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I began searching for alternative options back in October. I know I wanted a car that would be cheap to buy, insure, tax, run and fix, and something easy enough for me to pull many wrenches on, (but hey, don’t we all). Hopefully it would either be a classic, soon to be classic or a bit of a cult car so there would be a club social life that would come with it (and maybe no road tax, well, especially no road tax). Options explored included Marinas, Minors, 2CV’s and Imps, but these are other stories, because this is the story of a £20 wonder.
Dai, a motoring journalist friend, suggested a Panda might be the solution to my quest. “A panda?” I asked, “Aren’t they small, black and white, furry, live in China and eat bamboo?” “Maybe”, he replied, “but this one is all white, no brown, box like, sips petrol and lives in Winchester, and it’s up to £8 with 5 days left on e-bay.” There was no picture so I had little confidence in the short description about the car, or the make in general (I didn’t even know what one looked like!) We chose £50 as my maximum bid, and let e-bay do the rest. Reckoning that even if I paid £50 for it, it should be possible to flip it for £100, or have a nice day out, or have a parts car for a better one to be bought later. I got stuck into some work for a few days and forgot about it completely.
Early Saturday morning I got a call from Dai. “Call your insurance agent and add one panda to your policy. Purchase price £20, and book it for an MOT first thing Monday.” Now, Dai has been writing about motors, motoring and auto auctions for many years, and he explained that as long as the car had tax, and was booked for an MOT appointment, and it was going directly there, it was fine to drive. I did as instructed, insuring it and booking an MOT for first thing Monday. Sunday morning, Baxter, Dai and I set off for an unseen car, based on nothing more than a few lines posted on e-bay, and no picture, a rather long trip there and back, and, I thought, a rather tenuous legal hold on the terms of taking a car “directly” to an MOT station.
The drive to Winchester from Merthyr Tydfil, via the M4 and A34 was uneventful and quiet, except for Dai’s barrage of comments about the English as we crossed the Severn Bridge (and along much of the M4). The M4 was empty, the A38 pretty much the same.
We arrived at the housing estate in Winchester there sat my answer to all my searching for a cheap to buy, fix, tax and insure car: a £20 ’87 FIRE engined, 4 speed Fiat Panda, CL1000. We knocked on the door, and the young lady seller came out, gave us the keys, and took the £20, plus £30 for the remaining 4 months road tax. We asked after the MOT failure ticket- no rear indicator or horn, bad suspension leg, bad hand brake, touch of welding to pedal box…nothing really compared to the plus points; brand new exhaust, 4 brand new tires, new alternator, new battery, spotless throughout, and only a touch of rust on the bottom of the driver’s door, which I hear, is the guarantee that it is a genuine Fiat Panda, not some cheap knock off…As well, there was a full service history, and I mean FULL. Every 3, then 5000 miles it had had a service, by a Fiat garage, signed, stamped and dated, to its lifetime total of 49, 496 miles.
We checked the oil, coolant, brake fluid, happily found a half tank of gas, sorry, petrol on board, kicked it in the guts, and while it warmed up, kicked the tires, which all seemed tolerably hard. Without further ado, Dai jumped in the passenger seat, scattering crumbs and gravy from his recently eaten beef ‘n ale pies, and bits of custard creams- the remains of his “breakfast”. I got in and acquainted myself with the controls- found all the gears, found the clutch as heavy as kicking a cinder block, dipped the lights looking for the window wipers, found the indicators, nearly tore the window winder off trying to wind the window down (it goes the opposite way), rolled a cigarette, found first, and lurched off out of the estate. Baxter fell in close behind, my grey, slab like 740 estate dwarfing the leading Panda, like a shark shadowing prey.
As we had chosen a route that took us to the M4 more to the West, we had about 50 miles of rural A roads to deal with. I found that once in top, the Panda happily under-steered around the sharpest of bends in the country, and rarely needed to shift into 3rd, except for the odd village and seemingly ever increasing number of speed cameras. This was good…I was very nervous about the clutch pedal. The no-servo-assist brakes left more than something to be desired, like actually slowing the vehicle but I’ll now admit this prepared me for a near identical route in a Trabant a few weeks later.
I remarked to Dai that I found the clutch was really stiff, and didn’t seem to fully disengage. When we stopped for a pint, I had a look at the cable to see if there was a kink, and horror of horrors, found the clutch pedal bracket to be splitting the pedal box back plate. The rest of the trip home was done with the fewest number of gear changes possible, with visions of the pedal coming off the pedal box!
After putting £5 petrol in the Panda, and £15 in the Volvo, Merthyr was reached and the Panda was left at the MOT station.
The next day, after failing its MOT on the indicator light, horn, front, upper suspension bushing and hand brake, I trotted off to the local motor factor. I was happily surprised to find a pair of rear brake shoes was £12, a hand brake cable £10, and the suspension bushing £15. Replacing the hand brake was a snap, the rear brakes a 1 hour job, including 2 teas and 3 fags and inspecting my new copy of the Good Book of Haynes. The horn was impossible to find until I asked on the fiat forum, and then I had to rewire it to a button on the dash, as the previous owner had left a birds nest of wires from his alarm system and stereo. One thing I’ve learnt after 15 years of buying junk vehicles: when stuck with a new vehicle, where the previous owner has had all sorts of accessories wired in, but has since removed the items, but left the wiring- rip all the accessory wiring out. It often makes electrical faults disappear, or at least much easier to trace. I found the rear indicator wasn’t working because the positive wire had worked itself loose from its spade clip, a 3-minute job, but I also discovered that the car had even been Waxoyled between the interior and exterior body panels….this car was getting better and better! I mean, I paid £20 for it, and one of the four new tires was worth that, just as spares!
Up to the garage, the next morning, and the bushing was fitted for £30, and a crisp new MOT certificate was issued. The mechanic remarked on the difference in the brakes, and noted the hand brake now engaged much sooner and really held. Now all I had to, according to Haynes, was to dismantle the steering column, remove the master cylinder and clutch pedal, and replace the split, bolt-on pedal box, a task I was dreading. I had begun visiting fiatforum.com and some of the replies to my queries suggested that the clutch was seized, hence the tight clutch cable that was threatening to rip the pedal free of the pedal box. I wondered for a day or two if I should flog it as a car with a fresh MOT and 4 months tax to some mug, but then I thought of all the new things on it, the work I had done, the solid, clean body, and the 49 thousand original miles. I began to think, even if I spent £100 on the clutch, and 3 days at it, I would still have a near perfect, low mileage car, good for another 5 years, for less than £250.
It was three nights later that Dai phoned to say he had just met an old friend on the street that he had not seen for 15 years, a man known for his ability to weld and braze. And so I became acquainted with Derek. To cut short this list of “happy accidents”, Derek removed the cable, lubed it, brazed up the pedal box till it was more solid than the engine casting, and cautiously asked me for £30. What a guy! I just hope that one day he brings me an antique table that needs repair or an adult relative that needs to learn to read and write so I can fully repay the debt.
I’ve been driving the Panda for a month now, and find it marvellously simple, and simply marvellous. It’s had a few other items- an oil change and filter, air filter, change of coolant and a thermostat. It seems thermostats die with regularity on these cars, resulting in fluctuating engine heat and no heat to the passengers. It runs fine with a dead one, but not warming up means more use of the choke, more petrol, washed down cylinders, no heater…you know the deal. A replacement thermostat and housing, sold as a lump, was purchased for £10 and fitted in half an hour. Dead easy- two 10mm bolts. I was then able to knock off the choke completely at idle and adjust the idle. It now ticks over fine now. I spent an afternoon polishing the white paint and it came up real shiny. It’s amazing what a few hours work, an old can of polish and a rag will do.
It bounds down the deeply rutted back lane on its long suspension, where the Volvo had to be nursed along so it didn’t bottom out. It will do 4 trips to Swansea on a £21 tank of juice, carry 4 adults at motorway speeds, scratches round roundabout without slowing a touch and can be parked nearly anywhere, and I am told, is not likely to be stolen. Oh yeah, come June and insurance time, Tesco’s insurance is going to cost me £149 a year. Goodbye £600 a year Volvo!
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