Can you remember your first car crush? Chris Barker can, although the object of his desire may surprise you. I’ll let Chris take up the story, but before I do I’m delighted to say that Chris will be joining PetrolBlog where he’ll have his own monthly column. Should things go well I’ve promised him a comfy armchair, a pipe, slippers and a lifetime supply of Hobnobs.
The subject of my very first car crush wasn’t a glamour model by any stretch of the imagination, and therefore would be considered quite the departure by normal petrolhead standards of teenage automotive lust. Yes, I might have had (OK, I can confirm, I did) the standard Lamborghini Countach, 007-spec Lotus Esprit and Smokey and the Bandit’s Pontiac Trans Am posters, jostling for wall-space amid the more leftfield choices of the MkI VW Golf GTi and a Series I Escort RS Turbo, adorning my adolescent bedroom; however as the latter reveals, my car dreams remained steadfastly grounded in reality.
And this decidedly northern reality remained unswerving when fate dealt its cards at 17, resulting in a spotty-faced Herbert from the Wirral, unashamedly falling in love with a 1983 MkI, 1.2-litre three-door Vauxhall Astra, finished in mesmerising (yet very flat) China Blue. The MkI Vauxhall Astra if you care to recall was all about acute angles. And rust. And engines that were left red-faced by reconditioned sewing machines. But they were cheap. At least they were on the secondhand market, some ten years after they were introduced, which coincided nicely with my coming of (driving) age.
As this particular Astra’s sporting pedigree was never brought into question – as I pointed out, it couldn’t be, as this nondescript model had no ‘sport’ as such to give – I instead embraced its alternate USPs. But what it lacked in performance and comfort, style, reliability, engineering, status and practicality, it more than compensated for by way of affordability. And the (albeit) remote possibility that this purchase could, effectively, be a means of me bagging a bird. According to my friends in the know, anyhow.
Let me paint a mental picture for you.
It’s 1989. I’m an impoverished art student, working part-time as a car valeter for a local Arthur Daley-esque dealer. I might have had just a few quid burning a hole in my pockets, yet I did have the Stereo MCs burning a hole in my eardrums; I was hip, fresh and looking for a ride that reflects this. OK, let’s cut to the chase. I was skint, the far less cool Jesus Jones were assaulting my lobes and I was about as socially accepted as Little and Large would have been following Ben Elton’s stand-up routine on Saturday Live, around this time.
Whilst my friends were either saving up for an RS Turbo Essie (of the Uncle Henry persuasion), which of course would see them through to retirement given the £meagre wage they drew from working on the tills at Motorworld, or painstakingly piecing together the 2.6 million parts littered across their dad’s garage floor that would eventually (they hoped) resemble something akin to a MkI Ford Escort (complete with bubble arches and roll cage), I decided I’d pass go, collect £200 and do a Blue Peter.
Despite missing out on the perceived fun of creating something from my own hands (I was a budding artist, so my 9–5 was set aside for ‘creation’, whilst the hours around this were dedicated to ‘birding’), I fervently subscribed to the ‘here’s one (someone else) made earlier’ school of applied thought. Which meant all I had to do was source the perfect example and go ‘cap in hand’ to my folks for a short term loan.
Fast forward a few weeks, and there I was sat on my employer’s buntingliscious pitch, as my dad came to pick me up from a hard day’s graft, having washed and polished the crème de la crème of provincial used motors. Which as you can imagine, were anything but. And yes, that’s right; I hadn’t quite passed my driving test just yet, but I knew that my first set of wheels had to be this remarkably well kept Astra; a lovely one owner example that had barely been run in. It even had a brand new (looking) radio cassette player welded into the dash. And not just any old Radiomobile or Grundig shizzle that had been unceremoniously wedged into most erstwhile, workmanlike Griffin-badged rides of that vintage. No sir. We were talking a key component found on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise. Namely, a Blaupunkt specimen.
To those of you old enough, all the best Blaupunkts were named after the greatest, most romantic and culturally-significant cities of the world; or at least, those situated in Germany. Essen, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf. Magical. The Astra sported the Blaupunkt Nuremberg model, but I chose to turn a blind eye, as not even a nod and a wink to one of Germany’s past horrors was going to stand between myself and ownership of this little beaut.
You knew the moment that you clocked that instantly recognisable blue dot, that aurally at least, you were on to a winner. No mistake. And the simple reason I knew this was because I’d been brought up on a staple diet of Blaunpunktary, courtesy of my dad’s love affair with Datsuns, that later became Nissans. Every one of his succession of future taxis (sorry, Bluebirds) came equipped with one, and arguably doubled the car’s value on the second hand market a few years down the line.
Anyway, my long-suffering father found me at the controls of the Astra when he arrived. Parked at the back of the used car lot, in a section labelled ‘Bargain Basement’, the 1.2-litre Vauxhall was nothing on that chill winter night, if not refuge from the weather. As it sat nestled between a Fiat Strada 105TC (which according to the odometer had been to the outer reaches of Mars and back) and a fastback Morris Marina; a contradiction in terms, which was marked out from the crowd of cheap and cheerfuls by its rakish exterior coupled with inexplicable interior stains.
Naturally, and because I were the young funkster that I previously laid claim to, Cher was blasting out of that mightily impressive bit of dashboard-mounted Blaupunkt kit, so my dad could pinpoint my exact co-ordinates. And get out his chequebook so I hoped. Incidentally, ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ was a seminal moment in Cher’s career, and much undervalued. Rather like this little Astra come to think of it. A car that was built just a hop, skip and a short bus ride from that very forecourt, at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant. I digress.
So, did I get the object of my desires in the end? No. as much as I harangued my parents, suggested a buy now, pay later (once I’d cleared my student loan, circumnavigated the globe with my backpack and miraculously managed to forge a career) scheme to my employers and considered robbing the newsagent’s across the road to fund my dream purchase, my plans of car ownership, deflowering the locality’s prom queens and just, well, looking bloody cool, fell through. Probably just like the floor of the Astra would have done approximately 2 miles down the road if I had been able to convince those in positions of power to invest in my immediate automotive future.
Yet that little blue Astra was the first, realistic opportunity I had to buy a car. And for that reason, it will always remain at the forefront of my early years motoring memory. As it happened, I borrowed my parents’ 2.0DLX Bluebird for a year or so until I did actually purchase my first car; and naturally enough, being the cretin that I was, I opted for a Diamond White Ford Escort XR3i. Under-powered and OTT. All show and no go. Metaphorically me to a T.
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In the meantime, follow Chris Barker on twitter @Bateman1972.