The process of buying a new car, a need made urgent by life-threatening conditions affecting my old BMW (albeit with 320,000km on the clock), plunged me into nostalgic thought.My first car was a wonderful old Wolseley, the sort that used to crop up in British crime films because so many seemed to have fallen into the hands of Scotland Yard.Correction: it was not my car but the only one my father ever owned. Apart from its registration number, CN7480, I remember little of it except that it broke down a lot. On a trip to the seaside, it refused to climb a gentle hill; a drive to see granny 400km away in London failed to get beyond the first 500 metres.
While my father retreated sensibly to buses and trains, I had only a few years to wait for the onset of adulthood and a series of equally inadvisable car purchases.I have long forgiven my first old banger, a grey minivan, for requiring a new subframe so early in my ownership because it had by then offered the surest route to a driving test pass (in a van, you look down at the pavement when reversing round a corner instead of following some dot on the rear windscreen).
There followed a battered Hillman Minx, a rusty Ford Thames van and an even more battered and rusty Beetle before my first new car, a Vauxhall Viva that someone ran into on my way home from the showroom. It was repaired but promptly sold to drum up a deposit on a flat.Then I had a Peugeot 204 with a bodged engine repair that a blazing hot afternoon in western France had no trouble in detecting, and a Ford Escort that never quite recovered from being turned upside down as I gave my wife a driving lesson. A succession of leased, hired and company cars followed; in Abu Dhabi, bucking the expat trend to drive 4x4 monsters, I fell in love with the automatic transmission of hired Toyotas.
But when in France ...Yes, I have gone for a Renault. Just a little Clio, though it is astonishing how even they have grown in size, boot space and self-importance. The price is higher than in the UK but after years of driving in France, and then the UAE, I am set on left-hand drive.It required a cap-in-hand visit to the bank, and an exhausting search through fading personal documents before I could prove 14 years without an insurance claim and therefore qualify for a generous discount.
I also won a few useful concessions from the salesman. At first, he insisted that in southern France the handshake and the word amounted to greater guarantee than any signature. I pointed out the flaw: we represented two of society's least trusted trades."Yes, people see a car salesman and read voleur - thief - stamped on his forehead," he agreed before warming to the quid pro quo of menteur - liar - embossed on my brow. But he signed all the same. The car, plus extras, should be mine later this week.