If you park a shiny new 4x4 at the station every morning, you're way out of step. Georgina Russell looks at a curious British eccentricity.
Rows of antique hatchbacks have been decorating rural-station car parks for decades. That their owners might be emerging from them in bespoke pin stripes on their way to top City jobs matters not in the least.
Why? It’s partly practicality, partly frugality… and there’s a big dollop of contrariness in the mix as well.
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Thou shalt not spend thy gold on thy car unless absolutely critical
‘It’s true,’ implored the gentleman to my left at a recent dinner party. ‘My car is so decrepit, I can only drive to the station in first gear.’ This, just moments after we’d been hearing about the trials and tribulations of his child’s first term at one of the country’s most expensive public schools.
Spending money on station cars has long been anathema to the British commuter, and the financial argument for going vintage is solid. Why would you invest in a shiny vehicle, only for it to sit in the station car park all day, depreciating faster than the InterCity express? As Hugo from Surrey puts it: ‘It’s a wasted asset – and, besides, I’ve got school fees, au pairs and pensions to think about.’
Thou shalt be prepared to get thy hands dirty
My neighbour, Martin, makes his daily sojourn in ancient Betty, whose water tank leaks so badly he has to carry a large plastic bottle on his passenger seat for emergency top-ups. My cousin, Piers, demonstrates similarly practically behaviour with the old banger to which he is staunchly loyal. He’s had to drill a drainage hole in its boot to stop rainwater collecting in the spare tyre.
Thou shalt not display a modern numberplate
Vintage numberplates are the ensign of the no-frills seasoned commuter and ‘something to be coveted,’ says one self-confessed new kid on the block, Chris, in Suffolk, who’s still furious with himself for investing in a three-years-young ‘mistake’.
Thou shalt not fret about modern emissions standards
A man we’ll simply call Charlie, in Oxfordshire, was notorious, and not just for being a terrible cheat in all walks of life. He drove an ancient diesel which always needed coaxing into life – and which his fellow commuters always allowed to get to the car park exit first, thanks to the gruesome clouds of diesel particulates emitted by his recalcitrant engine.
Thou shalt not have a car which is appropriate to thy needs
A retired Guards officer, Maj David Sewell, who lived opposite me when I was a child, used to squeeze his 6ft frame into a vehicle so tiny it was known as ‘the motorised mess tin’.
Nick from Suffolk recalls a similarly inappropriate conveyance: ‘I ought to have been on my guard,’ he recalls, ‘when my wife said she had been researching cars. She’s an artist and wanted something that would fit a large canvas.’ He ended up driving what he describes as ‘Postman Pat’s van’s poorly bred cousin’, a surprisingly square-shaped number with walls of the ‘thinnest tin’.
It blew up after only a few months. ‘My wife travelled in it once, declaring it so awful she wouldn’t go near it. Did it carry a large landscape? Not once.’
Thou shalt despise the very trips that thy car makes possible
There is more to this love affair with six-figure mileages than mere purse strings. Commuting is a reviled sport, deemed entirely unworthy of any non-essential investment. Those at the wheels of these rundown runarounds would willingly spend twice their value on 18 holes at Wentworth or a day in a grouse butt. Make no mistake, plonking a scruffy little rust bucket on a station forecourt every day is an act of premeditated rebellion — a protest against season tickets, parking charges and desk jobs.
Thou shalt annoy thy neighbours
My husband, Jamie, finds his engine’s agricultural rattle rather reassuring. For 12 glorious minutes each morning, he can pretend he’s in a Land Rover, closing in on his first peg. A fellow reluctant in Surrey remains stubbornly unperturbed by the anonymous threatening notes he comes home to on his windscreen. Crafted from letters cut out of newspapers, they warn him to move his ‘filthy truck’, as it’s devaluing houses nearby.
Thou shalt not drive any other car than thy old banger
Wives in Hampshire, I’m told, have so little faith in their husband’s venerable vehicles that they refer to them as ‘widow-makers’.
But there is a balance to be struck: one’s trusty old friend must actually pass its MOT. The line between dream mobile and nightmare on wheels is a fine one. Cross it and you’ll face the humiliation of the hire car, with garish fluorescent branding up the side, or the ultimate shame of being dropped off by the sleepy family you’ve had to turf out of bed against their will, after yet another false start.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s 4×4… but instead despise it
The station car is a challenge to the small elite group of serious high-flyers, who buck the trend, drive fabulous 4×4. Don’t envy them on cold winter evenings, as they alight from first class to sit on seats warmed automatically with a quick zap from their key fobs. Pity them. And remember that if you can’t beat them, trade down.
Thou shalt replace thy car only when absolutely necessary – and always with a hand-me-down, if possible
‘Albert’, Jamie’s relic of a car, hit an all-time low last month when, instead of going backwards while in reverse gear, it stubbornly advanced. The AA man called it a linkage problem. The village garage called it beyond repair – so ancient is Albert that his parts are no longer in production.
Thankfully, my father-in-law is coming to our rescue by handing down his 15-year-old estate, with 270,000 miles on the clock and a condemned gearbox. I can’t think of a better candidate.
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