With regards to cars, there are three different kinds of people – the careless, the knowledgeable and the diseased. The careless make up most of the population; for them, their car is merely a means of getting around, and nothing else. It’s usually an unwashed, white Toyota something beginning with C, permanently left outside and rarely serviced. They sometimes know where the petrol goes in, and approximately how to operate it – but that’s it. They chose it above other kinds of vehicle purely because their friends have one and you can plug your iWhatever into it. These people care about cars in much the same way that your average bogan cares about salad.
This is not necessarily the case for the knowledgeable. In fact, they have usually been known to partake in activities that the careless would find an abhorrent waste of time – like, reading car magazines and going for an enjoyable drive to, well, enjoy the drive. They trust motoring writers, and concur with their general opinion that thou shalt rubbish any car that doesn’t have a charismatic engine, sublime chassis and telepathic steering feedback – never mind what the rest of the car might actually be like. Luckily, while not every modern car engages the driver, nearly every car on the market today at least gets the basic stuff like reliability and safety right. The Knowledgeable can thus pop down to their local dealers and buy that new Golf Mk VII with confidence, knowing that it’s an enjoyable drive and a pretty safe bet in the long term. The knowledgeable like that sort of thing, and are usually satisfied right there.
And then, there are the diseased. I am diseased.
The diseased are never satisfied, and don’t give a stuff about the safe bet. As far as gambling goes, they are the motoring equivalent of playing Russian roulette with the revolver fully loaded. Their affliction means that they fret for cars and rarely a second goes by when they don’t think about cars or driving. While the symptoms can be suppressed, it is incurable. The sheer amount of information filling a diseased head about cars can make even one of the knowledgeable feel like a kindergarten student attempting particle physics. Spoilt with this information and fuelled by the excitement of providing their addiction with another hit, they go looking for cars that one of the knowledgeable would say that you probably shouldn’t. They love all cars – except for white unwashed Toyota appliances, of course – the way that uni students love sacks of goon.
You probably know someone afflicted with the disease. The news media, government and police generally refer to them using the derogatory term “hoon”. He might be that guy you know with a veritable fleet of cars painting his driveway and front yard with oil and coolant stains, but no cars made after 1986. He might be that mate you know who went to prison for owning a Skyline GT-R – which, as any current affairs reporter will tell you, is the most heinous crime any young man living in Australia can commit and carries a maximum penalty of execution by immersion in boiling oil. He might be the bloke in your street with that beautiful old Mercedes that he’s kept spotless since new.
I used to show a number of obvious traits that would mark me to all and sundry as diseased, but I’ve kept the condition relatively under control over the last few years. It certainly has its benefits – I can now at least afford trivial things like food and house repayments. My car is boring, but as a result I haven’t been pulled over by police for quite some time now, which is a nice little luxury in itself. When I owned a Nissan R34 Skyline, it usually used to happen – no exaggeration – at least twice a week. However, I am still very much infected, and after years of suppression I’m really beginning to suffer.
This suffering manifested itself the other day when a friend asked me for advice about buying a car. Armed with some information about her budget and preferences, I scoured the internet for a tidy example of a Mazda 3 at the right price and not too far away. A knowledgeable type would agree that after a Golf, a Mazda 3 is a good choice for a small-medium hatchback, an alternative to a Ford Focus, superior to a Corolla or i30 and much better than the new Pulsar. Before too long, I got distracted. After just 10 minutes, I’d already looked at all sorts of trouble – Silvias, Skylines and the like – and was at the point of trying to choose between a 2 litre Alfa GTV or a Citroën CX2200 Palas. You know, just as an investment sort of thing. To make matters worse, I’d fallen in love with a Lancia Fulvia along the way.
Right now, the knowledgeable are either shaking their heads furiously or have just fallen out of their chairs laughing. For the benefit of the careless, I’ll explain.
Silvias and Skylines can only take you to two destinations – bankruptcy or prison. This might sound pretty dire, but compared to Alfa Romeo ownership, life with a Skyline is a picnic. Especially in the case of a proper Alfa like a GTV, living with an Alfa is like trying to date a very pretty girl who is fantastically talented in the sack, but also happens to be a complete psychopath who likes to destroy your stuff. For this reason, they say you’re never a “real” car enthusiast until you’ve owned an Alfa – and I agree – but you’ve never truly reached the death knell of the disease until you’ve owned a Lancia, or an old Citroën.
The things that make Alfa Romeos great are multiplied by ten in a Lancia, but so are the problems. If it rains overnight and you’ve forgotten to garage it, don’t bother looking for it by the next afternoon. Even items like the windows will have rusted down to nothing more than brown dust, and will have blown away. Dry days are much nicer – you can fang it down a twisty road, and it will feel and sound magnificent in that passionate way that only Italian engineering can manage. Until, of course, it explodes and tumbles down the road in a fireball in a way that only Italian engineering can manage.
Old Citroëns are very charming – they look how Jules Verne might have imagined a car for the 23nd century, and due to their brilliant hydro-pneumatic suspension and beautifully trimmed plush seats, they deliver a magic carpet ride unmatched by any car before or since. Unfortunately, you can only experience this ride when the car is working properly – which is pretty well never.
These are the sort of cars that the deeply infected are mad enough to buy. But does this mean that living with the disease is a bad thing?
Absolutely not. Society needs people infected with the car bug.
White unwashed Toyota appliances generally don’t have any of the problems that Alfas, Lancias and Citroëns have. But they are just that – appliances. They don’t excite anyone. When you lock it up before you walk in your house at night, you don’t look back at it and yearn to drive it again. You see, all the properly beautiful machines in the world, imperfect yet wonderful machines with character, charm and personality, machines which by rights shouldn’t be running anymore yet still can – were designed and are now kept running by people infected with the bug. And when one of these machines arrives in impeccable shape down the street, the knowledgeable go weak at the knees and even the careless look around and say “wow, that’s cool” – and all of a sudden, anyone would agree that they’d hate to imagine a world without them.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to email a bloke about an old Citroën…