Low life

The pure joy of a boring car

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

My pal Charlie inherited a car and a ride-on mower from an old pal. He kept the mower and the next time he saw me in the pub he offered me the car. He’d driven down in it, he said, and it was out in the pub car park. ‘This car is bombproof,’ said Charlie handing over the key. ‘Even you couldn’t wreck this one.’

I asked how much. He wanted paying not in cash but in art, he said. He’d seen this painting for sale on a French restaurant wall and now that he was back in England he wished he’d bought it. I was returning to France in a fortnight. I knew the restaurant. There were about a dozen works hung on the wall, all of them efflorescences of the same confident genius. Charlie showed me a photo of the object of his desire on his phone. It was a painting of an outdoor flower stall under a parasol with a faceless woman browsing. The parasol was a sort of police-strobe electric blue. ‘But it’s crap, Charlie,’ I pointed out. ‘I don’t care,’ he said. ‘It reminds me of the atmosphere of Provence.’

I’ve heard that Charlie made an offer to the restaurant patron of €700 for the lot. The patron said he’d inform the artist. On his return from the telephone, the patron said that the artist had gone stroboscopic at what he thought was a derisory offer. But if I could get the single painting for €200, say, that would be the price of the car. And any car that starts and drives is surely worth that. ‘What is the car, anyway, Charlie?’ I said, accepting the key. If the worst came to the worst, and the Blue Parasol cost much more than 200 quid, my absolute maximum, I planned to take up the brushes and knock him off a market scene myself.

The car is a Mitsubishi Carisma 2002 1.9 common rail diesel hatchback. Before he took it over, it had been standing in a forest for a year, Charlie told me. And the owner had been blind or deaf or something and the car had sustained a few knocks, including a smashed rear-light unit and off-side mirror, which is in no way a problem. I’ve been driving it about for a week and here is my review.

This Mitsubishi Carisma has a manual gearbox and the stiff clutch has inflamed my chronic left-knee problem after three years completely pain-free with normal use. The steering wheel wobbles excitedly when the car is in motion and there is a slight delay between turning it and the car changing direction. And slow punctures in the front and rear driver’s side tyres make the Carisma veer to the right. The ride is lumpy but this might be due to a shot suspension. A thick layer of dust over the interior surfaces gives a musty smell.

But it starts, my goodness it starts. Starting is the car’s forte. In ten years’ time, when the car is a compacted block in a scrapyard, if the ignition is accessible, and someone inserts the key and gives it a twist, the car will probably start. My starting anxiety syndrome is over. Amazingly, the cigar lighter works. It is the first working cigar lighter I’ve had for years. And the stereo works, as do the four speakers. Ken Bruce’s voice comes through in all its Scottish richness. A car that starts, a half-decent working stereo, and a functioning cigar lighter is the height of my automotive ambition.

The idling engine sounds like a cabless Massey Ferguson from the 1950s, but it is in fact the same engine as in the Volvo V40 and the Renault Laguna, with more than enough power to accelerate uphill — another pleasant surprise. But above all, I now have the advantage of owning and driving the most boring, most anonymous car on the road. In a driver survey of 300 makes and models, the Mitsubishi Carisma came 293rd for charisma and 3rd for reliability. Charlie is the ultimate petrolhead. He has sold cars for a living. He loves and knows cars and he can afford to drive anything he likes. But for reasons best not gone into, he prizes anonymity in a car above everything. In this respect, he is like a billionaire hillbilly, happier bumping along in a battered old Toyota Hilux with torn seats than in anything else. And this has been a great lesson to me, and a liberation, after a lifetime of naively imagining that the kind of car I drive is a personal statement about my bank balance, or about my self-image. Better late than never, I suppose. When I go into that French restaurant next week to negotiate a price for the Blue Parasol, I might even go up to €300.

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