Buying a Practical Car
All of my driving life, I’ve had practical cars; from the Datsun B210 Sunny I got my driving license with in 1989 to the Ford Laser I gave up last year. In between there’s been a Nissan FB14 Sunny, a Nissan Presea, a Toyota Corolla and a Toyota Corona. They were all nice, decent, reliable vehicles (OK, maybe not that Datsun). And dull as mud. None of them ever really appealed to me, or made me feel affectionate about them, except for the Presea which I drove for three years. At least the latter wasn’t as common as the others, and had a bit of a stance about it. I drove that car from Unawatuna to Trinco and from Colombo to Batti with very few complaints. But also with very few thrills. None of them were over 1.6-litre, and they were all four-door saloons with lots of boot space. The only car that stood out over that period was a bright yellow (and I mean bright) first generation Kia Rio hatch that I drove for a few months, and the less said about that the better, except that it took off from a standing start like a cat with chillie powder up its arse.
I didn’t own any of these cars, because I was determined not to own anything so mind-numbingly boring. So I rented them. The closest I came to owning one was being married to someone who owned a car. It was a Mazda 323 hatch, and I guess I owned it, technically, since it was my wife’s (and when you’re married you share everything right, especially headaches), but I liked to think of it as my car-in-law. When I got married and moved to the land of the autobahn, I was thrilled at the prospect of buying a good, solid, and fast-as-scheisse German machine. Fantasies of Audi TTs and BMW Z4s were always just wet dreams, but a surely a Golf GT wasn’t out of range? These ideas were quickly banished by my German wife’s determination to stick with a Japanese car (the sacrilege) which had better after-sales service. So as I watched little old ladies whizz past me, doing 160kmph in their Miatas, I determined never to buy a car until I could afford one I really really liked.
Moving back to Sri Lanka, I kept renting cars, scoffing at my friends who put hard-earned cash into their practical FB15s and Corollas; waiting, plotting. I knew my budget didn’t run very far beyond a Hyundai Coupe or an Integra Type R, so I started looking for one of them, planning to buy a car by 2008. Opening the Hit Ads in July 2007 I saw a 2000 model Mitsubishi FTO GP Version R. I call up the owner and he wants 2.2 million for it. So I go see the car, and for the first time in my life I realize that there is such a thing as love at first sight.
Now sports cars are not the most practical things for Colombo, given our rapidly crumbling and overcrowded urban road system. Their suspensions are too stiff, their wheels are too big, they’re tough to squeeze into parking spots, they don’t have enough seats, they guzzle petrol, and they’re a pain to drive slow. But the FTO was sexy — deep red, 17-inch chrome rims, lines that were both smooth and muscular, with a 200bhp 2-litre twin-cam DOHC MIVEC 24-valve V6 and a big fuck off ‘Version R’ wing on its backside that articulately gave the finger to all those Civics and Imprezas with their fake RS and STI badges. 0-100 in 6.8 seconds and a top speed of 240kmph would be more than enough for Sri Lanka. I was hooked.
But the car was a mess — suspension and tires buggered, window seals hanging off, no radio, and tacky hand-painted silver trim all over the dash and interior. The idiot who owned it had even mounted one of those silly propeller things on the roof — you know, you see ’em on trishaws along with those plastic silver jolly roger badges — looks like a tiny version of those modern windmills you get all over Europe. I’d seen the car advertised earlier in 2007, so it was obviously not selling, not with all the work needed, and the obvious fact that it was a drinker. I have the car sent over to United Motors for a diagnosis, and the news is not good — conservative estimate is 200k worth of repairs to bring the car upto a value of 2 mil. The mechanics say don’t touch it, wait for a better one; but fuck it, there are only five of these babies in the country. I tell the owner I’ll give him 1.5 for it and he hangs up on me. The hell with it.
Two weeks later he calls back and says he’s in a hurry so he’ll let me have it for 2 million. I say no, 1.5 is it. A couple of days later, United tells me they’ve got a 1998 FTO in for servicing and the owner is willing to sell at 1.8 million. So off I go for a test drive. The car’s a 301- plate, and is a 4-speed 1.8-litre GS with a 16-valve SOHC straight-four, which isn’t as fun as the 5-speed 2-litre V6, though both are Tiptropnic. I’m not in love. I offer 1.6, but no luck.
Back home and the owner of the 2-litre calls again. He’ll come down to 1.8 mil, but I hold out for 1.5, explaining that I just can’t afford it, given the repairs I’ll be facing. He says 1.7 but I say I’ll have to think about it. I let another couple of weeks go by, meantime driving my dull but efficient Ford Laser. Back comes the call — 1.6 mil, last offer, and I say I’ll think about it. My mechanic tells me I should stick to my guns, 1.5 is realistic. But I bottle out, worried that someone will buy my baby out from under my nose. I call back and close the deal. A week later the paperwork’s done, and she’s mine. My first car. I snap the silly super-glued propeller off the roof as soon as the former owner’s out of sight.
Seven months have gone by and the FTO’s had all its running issues sorted — suspension replaced, heavy 17-inch chromes replaced with 16-inch lightweight gunmetal rims, fatter tires, a new cone air filter, a performance exhaust, cross-drilled brake discs, and various other bits and pieces that have gone well over the 200k predicted. The radio still doesn’t work, the window seals are still tatty, and the back seats are only good for shopping bags or a double amputee. This is as practical as it gets. All that’s left to do is the interior and a new paint job. The FTO isn’t a fun everyday drive in Colombo, not with that stiff suspension (have to drive further to avoid the really bad roads), and its hard work to reverse ‘cos there’s almost no visibility to the rear. But she makes up for it every time I get out of Colombo, especially when coupled with the American Cobra radar detector I’ve hooked up.
So that’s it. I’m never going back to anything practical again. Last weekend I opened the Hit Ads and spotted an 8-sri Ford Capri 1600GT coupe, looking like it belonged on The Professionals, and I knew that if I had the money (and the parking space) I’d have bought it. A couple weeks before it was a MX-3 Autozam, and before that a black 300ZX. They’re all a bit old and bloody useless as everyday cars, but boy are they hot. I already know what my next car’s going to be — a Supra Mk IV. It makes leafing through the car classifieds so much more fun when you’re not looking for a nice sensible Sunny. A guy I know owns a Nissan President as his everyday car, and another’s looking for a Karmen Ghia, and I can understand that.
Now I’d like to point out that there are a few cars that are practical for Sri Lanka as well as fun to drive, like an Evo V, an Impreza WRX/STI (if you can find genuine examples of either), or a Skyline R34 GT-R, and if this was just about buying a fast car that’ll seat four, I’d say that’s your best bet. But it isn’t. All three of the above can outrun my FTO and come in rear- or four-wheel-drive; but (with the possible exception of the Skyline) they just look boring, and need a lot of tricking out to look good. The whole point of putting up with the impracticalities and eccentricities of an unusual car is the pure style, personality and fun factors. Why settle for less?
To me, a car is an extension of my personality, just like my clothes, my phone, and so many other things in this material world. So why be Mr Average? In a city where everyone uses a Nokia, logs onto a PC, and drives a Sunny, I’d like to talk on a Samsung, sit in front of a Mac, and drive a Nissan GTR. Now, while the latter maybe out of my reach at the moment, it’s still more accessible than a Lambo or an Aston. And in the end, this isn’t about money, because if we all had unlimited funds, our garages would be chock full of the world’s supercars — it’s about style on a budget. Realistically, a 1998 FTO costs the same as an Audi A4 of the same year, or a newer Civic, and if you’re not too fussed whether your number plate has numbers or letters on it, there are a lot of fun cars in Sri Lanka.