"The Vauxhall Viva is one of the earliest cars I can remember. I recall sitting snot-nosed in my neighbour’s HC Viva on the way to nursery. I was also slightly jealous because the saloon looked cooler than my dad’"
Vauxhall Viva Estate
Martin bought some terrible cars in his younger years...
Way back in 1987, the very apex of exhibitionist, greed-is-good, me first Capitalism I bought a car.
It should have been a Golf or Peugeot 205 GTi or even a BMW 3 Series shouldn’t it? It was actually a tatty 1975 Vauxhall Viva estate. The car was dull sand yellow on the outside, with sickly guano brown vinyl and hard plastics within. It belonged to a plumber that I vaguely knew who’d used it as a van.
“Why are you selling it?” I asked.
“Because I hate it,” he said. After a few weeks I hated it too. It was a joyless lump of a vehicle, a sluggish thing with inset wheels like a sofa, its unyielding suspension crashed and jerked over bumps, it felt as if you were mixing concrete every time you changed gear, the steering was heavy, lifeless and reluctant to self centre, the engine had asthmatic breathing qualities and was mated to a flywheel that must have been hewn from pig iron.
Somebody had spray tagged a hieroglyph on one of the side windows, just like the Rover 800 driven by Alan Partridge, and despite efforts to clean the interior there was always a swirl of brick dust. Little offcuts of copper pipe would appear on the carpet, a nod to the car’s former role as a plumber’s workhorse.
It cost £250 and was bought when I was a struggling writer who did more struggling than writing, something reflected in a permanently shrunken bank balance and a Vauxhall Viva whose battery was past its best.
I had a part time pub job and would park the car on a nearby hill so that, insanely, I could engage in solo bump starts. These meant opening the driver’s door, turning on the ignition, releasing the handbrake, pushing the car, jumping in, stamping on the clutch, ramming the car into second gear then releasing the clutch in the hope there was enough momentum from the back wheels to spin the engine into life. This usually worked and I somehow managed to avoid smashing through the railings at the bottom of the hill and plunging into the River Thames when it didn’t.
Eventually the battery committed suicide. I’d just crested Kew Bridge on a wet November night when there was a loud bang, the engine died and all the lights went out. Miraculously I had enough momentum to coast from the bridge and into a parking space. By the light of a street lamp I lifted the bonnet to find that the battery had disappeared and that everything was glistening with liquid.
Then I saw the bits of shattered plastic. The battery had exploded, showering the engine and inner wings with acid. With tingling fingers I used old newspaper to mop up the mess.
With a new battery the Viva started with an alacrity it had never previously displayed, but then I discovered that there had been a sort of electrical blowback that had fried every light bulb in the car. I replaced all of these except the ones that lit the strip speedo’s wavering needle, as I couldn’t get the dash apart. So at night I used a torch to see how fast I was going or waited for the dash to be lit as I passed a street lamp. Really it was all too depressing. The car would have to go.
Like the Ancient Mariner and the albatross I couldn’t rid myself of this dismal vehicle. I actually half sold it to an impecunious friend, but had to buy back his share.
Eventually I encountered a cheerful, barrel chested biker who worked on a lorry magazine and wanted a cheap car as a family holdall to go with his motorcycle and sidecar. When he bought the Viva I felt both guilty at inflicting it onto another human being and relieved that I no longer had to drive it.
He kept that car for about five years, and would cheerfully tell me just what a bargain it had been and how pleased he was with it. Perhaps appreciating that it no longer belonged to someone who detested it, the Viva faithfully kept on trucking around South London. It spent years trundling to supermarkets and rubbish dumps, and took the biker’s family further afield on their summer holidays.
When it eventually came back from the garage with a novella’s worth of MOT failure points and clattered its way to the crusher, I was given the news as if a valued member of its owner’s family had expired.
I still hated that car, which is perhaps why I couldn’t find any pictures of it now. I wanted to block the Viva from my memory.
Images: Giles Chapman
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