“Well, what do you think? Do you like it?” My dad was asking about the car he’d just purchased at auction.
It was my first car after passing my test, the keys to freedom, independence, a stylish lifestyle (so the ads had promised) and gave me some standing amongst my friends who hadn’t yet passed their tests.
Or rather, it should have.
During my teen years, I had harboured a fantasy of whizzing around in a cheeky little MR2. But still, this was mine.
“It’s great. I love it, thanks, Dad.” And I was genuinely happy.
“Go on, then,” he said, handing me the keys. “Take it for a spin.”
I got comfortable, turned the ignition, let it splutter into life, slowly easing out the choke, and set off.
The start of something…
And so began my first car relationship with the Vauxhall Nova Merit – a 1.2 four-door saloon.
Several years old, it had certainly seen better days.
Its shape and styling was dated with (slightly faded) red paintwork and was complete with built-in rear windshield defrosters that formed a large italicised NOVA – in case anyone needed reminding.
For the next year or so I drove it everywhere – to Glenshee, friends strapped in with snowboards pinned against their faces and skis jammed against the gearstick, across the north-east and all the way to France and back.
The Nova wasn’t a great long-distance cruiser, though. It was much happier hurtling around city streets, Chemical Brothers belting out of the tiny cassette player, and, overall, it handled fine despite the rear having a tendency to slide out on occasion.
It rattled a lot, though, and on the advice of a fellow journalist, I took it to a mechanic (there were no vehicle technicians back then), Alec, who quickly replaced the tappets and fitted new exhaust clips.
Frequent stalling and egg-centricity
Other small issues plagued the car. On several occasions, I’d had to stop by the side of the A90 as horizontal rain poured in through the front grille.
The problem was eventually solved by stuffing a piece of cardboard behind it – an eco-solution with renewable materials. Ahead of my time.
The Nova accelerated fine but hated idling, regularly stalling at traffic lights for no good reason, then a radiator leak prompted a call to my dad who recommended eggs, two of which I duly cracked into the reservoir.
Later on, I splashed out on some Comma Stop Leak, which was less messy to drive about with.
One day the knob fell off the choke. After much musing, Alec suggested I use tweezers to pull it out each morning, so I added a set to my dashboard tat and used them every day, much to my dad’s amusement.
Some months later the Nova was written off when a motorcyclist skidded and ploughed into the offside taking out my solitary wing mirror, the rear quarter glass, the bumper, damaging the door panels and cracking the hubcaps.
The motorcyclist was fine, fortunately, but with only third party fire and theft insurance and split liability, I had no resources for a new set of wheels.
My Nova was a head-turner for all the wrong reasons
A MacGyver masterpiece
Fortunately, it was a Nova.
Mechanically it was fine and so I set about making the body and cosmetic repairs myself.
I’d stopped caring about looks or dignity by this point so the cardboard came out once more to fill the rear quarter space, carefully cut to accurate shape by a scalpel-wielding magazine artist.
Some diligent and robust work with gaffer tape ensured the bumper, which had previously been hanging together with string, was going absolutely nowhere.
A local scrappies found replacement hub caps and a wing mirror for me, and a suction cup smoothed out the dents on the driver and passenger panels.
However, the Nova was still an old car. One day my friend in the passenger seat squealed when she saw the road whizzing past beneath her feet.
I hadn’t realised how bad the rust around the hole had become.
I’d pinched the only rubber footwell mat for myself and didn’t have the budget for a new set but, being highly risk-aware and worried about stones kicking up inside the car I placed a metal tea tray over it – and gaffer-taped that down as well.
My Nova was a head-turner for all the wrong reasons, despite my best MacGyver efforts – and even the most enthusiastic boy-racer car thieves gave it a wide berth.
I actually came down to the car one evening to find two young gentlemen wearing shiny tracksuits and laughing hysterically next to it.
A lesson in handling minor misdemeanours
As I got in, one of them said to me, “Is this yours?” It turns out they were laughing at my use of a steering lock to deter thieves.
However, it was a great starter car and, thanks to Haynes, it taught me a lot.
And in fairness, it was mostly reliable. Other cars I drove afterwards included one without a working speedometer which meant I had to guess my speed, brake failures, a Volvo that loved to dump coolant, and a car with no working reverse gear. Hairy stuff.
I made a lot of mistakes but the Nova’s quirks taught me how to handle minor misdemeanours without breaking a sweat, and I really wouldn’t change a thing about it.
After all, what car nowadays could you patch together with a tea tray, gaffer tape, cardboard and eggs?
My First Car: The Vauxhall Nova Merit
- Owner: Felicity Donohoe
- Make: Vauxhall
- Model: Nova Merit Saloon
- Year: 1988
- Cost: £4772 new (approx.), £120 at auction
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