were anything to go by. But nonetheless, it was cheap, and nothing my old buddy Rattle-can Ritchie couldn’t put right as soon as we got a day with not much wind and some sunshine. So cheap, in fact, I could punt it out for below the going rate, and that’s how this polite young chappie found himself on my lot.
It turned out he was motorsport mad, and was a big fan of Vicki Butler-Henderson’s TV colleague, Mr Potato-Head, who despite having the odd tantrum here and there is clearly an exceptionally talented driver. These days, Potato drives a Chevrolet Cruze, a car which even Big Mike had never really paid much attention to before it appeared on track. As a trader, it’s quite clear why I’d never paid it much mind – a four-door saloon, built in Korea, is never the most auspicious start in life for any car, but having seen the thing on ITV4 in BTCC and on Eurosport in the World Touring Car Series (I have a separate telly in the downstairs loo!) I have to concede it’s actually quite pretty, and if the Chevy hire car I had in Spain the other week is anything to go by, it probably drives okay too.
Certainly, my walk-on punter was of that opinion. Okay, so the only car he’d driven before that was a 15-year old Fiat Cinquecento with knackered brakes (I know, as I stupidly took it in part-ex and only found out about the brakes afterwards), but to see him grinning from ear-to-ear while hooning round the mean streets of Halesowen on a test drive left me under no impression that he was a) clearly a motorsport fanatic and b) surprisingly talented behind the wheel.
You can have a barrel of laughs
It also reminded me just how much fun you can have in small and basic cars. It’s a failing of mine, really, that my daily smoker (recently acquired Nissan Maxima excepted, as that’s my future classic!) is usually the most opulent thing on the lot with a valid tax disc, when if you only live a few miles down the road you can have a barrel of laughs driving home in basic tin boxes every now and again…
But I digress. A deal was done (I rather suspect my young punter felt a duty to buy the car, given that he’d mullered the front tyres) and Big Mike’s Motors had another happy customer. So happy, in fact, that I saw the car in Tesco’s car park the other week bedecked with BTCC Chevrolet flags and pictures of his hero on the back seat. At that age, I have to say, I preferred girls, but nevertheless it’s fascinating to see exactly what motor racing can do for a car brand.
Not convinced? Pre-BTCC, the Honda Civic was something blue-rinsers took to bridge club, SEATs were for people who couldn’t afford Volkswagens, and for a short while even the Toyota Carina was cool.
As for other forms of motorsport, in the days before Colin McRae, Subarus were oddball estate cars and farmer’s pick-ups, and Mitsubishis were used to steal trailers by people with too much jewellery.
And back in the Sixties, Big (but far younger and better looking) Mike would never have entertained a 1200cc Cortina were it not for its track success. But then it was Henry Ford himself, wasn’t it, who came up with the adage ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’?
Who is Big Mike?
Well, that would be telling. What we do know is he’s had 30 years in the car trade and picked up some seriously funny tales along the way.