MOTORING / From retro glam to V-reg grunge: It began with Sixties Cadillacs and Buicks, but the new face of budget car rental is a gold Capri with 100,000 miles on the clock. Matthew Gwyther reports

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The language of the politically correct has yet to worm its way into the nether world of used-car rentals. You do not hire cars with horizontally challenged bodywork, vertically gifted mileage or the hair of household non- human companions smothering the seats. No, the biggest name in the business is Rent-A- Wreck - and calling iron oxide 'rust' has done the company little harm. With 450 forecourts world-wide, the business is rated by the American magazine Success ('The magazine for today's entrepreneurial mind') as the fourth best-run franchise company in the States. Even McDonald's only came in sixth.

Born on a Los Angeles used-car lot 20 years ago, the Rent-A-Wreck idea was simple. Rather than go for new, rapidly depreciating cars and expensive sites like airports and city centres, in the manner of Hertz or Avis, start a 'neighbourhood' car rental service with a few old bangers. Keep it cheap and cheerful and create a whole new market-place.

By the early Eighties the Wrecks had become all the rage. Hollywood stars in search of deprivation chic came in for their latest heap: Paul Newman went for a filthy 1967 Cadillac convertible and Francois Truffaut took off in a drecky 1969 Buick Skylark. Predictably, in came the competition with names such as Rent-A-Klunker and Lease-a-Lemon.

Now the concept has reached the UK. Those who go along, however, in search of dented and rusting hulks weeping oil all over the road are going to be disappointed - the name Rent-A-Wreck has become a bit of a misnomer on its journey across the Atlantic. Rather than Sixties Skylarks and Caddys, customers are more likely to be wooed with a G- reg Metro. It's hard to see Paul Newman tooling around in one of those. Joan Collins, perhaps, Newman no.

'Our cars tend to be about two and a half years old, having done 30,000-50,000 miles,' says Tim Ilett, the managing director of Rent- A-Wreck UK. 'We buy them at pounds 2,100- pounds 2,900 and aim to keep them for a year to 18 months. We go for Astras, Escorts, Fiestas.' Low running costs and depreciation help to keep hire prices down. Rent-A-Wreck charges pounds 88 a week for a Fiesta, which includes unlimited mileage, the infamous collision damage waiver and VAT. You do not get free Air Miles but such figures are considerably less than those of the big boys with new cars who dominate the corporate market.

With Rent-A-Wreck operating as a respectable multinational, its place on the bottom of the car rental heap has been taken by Rickety Rentals, run by Dave Trevena from Falmouth in Cornwall. If during the Seventies Rent-A- Wreck offered retro glam, then Dave Trevena is offering grunge hire. His fleet of around 80 cars leans heavily towards Ford Cortinas of the V and W vintages. All Rickety Rentals cars are sprayed eyesore yellow.

He is doing brisk trade. 'There has been an avalanche of calls,' says Trevena, who drives as he preaches and is currently behind the wheel of a P-reg Morris Ital estate, purchase price pounds 70. 'We've really got the bit between our teeth now and aim to have a franchise covering every postcode in the country.'

An East Ender who moved to Falmouth 10 years ago to open an amusement arcade, his rise has not been without incident. As reported in the Falmouth Packet, last month Trevena was fined pounds 1,200 'for hiring out cars that were a danger to the public'. 'I don't know one end of a car from another,' he says in his defence. 'We were relying on them having an MOT certificate when we bought them.' (He rarely splashes out more than pounds 300 on a vehicle but now has a full-time mechanic to ensure he is not falling foul of the law.)

What cannot be argued with is Rickety Rentals' price: pounds 39 per week including insurance and AA Relay cover. 'If you can't afford one of our cars then you really are bloody hard up,' says Trevena, who offers to throw in a St Christopher for no extra charge.

One of the company's franchises has been sold to Ray Hampton from Stanford le Hope in Essex. The business is only six weeks old and he is taking bookings from his friend's kitchen. For some odd reason, it is called Reject rather than Rickety Rentals, but that does not appear to have held Hampton back. He has just taken delivery of his ninth car: 'It's a 1983 Ambassador, a sort of up-market Princess. It's a lovely car inside and we paid pounds 450 for it which was a bit over the top.'

After Dave Trevena has taken his 33 per cent, there is insufficient cash as yet to paint all the cars yellow. Ray Hampton admits: 'There's not a lot of margin in it at the moment. Just beer money.' Customers are typically 'distress' buyers: drivers whose own cars are off the road for servicing or after an accident. Reject Rentals also has five loyal building labourers who are driving a Cortina 35 miles to a job each day. That will take some cleaning up when it returns to base.

I was shown the pride of the fleet - a T-reg 2.0-litre Ford Capri in gold. 'It hasn't had many owners,' said Ray. 'Probably five. Why don't we go down to the A13 and you can give it a bit of a poke.'

After an absence of many years it was a pleasant surprise to see those Ford chocolate- and-beige tartan seats again. For a car that was showing 103,000 miles on the clock, the Capri seemed in surprisingly good condition. It looked as if a fair bit of filler had been applied around the wheel arches, and there was rust bubbling up over the headlamps, but what do you expect for pounds 49 a week? (The Capri is pounds 10 extra.) It started first time and then stalled. 'It needs a bit of advance,' advised Hampton. 'It's running a bit slow at the moment.' A second firing-up and off we sped to the tune of 'Regret' by New Order on the period stereo.

Poking away on the A13, things were going nice and smoothly both behind and under the bulging bonnet. Indeed, we were enjoying ourselves so much, I suggested opening the sun roof. Ray went for the handle but after several minutes the thing still refused to budge. 'Maybe there's a knack I haven't discovered,' said Ray. Well, you can't have everything.

Later, I spoke to Peter Hughes, one of Rickety Rentals' customers. He had broken down once when a Cortina battery went flat but he keeps returning for more. Indeed, his problem is not Rickety Rentals' reliability but his children. 'My daughter refuses to travel in it. She's a teenager,' he said. 'Because it's so visible in yellow, tourists stop to take pictures of it. My children have taken to lying down on the floor to hide.' Someone should tell them: 'If it's good enough for Paul Newman . . .'

To find your local Rickety Rentals franchise, ring Dave Trevena on 0326 311360; Rent-A- Wreck's head office is on 0767 600900.