x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A new car makes for a bumpy trip down nostalgia lane

After 320,000 km, it is time to trade in the old BMW. Oh, the places I've been in the cars I've owned.

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.