Ruth Brandon: Dust to dust - the very worst car of my life

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Indy Lifestyle Online

I've always preferred small cars, an illogical attachment that has survived a driving lifetime. But it has been sorely tested. Drivers of today's small cars, with their silent engines and smooth rides, have no concept of the truly - some might say, excessively - visceral experience that small car driving used to be.

I've always preferred small cars, an illogical attachment that has survived a driving lifetime. But it has been sorely tested. Drivers of today's small cars, with their silent engines and smooth rides, have no concept of the truly - some might say, excessively - visceral experience that small car driving used to be.

Keeping yourself grounded. For this, there was nothing quite like the old Fiat 500, whose occupants drove more or less sitting on the road. A friend who owned one unforgettably described it as being "like a little goat". What she meant was that it would climb any hill, albeit at walking pace.

When I first learned to drive, my reward for passing the test was to be a red Fiat 500 fitted with stereo sound. Driving it was an unbelievable experience, like sitting inside a headphone. To my infinite regret, I failed that test, so never actually got to possess the car.

The first car I ever actually personally owned was a Fiat 127. White when I first acquired it, it soon began to sprout ominous bubbles. These burst to reveal little patches of rust, which then disintegrated, so that my car looked as though it had some terrible dermatological problem. But Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum. Gradually the little holes began to fill. First they grew moss, then more advanced forms of vegetation began to appear - grass, and even a few actual flowers. Always a keen gardener, I didn't really mind this, and the engine remained irreproachable.

After a few years, however, my 127 developed an obstinate aversion to going backwards. The inconvenience this caused was too much even for my lenient standards, and I traded it in for another car, against whose price it unbelievably turned out still to be worth £400.

Lightness is all, at least if you are driving the Citroen 2CV. These, the Gallic equivalent of the Fiat 500, have many wonderful qualities. They are held together by string, which is handy for repairs, and the back seat takes out, which means you can sleep in them, if you don't mind a step just under your neck. They are also very light - if you drive one into a ditch you can just lift it out (I know this from personal experience).

Also, the door, when open, folds right back against the car's body. When mine bust on the Hammersmith flyover, this, combined with its left-hand drive, enabled me to scoot it to safety (and eventual oblivion) while still steering with one hand.

Dust to dust. The worst car of my life was undoubtedly a Citroen 3CV. When this was first mooted I thought: Great, a slightly bigger and better 2CV. Wrong. Where the 2CV seated four, and was (like all truly French paintwork) grey, the 3CV seated two full-size persons and two legless dwarfs, and came in a wholly disgusting shade of urine green.

It also courted modernity in the form of a roof whose basic metal was lined with some sort of foam rubber fabric. Unfortunately, foam rubber is not a durable material; after a few years it starts to disintegrate. And the 3CV is not a smooth ride. Accordingly, whenever anyone started this car, they were coated with a mysterious greyish-white powder that rained from the roof.

In the end I abandoned the hateful thing in a field. The insurance company refused to believe in its disappearance, however, (in France, cars must be taken to a certified knacker's yard) and I had to fend off renewal notices for years.

Moral: Cars are not horses. Treat anything that pretends otherwise with suspicion. And the more horses it pretends it is, the more suspicion it deserves.

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