Currently reading: Looking back: Autocar writers on their very first cars
What was your first car? Everyone remembers, even if the story didn’t end well
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6 mins read
16 July 2020

It’s midday, 8 March 1982 and a code orange status has just been triggered in the offices of RoSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents). Colin Goodwin has just been issued with a driving licence. Two o’clock the same day: RoSPA raises the alert status to red. Goodwin has purchased his first car. 

That damned piece of paper had taken nearly two years to obtain. The people at the DVLA, or whoever was responsible back then for organising driving tests, had been on strike and there was a massive backlog for dates. I’d applied for a cancellation and got a date a week later, having had no lessons. I took it in a mate’s Fiat 127 Sport that fouled its plugs. I failed. More disasters followed. Anyway, I was beyond desperate to go solo (er, legally) hence the lack of dawdling to buy a car. 

The machine was a Vauxhall Viva HB in SL90 spec. Brush painted, F-reg, already rusty. Forty quid. A 1.2-litre engine producing not much horsepower. That didn’t matter much because most of my friends owned American muscle cars and the Vauxhall could have had 200bhp because it was the deficit in cylinders that inspired their derision. 

I don’t remember much about the Viva – not even how long I kept it. Not as long as a year, for sure. I had a Norton Commando 850 (I passed my bike test very soon after my 17th birthday) for high-speed sorties so the car was more for transporting the muscle car owners when they’d run out of petrol money and for taking girls out. On one date, the fan flew off the end of the water pump and into the radiator. I thought she’d be mightily impressed by my fixing it with a raw egg but no. She probably married a stockbroker and now drives a BMW X5

Thirty-six years later, Autocar’s Dan Prosser and I are sitting in the Vauxhall heritage collection’s Viva HB. It is in perfect condition. D-reg, but otherwise identical to mine, even down to the colour. I’ve owned more than 40 cars, the bulk of them during my 20s. This is the first time I’ve revisited one of the old ones. It’s more usual these days for me to drive something that’s old and tired now but was new when I first drove it, such as the Porsche 968 Club Sport that featured in our 'best of 1994' feature last year. Today, the car is in far better shape than the one I drove first time around. 

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Its linear speedometer is familiar. I don’t think Prosser has seen anything other than a traditional round instrument before and neither has he seen an instrument that goes only as far as 100mph. Neither did he grow up with cars that didn’t have power steering. 

The roads around Luton where we’re driving today are dry but I think it’s more the quality of tyres fitted that is responsible for the feeling that this Viva is a lot more secure than mine felt. Mine would have had crossplies or possibly even remoulds on it, even more likely, bald ones. And then there’s the difference between having a 19-year-old and a 56-year-old behind the wheel. 

Actually, I don’t remember ever crashing the Viva. Apart from when a friend reached forward from the back seat and yanked on the handbrake. We didn’t technically crash but we were in Putney High Street so it was alarming enough for me and the shoppers on the pavement. 

Soon after the Vauxhall, I had a run of Mk1 Ford Escorts. I can’t recall if they were superior or not. Perhaps our friends at Classic & Sports Car have driven both back to back and can answer that question. Vauxhall also owns a 1970 HB but it’s a GT with a 2.0-litre motor and that certainly feels like an equal to the Ford. Good job I didn’t have one of those in 1982 because I certainly would have got into trouble with 104bhp instead of my car’s 69bhp. 

The HB is a good-looking car. Nicer than an Escort, I reckon. It was penned by long-time Vauxhall design boss David Jones but legendary GM design chief Bill Mitchell gave it the thumbs down when Jones took a model and drawings to Detroit. Mitchell took Jones out to lunch and asked junior designer Wayne Cherry to have a go. Three hours later, the HB had its final shape. None of which I would have known in 1982. I would, however, have known that Cherry worked on the Pontiac Firebird. 

I can’t remember my Viva’s fate, whether I sold it or it went to the scrapman. Whatever, it no longer exists: I checked on the DVLA’s website. And no, I have no desire to attempt to recreate a time before grey hair and buy myself a Viva. Not that I haven’t looked to see if any are for sale. 

Autocar’s first cars

Citroen 2CV

 It wasn’t all mine: I went halves with a school friend on a 1961 ex-Belgian post office 2CV van. Neither of us could drive. My mate saw it in a scrapyard. Amused by his interest, they sold it to him for £5, including delivery to his aunt’s empty garage. This was 1975. We sold it for £25 to a Swede, who towed it home. Richard Bremner

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Ford Focus

I didn’t own the car, but my mother’s 2001 Ford Focus 1.6 LX was the car I drove most often in my teenage years and I consider it my first car. It was in that silver Focus that I first took friends out for a drive, taught myself the art of the handbrake turn and had my first accident (and shortened it by half an inch).  Dan Prosser

Fiat 126

It was a Fiat 126. Actually, it was worse than that: it was a Fiat 126 whose previous owner had spilt a pint of cream on the back seat. But it was free. Aged 17, I thought girls would be amazed by my prowess behind the wheel, but one sniff dissuaded them all from even climbing into its putrefying cabin. So I drove it into a tractor instead. Andrew Frankel

1948 Ford V8

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It was a rare car, a 1948 Ford V8 ‘Beetleback’ four-door sedan. I was 16 and it cost £50. I paid £30, another idiot the other £20. We took to driving it to school a year before we had our licences, because you could get away with that in the Australian bush back then. It taught us all about oversteer – until it blew up on the last day of school. Steve Cropley

Westfield SEi

I didn’t have ‘my’ first car long. It was a Mini 1000 and within a month of passing my driving test, I’d driven it into a tree. So I spent my student days on a bicycle. Then I graduated, rented a place within walking distance of work, took out a loan and bought the first car with my name on its V5: a 1700cc Westfield SEi. Matt Prior

This article was originally published on 2 February 2019. We're revisiting some of Autocar's most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times. 

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The first cars of every major car maker​

James Ruppert: the best first cars​

Used car buying guide: Citroen 2CV​

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Comments
20

2 February 2019
My first car, around the time this article mentions, was a Ford Anglia. It was truly appalling in every respect. A friend had a Viva, which I put in a ditch alas. My first new car was an 87 MR2,it was a revelation, having then come out of a TR7. Over the years, I owned a number of cars I lusted over as a youngster, Etype, XK150, 308. Each was a massive disappointment.

2 February 2019
jag150 wrote:

My first car, around the time this article mentions, was a Ford Anglia. It was truly appalling in every respect. A friend had a Viva, which I put in a ditch alas. My first new car was an 87 MR2,it was a revelation, having then come out of a TR7. Over the years, I owned a number of cars I lusted over as a youngster, Etype, XK150, 308. Each was a massive disappointment.

 

Next to the growlers, no doubt the Peugeot 308 must have been... :)

4 February 2019
Can't believe Ferrari allowed it.

2 February 2019

I had one for a few weeks. What scraed me was looking down the bonnet at the wafer thin wings, I was terried some jerk would bang into me even in a car park. That didnt happen, but it did a similar trick of shedding the fan blades at 85 mph on the A1 and ripped trough every possible wire and tube it could find lol

2 February 2019

My first car wasn't roadworthy. It was a Morris Minor that belonged to a neighbour. I just took it apart and put it back together again without making it roadworthy. It moved up and down the private drive shared by my parents and another neighbour. My first roadworthy car was also a Morris Minor. My sister gave it to me when she moved to London and didn't need a car. I love my sister! It saw me through university and made me popular, as few other students had cars but still needed transport. It also transported band equipment. The tiny boot was impractical for that, but it was a convertible so, on sunny days, you could just stack drums up on the back seat.

2 February 2019

a 1984 Fiat Panda, bought by my Dad for £40. He soon traded it in for a Micra of the same year. Once I passed my test and found the insurance prohibitive it was sold and I reverted to using my parents cars (that’s a story in itself). The first car I bought myself was a 90’ 205 XS, the carb version and I loved it. The first new car I bought was a 02 MR2 roadster and again, I absolutely loved driving that little thing. 

2 February 2019

This is why we like you!

2 February 2019

I am a shade grey than you Colin, my first car was shared with older brother A 17 quid purchase of a Ford Pop, my own first car was a Morris Oxford 54 side valve. Built like a tank like the Volvo Amazon which followed after I blew the engine up on the Ox

2 February 2019

Two days ago, an old friend of mine died (far too early in life) of cancer.  He and me both had Viva HBs at the same time.  I had a DL, he had an SL.  Here's to you, Keith.  I will always remember our debates about who had the best car (you did).  Bless you, mate.

2 February 2019

Actually it had been my late father's car which my mother had driven to try and pass her test, although she never did. In 1969 my course of driving lessons and the test cost £11, and one month after my 17th birthday I passed my test in the driving school's Austin A40.  The Riley was traded in for a Ford Cortina which spent the next three years gradually rusting away and regularly shedding it's chrome strips.  I now regret selling the Riley, but silly decisions are part of life and I'm sure we've all bought cars we feel were not wise choices. In my case, quite a few!

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