Matthew Bell: Rescuing old cars is my idea of recycling

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The Independent Online

Because I drive a Morris Minor, a lot of my time is spent getting to and from the garage. Whole weekends can be taken up arranging for it to be trailered to the specialist in the Cotswolds after blowing a gasket and then, two weeks later, I spend a day catching trains and taxis to pick it up.

But as I waved goodbye to Patrick the mechanic and to a large wodge of cash after yet another MOT – are they really only once every year? – I felt slightly vexed. During our usual under-the-bonnet chat he told me that, over the past eight months, hundreds of cars just like mine, many in much better condition, have been destroyed as part of the Government's car scrappage scheme. Every week, his friend who runs a scrapyard in the next village takes in three or four fully functioning classic cars – Minis, Triumphs, Rovers – handed over by their owners in exchange for a £2,000 discount on a new car. The galling thing is that my car is no showpiece, which is why it's always in for another bout of welding, but the cars being scrapped have to be in good working order to meet the terms of the scheme, meaning many have been much better specimens than my own.

It was Peter Mandelson who dreamt up the idea of paying people to trade in their bangers to boost a flagging car manufacturing industry, and to that end it has been a triumph. Within two months of its launch in April, 60,000 orders for new cars had been placed. Last week saw yet another surge in sales, as buyers took advantage of the 15 per cent VAT rate, which ends in the new year, and the rush is expected to continue over coming weeks as the scheme winds to an end in February.

But political expediency aside, the scheme was a muddle-headed approach to solving our motoring problems. Once it is over, the Government will again be faced with the thorny problem of having a bloated car manufacturing industry and a road network bursting at the seams, while, post-Copenhagen, we need to make serious efforts to tackle our dependency on the car. And in the meantime thousands of cars that could and should have been mended have been needlessly destroyed. Not just classics: many of the so-called bangers were only 10 years old.

Now I admit to being embarrassingly sentimental about cars: it's been a problem ever since I was plonked in a blue tin pedal car aged three. Then, on my 14th birthday, I was given the Morris (my mother couldn't face it any more) and I've been accumulating them ever since. Until recently there were five, not ideal for someone living in central London. But surely for anyone the thought of good, working, 40-year-old cars that have been maintained and repaired for all those years suddenly reduced to coffin-sized pellets is hard to take. Worse is the scheme's insistence that scrapyards do not sell or rescue the cars: every last bit of chrome, leather and Bakelite must be tossed into the crusher for a discount to be awarded.

So New Year's Day will be slightly poignant this week. Every year, those affected by the same irrational fondness for antique wood and leather and the purr of a proper engine whip off the dust sheets and pootle off to congregate in village greens and pubs across the country. It's a chance to reassure ourselves we are not alone in our folly. The coming meet will be in the midst of one of the greatest sustained periods of destruction in our motoring history. But for those of us still in the slow lane, a jaunt on traffic-free roads while others nurse New Year hangovers is an unbeatable way to start the year. Then it's downhill all the way back to the garage.

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