“So why are you so interested in cars, then?” is a question I am often asked. Before I have time to compose a semi-sensible answer, the enquiry “does your Dad have an old MG in the garage or did he used to be a racing driver or something?” inevitably follows. “Err, no, not at all,” I have to respond, usually with an apologetic smile and a little shrug of the shoulders. The fact is that there is no good reason why, from the age of three, I should have developed such an interest in cars. Nevertheless – or perhaps because of this – over the next few weeks I thought it might be fun to reflect on the cars that shaped my interest in all things with four wheels as I grew up.
I don’t remember the first car my parents had when I was alive, the car that took me home from hospital. My first memory of that car, a scarlet three-door Fiat Uno that remains the only brand-new vehicle my mother and father have ever purchased, is of it being loaded onto a trailer and taken away by two men who had driven out to the Mabon household with its replacement on the back of the aforementioned trailer. “It’s the same car, but it’s a bit bigger and with more doors,” my Dad told me. His voice came from the sky well above my head, which was about level with the worn knees of his light blue jeans. I stood motionless on the slabs on front of our home and watched as the trailer tipped up, a shiny red five-door Fiat Uno rolling off the back.
Once the well-rusted old Uno, which can’t have been more than three or four years old, was pushed up onto the trailer and hauled away, the new Mabon car was left on its own at the side of the road. Virtually every panel on the small Italian car had been drawn with a ruler, even down to the big Fiat badge on the front. Four diagonal lines sat exactly halfway between the square headlamps, with a small blue oblong spelling out the word ‘FIAT’ resting close to the left-hand lamp.
My Dad carefully crossed the road and began the process of transferring the clutter from the old car, which had been left scattered on the pavement, to the new vehicle. My sister’s baby seat and my booster seat were slung in through the back doors, father carefully and methodically strapping the seats in before we were taken for a wee drive along the road. Even the mats from the old car were kept and moved over to the new car – it wasn’t until my Dad had paid off the mortgage decades later that he treated himself to a set of new branded mats for his Volkswagen Passat.
I can’t remember a lot about the Uno, but I do remember the interior was spartan, with lots of bare metal and plenty of places coins could be irretrievably dropped into. I once lost fifty pence after it slipped out of my hands and bounced down a gap between the rear seats, and on other occasions my Mum would let me post copper coins through the air vents to pass the time while we waited to collect my Dad from work. I never did find out if those coins passed straight through to the ground or if they lingered on a piece of chassis for the rest of the car’s days. Given that it was a 1980s Fiat, chances are that the floorpan rusted before the coins did and sooner or later they fell to the ground.
The other good thing about the Uno – from my point of view at least – was that Bburago made lots of toy Fiats, including ones identical to mummy and daddy’s car. Unfortunately these toys were rather flimsy, and it took at least three of them to see me through the four years the full-size family car lasted. In fact, thanks to these rickety toys I was introduced to the idea of good and bad design before I had even gone to school to learn basic maths, After the wheels had come off the 1:43 scale red Fiat for the umpteenth time, I took the broken toy to my father for fixing, at which point he told me without a hint of humour or irony, “well, it can’t have been very well designed them.” The result of this was that every time anything in the household broke – be it a ballpoint pen, a transistor radio or a whisk – I asked my mum if the reason it had broken was because it was badly designed.
As it happened, the five-door Uno was one of the better designed things in the Mabon inventory at the time, and gave faultless service for a good few years. It traveled all over Scotland on holidays, its one windscreen wiper often working overtime to clear the water off the windscreen from the rainfall that inevitably followed our family holidays. Eventually, though, the tinniness and constant burning smell from the heaters became too much, and it was time to move up to a bigger car. Enter the Fiat Regata, a vehicle with all the finesse, driving excitement and beauty of a Russian Cold War tank…