Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pipe dreams

When I moved to America, I had to buy a car.  In England, I drove a Citroen C1, which I named Benji.  I bought Benji for a couple of reasons.  He was cheap - to buy, run and insure - and also the C1 was the least depreciating car in the UK market at the time.

I owned Benji for three years, and in that time I put about 13,000 miles on him.  That's nothing.  When I took him for his first MOT on his third birthday, the mechanic turned the ignition on to read the mileage, burst out laughing and said 'I don't think you're going to have any problems, mate.'

Benji went to live with my brother when I moved here.  That car was like new - it even had new tires fitted to it, so he really did get a great little car that replaced his dying Nissan Micra.

So I had to replace Benji.  There's no real equivalent to Benji in America.  They have Smart cars here, but they are a novelty and given how Americans drive, I wouldn't put my life in one of those things.  HGVs and trucks are not restricted here.  I got overtaken by a cement mixer doing eighty miles an hour once.  Imagine that hitting a Smart car.  Splat.  So no, that wasn't an option.

I did a bit of hunting around for a second hand car.  It had to be second hand because I didn't have the budget for a new car and I didn't have a driving license, ID or credit, so no dealership would come near me.  Using Craigslist, I started looking around at local cars.  Craigslist is useful in that it puts you in contact with a lot of sellers, but it's also full of some supreme bullshitters.  I went to look at an old Mercedes E class that was described as being in 'immaculate condition'.  It wasn't, it was a piece of shit and it had clearly been hit in the side at some point, despite the owner denying it had ever been in an accident.  I walked away from that one.

I looked around at a few Ford Focuses, because they're exactly the same as in England and I've driven them and I liked them.  The only ones I found though were really tatty and didn't appeal to me at all.

Then my future father in law suggested 'a fun car' (his words).  He had been helping out a colleague at word with their MX-5 and had test driven it and told me it was a lot of fun.  We looked around and found one that looked really good, so we went to look at it.

I should point out here that in all my car hunting, not once did I talk to an American.   All the people selling cars were foreign.  The guy I bought my car off in the end was Russian.  I don't know if that was all just coincidental or what but it did strike me as strange.

The MX-5, or Miata as Americans call them, was in great condition.  It was twelve years old and had 111,000 miles on the clock, but we test drove it and it seemed fine.  All the electrical systems worked and it drove okay.  So after a little haggling, I bought it for $5,150, and owned an American car.

Since I've owned it, I've sort of fallen in love with it.  I've never driven anything that handles or feels like it.  It feels alive.  That said, it's given me some headaches.  The driver's side electric window broke, which I replaced after a lot of hard work.  The gear change wasn't great, but I read up and took the shifter out and cleaned and replaced parts and it seems to be doing better.  I'd never done anything to a car before this one.  Now I can change oil, spark plugs, filters, rotate tires, and do minor repairs to a gearbox.  That's nothing but for me it's an achievement.  It's also given me a bug.  You see, for all the fun of the Miata, it's underpowered.  It could go faster and be more exciting, it really could.  And having done a lot of reading, it seems that for a not impossible budget, you can modify these cars endlessly to turn them into supercharged racers.  I would kind of like to do that.

What I'd like to do is get another, sensible car, like a Ford or a Kia or something to commute in and turn the Miata into a project car.  Then I would add a roll bar, race seats, new wheels and tires, new suspension, a new clutch, radiator and flywheel and then a supercharger.  I reckon I could do all that for around $10,000 dollars.  Yes that's a lot, but $15,000 dollars for a truly exciting sports car sounds like a decent deal to me.

I'd also lighten it, taking out as much excess weight as possible, and adding carbon fibre panels if I could.  All this would be with the aim of making it even more thrilling to drive.  But in spite of all that, I'd do it carefully, so that any modifications could be easily removed and returned to the original settings.  I wouldn't want to completely bastardize an already beautifully handling car.

Now this may all remain a pipe dream, since it will cost time and money and buying a new house, which I'm in the process of doing, tends to eat into those things.  But having now discovered that I can work on, fix and improve a car with my own hands, it's given me a bug.  I don't know if I'm going to be able to shake it off.

Oh, and my Miata doesn't have a name yet.  I kind of think it's a girl rather than a boy, but I can't think of a decent name for her.  Maybe I will find some inspiration soon.

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