20 minutes of three-million-point turns
The very car you see in the picture holds a special place in history that no other car ever can. It was the first car I drove. It was also the first car my brother drove, although technically he didn't drive it - he was just in it by himself while it was moving. To the mind of John Coleman, "turn the parking lights on" means "take the parking brake off".
Back in 2003, our family possessed some sort of horrible Nissan van which fortunately I can't remember much about. It was getting to that age when almost everything is about to become an expensive problem so Dad decided, rather shrewdly, to sell all the expensive problems to somebody else. We then made a family outing to a government car auction and came back with a 2002 Holden VX Series-II Commodore Executive station wagon. In white of course, because it doesn't show the dirt and it doesn't fade and it's the colour of singlets.
Apparently, the last person to drive it had been a community nurse who, because it wasn't her car, had banged the front into something. By the time we had that repaired, it cost us about $22,000, but it came packed with equipment including an automatic transmission, ABS, a CD player, an airbag, and when we had added three in the back, eight seats. All this, for a model at the absolute rock-bottom of the range.
Of course, it had its faults. As a model at the absolute rock-bottom of the range, I have a hunch the plastics inside were made from the offcuts of $2 homebrand icecream containers. And the mirrors were not just black, they were glossy black. If Holden can afford to paint them glossy black, they can afford to paint them the same colour as the car.
One thing to point out at this junction is what it did not have - those blank pieces of plastic that are there every time you get into the car to remind you, "If you had worked a bit harder, there would have been a button here". A true novelty in something like this, and it made us very happy.
With all that, the Commodore was still the smart, good-looking member of the family and we loved it. I may have even called it "Oliver" once, but there's no evidence for that.
It transported all of us in perfect safety over 2,000 km from Canberra to Brisbane and back again once, over the treacherous Clyde Mountain to the coast a few times, and more frequently, to a holiday house in a place called "Wallendbeen".
Now, what you need to know about Wallendbeen is nothing. It sits in New South Wales like a hair on a man's arm. It is the definition of "middle of nowhere." There's a pub, a police station, a woman who hangs all her old underwear on the front fence, and some train tracks. That's pretty much it.
Our parents love it because they get to sit around in their pyjamas and do absolutely nothing, but for John and I, it was a form of torture. In the past, we would occupy ourselves with drifting matchbox cars in the dirt, chasing sheep, counting floorboards, killing spiders, and banging away on typewriters at 5:30 in the morning. Then, we tried taking photos of everything, which was fine right up to the moment my tripod was run over by a freight train and we had taken photos of everything.
However, between then and when we were old enough to stay at home in the bustling metropolis that is Canberra, there was a small window when World's-end-been was the perfect, golden opportunity. It was basically one big, empty car park.
This isn't to say I went all over hooligan or did 88 mph while being chased by a Volkswagen Kombi full of Libyan gunmen. One, there is a whole police station for this empty car park and two, I was learning. So what I did was more like 5 mph.
There's one particular road running alongside the train tracks which joins up to the highway on both ends, so when I finally reached one of the ends, there was only one thing for it. A three-point turn before heading back the other way.
I like to think the turning circle for five metres of Commodore wagon is Titanic-esque, because what followed was definitely more than three points. And strangely in the middle of it all, I got my left and right mixed up, stomped on the wrong pedal, and nearly hit a fence post. So then my instructor, Dad, decided I should do it again. And again. And again. If you were to colour in all the areas my tyres touched along that road, from the air it would look like one of those crafty pipe cleaners.
Now, if you've come this far wanting a proper review about what it felt like to wrestle the controls of a 2002 Holden Commodore and what the levels of understeer were and how the door bins could hold a real drink bottle, I'm afraid I was a bit too busy to notice any of that. However, as I graduated from fumbling around in it to actually being in control of it, I can say that it was a bit soggy.
The engine's fine - a 3.8-litre V6 with 152 kW of power and 305 Nm of torque, enough in other words. We once clocked it going from rest to 100 km/h and it took about 9 seconds, which isn't too shabby for what is a community nurse car. And although I never did it myself, because of this, and because it's rear-wheel drive and a wagon, it doesn't take much at all for the back end to kick out. This explains why you see a lot of bent sign posts in Australia.
Everything else though - the steering, the suspension - it was like Holden's engineers had poured a bit of yoghurt into the mix. You can definitely see why there are a lot of bent sign posts in Australia - one minute the Commodore driver was relaxing on a waterbed and the next he was looking at heaven through his side window. I'm not sure you'd be able to feel the exact moment when that change-over is about to happen.
Of course, this means that when it isn't happening, it's very comfortable and quiet. And because ours was a Coleman car, it was in the garage whenever it wasn't on the road, serviced more often than was strictly required, and lovingly cleaned about every two days. Which is emphatically not a criticism, because it meant that we were not bogans and that when it came time to sell, we would get more for it.
It turned out that after about 14 years of this, when it did finally come time to sell, there was a hail storm. So we got even more money, and well, that was the bittersweet end of that.
2008 Toyota Corolla
More hot air and petrol fumes...
The AT THE WHEEL tribe