Craig was the inspiration that led to getting these Real World Reviews off the ground, so it seems fitting that here he is giving an account of his old 1980s Vauxhall.
Rob has already kicked off the Real World Reviews series with a wonderfully bittersweet memory of his first car, the Mini Clubman, so I’ll grab the baton and give you the lowdown on mine: a MK2 Vauxhall Astra.
This particular example was a five-door built in 1984 and it left the factory in a rather questionable shade of golden brown. This was later supplemented by a primered rear quarter following a rather nasty altercation with a truck. Various additional scrapes and bumps, aided and abetted by the ravages of time, had left it in a rather patchy state. As a result, the car was affectionately named ‘The Golden Nail’ by all who knew it.
I had a private name for it though… a special one I only used when we were alone. I called it the Vauxhall DisAstra.
Let’s fill in the history so we have a baseline for the gory details. The car was owned by a good friend of mine who I also happened to be in a band with. He’d recently come across a great little Metro turbo and so the DisAstra was just taking up space, so he graciously offered to give it to me. Our drummer found himself without a car as I was gearing up to take my test, so the deal was that he could use it until that point, whereupon I’d take custody.
Three months later, that little two-part passport to freedom tumbled onto the doormat, so phone calls were made. We were assured by the drummer, who worked for a local fast-fit chain, that it was in tip-top condition and that he’d recently given it a service for me. Fantastic! We decided to head over in-between band practices and grab the car so I could drive it back cross-country in tandem with its previous owner in case any issues arose.
They did. Not immediately, but soon and without mercy.
That first drive home was fantastic – I was in my own car, and my first solo flight was a cross-country blast along mostly arrow straight B-roads with the occasional kink to keep things interesting. The only question mark was over a slight pull to the left under heavy braking, which I’d never noticed as a passenger and neither had the previous owner. No matter though, the roads around here have a heavy camber and I probably just needed a bit of air on one corner. As my confidence grew, It didn’t take long to realise that it also pulled slightly to the right when given a bootful. Hmm.
I was still firing on all cylinders though, and determined to enjoy it. The next few days were spent offering lifts to absolutely everyone as an excuse to be on the road for a good reason. I did seem to be getting through a surprising amount of fuel, but with no frame of reference, I didn’t know if it was just an overenthusiastic gauge.
Based on the first brim to brim fill (with the help of a few scribbles on the back of an envelope) I realised that I was getting a none too stellar 20mpg. From a 1300cc engine, that didn’t seem wonderful. Further experiments showed that the only thing surpassing its taste for four-star was a liking for 10w40 – it would happily guzzle a litre of the precious black stuff every month.
You’re probably starting to sense a downhill slope here, with a profile curiously similar to the DisAstra’s own roofline – a long flowing descent into a sheer drop that dumps you unceremoniously on the floor in front of the wheels. You’re not wrong. In my defence I’d like to say that it was my first car, and so I was prepared to forgive it almost anything; not because it was wonderful, but simply for what it represented and enabled. I know I’m among friends, and that you’ll understand.
As I learned the foibles of the motor, I started to realise that you could have a lot of fun with it as long as you were prepared to stick your boot in and hang on. That little aluminium lump had a wonderfully rev-happy character and was surprisingly quick for such a small unit; I had received reports of a four-up motorway journey at speeds well into three figures; apart from a degree of scepticism based on the rather optimistic dials, I bet it wasn’t far off the truth. Even throwing the thing into a hard corner induced a huge grin – the MK2 had a decent amount of grip but felt as if it was going to knuckle over on the offside corner and go belly up.
It never would, and would happily gnaw its way around if you balanced the power correctly. Suffice to say it was possible to embarrass greater machinery by the judicious application of timing and commitment. The steering was unassisted but wonderfully light and tactile above 10mph, and the four-speed box had a solid throw with a satisfyingly clunky detent, and weighting that allowed you to flick from third to fourth on fingertips alone.
In all honesty, I had to really learn to enjoy these highs because the lows were starting to mount. The insistence on ducking to one side had become more noticeable, and consumption of the various essential fluids was starting to reach into the realms of the seriously troubling. The handbrake would stick on and release with a terrifying clang as it started to roll, the heater would either work flat out or not at all, the dash lights would dim or disappear completely at random intervals, and the radiator fans would occasionally go on strike for no obvious reason.
Sitting in a hot car (with a dodgy sunroof) on a 30 degree summer day is infinitely less enjoyable when you have to have the heating on full to stop the engine cooking itself… and even worse when the heater decides that fricassee is the way to go, and kicks its heels up in solidarity. That particular cylinder head was incredibly prone to warping so you really didn’t want excessive heat for long periods. It was clear that our mechanic friend had been as bad with cars as he was behind a drum kit, and had royally monstered the poor little thing during his brief period of custodianship.
On top of all that, the clutch was starting to judder, the stereo didn’t entirely work through all the speakers at once (although you would get to listen to each one for at least some of the time), the door locks would stick, the hatch would refuse to close, the bonnet would refuse to open, the steering lock wouldn’t always let go, every single belt developed a variety of squeaks designed to make elderly pedestrians jump… you’re getting the picture. Patience was being sorely tested.
The final kick in the teeth came one snowy Christmas day. As I approached the car, I spotted a dark line in the snow towards the rear of the front door. I noticed the door was partly open and had started to wonder how I could be so careless when I noticed a small, dark metallic lump on the kerb. On Christmas eve some unfeeling b*****d had taken a screwdriver to the barrel, spotted the crook lock, and wandered off as if it didn’t matter. I realised that, even though it was a complete pain in the backside, it was MY complete pain in the backside and I actually did care what happened to it. I managed to sort out a new barrel from Vauxhall a few days later at a ridiculous cost, but the break-in along with the catalogue of issues left me feeling that the car wasn’t really mine any more.
Eventually, I managed to secure a MK2 Golf for a few hundred quid, and it was time to retire the DisAstra. By that stage, it was refusing to move and so had to be towed away, but as a last gesture of defiance, it refused to let the handbrake go. If this was a Walt Disney story I’d be implying that it really wanted to stay – ‘don’t let them take me’ it would whimper, a small trickle of Castrol welling up under one headlight. In all honesty, it was probably just being bloody-minded as it knew it would never find another mug who’d put up with its nonsense.
Ah, who am I trying to kid?
I didn’t want to see it go because I felt as if we’d covered a lot of ground together, both literally and emotionally. We’d only known each other for six months or so, but it was a friendship forged from hardship – well, mine mainly – and that counted for something. As the moss-lined tailgate disappeared around the gatepost for the final time I felt as if I’d let an old friend down, even though I knew any intervention would just be too little, too late. The plan was clear: in the future, we’d be in it together, and I’d do the best I could to reward my four-wheeled friends for sterling service in the form of appropriate TLC whenever it was needed.
Silly decision really. Every car I’ve owned has hurt me financially since then as a result, but I’m a man of my principles so that’s the way it has to be. I fully intend to write that on the inevitable bankruptcy notice too and frame it so future generations of petrolheads can learn from my stupidity. Never let it be said that I didn’t learn anything from the DisAstra.
Would I own one again?
God, no. I may be sentimental, but I’m not an idiot.