Is it really possible to live a classic only existence?

| 17 Jun 2011

I will forever remember the period from August to the end of January as a golden age in my classic ownership. Not happy in the slightest, but golden all the same. For those fleeting few months, the youngest car in my household was the 1982 Lotus Elite, but even that was never used four-up with the family, a burden that was shouldered solely by a 1968 Jensen and a 1965 Triumph.

It was a never-ending delight during this halcyon six months to honestly tell everyone (for which read "boast like a rather unpleasant idiot to people who simply weren't interested in the first place") that we did not have a modern car. "Oh how brave," they would say and myriad other bemused condemnations dressed up as compliments. I took them all as compliments anyway: as a classic fanatic, how could I take them otherwise?

I should point out also that the "modern" we had previous to that time was a charitable donation from my parents, an unwanted late 1980s Rover 216SLi, so it was hardly as if we were jacking in a brand-new people carrier in some great retro Luddite gesture. That said, I do remember being just a tiny bit overjoyed when the faithful old Rover (in fairness it had served us very well) failed its MoT and required more welding than it was worth. Actually, putting a new wiper blade on would have outstripped the value of the car so its fate was pretty much sealed from the outset.

So, with the family away in France, I shed no tears as it went off to Wandsworth's great scrapyard in the sky and I naively looked forward to non-stop strictly classic use for the Elliotts with an evangelical fervour. Not your once-a-year day trips to Goodwood, mind, all day, every day classic hegemony. Little did I know at this point what a strain that would prove and that, ultimately, it would all end in tears. Mine.

Let's get this straight: during this period the cars never actually let us down, we were never stranded on the school run or long trips, the family never actually voiced any major objection (out loud, probably a good thing I'm not a mind-reader), the kids were safely strapped in and didn't vomit or anything. It went exactly to plan.

Exactly to plan except the mental trauma that is. You see, my wife and kids are not exactly classic friendly. Classic tolerant, to some small degree, yes, but not classic friendly. This instils in me a sort of isolationist paranoia, augmented by their reaction when there was a minor hiccough such as tardy restarting in the Jensen.

Sure, larger unreliability issues preyed on my mind on every journey down the A3 to the point that I actually saw mirages of the family half way up the banking behind the armco, stricken car waiting for recovery, two vulnerable young kids strapped into the seats to stop them running into traffic, scowling wife staring that she told me so.

But that wasn't actually the problem: the real issue was my permanently sensing (possibly with no grounds whatsoever) that they were all really just waiting for the car to go wrong, waiting for it to be proven once and for all that I was a selfish, family endangering, dreamer imposing my misguided love of classics upon innocent victims who should be spared.

And that was it in a nutshell: rather than the fear of a breakdown itself, it was far more simply the fear of the potential fall-out from one that crawled into my ear and became an unsettling, unwanted voice in my head. Carry on and inevitably at some point have my cars and my passion publicly disgraced, and possibly be shamed into flogging some as a result. This slow realisation of the unavoidable endgame made every journey slightly more nerve-racking for me than the last, until it was me rather than the cars on the verge of a breakdown while the family sat there, saying nothing, just waiting (probably, by this point I was not thinking straight at all and paranoia had taken over completely).

This madness, my madness, had to stop, so in January, unable to bear the "joy" of sharing my hobby full time with my oblivious-to-my-growing-insanity family any more, I went out and bought a massive mid-1990s Merc E-Class (like the one above) nicknamed the Bismarck – like the battleship – full of wood, leather, seats and knobs (most of which I have no idea what they do and no inclination to find out), and with the largest load area I have ever seen. If the missus found out how much this buying decision was influenced by the size of a piece of ripped out secondary glazing that I had to take to the tip, I would be in well-deserved trouble.

It is mundane, boring, practical, ridiculously big and, in fact, just obnoxious, but it makes me feel good. Not because it appeals to me directly in any way, which it doesn't, even though I can sort of admire it, and not because it is any more reliable – it is probably just as likely as the classics to break down – but simply and solely because if (or when) it does break down, I can point the finger of blame at a modern Merc built to make the Burj Khalifa look like a Twiglet, so my classics (and me, and my hobby in general) will be free to carry on our carefree existence.

That's kind of pathetic reasoning, really, but after six months of ferrying around the family, always just one missed spark away from catastrophic embarrassment and potential retribution, it seemed the only solution. Of course, I still use the classics whenever possible for the whole family, and always when travelling on my own – to the point that three of the four at least will outstrip the Merc's mileage this year.

Yet, like those dullard dads on a mission who set out to recreate an iron age village and end up trying to make a fire in the rain while their escapee family gorge themselves on Fry's Turkish Delight and Vimto bought from a local petrol station with his stolen credit card, I have failed miserably in my bid to force my family to live a classic-only existence.

I don't blame me (naturally) or the cars, because millions of families happily trudged around in these cars as their only vehicles when they were new often with little more hope of reliability than I enjoy now. It is simply that expectations have changed so dramatically since the mid-1980s, that to the rest of the world breakdowns should be as rare as moonlandings.

But at least I tried, and I will try again. They just don't know it yet. Maybe a Mk10, or on my budget more likely a 420G, will do the trick…