When was the last time you looked at a young driver’s first or second car and thought it was remotely interesting? Lifeless engines paired with a dull interior usually gets the job done but if there was an award for the most uninteresting way to travel, modern first-cars would win.
As a young driver I appreciate we do not always get much of a choice over what we drive. Unfortunately, the excitement of having recently passed your driving test does not usually come at the same time in your life as an envy-worthy bank account.
Undeterred by ephemeral and materialistic values, your first few cars will most likely have been at the centre of several unforgettable memories forever to be treasured.
Cramming it full of friends and alcoholic beverages, praying it does not overheat before you reach the ill-thought destination.
Or trying to see how fast you can get it to go, before coming to the realisation that it was a bad idea to do this down a hill.
And, of course, trying to impress bystanders in the vicinity with plenty of revs before changing gear – which will most likely catch up with you in the form of an expensive repair bill later on.
It might have once been true that just about any cheap car can provide you with the ideal setting for these memories. But now I see the potential fade away as new cars become soulless, well-behaved and indistinguishable. The modernisation of cars took away many of intricacies, and the experience suffers for everyone.
To revive that disappearing spirit of early motoring adventures I borrowed Vauxhall’s fantastically well-kept 1982 Chevette. In its day it was a sensible, everyday and relatively cheap car fit for a young driver; I now found it to be… a sensible, everyday and relatively cheap car fit for a young driver.
The version which Vauxhall Heritage kindly lent me had the 1.3-litre engine capable of producing a perfectly reasonable 57bhp. Inside, it is simplicity itself with only a heater, a radio and very little else. But that is quite alright – our first few cars should neither be powerful nor pompous but rather humble and hardworking. They should serve as a reminder of where we are in life and how much there still is to obtain – materialistic or otherwise. I hoped that living with the Chevette for a short time instead of a modern small car would bring back some of those challenges.
Joining the M1 only a few minutes after getting behind the wheel for the first time was a far greater shock than expected. The cushioned feeling of being in a plastic capsule with several layers of material between your cocoon and the outside world is entirely gone. I can hear the road, feel the engine and actually engage with travel as opposed to simply moving.
It was around that point I also realised just how far we have come in terms of safety – it became brutally evident just how much I did not want to be involved in a crash because of how little there was to protect me from the outside world.
At first, negotiating my way home in the Chevette was akin to driving for the first time after passing my test – but in a good way. Older vehicles are by nature less forgiving, which actually turned me into a better driver. I was on my utmost best behaviour, complete with cooperative driving and lenghty braking distances which would have made any driving instructor proud. All this engagement turned the drive into a little adventure.
As soon as I parked near my flat in London I heard a stranger exclaim “I haven’t seen one of these in ages!” It was the first time in more than a year of living there that I had struck up a conversation with a neighbour.
Even doing the weekly shop or picking up the dry cleaning now had that little bit of edge to it. The distinctive shovel shape of the Chevette's nose sticks out from the drove of dull crossovers and hatchbacks. Hear that unique clicking of the doors, get in, adjust the choke, turn the key, pump the gas and feel it splutter to life.
These small, mechanical details combined with a light sense of unpredictability remind you you are still alive, even if you are doing the most menial of tasks. Purring down to M&S with vague steering and spongy brakes is plenty more fun than simply floating there in a perfectly optimised new car.
To be perfectly clear, nothing is particularly easy in that car, as I found while parking in tight spots and negotiating narrow roads. Its combination of a lack of assisted steering, an extremely high clutch biting point and an accelerator pedal like an on-off switch would put off most young drivers – but to anyone with a passion for the mechanical aspects of car, those traits represent a challenge.
With only a four-speed gearbox, would fourth be enough for a comfortable motorway cruise? No, but it was certainly fun finding that out for myself first-hand.
At the end of the day the Chevette meant that there was never a dull moment when going from A to B. It is rather depressing that I should have to travel back in time to derive any pleasure from first cars, but so be it.
A classic car for a youngster is not an option for most. This Chevette was insured for the reasonable value of £5,000 and annual premiums would be dirt cheap compared with those for a more modern car, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to the great work of Vauxhall Heritage I didn’t encounter a single mechanical issue. But if I owned this car and had to cover that sort of cost myself, surely it would be a great opportunity to learn more about vehicle maintenance.
There again, perhaps these days young drivers don't care about such things, wanting only to jump in and drive.
However, for those of us who truly value driving experiences and believe that how you get there is as important as arriving, it might just make sense. With a cheaper choice like the Chevette, costs are likely to stay relatively low. It certainly takes some getting used to when you have only been driving for a few years, but once you build that confidence it brings out a new appreciation for motoring you might not have thought possible.
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