October 31st, 2011

Holiday Romance

British, summer, holiday: three words likely to bring a whole assortment of unique memories to different people. These days the perceived vision mostly involves sitting on a cold beach, sharing your sandwiches with crack-addicted seagulls, and watching some kids set fire to a pier. However, pre-Seventies and a long while before that bloke came along with his orange planes and face, it was undoubtedly The Thing To Do; a hopelessly romantic affair involving gleeful twiddly music and partaking in the world’s least successful gambling with 2p coins.

I remember some aspects from childhood, but haven’t been back to immerse myself in the full experience since paying for my own Cornetto. Even though new legislation prevents Punch from hitting Judy, times are tough, so what better year to give this British beach experience a try and see whether there is still that quintessential charm left on the UK coastline? Of course, there must be a way to include an automotive twist.

My vision of the glory years involves a lot of MGBs, Spitfires and Sprites pottering along the seafront, with red and white chequered picnic hampers affixed to a chrome boot rack and an AA badge proudly screwed onto the grille. Wind in the hair, five gallons of 4-Star in the tank, you know the scene. So, in a common moment of ridiculousness I decided to buy a car just for the week to add another dimension to an already rather 3D holiday.

The plan was given the go-ahead from the more sensible half, which was something akin to being handed my own golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Factory. Except it has now been recently renamed Wonka’s Bargain Motors. A very rare opportunity to buy a car I’d always fancied, just for the fun of it. No worries about long-term parking, running costs, or whether or not that blister would be a hole come MOT time. This was the perfect holiday romance with no strings attached.

Positively overwhelmed with excitement, I roamed the internet for anything within budget that was capable of travelling a few hundred miles in relative comfort. Which, in my slightly dubious opinion is anything with a windscreen (or indeed without, as the kit car section informed me).

We were travelling to the Sussex coast, staying in a peaceful little village around 350 miles from home. Add in some pottering about places on most days and the added mileage estimate would be somewhere near 1000 miles by the time I could procure a new owner.

Would a classic convertible really be suitable? A quick scour of the classifieds shattered the dream, for the modest yet realistic budget there is not a lot on offer if in pursuit of the green MOT ticket of perfection. A few flaky MG Midgets and a surprising number of tatty Triumph Heralds are the only cars under the flashing £1k radar, and the reality dawns that 50 years old is a fair age for a person to travel the length of the country in an afternoon, let alone a mechanical device.

The answer surely lay in that luscious middle ground of older vehicles that are aptly named after that bloke that can’t really act very well in The Matrix (or perhaps a special edition Proton Satria): the Neo-Classic. Not modern enough to be bothered with too much safety equipment and lists of electronic gizmos, but still fresh-faced enough to be a viable proposition.

As our favourite internet based auction site doesn’t seem to have this designation listed yet as a category between Cars and Classics, I proceeded to sift through pages and pages of Rover 214s and other such void-fill to search out the hidden gems.

Whittling down the list started off relatively easy then turned to what could only be described as minor anguish, as if the choice I made would mean that I could never own the others. A couple of apparently rot-free Mk1 MR2s were seriously considered, and I have fancied one of these since they were almost new. As a kid I used to ‘drive’ around in one, at home, at school - wherever really - holding my arms out like an extra from The Zombie Chronicles, pretending to be holding the steering wheel. I also had a red Reliant Scimitar and a yellow VW Corrado in case you were wondering. I actually did go to have a look at a local Honda CRX Del Sol, mainly to marvel at the amazing 17-year-old electric roof mechanism (take that 206CC), but alas it was not meant to be, this example being better described as the CRX Del Sold.

Finally, I’m afraid it was a “no from me” to the glaringly obvious MGF selection. Not a bad car for the money and developed on a frayed and mud-stained shoestring it was great achievement. However, there is one huge problem with a one thousand pound MGF. That is the existence of the one thousand pound MX-5.

But you had probably guessed that already hadn’t you (although yes, it is technically a Eunos Roadster). Yes, some people buy a grand’s-worth of designer luggage to show off on holiday. I had a twenty-year-old pink convertible.

The Off

Friday rolled around and off we set on a day so warm and sunny I began to fear that my lovely glossy red paintwork would be white again by the time we arrived, having used a family pack of elbow grease the day before making the body look more respectable and checking the mechanicals underneath.

The Mazda’s roof design is undoubtedly the work of genius, so simple it makes you wonder why there are any other ways to perform such a task, which meant it was down from the word go. Performance wise, there are two viewpoints. It is not a quick car, but that becomes completely irrelevant when you have a subtle exhaust bark as standard, 30mpg and such sublime steering and handling. My Eureka moment was when I realised why, for the first few hours of pottering and squirting around town, it seemed like there were far more horses hiding under that bonnet. In fact, I would go as far as to call it nippy. Yes, just like your Gran described her 0.7 Litre Matiz: it is nippy. This is when, after years of bemusement, I realised that the technical definition of the word is what we car-bods would normally call the throttle response. It feels quick, but only because it gives you its all and lunges forward with just the slightest poke from the top of the accelerator travel. The fact there is little more to come later is incidental.
The gearchange is one of my favourite features of the little Eunos. In a bizarre sort of way it is like an MX-5 itself, reincarnated in, erm, linkage form. Why? Well, because the shift action isn’t the fastest when you are enjoying real progress, however the feeling of clicking from gate to gate with perfect throw is just so damn satisfying you simply don’t care. It is not about the speed, it just about the satisfaction and the way it makes you feel.

Along similar lines, I really hope that whoever decided to place a pair of speakers in each headrest enjoyed at least an oak framed picture for employee of the month at Mazda HQ.

The only one disappointment I had with the week’s experience was a lack of camaraderie amongst the bunch of 5’ers that we passed after deciding to put a theory to the test. Waving at pretty much every one we saw, from Mk1s to Mk3s, it was strange to not even get one nod in return. I even revelled in pressing the button on the centre console to pop up the headlight units (it doesn’t actually illuminate them) to see if this was some sort of MX secret handshake, but to no avail.

One day our activities saw us heading up and along the top edge of Beachy Head; a cliff face that appears to have become stuck in some sort of Health and Safety Bermuda Triangle. Here you can casually park up next to the ice cream van, and about 10 metres away plunge many times more metres to your death if you happened to get distracted by a wayward Flake.

This access road however leads along the cliff top, and once well past the viewing/jumping hotspot there are a few quiet sections of road where perfect corners and brand new blacktop are seamlessly strung together one after the other. I will always remember these minutes as the Eunos’ finest moments. The greatest drivers’ road cars must be able to reward with their entertainment at safe real-world speeds, and should this have been in a textbook on such a matter, these moments would be entitled ‘Figure 1.1.’

You know that situation where you become engaged deep in conversation with somebody you haven’t seen for a while but are in a hurry, desperately needing to leave? You stand up but conversation never stops. You get closer to the door and stop, still talking. Stand in the doorway, stand outside, even sit in your car with the engine running and your seat belt on, but still chatting to said friend through the window. It is drawn out, polite, and definitely not a sudden departure.

That is what the rear end says to you in an MX-5. The tyres “really definitely should be off now mate” and gradually shy away from grip that little bit more and more. They never just grab their proverbial coats and piss off like your rude mid-engined mates.

There was even a moment when I took that Beachy Head road grinning a bit too far and accidentally let out a real shriek of delight (or a SOD as I would probably describe it on a car forum). I received a slightly bemused look from the passenger seat, but that really is the way it can make you feel, especially with the roof down and knowing that just a three figure deposit had brought such pleasure.


So, after a fantastic week with not one car based issue to report (other than having to leave the folding chairs behind due to a lack of space) we returned home with a new love for both British and Japanese amusements.

With amazing swiftness, the likes of which I have never seen before from the Swansea Mafioso, the V5 popped onto the doormat just four days after our flip-flops. It was probably a blessing in disguise; I could sell before starting to think about a birthday present for the Eunos (a small roll bar, in case you were wondering).

This, however, was always going to be a slight drawback to the whole procedure. A glance through my crisp new logbook indicated that I had been the proud owner for barely more than two weeks before the date of the sale advert. Somehow the previously written description of “I bought the car purely to enjoy over the summer” seemed a little exaggerated.

Fear not, should the buyer notice the date I can quickly answer with a witty English quip of “Well, two weeks is about all the sunshine we get in Britain isn’t it!” Then laugh it off and point out how great the Momo steering wheel feels in your hands.

It is one of those uncomfortable situations, as I am not doing anything wrong in buying a car for a couple of weeks of enjoyment, it is just that in a generation where your nature and integrity are best measured as a feedback percentage on eBay, good old fashioned honesty is possibly not the best policy.

Turns out the buyer was quite into his Japanese cars, and the little Eunos was to be a runaround for ‘The Wife.’ Quite clearly too manly to admit to wanting to drive it anywhere but back home, the chap talked at me over his tea, not paying anywhere near as much interest to what I had to say in return. This wasn’t helped in part by my reaction to his current steed, a modified R32 Skyline GTS. “I’m a drifter you see” he blurted. My reaction of “Perhaps you should get a roof over your head before buying another car?” was just met with bewilderment, a long pause, and then asking for directions to the motorway.

So was it a success? I would say a resounding yes in every respect. Maybe I was lucky, but as long as you go in with your eyes even more open than normal it is a gamble worth taking. Also, pick wisely from a seller who hasn’t created a particularly good advert and with an evenings’ spit and polish you may be able to pay for your fish and even a couple of chips.

But what about the British Summer Holiday experience? Well it was cheap, warm, relaxing and a bit different. I even exchanged £2 for a large pot of 2p coins and found out that it was actually more enjoyable than simply throwing them one at a time into a bin.

Words: James Winstanley

Photos: James Winstanley