I had a nice car once. It was sleek and fast and feral-looking and driving it made me feel dangerous, like Charles Bronson on a semi-broken Appaloosa.
I picked up my then-girlfriend, now wife, for a date shortly after collecting it from the garage, and she still talks about her thrill at seeing this growling, muscled monster hunched at the kerbside (yes, yes, the car impressed her too).
Anyway, it’s all been downhill since, so to speak. A few years later I took delivery of the updated model to find the weirdos at HQ had redesigned it to have the ergonomics and aerodynamics of a Motability scooter. I was now Gabby Hayes on a pit pony.
Along came marriage, mortgages, a kid, a second, a third, and a large and energetic dog. The prospect of a pricey beast in the driveway became both a financial and logistical impracticality. We needed space and lots of it, preferably for as few British pounds as possible: so began the Zafira era. It has been 12 years since I have driven anything other than a cheap, boxy people carrier, and in that time I have become, largely through necessity, vehicularly unembarrassable.
I’m easy meat for slick salesmen
But last week we reached the point at which we could no longer deny the need for change. Our nine-year-old machine has been reliable, is long paid-off, and has served us well. But it is knocking on, and bears its scars much in the way Mars displays its meteor craters – that time I misjudged the wall coming into our driveway; the time I reversed into a neighbour’s trailer; the time, trying to let a lorry past on a narrow country road, I backed into a deep ditch (he had a winch in the back and kindly stopped to pull us out – not just a winch but around 30 dead sheep, further traumatising our then 10-year-old).
Change meant – shudder – a trip to that creepy liminal zone every town has which is home to nothing but car salesrooms, maybe the odd storage unit and, of course, a Greggs. These are the strangest places on earth: civically unsculpted and sparsely peopled, only ever passed through at speed, their wares extravagantly displayed out front yet invisible for years at a time. And in their hangars sit that curious, unnerving breed and deathless movie trope, the car salesmen.
The truth is I know nothing about cars, have no real interest in them, and view the purchasing experience only as an opportunity to be ripped off five ways to Friday. I am suggestible, which means I am easy meat for the slicker type of hustler, and am unmanned by guys who confidently use phrases such as torque, camshaft and drivetrain. When you get to fluid coupling, rubber-isolated crossmember and monocoque, I’m wondering whether I’ve come to the wrong kind of shop.
Shouldn’t it be a buyer’s market?
I decided to do some advance research, and became mildly optimistic at learning the car industry – like many others, thanks to Covid – is in a bit of a state. In July, new car registrations were down 29.5% compared to the previous year. There is a computer chip shortage, which means manufacturers are unable to build and deliver cars as quickly as usual. There has been a 28.7% drop in fleet registrations, and private registrations are down 10.7%. This, I thought, is a buyer’s market.
The salesman hovered for a while, and then pounced. Actually, he sort of shuffled into our eyeline. He looked sad
What a fool. We had a specific SUV in mind and after various wrong turns eventually found the right showroom. Sitting in the desired model, my wife decided it was too big. Her eyes alighted on a tiny thing in the corner, with the proportions of a roller skate. Meanwhile I had spotted a long, reptilian number with pleasingly satanic lights.
The salesman hovered for a while, and then pounced. Actually, he sort of shuffled into our eyeline. He looked sad, and though he spoke to us of horsepower, faux leather seats and voice-controlled entertainment systems, his heart clearly wasn’t in it. “Do you have this in any other colours?” I asked, pointing to the reptile. “I might have a blue one out the back,” he replied. “I’m not so keen on blue cars,” I said. “Oh,” he responded, looking at his shoes. I pointed to our bashed, aged saloon: “Could we trade that in?” “Probably,” he sighed, and wandered off. I think he might have hid in the toilets.
I started to wonder – is this a clever double bluff? Is he after a sympathy purchase? Has the psychology of car-selling grown so crafty over the past nine years? And: does he know that I know? Does he know that I know that he knows that I know? I began to feel dizzy. We had been beaten. We got into old reliable and drove home.
Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent, non-party think tank Reform Scotland