I have this terrible problem. I am obsessed with old second-hand cars. While other men are rapt by the pleasures of pornography and gambling and drugs and affairs, I spend a large portion of my week scouring the automotive section of Gumtree. And sometimes, in a moment of weakness, or madness, I find myself picking up the phone and calling an unknown man about some obscure, decades-old sports car.
Most of the time I don’t follow through with the purchase. But occasionally, and much to my father’s horror, I do. Like when I arrived home in a 1980s Porsche with flip-up headlights and an interior the colour of a bowel movement. For a week or two it was a fantastic novelty; an excuse to grow a moustache, don my aviators and roll around the suburbs like a slimmer version of Burt Reynolds.
But very soon this post-buy afterglow started to fade. My back hurt from the dreadful ergonomics. The lack of air-conditioning turned even the shortest urban hop into a wet T-shirt contest and the velour seats made me smell like a musty old sofa in some backstreet thrift shop. If this wasn’t bad enough I soon noticed that the overly complicated engine was smoking — an indication that credit-card trauma was imminent. So the car in question made an exit stage left and I, once again, filled my days with online surfing.
My lesson learnt, I decided to hunt for something newer. A rear-wheel-drive sports car that would hopefully be good to cruise around in, and show more respect towards my honest salary.
Enter the ubiquitous roadster. A machine defined as a zippy open-top vehicle with two seats and a low kerb mass. I had never considered one of these before but, after a bit of Googling, it became clear that the most famous of the breed, the Mazda MX-5, the second-generation model in particular, had a lot of motoring goodness to give in exchange for relatively little money. The only problem, I was soon to find out, is that I am just not designed to fit inside one comfortably. The top of my head stuck over the windscreen while the steering wheel dug into my thighs. It looked and felt utterly ridiculous.
Things were looking grim. After viewing other cloth-top alternatives such as the Honda S2000 (too expensive) and the MG-TF (too British), my roadster ownership aspirations were clearly on the rocks. Then somebody asked me if I had considered a Toyota MR2 Spyder. I said I hadn’t and that the prospect of Toyota ownership was right up there with licking warm honey off a razor blade.
Unfortunately, desperation got the better of me and a few days later I found myself test driving one through the suburbs of Pretoria. Surprisingly, I actually quite liked the thing. Partly because I could sit inside it without cutting off my legs and partly because the engine, unlike in most other cars, is just a few inches away from my spine — great for handling.
This MR2, this lowly and relatively unknown Toyota, felt like a Lotus Elise on a budget. So after a little bit of price haggling, some cash exchanged hands, and I drove it home.
And life was pretty damn peachy until I discovered that my purchase came burdened with a whole new palette of issues. Not mechanical, thank goodness, but social. “I just got myself a MR2 Spyder,” I would proudly announce to people I knew. This would be followed by an unnerving silence, a smirk and, more often than not, a chuckle of disparagement. “Dude, that’s a girl’s car. What the hell were you thinking?” In their minds, I’d suddenly transformed from cool motoring journalist and historic racing driver into some washed-up Wham! fan with George Michael aspirations. I could see this awful truth scrawled across their faces. Some even called it a hairdresser’s car. But after cross-questioning the chap who has been tending my follicles for the past 10 years, it was clear that this last bit was misinformation. “That is the car that looks like a tampon, right?” I blinked in disbelief. “Definitely not my sort of thing, bro.”
Saying that I was self-conscious would be an understatement. I was mortified. From then on, whenever people asked me what car I owned, I would lie and say I didn’t actually have one. Although this helped in everyday social run-ins, out on the streets there was no escaping the judgement. I kept seeing burly men sniggering from roadside restaurants. Whenever a Subaru WRX STI pulled up next to me at the traffic lights, I could feel its steroid-pumped owner eyeballing me with a sort of patronising amusement. Especially if my top was down and definitely if another male was sitting in the passenger seat. A fellow such as my colleague, Oliver Roberts, who happens to wear sunglasses fitted with the same purple lenses I have. Not since walking the sands of 4th beach Clifton last December have I felt so emasculated.
Over the last few months I’ve discovered ways to soften the bite of this ego-shredding attention. I have, for example, learnt to limit my in-car listening to nothing but the most hardcore rock and metal, particularly when cruising through urban areas.
Broadcasting overtly camp pop acts like the Pet Shop Boys, Prince, even Jamiroquai to a certain extent, will immediately open a floodgate of kerb-side ridicule. Also, it’s vital to keep top-down driving to a minimum. In fact, the only time I indulge in this pleasure is over the coldest months of the year. This creates the impression that I’m some fired-up freak of nature: a hypothermia-proof stalwart with incredible stamina and an unusually high pain threshold.
I’m sure you’re all wondering if this compromise is worth it. Actually, I often find myself pondering the same question. But after reviewing the situation, I arrive at the conclusion that, yes, it probably is. Because for the price I paid, there is not much out there that can match my humble MR2 in terms of driving enjoyment. It is cheap to run. It handles like a more civilised Elise. It is no slower than its new brother, the Toyota 86.
I can also thrash it around Zwartkops every other Sunday without worrying about the engine exploding or the tyres and brakes disintegrating. And if enjoying all these talents means I have to look like an effete extra in the cast of Glee, so be it. I’m happy to do so until I can afford that Lotus.