40 reasons I’m thankful I broke down

This week, on the way back from a business trip, my car broke down.  It’s now sitting in a garage, waiting to be taken apart and fixed.  I missed an important meeting, I had to spend about £250 getting my car towed home, and I haven’t yet found out how much the bill will be to fix the car.  So you might be wondering why I have any cause at all to be thankful.  Here’s the story, and why I’m thankful for God’s protection.

The business trip took me down to Wadebridge in Cornwall, a 130 mile drive from home that should have taken 2 and a half hours but which actually took nearer 4 because of the traffic.  Being a web developer, not a professional driver, I didn’t fancy doing the entire return journey the same day, so I arranged to stop off at a hotel in Plymouth and do the remainder of the journey the following day.

(1) I’m thankful that I decided to do the return journey in two parts.  If I hadn’t, I’d have broken down at the side of the road somewhere completely different, and far less convenient.

(2) I’m thankful that my wife came up with the idea of staying overnight.  It wasn’t my idea.  And, given how evident it was that God had things in hand, it probably wasn’t entirely her idea either!

(3) I’m thankful that the hotel in Liskeard had no vacancies.  That was where I had originally intended on stopping over.  But if I’d stopped there, I’d have had the breakdown in a different place.

My phone was giving me GPS directions, and was nearly out of battery, so I was relieved to see the signs for Plymouth.

(4) I’m thankful that my phone lasted.  My in-car charger wasn’t working, so I hadn’t been able to charge it as I drove, and because it had been very sunny I’d had the screen brightness up really high.  If it had run out of juice completely I might not have made it to the hotel at all.

I turned off the A38 and slowed down for the junction.  It was at that point that the engine started misfiring, making a strange clattering noise, and the engine management warning light started flashing at me.

(5) I’m thankful that it didn’t happen when I was actually on the A38.  Given what had gone wrong (more on that presently), the damage could have been a lot worse if I’d been zipping along at 70 or with the engine at high revs.

Still, the engine didn’t stall, and moments later the clattering ceased, it stopped misfiring, and the warning light stopped flashing.

(6) I’m thankful that the engine kept running at that junction.  The Marsh Mills roundabout is huge and very busy.  Breaking down there would not have been a fun experience, for me or the other drivers.

As it happens, there was a Sainsburys right next to the roundabout, so I swung into the car park and found myself a spot to stop.

(7) I’m thankful for Sainsbury’s car park.  Given the choice, I would choose a supermarket car park over the side of the road any day.

I had a look under the bonnet.  Everything seemed to be in order, as far as I could see.  Nothing was missing.  Nothing was hanging off.  Nothing was loose.  Nothing was leaking.  Nothing was on fire.  And at this point the engine seemed to be running smoothly.  I revved the engine a bit, and it obliged happily.  I concluded that it must have been a glitch or something that had sorted itself out.  So I got back in and carried on.

(8) I’m thankful that the engine clung on in there.  It gave me the confidence to carry on.

As it happens, the hotel I was staying at was on the other side of the road, also right next to the roundabout.

(9) I’m thankful that the hotel wasn’t far away.  Even given the provision of Sainsbury’s car park, if I’d had to drive much further to get to the hotel I might not have got there.

I parked at the hotel, checked in, and relaxed.  Later in the evening I had a lovely meal at the Beefeater restaurant next door.  And I put it all on my Premier Inn Business card provided by my employer, so that nothing actually went on my own card.

(10) I’m thankful that I didn’t have to pay for my stay.  Knowing that there wasn’t a big dent on my bank account was a huge weight off my mind.

Early the following morning I packed up, had breakfast, checked out, and got into the car.  It started first time and sounded healthy, so I pulled out of the car park onto the junction.  As I slowed down for the traffic lights, the engine started misfiring again, the engine warning light flashing again, and stalled.

(11) I’m thankful that it had had the symptoms again so soon.  If it had clung on until I was back on the A38, it would have been far less convenient.

(12) I’m thankful that I came to a stop at the front of the queue at the traffic lights.  If I’d been further back, I would have been more in the way.  At least here people were expecting to have slowed down, making it safer for me.

I tried to restart the engine, and it coughed into life, but still misfiring, and then stalled again.  I tried again, but it wouldn’t start at all.  Clearly the problem from yesterday hadn’t magically resolved itself after all.  I put my hazard lights on and tried to think what my next step would be.  I took the handbrake off, opened the door, and attempted to push the car to safety.

(13) I’m thankful that the traffic moved slowly at that junction.  It made it slightly safer for me to step out of the car.

However, the lights changed too quickly for me to make any meaningful progress, so I got back into the car where I felt less exposed.  In desperation I tried to start the engine again.  It fired up happily, no lights, no misfiring.

(14) I’m thankful the engine started again.  Being stranded in the middle of a busy junction is not a safe place to be.

I swung the car back into the hotel car park, seeing as the entrance was just there.

(15) I’m thankful for the hotel car park’s one way system.  It meant that getting back in didn’t mean turning around.

(16) I’m thankful that just when I needed it there was a sizeable gap in the traffic behind me.  I was able to swing across four empty lanes, without getting in anyone’s way, before turning into the car park.  At rush hour, that’s impressive.

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Poorly engine.

I pulled into a space, and took a deep breath.  Not a great start to the day, but at least I was safe.  I got my wallet out, found my RAC card, and rang the number.

(17) I’m thankful that I had remembered to charge my phone the night before.  Otherwise things would have been a lot less convenient.

(18) I’m thankful that I had got breakdown cover for my car.  Ten years ago I would have considered that a frivolous waste of money.

(19) I’m thankful that the lady on the phone could look up my car’s details even though I gave her the wrong membership number.  We’ve got two cars, you see, and I only had the membership number for the other one.

(20) I’m thankful that the weather was good.  Waiting in the rain for the RAC man to arrive would have been far less fun.  As it was, I had sunshine, a gentle breeze, and squirrels playing in the trees next to me.

A little over an hour later, the RAC van turned up.  The mechanic plugged his computer into my car to find out what was wrong.

(21) I’m thankful that modern technology reduces the need for me to explain what happened.  In moments of stress, even if I’ve mentally rehearsed my lines, I don’t always remember to say everything I meant to.  As it turns out, I didn’t need to describe the problem at all for him to figure out the cause.

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Spot the difference…

According to the error codes, there was a random misfire on cylinders 1 and 2.  So he started taking out the spark plugs.  Spark plug 1 had a little oil on it.  Nothing to worry about, he said, it wasn’t a huge leak at all, and certainly wouldn’t have stopped the engine running.  But speak plug 2 was missing its electrode.  That was more of a problem.  Without that, the cylinder wouldn’t be firing at all.  I said I remembered hearing a clattering noise the day before, and he said it might well have worked its way out through the exhaust.  He didn’t have any of those particular spark plugs in the van, so he went off to buy some.  I decided that it would be worth getting a whole new set, because they all looked a similar age and could probably all do with refreshing anyway.

(22) I’m thankful that the cause was easy to diagnose.  If the spark plug had merely been defective in some way, it wouldn’t have been clear what was wrong, and we’d have been less certain that replacing it would be the best course of action.  Being visibly broken made that a much easier conclusion.

(23) I’m thankful that there was somewhere nearby that the RAC man could go to buy spark plugs.  It didn’t take him long.

He returned with a fresh set of spark plugs and fitted them.  The engine started up, and he said it was running nice and smoothly.  To be honest I couldn’t tell just by listening, but I trusted his judgement!  He said that while he was putting it into his system I should drive round the block and make sure I was happy.

(24) I’m thankful that he trusted me to drive off without the transaction being complete.  I had everything with me, I could have just driven home and never signed anything.  Him trusting me helped me to trust him.

I pulled out of the car park and onto the junction, and the engine clattered to a halt again.  I had to restart it a few times, but I managed to crawl it back into the car park.

(25) I’m thankful that it stopped working again so soon.  If it had behaved a little longer it would have covered up its true problem, and I’d have been stranded somewhere else and would have had to get him called out again!

(26) I’m thankful that the engine clung on long enough for me to get back to the car park.  If I’d got stranded on the junction, the RAC man would have had to come and tow me to safety.

With that, we concluded that the electrode had in fact not come out the exhaust, but was still trapped in the engine block somewhere.  Not so good.  And not something he could fix himself.

(27) I’m thankful that it was so clear what was wrong.  If there had been any doubt, I might have been tempted to try to drive home anyway.  As it was, I could hear the electrode clattering around inside the engine, which wasn’t a nice noise at all.

The first option was to tow the car to a local garage in Plymouth and get it fixed there.  That wouldn’t have been too bad, as I could have stayed another night at the hotel.  The RAC man rang round, resulting in a ball-park figure of around £400 to take the head off and put it all back together.  But it would take several days, possibly running into next week, due to existing workload.  I couldn’t stay in the hotel that long!  So the only other option would be to get the car towed all the way back home, and I’d get it fixed there instead.

(28) I’m thankful that the decision was easy to make.  I’m not known for my decisiveness.  Staying in Plymouth for an unknown period of time just wasn’t an option, which made the alternative a clearer decision.

The RAC man took payment for the spark plugs and the transportation of the car, and left.  A different RAC person with a flatbed lorry would be in touch shortly.  So I went back into the hotel, parked myself at a table at the bar, ordered myself a cup of tea, connected to the hotel’s free wifi and replied to various emails that were waiting for me.  I got the call from the delivery man saying when he’d be there, and I took the opportunity to get some lunch in the restaurant while I waited for him to arrive.

(29) I’m thankful that I had such a comfortable place to wait.  A Premier Inn hotel and a Beefeater restaurant is infinitely more pleasant than the side of a road.

(30) I’m thankful that my Premier Inn Business card covered food as well.  My cup of tea and my lunch were therefore paid for with ease.

(31) I’m thankful for free wifi.  And why not.

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Loaded and ready to go.

Just as I was finishing lunch, the delivery man arrived.  He loaded the car onto his flatbed, and off we drove.  It was slow going, because we were speed limited, but we made steady progress.

(32) I’m thankful that the driver was friendly, but not too friendly.  He didn’t insist on talking the entire journey, but left me time to be quiet and relax and look out of the window and listen to the music and rest my eyes.

(33) I’m thankful that the driver had an appreciation of fine music.  I could have been listening to mind-numbing trance music, or ear-bleeding thrash metal.  But my driver was a DJ in his spare time, specialising in jazz-funk-motown.  He put his iPod on, and we listened to some properly brilliant tracks.

Oh, and all this time I had been keeping in touch with my wife and colleagues, all of whom were expecting me to have been home already.  My colleagues were very understanding, and rescheduled the important meeting I had been trying to back for.  And Ellie was supportive and encouraging the whole time.

(34) I’m thankful that my colleagues understood that it was out of my control.  They could have insisted that I get a taxi back and abandon my car.  Or they could have held the meeting over the phone.  But they were brilliant, and gracious, and when I came in to work this morning they were very pleased I was safe and well.

(35) I’m thankful for my wife’s support.  She didn’t blame me, she didn’t put additional pressure on me to get it fixed or get home sooner, she didn’t get stressed or overly worried.  I love her very much.

(36) I’m thankful that my phone is on a contract.  I made several phone calls and sent lots of text messages, and it was reassuring knowing that it was already paid for in my monthly bill, so I didn’t have to feel guilty about it.

Also, while all this was happening, our other car happened to be at the garage as well, for something completely separate.  The rear brakes had been making a weird clunking noise, so we had booked it in for that day for them to fix it.  Turns out that although they were perfectly safe and legal the brake pads were moving slightly in their seats, hence the clunk.  Seeing as they had fitted those pads only two months ago, they agreed to replace them with a different brand at no charge, because they were still covered by their warranty.

(37) I’m thankful for warranties.  So rarely do we actually get the benefit of them, they seem almost a waste of time having.  But in this case it saved me a few pennies, which is great considering that fixing the other car won’t be cheap.

The flatbed got to the garage mid-afternoon, and as we pulled up they happened to be just finishing the work on our other car.  We unloaded the broken one, and I waited in the reception for the other one to be ready.

(38) I’m thankful for amazing timings.  I could have been waiting for hours for the other car to be finished.  I could have had to walk home, and then walk back again to pick up the car.  But I only had about 15 minutes to wait.  And there was a dog to play with while I waited.

So now I’m home, safe and sound.  Our family car has its brakes fixed, and my little car is sat at the garage waiting to be fixed next week.  I still don’t know how much the repair will be, but thankfully we have budgeted for emergencies and have some savings put aside to cover things like this.

(39) I’m thankful that we can afford the repair bill.  Working through the numbers is never fun, but because we have a firm grip on our family budget we know what money we have and where it’s coming from, and have ensured that it’s not going to impact anything else.  That’s a big change from a few years ago.  We may not be rich, but we can survive quite happily, because it’s all under control.

And at the end of it all, I can reflect back and see how God has guided and protected me through this entire experience.  It could have been worse, it could have been a lot worse, but it wasn’t.  I felt cared for.  I felt safe.  I even felt comfortable.  And, most strikingly, I felt peaceful.

(40) I’m thankful for God’s peace that passes understanding.  I ought to have been stressed.  I ought to have been desperate.  I ought to have cried a little.  But the entire time I felt safe in God’s care, protected from harm, provided for.  Given how wrong it could have been, the peace I experienced is clear evidence for me that God was in control the whole time.

UPDATE: A week on…

Having left the Corsa at the garage over the weekend, I picked up a courtesy car on Monday, which would get be around while they work on my car.

(41) I’m thankful for the courtesy car.  Even if it was a Micra.  And automatic.

I heard nothing for a few days, but eventually on Wednesday I got a call from the garage with an update.  They had diagnosed the misfiring down to a failed coil pack, and had replaced it.  Not all that surprising really.  The spark plugs take electricity, make a spark with it, and that (amongst other factors) powers the engine.  But of course when the electrode breaks off a spark plug it doesn’t spark where it’s meant to, the result being that it shorted the coil.  So they put a new one on, and reported that it was running nice and smoothly now.

Most of the time, anyway.  After about half an hour the clattering noise came back.  And then disappeared.  And then came back.  So whatever was wrong was still wrong, and the coil pack was either a consequence of the real problem or something completely unrelated.  And it was at this point that the garage phoned me, because they wanted my approval (or otherwise) before proceeding any further.

It turns out that a twinport engine such as mine is much more complicated than a ‘normal’ engine, which means taking it apart is much more time-consuming, and therefore more expensive.  They said they could take it apart piece by piece, checking for whatever was wrong as they went along.  But it would end up costing over £1000.  At that point, it hardly seems worth it, given the value of the car itself.

I mulled it over when I got home, and talked it over with Ellie, who was supportive as always.

(42) I’m thankful for my wife, Ellie.  I know I’ve already been thankful for her, but it bears repeating.  She made a batch of bread rolls specially to cheer me up, because she knows how much I like fresh bread.  I love that she understands me so well.  It really brightened up my evening!

And then I said ‘hello’ to an old friend – Autotrader.  I’ve lost count of how much time I’ve spent looking at cars on Autotrader over the years.  I found some Corsas, which would be effectively a direct replacement with an almost identical model, and some Fiestas that might be worth looking at as well.

(43) I’m thankful for the Autotrader website.  It’s well-organised, useful, and I’d be pretty much lost buying a car without it.

This morning I called the garage again, with a last-ditch effort to somehow keep the car.  I asked whether replacing the entire engine might be quicker – and therefore cheaper – than taking the existing engine apart.  It was worth a shot.  However, their mechanic said that it would probably work out nearly as expensive, if not more expensive.  True, I could pick up an entire engine on eBay for around £200, but they would still have to do the swap and connect everything up, and even then there would be no guarantee the new engine would work.  I’d effectively be swapping an engine I knew for an engine I didn’t, which might have just as many problems to put right.  The only alternative would be to get a refurbished block from a reputable dealer, able to provide some sort of warranty, but then we’d be looking at spending £700 just on the block.  Whatever way we looked at it, it just wasn’t going to make economical sense to repair it.  So we agreed that we wouldn’t.  To make matters even more frustrating, the insurance is very unlikely to cover it because it wasn’t an accident, just mechanical failure.

However, just as I was about to admit defeat, a thought miraculously sprang to mind.  The maths didn’t add up.  If you know me, you’ll know that me and maths don’t always agree at the best of times, so I had to run this past Ellie to make sure I’d got it right.  If I sold the car for spares or repair, I might get maybe £500 for it at most. Paying out around £1500 for a new car would mean an overall outlay of around £1000. Which is the same as repairing the car I’ve already got. Not including whatever it would be to swap the insurance over. And at this point it suddenly seemed ridiculous to be considering replacing the car at all.

(44) I’m thankful that inspiration struck in time. God was clearly still looking out for me, and saving me from a terrible mistake.

Not quite trusting my own judgement, I decided to call my dad the following morning for his advice. After explaining it all to him, he agreed with my suspicion that it was worth the gamble to try to get the Corsa fixed.

(45) I’m thankful for my wonderful Dad. He knows cars, and I trust his opinion and wisdom. And I’m incredibly grateful that he took the time to go through it all with me so early in the morning, calmly and logically and helpfully. It may not have quite been Father’s Day, but I was thoroughly thankful for him, and I love him very much indeed.

(46) I’m thankful for maths. It may not be my strong suit most of the time, but it saved my bacon this time.

So I quickly phoned the garage (they know me by name by now) to ask them not to put the engine back together just get, and to proceed with fixing it after all. They agreed and said it would be added to the job list for the following week.

(47) I’m thankful that the garage was still happy to do the work. After all the back and forth, they’d have been within their rights to have refused!

UPDATE 2: Two weeks on…

We had survived the weekend on one car. The garage hadn’t been able to give us another courtesy car after I returned the Micra.

(48) I’m thankful that we have two cars. Before February of this year, being a car down would have been a nightmare. Having a second car meant that despite some logistical rearrangements we could still get everywhere we needed to.

I called the garage again on Monday for an update, and they confirmed that work would start on the Corsa on Tuesday, and that they were working on finding me a courtesy car for me. They said they’d ring to confirm that evening. Sadly, I heard nothing.

(49) I’m thankful that despite not having a courtesy car I could still get into work. Even if it did mean getting up early so that Ellie could drop me off and still get back in time for the school run.

So on Tuesday I rang again. This time they said that the car was already fixed! They had managed to start work on it on Monday, ahead of schedule, and we’re just test driving it to make sure it was all perfect for me. They said they’d ring me the following morning to confirm.

(50) I’m thankful that the garage could find the problem and fix it so quickly. Less time working means less cost. And less time without the car. And also that the car was indeed repairable.

(51) I’m thankful that I didn’t need another courtesy car. Especially that automatic Micra.

So on Wednesday (today) I spoke to them again, and they confirmed that the car was fixed. They were doing some final checks, but I could come and pick it up at lunchtime. Woohoo! In fact I picked it up after work, because that was more convenient, but that didn’t matter to them. The cost was around £700, including the initial investigation and coil pack, making it about half as much as it could have been.

(52) I’m thankful that it didn’t cost the earth. I have the money in savings, but it’s a relief not to need it all.

It turns out the electrode from the spark plug was indeed still rattling around in the engine. It had come out of cylinder 2, rattled it’s way into cylinders 1, 3 and 4, and bashed itself against the top of the head. Now, at the top of each cylinder are the valves. Miraculously, all the damage was done to the areas of the head next to the valve ports, on bits of metal that didn’t actually do anything or matter if they were a bit dented. On all three cylinders.

(53) I’m thankful that the electrode was found. It would have been a constant worry if they’d returned the car to me and not found it, just in case it was still in there somewhere waiting to cause problems again.

(54) I’m thankful that it didn’t do more damage. It should have damaged the valves. There is no logic to why the only damage was to the areas that didn’t matter. The mechanics were amazed at my luck. To be honest, I’m amazed too, but I believe in something more powerful and reliable than just luck!

So now the car is back home, and I’m looking forward to driving it to work tomorrow. The timing is perfect, because on Sunday Ellie and I really do have to be in very different places at the same time, so only having one car would have made things rather difficult for one of us. But now everything is back to normal, at less cost than we were expecting, and with a great story of thankfulness to go alongside it.

(55) I’m thankful for this opportunity to be so thankful. Friends on Facebook have already told me what an encouragement it’s been to them. And it’s been a wonderful experience for me, leaning heavily on God for my direction and decision making, and being blown away by how much he cares for me and continues to look out for me.

The car I didn’t buy

corsa

Looks pretty good here, right?

I’m in the market for a second car at the moment.  A classic Mini would be my preference, but that’s out of my price range at the moment, and after a lot of research I’m more or less settled on a Corsa 1.2 SXi.  I won’t bore you with the logic that’s led me to that particular choice.  Feel free to comment with your opinions anyway.

Anyway, today I went to see a Corsa that looked like it might be good, at a garage in Frome.  It turned out to be something of a disappointment.

According to their website they opened at 9am, so I rang at 9:15.  I’m pretty sure I woke the guy up.  He muttered various responses, some of which I had to ask him to repeat, but I eventually ascertained that the Corsa in question was still for sale, but wasn’t at his Frome branch because all his stock was in Radstock on Saturdays.  He gave me a postcode.

When I arrived at the postcode I found a garage, but with a completely different name, and no Corsa on the forecourt.  Confused, I gave the guy another call.  Apparently he was “round the back”.  Amid mounting concerns, I eventually found his ‘garage’ – a scruffy plot of untarmacked road with no signage and no office.  There were about 20 cars parked in the middle, right where the rain had collected in a large puddle, meaning that the majority of the cars were inaccessible.  The Corsa was right in the middle

Yep, that's the Corsa in the middle.

Yep, that’s the Corsa in the middle.

.  He apologised a bit and said that his wife was driving down with a pair of wellies.  So I waited for about 15 minutes in the cold and wind.  This had better be worth it.

It wasn’t.  Once the car had been extracted and driven to a dry part of the wasteland, I had a good look round.  This is a quick summary of what I found:

  • There was a hefty scratch, on the front wing, although it was plastic underneath so it wouldn’t rust.
  • The back of both wing mirrors were slightly scratched.
  • The trim along one side was falling off.
  • There was a nasty rusting scratch on the bootlid.
  • One of the rear light clusters was loose.
  • There was a nasty rusting scratch on the rear quarter above the window.
  • The alloy wheels were very scratched.
  • The strut for holding the bonnet up was missing its clip, so you just lay it down somewhere in the engine bay and hope it stays put.
  • The backs of the rear seats were scratched and rusting.
  • There was no spare wheel.
  • The passenger side electric window wouldn’t go all the way up without some manhandling.
  • The button that controlled the electric wing mirror position was missing.
  • Both buttons on the key fob were missing, revealing the circuit board underneath.
  • The top of the steering wheel was worn away.

In fairness, there were a few positives too:

  • The roof seemed to be complete.
  • The engine sounded in good condition.
  • The gearbox worked.

It may not surprise you to learn that I did not buy this particular car.  I’ll keep looking.

BMW, you are forgiven

Something has changed within me.  Something small that is also big.  Something largely irrelevant yet hugely significant.  Apparently I like the BMW Mini.

Those of you who know me will appreciate that this is a big deal.  I have been an avid enthusiast of the classic Mini since I was a nipper, and for several years owned a lovely example of a 1.3i Mini Sidewalk called Neddy.  I loved Minis for their adaptability, their ease of customisation, their simplicity, their charm, their inherently superb handling characteristics, their personality and sense of fun.  When BMW bought the Rover brand and halted production of the Mini, I hated them for it.

Now, I’m not one to be easily opinionated, and I must point out that I at least tried to start off on an even keel.  I watched with interest as various concepts for the new Mini were batted around the web like ping pong balls.  When BMW finally launched the new Mini, I was fairly impressed – they had packed a lot of technology into the car in an effort to make it compare favourably with the classic Mini’s handling and performance.  But it was big, no matter how you compared it.  Taller, longer, fatter.

So I took one for a test drive.  I was surprised they didn’t ask me any questions beforehand really, as I had no intention of buying it at all, I just fancied a drive.  I didn’t like it.  It felt big, compared to the classic Mini.  The 1.6 litre engine in the Cooper model I drove didn’t feel anywhere near supersonic, the retro styling looked forced, and the bucket seat meant that I knocked my elbow on it every time I changed gear.

And so it was that I decided the BMW Mini was not a good car.  This was reinforced by my friends at Colchester Mini Club and various online forums, where people even more enthusiastic than me for the old classic harboured deep-seated grudges and employed all sorts of derogatory terms for the new kid in the car park.  The convertible model, especially in yellow, was always referred to as a “skip”.  Put simply, it just wasn’t a Mini, and therefore wasn’t as good.

Since then, several years have gone by, I have sold my Mini and owned several other cars since, and the BMW Mini is now in it’s third revision.  Such is its popularity that it continues to sell in droves across the world, and BMW have released a plethora of variants: there’s the Clubman for small families; the Coupe for those without friends or family to transport; the Roadster for those who like to pretend it’s hot; the Countryman for those who drive in fields; the Paceman for those who like headroom.  A Mini for everyone, they’ll have you believe.  In doing so, BMW have actually done something I never expected – they’ve made the Mini accessible to everyone.  That’s something the original Mini was famous for.  It’s taken me quite by surprise.

So here I am, wondering whether my years-long protestation against the BMW Mini was unfounded, or at the very least excessive.  To help me clarify things in my own mind, I started thinking about what I might choose if I were looking for a fun hatchback as a second car, and what the competition might be.  A Fiesta is solid, reliable, and reasonably practical.  But it’s nowhere near as stylish as a Mini, and not as much fun to drive.  A Clio is a good cheap budget car, but it does look and feel cheap next to a Mini.  A Civic has an amazing engine, and especially in the Type-R variant is superb to drive, and is much more practical than a Mini.  But it has less soul.  After all that comparison, I would have to conclude that if I were in that situation I would actually buy a BMW Mini after all.

There is something deep going on here.  Something unexpected and life-changing.  And I think it’s called forgiveness.

One of the tasks in the Exploring Christianity course I’m doing was to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer for today’s listeners.  So I wrote something for classic Mini enthusiasts, exploring the ways in which the meaning behind the Lord’s Prayer was echoed in the culture and thinking of such people.  It’s worth a read.  One section, interpreting the phrase “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, commented simply, “Forgive BMW?  Never!”  Like a mirror held up to my own face, I realised that I had held a grudge against BMW for ruining the Mini, and now I wonder whether I was too harsh.  BMW have taken the Mini brand to places it would never have gone if they’d kept producing the original 1959 design.  It’s full of technology, it’s fun to drive, it’s incredibly stylish, and stands apart from other cars on the road.  I still prefer the ‘original’ BMW to the later models though, they’ve got a bit fat in their old age.  But still, it’s a momentous revelation – I like the BMW Mini.

And so, BMW, I forgive you.  I also hope you’ll forgive me, because it seems there’s very little you needed to be forgiven for in the first place.

There.  That feels much better.

It rained, it poured, it wrote off our car.

Yes, dear readers, our car is no more.  After many years of successfully avoiding things, our insurance policy is finally being put to use.  The Zafira is dead.

It was one of those stereotypical nights that would feel right at home in a Hollywood movie – the sky was black, the wind howled menacingly, the icy rain hurled itself at the ground, and small furry creatures everywhere ran and hid.  And I sat at home reading Samuel a bedtime story.  It was only when my mobile rang on page 2 that it became apparent that the weather was indeed a bad omen.

In all fairness, Ellie has only been driving on her own for a month.  And it’s not exactly a small car.  And the conditions were awful, as I’ve described above.  And it was a very narrow road.  Squeezing down a poorly lit residential street she slightly misjudged her position on the road, and clipped the back of a parked car as she passed.  She was only in second gear apparently, and it took her completely by surprise.  She was surprisingly calm on the phone though, which in turn helped me to be surprisingly calm too, as I skipped to the end of the book (andtheyalllivedhappilyeveraftertheend) and hastily put Samuel to bed without brushing his teeth.  To be honest I was more relieved than anything else – given the sort of accidents new drivers usually have, this was nothing.

Thankfully the owner of the other car was very understanding.  In fact, apparently it was the third time this had happened to her.  Which tends to suggest it’s not entirely Ellie’s fault after all… but I doubt the insurance company will see it that way.

Ellie wasn’t hurt at all, incidentally, as she wasn’t going particularly fast at the time.  In fact, on inspection in the light of the following day the damage didn’t seem too bad.  But because Ellie had mentioned about the steering not feeling quite right we decided to play it safe and leave the car where it was until it could be looked at by a garage.  So we arranged for the car to be collected, and today I heard back from them with their assessment of the damage.  There was some cosmetic work that would need doing, such as replacing a few body panels (front bumper, bonnet, front wing), repainting (the aforementioned new panels, plus some deep scratches on the doors), and a new headlight unit.  But the thing that really swung the issue was a bent and snapped steering rack.  Ouch.  Presumably when the two cars collided they bumped wheels, and even at that slow speed it was enough to cause significant damage.  The cost of repair was quoted at more than I paid for the car in the first place, so understandably it has been deemed a complete loss.

It makes me wonder though how cars last so long when they’re banger racing.  If a gentle knock can sheer a steering rack, how can scrap cars survive being repeatedly rammed and still pull themselves along??  I also wonder what banger racing will be like in 20 years time when all the ‘old’ cars are made of plastic.

So on Friday, straight after a work end-of-year conference in Yeovil, I went and picked up a hire car that we’d booked for the weekend, and spent most of Saturday looking at cars.  I had already looked at the AutoTrader website, and had decided that a Ford Focus was what we needed.  Significantly smaller and cheaper than the Zafira, but still with just about enough space inside for us to get by on a day-to-day basis.  A long term goal at the back of my mind is that now that Ellie and I both drive it might be more sensible for us to have two smaller cars rather than one big one.  So I picked out the best options, we piled into the tiny Corsa we’d hired, and set off.

The first car was in Frome, and was being sold privately rather than by a garage.  I thought it looked good from the website, so I was feeling positive.  However, the man selling the car didn’t do himself any favours at all.  He knew practically nothing about the car, because he hadn’t had it long and hadn’t bought it for himself, and had allowed the MOT to run out.  That meant that we couldn’t legally take it for a test drive, despite his offers.  It also had dubious interior additions (who uses CB radios these days???), two balding tyres (both on the same side of the car, so all four would need replacing), the engine sounded rough (even for a diesel), and it just didn’t feel right.  So we left without even moving it off the drive.

The next one on my list was back in Shepton.  It looked miles better, despite a little rust on the rear subframe, so we took it for a spin.  It was okay, but not great.  The brake discs felt warped, and juddered a lot when braking, which made the whole braking experience very unnerving.  It was also didn’t like going into third gear.  It was a nice enough car, it just didn’t feel like ours.  So we said no and went home to grab some lunch.

Armed with a broader range of options, having succumbed to the idea that I might be wrong in declaring that we needed a Focus, we set off in the afternoon to see three more cars: a Zafira and a Focus Estate in Frome, and an Astra in Trowbridge.  We went to Frome first on the basis that they were closing earlier.  The Zafira was like ours, only a slightly higher spec model, so we took that as read and had a look at the Focus Estate, just to see what the difference was.  It looked lovely, a wonderful big boot, great condition, and none of the rust issues that the other Focus had had.  Taking it for a spin we both very soon agreed that it felt like our car.

So we bought a Focus after all, albeit a bigger one than I’d expected.  God led us in exactly the right direction, once I let him, and it’s being delivered on Sunday afternoon.  Yay!  I’ll put photos up in due course, for those of you for whom a blog post of this length is just too much effort.

Shiny and new (part 1)

One of the nice things about bank holidays is that you get a little more time.  Not a lot, necessarily, but some.  And that can make all the difference.  For instance, the bank holiday last Friday (for the Royal Wedding) meant that we got to do a few things that would ordinarily have had to wait until Saturday.  Doing them on Friday gave us more time on Saturday to do other things instead, which just makes everything a bit more special.

In my case, I spent Saturday afternoon washing the car.  I’m ashamed to say that’s the first wash the car has had since I bought it about a year ago.  But don’t tell my grandparents, they still think I take good care of my cars.  As you might guess, there was a considerable build-up of dirt, especially on the boot and the bottoms of the doors.  And a Vauxhall Zafira is considerably bigger than a classic Mini.  Which is why I’d had to psych myself up for the ordeal.

I started by setting up the garden hose (which Samuel found fascinating) and dousing the car in water, just to try and loosen some of the dirt a bit.  Then out came the bucket and sponge.  This is where I came across my first problem – I’m not actually tall enough to do the whole of the roof.  I did the best I could, but there is actually still a strip along the middle of the roof where I couldn’t reach.  I didn’t take that into account when I bought the car.

The back of the car was a bit of a challenge, just because of the amount of dirt that was there.  I would wipe across with my sponge, and even with one stroke I’d be wiping with dirty water.  It took several attempts to get it all off, and even then it was still streaky with slightly grubby watermarks.  Nor could I get all the grime off around the rear wheel arches or the front bumper.  It’s a lot better than it was, that’s for sure, but it wouldn’t compare to the perfect shine I always strived for with Neddy.  Still, one consolation with it being a newer car is that if the body panels aren’t made of metal they can’t rust.

So now we have a nice shiny clean car.  Not quite as-new, but close enough for now.

Relinquishing responsibility

I’m home alone right now.  I say “alone”, technically Samuel is in the house too, but he’s blissfully drifting through slumberland right now so I’m not sure that counts.  My wife, on the other hand, is out.  With another man.  Thankfully this isn’t an affair I’ve suddenly unearthed, but it’s arguably worse.  She’s having driving lessons.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like the idea of Ellie driving – I’m sure she’ll be a fantastic driver, and I have no concerns about that whatsoever.  I’ve already taken her out a few times to try to teach her the basics, and she picked it up fairly quickly.  In the space of three lessons I had got Ellie to get the car moving, change gear (up to third at one point), stop without stalling, steer around parked cars, negotiate junctions, even do a few hill starts.  That, though, was a couple of years ago, and a lot has happened since then to get in the way of her doing any more driving.  Now it’s become more important, so we’ve got her some proper driving lessons with a proper instructor in a proper learner’s car.  And to be perfectly honest, I’m terrified.

I completely understand why Ellie wants to drive, and I don’t blame her for it at all.  It’s going to be incredibly useful for all of us if she can drive.  She can drive me to work and have the car during the day to go into town, do the shopping, take Samuel to various places, and pick me up in the evening.  We can share the driving on long journeys.  She can go out for a jaunt if she’s in the mood for it, without needing me to come too.  She’ll have the freedom to go where she wants, when she wants, without inconveniencing me or anyone else.  It’ll save us money on bus fares.  Ellie will be able to ferry me around if I break my leg or something.  Eventually we could even get a second car and we could both drive around at the same time.  It’ll be fantastic.

But, all that said, I’m still somewhat nervous about the whole thing.  

Time for a drink. And a smoke.

My car has been making an odd noise for the last couple of weeks.  We first noticed it on the way back from my cousin’s wedding (congratulations Mel and Lal!), when we stopped at some traffic lights in Castle Cary and heard a faint ticking noise coming from the engine.  My wife described it as being like a leaf caught in a bicycle wheel.  My keenly trained ears quickly assessed it to be in sync with the rotational speed of the engine, and experience told me it was probably something running dry.  Obviously the engine could do with a top up of oil, and I mentally scolded myself for not checking the level before we left.

And then, well, things got in the way.  It was raining.  We were ill.  I was busy.  There just wasn’t an ideal time to pop out and top up the oil, so I just carried on driving to work and back with that ticking noise in the background, a constant reminder that actually the engine wasn’t all that happy, and that I really should do something about it.  Finally, this morning, just as we were about to head off to Tesco for the weekly shop, I remembered and checked the oil level.  It was indeed low.  It wasn’t even registering on the dipstick.  My bad.  So I hunted around in the garage and found the oil, but realised too late that it wasn’t nearly enough.  So I put what we had into the car and drove to Tesco, where I parked up and walked round the corner to the garage to buy some more.

Moving up in the world

This isn't actually the car in question, but it's almost identical.

Astute readers will recall that on Saturday I went to see a Zafira, which I had decided was the next type of car we needed.  It’s a logical progression really.  The first car I owned was a Ford Fiesta.  I wanted a Mini, but I was fresh out of uni and couldn’t afford one, so I settled for a Fiesta instead.  Then, when business had picked up, I bought a Mini, and thoroughly enjoyed my little pocket rocket.  Then I got married, and was suddenly doing a lot of miles, and the Mini started seeming smaller and smaller the more we packed into the boot.  And then we decided to have a baby, and a Mini just wasn’t practical any more, so we moved into small family saloon territory with a conservative Ford Escort.  Now, as an established family and all the baggage that brings with it, we are in need of a ‘proper’ family car, a seven-seater.  Hence the Zafira.

After Saturday’s disappointment, we were keen to get out there and see something else.  If nothing else, it would be good to be able to make a direct comparison.  And hope that the car we had dismissed at the weekend didn’t turn out to be a bargain.  So this afternoon I skipped work and we all drove out to Westbury to see another Zafira.  Same listed price as the other one, same 1.6 engine, roughly the same spec, also from a dealership rather than private, but slightly lower mileage.  And, as it happens, we rather liked what we saw.

I didn’t buy a car today

A Citroen 2CV. Another example of a car I didn't buy today.

A Citroen 2CV. Another example of a car I didn't buy today.

As many of you will probably know, I’m a bit of a Mini fanatic.  My darling Lulu, the little red Mini City I learnt to drive in, was an inspiration.  Neddy, the little blue Mini Sidewalk, was a joy.  Sad was the day when I said good bye to the days of carefree invigorating driving and welcomed in a life of staid normality in the form of a Ford Escort.  Yes, it was more practical, but it lacked all the ‘fun’ qualities I had grown used to.  Now, only a year or two later, the time has come for the next step in the process – I’m buying a people carrier.

Before I cower behind my desk chair against the onslaught of abuse, allow me to explain the logic behind this overly ‘grown-up’ proposition.  We have a baby.  I have lots of instruments.  We go places with both.  Our trusty Ford Escort, which has a truly monumental boot capacity compared to the Mini, is now on the verge of being too small to cope with our many belongings.  It’s also beginning to show its age, with rusty patches on some of the exterior panels.  The logic says that if we buy a slightly more expensive car (though still second hand) it should last us slightly longer, and buying a 7-seater will give us more space to carry people and stuff around.

Our vehicle of choice?  The most popular small 7-seater around.  The MPV that launched touting the most revolutionary seating system the world had ever seen.  The people carrier that has become ubiquitous for small families.  The Vauxhall Zafira.

Idea: game style driving licenses

I was out driving the other day, and someone overtook me in a lovely Porsche 911 Carrera S.  I looked across as it glided past, and at the driver at the wheel, and thought “what have you done to deserve that car?”  Not in a judgemental way, mind you, but it got me thinking.

In many car racing computer games your entitlement to drive particular classes of car has to be earned through proving your driving skill, rather than just the accumulation of money.  It strikes me that actually this is a fair and sensible approach, and one that highlights just how inadequate and antiquated our current system is.  At the moment we only have one driving test, which is a simple yes/no answer to the question “did this person meet the minimum requirements on the day of the test”.  The same driving test entitles someone to drive a rusty old Vauxhall Corsa, or a Bugatti Veyron.  There’s something wrong there, methinks.

And so, as I drove along in my Ford Escort, I worked out the finer details of my idea to revolutionise driving tests, licences and car manufacture.  To my surprise and delight, it looks like it might actually be a good idea!