Back To The Start: Reflections On My First Car
You never forget your first. And I never have mine. Here is the story of the Citroen Saxo, the car that left an indelible mark on my motoring life.
I can't exactly remember when I decided that I wanted to dedicate most of my life to the automobile. It must be far back in the mists of time, when I was a child, seeing a shape in a showroom window or being given a ride in something really special. I can't recall the exact moment when something in my brain clicked, when the blood in my veins very slowly but surely began to be replaced with petrol. But I can recall my first few years on the roads, and the car that made it all possible.
My motoring story starts in a way that will be familiar to most of you, dear readers.
It started with a pass.
It took me three attempts to pass my driving test. I didn't do too well with exams so I guess the nerves would just get the better of me, so it was with much jubilation that I received my certificate saying that I was now qualified to jump into a two-ton metal box and charge about the place at speeds I could only dream of attaining on my bike! I was 18 years old, a tall scruffy youth just starting out as an apprentice mechanic at a local main dealer, so I did what every apprentice would have done in that situation and went out to celebrate!
The next morning, feeling a little muzzy-headed, I was awoken by my mum, telling me to get dressed because my grandpa was coming to visit. My grandpa had always been into cars, and is probably one of the reasons why I picked up the interest that I have. He used to run a small garage, not far from where we lived, but at this point in the story he was retired, and had been for years. Anyway, the doorbell rang, and there was my grandpa on the doorstep, smiling as always...
And holding up a set of keys. Could it be?
It was. He'd bought me a car!
The car in question was a 2002 Citroen Saxo Desire in metallic green. Motive power was provided by a 1.1 litre 8 valve engine coupled to a five speed gearbox driving the front wheels. The interior was as basic as a cheese sandwich. Cloth and plastic abounded, but it did boast such refinements as front electric windows, a sunroof and power steering! Not the most interesting car in the world, but I didn't really care. Here it was, my passport into self-mobility, my ticket to excitement and adventure in far-flung places. I pored over every little detail, how the steering wheel and gear lever felt in my hands, how the paintwork gleamed as it stood on my parent's drive in the Sunday afternoon sunshine. This was it, I had made it, my life as a card-carrying motorist started here.
Or it would if the car had any MOT on it.
Saxo Number 2. I don't have very many pictures of my first car for some reason, so pictures of subsequent Saxos will have to do. I have had four of them!
Yep, that's right. My grandpa had used his contacts in the motor trade to get a cracking deal on this lovely old motor, but unfortunately that had meant buying it with no MOT. He had taken it on Saturday to a local garage, but it had failed on a few things and it would be next Saturday before they'd be able to repair it! I had a week to wait. A whole week!
I'm not ashamed to tell you, dear reader, that I spent most of that week with that car. Cleaning it, polishing it, sorting little jobs out like wiring the radio in properly, even just sitting in it with the engine running, listening to it tick over. The following Saturday came, and my grandpa took it in for the repairs and MOT test whilst I was at work. It passed! Some fuel, some tax and an insurance bill that cost three times the value of the car later and I was ready. I went for a drive.
I had that little Saxo for three years, and I enjoyed every mile I covered in it. To and from work, trips to the seaside with my friends, even going for a drive just for the hell of it. I drove the wheels off that little thing, and as the months rolled by, I began to think of it as more than just a lump of metal. It started to become a friend. My friends noticed this as well, and christened her Lady Sax.
As I recall, the driving experience was all part of the charm. The car wasn't particularly fast and the engine didn't really make any interesting noises, but it was at least fun to drive. The ride was fairly decent despite the rattling from various bits of trim over bumps (typical small French car), the steering was direct and easy, with just enough feel to let you know what was going on with the front wheels. You could have a lot of fun with a Saxo, and you didn't need to be going silly speeds either. It was a car that you could drive flat-out everywhere if you wanted, such was the low power combined with the lightness. It handled with a simplicity and innocence that I feel is lost in quite a few modern small cars.
Me and a few mates on Beverley Westwood, doing our best Top Gear impressions.
And speaking of simplicity, Lady Sax as she was now known taught me a few lessons in mechanicking as well. The vast majority of jobs that needed doing, I was able to do myself. I replaced the alternator when it stopped charging the battery, on the roadside outside a friend's house. I climbed under to replace the midsection of the exhaust, after that rusted through and fell in half on my way back from Bridlington. I rebuilt the brakes, changed the radio aerial and loom, replaced the power steering pump, everything to keep it at it's best. I still know the best way to change a central locking solenoid, because every single one on the car broke at least twice. Citroen door solenoids seem to be made of glass! After I moved from being an apprentice mechanic to a parts advisor, the car gave me an opportunity to "keep my hand in," to carry on learning and developing the skills I'd had a crash course in as an apprentice. I also used to spend hours and hours with the polish and the vacuum cleaner, keeping the paintwork shiny and protected and the interior spotless. It was probably the cleanest Saxo in Hull at one point!
Alas, all good things must come to an end at some point. I got a new job at a Toyota dealership, and, after three years of Saxo ownership, their staff car scheme started to look increasingly attractive. I sold the Saxo to a friend of a friend, and my next new car was a Toyota Yaris Hybrid, all for the low, low price of £179 a month. It never had the charm or the character of my old Saxo though, every time I drove it I always felt like something was missing. What made it worse is that I used to see my Saxo every now and again. The owner had kept my "Zombie Outbreak Response Team" sticker on the bootlid, and seemed to be taking as much care with it as I did. It was good to see, and it made me happy that someone was out there, having as much fun with Lady Sax as I did.
But that's not where my Saxo story ends.
Saxo 4. Sadly, no pictures of Saxo 3 exist, which is a shame as that was probably the most heroic one. It had been crashed three times and put back together before I bought it, and it refused to die.
Since the time of Lady Sax, I have had three other Saxos, and I am pleased to report that the driving experience brings back all of the great and happy memories I made with my first car. The subsequent Saxos have all been in the "banger" category of cars, each one costing me no more than £300, bought to be a stop-gap between some of my more expensive (and foolhardy) purchases. All have had 1.1 litre engines with five speed gearboxes. Each one has proven to be a reliable, economical and fun to drive little car, with charm and character in spades, and there is of course that connection to my past, each one feels exactly like that little green car that started it all.
Everybody's first car should be like this. Nowadays, what with just-add-fuel finance deals coupled with spiralling insurance costs for young drivers, a lot of first-time car buyers simply rock up at their local main dealer and drive off in a brand spanking new hatchback for £199 a month, no deposit. And that's all very well and good, but I think they're missing out. They will probably never experience the thrill of fixing a problem yourself without taking your car to a garage, they will never deafen themselves on a three hour motorway journey, car rattling and banging all the way. But most of all, they'll never form that bond, they'll never know what it feels like to truly love a car, not because it is capable or fast or stylish, but for often the exact opposite of those reasons. Everyone's first car should be a banger, and everyone should experience the sheer feeling of nostalgia when you encounter one again. I know that, in 30 years time, I could very well be at a classic car show with my own children, and I know that I could very well encounter a split-mint 2002 Citroen Saxo Desire in metallic green. And I'm glad that I can smile down on my children, point to it and say "I had one of those once."
I don't feel like my time with the humble Saxo is quite over yet. Not so long back, I saw a special edition for sale with a full-length sunshine roof, and the hot hatch VTR version is starting to look like a good buy. So who knows? Maybe I'll have another one, some day in the future.
Maybe one day, Lady Sax will ride again.