The enduring appeal of cars past

Do you secretly yearn to buy back your first car? It seems you are not alone, says David Wilkins

A new survey carried out for automotive website Auto Trader reports that 20 per cent of the population would like to buy back the first car they owned. I can identify entirely with this first-car nostalgia as I have, for the past five months, spent an average of half an hour a day trying to track down an example not of the very first car I ran but of the first new car I bought with my own money – a 1998 Mercedes C180. Using the Auto Trader database, I've been trawling the country trying to find another one like it – and I don't mean just a little bit like it. Only one that has exactly the same metallic silver bodywork and black cloth interior will do – and it has to have the post-1997 facelift as well.

I've lost count of the number of apparently promising cars advertised on the site which aroused my interest but turned out to have cabins trimmed in light grey or blue, rather than my preferred black, once I'd inspected the photos that accompany most of the ads.

At any one time, there are likely to be more than 350,000 used, new and nearly new vehicles for sale via the site, the sort of choice that over the past few years has turned autotrader.co.uk into a favourite web destination for British car nuts in search of their next – or first – set of wheels. Among typical "first-car" models for those who are entering middle age, though, only two Austin Metros were listed the last time I checked, and there were no Vauxhall Chevettes, although there were 14 Nissan Sunnys – that fabled Japanese reliability at work, perhaps. Of the two Metros, one was a slightly sorry-looking high-mileage model for £400, while the other was a smarter example, priced at £1,895, which had had just the proverbial one lady owner, and had done only 10,000 miles – so if you want to relive the experience of owning one of those again, you'd probably better hurry up.

By comparison, anyone hankering after their old Ford Escort would have been positively spoilt for choice, with 488 examples of varying ages and prices. Among other typical first cars from the same era, there were two Citroë*CVs, 16 Citroë*AXs, two Fiat Unos, seven Renault 5s, and six Vauxhall Novas. Among the younger entry-level motors, though, there were more than 11,000 Ford Fiestas, and almost as many Vauxhall Corsas.

I fear, though, that if many of us were to be reunited with our first cars, we might be in for a bit of a shock: miserable performance, unassisted steering, four-speed gearboxes and manual wind-down windows were the norm on the small cars that were new in the Seventies and early Eighties, and which remained popular as second-hand buys for first-time motorists well into the Nineties.

That would explain another finding of the survey; 20 per cent of the population would be likely to buy a new car "just because it reminded them of the first car they owned" – not their first car as such, more one that looks a bit like it without being a leaky, unsafe, obsolescent, environment-destroying piece of junk.

If you fall into this bracket, the leading car manufacturers have a retro model for you: the Mini, VW Beetle and Fiat 500 were popular first cars for decades and have been reinvented for a new generation of first-time buyers, as well as for older motorists hoping to recapture something of the spirit of their first car. In technical terms, these cars aren't actually that similar to their forebears; the engine has migrated from the back to the front in the case of the Beetle and the Fiat 500, while the modern Mini has none of the space efficiency of the 1959 original. All, nevertheless, capture the look, at least, of their popular forebears, while offering all the mod cons as well.

Anyway, autotrader.co.uk is a powerful resource, and, at the same time – let's be honest – an extremely enjoyable time-waster. Many a work assignment has surely suffered because browsing this vast database of temptation is such a pleasurable displacement activity for car enthusiasts.

Another of my favourites is "my dad's car". I often take a quick look to see whether there are any Ford Anglias, Hillman Hunters or Peugeot 504s on the website, without being remotely interested in buying any of them. Then there are the "dream car" searches – for the cars we'd love to own if we could afford them. The other day, Auto Trader listed 448 Aston Martins, 734 Bentleys, two Bugattis, 492 Ferraris, two Jensens, 110 Lamborghinis, 3,350 Porsches and 158 Rolls-Royces.

For me, though, the search has almost become the thing; actually buying the car I am looking for would bring an end to all the fun.

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