Hilarie Stelfox: Minis aren’t what they used to be, but Volvos are!

THEY say it is a dangerous thing to judge a book by its cover.

THEY say it is a dangerous thing to judge a book by its cover. Or, for the purposes of this article, to judge an owner by his or her car.

That’s because outward appearances can easily fool us about status and wealth. But I strongly suspect that the cars we drive often say a lot about the personalities behind the steering wheel.

The Man-in-Charge once played squash with a senior consultant surgeon who could have afforded any state-of-the-art luxury motor that he chose, but instead drove an ancient Volvo.

Of course he had nothing to prove and didn’t need a status symbol to rack up his ego or shout to the world “I am rich and successful.”

Conversely, I have friends of quite modest means who have borrowed eye-watering amounts of money to purchase a shiny new car so that they could drive swankily about. It’s not uncommon to see top-of-the-range models parked outside the humblest of dwellings.

However, I am the sort of person who regards a car as something in which to go from A to B with minimum disappointment and breakdowns.

I’ve had a succession of small second hand cars – keeping each one until it let me down or started rusting.

My small, unremarkable cars marked me out as a bit of a conventional cheapskate who wanted something to run the kids about in with as little fuss and expense as possible.

Then seven years ago, with the prospect of the Offspring’s teenage years ahead of me and a small inheritance, I bought my first proper grown-up car.

It was a second hand Volvo with more safety features than I could count, which is why I wanted it.

The dealer sent me a copies of an owner’s magazine, which had a feature entitled “A Volvo saved my life”, covering the stories of people who had survived terrible crashes. “And the police said that if I hadn’t been driving a Volvo I wouldn’t be alive today,” seemed to be a commonly-quoted theme. I felt proud to own such a clearly superior machine.

At work the Volvo condemned me as someone who had reached a certain stage of contented complacency in life. “It’s a bit middle class,” said one colleague.

As it turns out this car has served me well; never failing in foul weather, breaking down or requiring admonishment. Until this week, that is.

Now, I’m well aware that my car is simply metal, glass and plastic, bolted together and lubricated with oil, but if I wasn’t a rational middle-class, middle-aged woman I might think that it was trying to admonish me.

Last week I began muttering about needing a newer, cheaper-to-run model. “I fancy a Mini,” I kept saying to The Man. The first Mini I had – many moons ago – was my favourite-ever car. It might have been a rust bucket (it had two total re-sprays) and sounded like a sewing machine, but I loved its nippiness and dinkiness. It was easy to drive and, even more crucially, a doddle to park.

We decided to seek out a Mini garage. “Better tidy your car up a bit,” said The Man, “so we can see how much you’ll get if we want to part-ex it.”

An hour later we were back home, slightly gob-smacked. Minis, once the small, cheap, first-car runabouts that everyone loved and could afford, have become bigger and, quite frankly, hideously expensive.

Minis, it would seem, are not what they used to be.

“Twenty grand,” I kept saying, because I still couldn’t quite believe it, “for a second hand Mini! That’s not in the spirit of Minis.”

The Volvo looked reproachfully at me. After all, it had never let me down.

Two days later and I was standing on the drive while the man from the AA examined my owner’s handbook.

“It’s unusual to get a call out to one of these,” he admitted. “They’re very reliable.”

But mine was clearly in a sulk, the dashboard control panel having ceased to function, leaving me with no speedometer, no petrol gauge and no rev counter. Communication between us had broken down.

“I think it’s a glitch,” said Mr AA, after consulting numerous Volvo websites “you need to get it to a garage.”

Which is what I did. I’ve also booked it in for a full service and MOT because it deserves some TLC in its old age – and a bit of respect. Hopefully, in time it will forgive my disloyalty.

 
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