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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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Chris C 16 July 2020

Singer Chamois

Upmarket Hillman Imp which had been rolled and the driver's door never shut properly. Regularly blew head gaskets despite skimming. Throttle cable snapped so drove it home using the choke lever swopped over on the carb. Replaced it with my Dad's rusty Wolseley Hornet whose rear subframe collapsed coming into a roundabout losing all brake hydraulics in the process. Chopped it up and took the body bits to the scrapyard tied to the roof of its replacement a Commer Imp van whose previous owner had hand painted it Dulux lilac in the rain.  

Jeremy 16 July 2020

@ Richard Bremner

Ha! I remember that 2CV van - it was my brother that co-owned it with you, and it resided in my grandmother's garage until it moved on. I particularly remember the egg-timer for the indicators! (normal for 2CVs of this age).

Harry P 4 February 2019

Happy Days

Lots of memories and comparisons to this article. I passed my test in 1980 and on the same day purchased a 1967 Viva HB SL.  One family ownership from new a low mileage.  White with a Red Vinyl interior, being the SL model it had the twin bucket rear seats in place of the standard bench rear seat.  I paid the princely sum of £175 and £117 for a year’s insurance.  I owned it for 2 years without any mechanical issues, but the bodywork required regular attention to keep corrosion at bay.  I parted with it after it was stolen by students who thrashed it around for a week or so and abandoned it after running out of petrol and blowing the engine.  Being a Grey haired 56 years like Colin,  I have subsequently  owned and driven far better vehicles since then, but the freedom and independence that my Viva brought me, means it will always be my “best” car.

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