It hurts to admit it. In 1988, it was the most exciting thing on four wheels I'd ever seen. It could be argued that Vauxhall Astras are naff, but when you're a second- year student getting your first car you don't see it. To me, this gleaming red D-reg Astra 1.3 was pure swank.
The blips began in 1992. First it was stolen. (The Astra is the joyriders' favourite getaway - they know what they want in a car.) It was recovered, and restored to health. Six months later, the engine 'cooked' on the A1. A reconditioned engine was fitted - but my faith had gone.
A car that had cruised round the Colosseum in the Roman rush hour, got from Milan to London in 16 hours and had a top speed of 115mph was now having real trouble getting from London to just north of Hatfield. After a second seizure (big end), I didn't dare go further than Sainsbury's in daylight. This car was undermining me: it would have to go.
I sought advice from Rod, the mechanic, who by now knew my car all too well. He reckoned it might fetch pounds 2,000 if sold privately. But I saw hitches. I didn't want strangers knowing my phone number and address. Nor did I want to go in the car with them as they test drove it. The car had a fresh MOT and seemed to be going perfectly well, but recent form suggested another disaster could be imminent. I foresaw an angry, duped buyer darkening my doorstep.
A trade buyer, on the other hand, would not object to a seven-year-old Astra with a slightly dicky engine, Rod assured me. It was still a very nice car, he said, and I should talk it up, not down. He sent me off to see Bernard, a Skoda dealer. After a glance over the car, Bernard offered pounds 1,500 cash, and we agreed that I could return within a week, with the papers, to close the deal.
Meanwhile I touched up the paintwork and looked for a better offer. In Motoring Exchange & Mart, Auto London and Loot On The Road I found ads tailor-made to my predicament. 'ALL CARS WANTED', they ran. 'Anything considered. Top prices paid.' I rang a few numbers. The voices that answered were distinctly less effusive than their promises. They liked the colour, the two women owners and the service history, but baulked at the mileage: 72,000. Most offered pounds 1,200 or pounds 1,300. When I said I already had an offer of pounds 1,500, back came the grim reply: 'Take it, love.'
I headed back up the A1 to Bernard, braced for a tear-stung parting. But Bernard reneged on our deal. Moving the car round the block he detected what he insisted was a dud camshaft. 'It'll blow the engine to bits,' he said, brutally revving it up to a menacing banging to make his point. 'I'm not touching it.'
The car had to go now, at any price. But to whom? Short of scrap, there was one solution: an auction. Cheered by the promise 'Guaranteed 100 per cent to sell your car', I rang London Car Auctions. There was a sale that night.
For the desperate vendor of a dubious vehicle, there are several heaven-sent facts about car auctions. Buyers are not allowed to drive the cars before they bid. The only truthful statement demanded of the seller concerns the vehicle's title, not its condition. Buyers have just an hour's warranty in which to back out of a bad buy - and that is at the seller's discretion. If a car can't cope with scrutiny it can be 'sold as seen'.
Arriving at the auction premises you drive down a steep slope, through the covered auction area and out into the vast, windy yard which borders the Thames at the foot of Wandsworth Bridge. A couple of police officers were casing the joint. (The AA says one in three stolen cars are sold at auction - and auction companies are not responsible.) To a novice, it's bleak, alien territory, but the staff are friendly and helpful. The auctioneer recommended a reserve price of pounds 1,600. Surprised at his optimism, I confessed the alleged mechanical fault. 'You don't need to mention that,' was the firm reply. 'Mark it 'Sold as Seen'.' I filled out a form, handed over the keys and documents and, scared it would come back, deliberately didn't say goodbye to the car.
I returned that evening, dragging along a friend for moral support. There were a lot more people now, sizing up cars they could not try in the yard, milling around eating chips from the food counter in the auction pit. It was all a long way from Sotheby's.
The auctioneer took the rostrum and explained the procedure. With the non-
warranty cars, he warned prospective buyers: 'What you see is what you buy - all the good bits and all the bad bits.' Especially the bad bits, I hoped. Then the first lot rolled in; a horrible B-reg Maestro, sludge- green smudged with filler. A few men eyed it up, nodding and flicking cigarette ash, while the auctioneer commentated at fantastic speed. To our untrained eyes it was pretty confusing, until the bomb was pronounced sold at pounds 375 and spluttered off. A C-reg Rover followed, making pounds 480. My car was too classy for this place, I thought - these men in sheepskin coats would be sure to smell a rat.
And here it was, lot number eight, with 'No Complaints' pasted on the windscreen. 'Lovely little motor car,' enthused the auctioneer. 'Two owners, full service history, MOT and tax. Lovely lady owner, and it was a missus before that too.' He called for pounds 1,300 and rattled up to pounds 1,450. 'If you can't sell this, you might as well give up,' he said. But it was hot air: time was up and no one had bid. I was pounds 20 down and still a car owner.
I was all for slashing the price for the next auction but was told to sit tight: it would sell, the organisers said. And they were right. On Saturday afternoon some mug handed over pounds 1,350 and got to drive away my car. After entry fees, commission and VAT I got pounds 1,001.90, half what I'd hoped for at the outset. But I have no doubt who got the better end of the deal.-
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