Friday, 27 March 2015

Alfa Male or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Brakes, Part Three

I have volunteered blah-fucking-blah planet shit this cunt that Green Party membership fucking livelihood gone yada yada yada - here's a bit about the Alfa. 

Part Three: How I learned to stop worrying and love the brakes

Three months and two days into my ownership of an Alfa Romeo 156, I began to realise what people meant about the "continuous disappointment" of having one. Which is a bit of a shame, especially when you consider that it came with a three month and no days warranty. But it is a beautiful car. 

A light comes on. It looks like something to do with the airbag, but I'm not too sure, I'm too busy looking ahead of me, as the dreary M4 slithers across the south, ruining most of the countryside it cuts through, but somehow still improving Swindon and most of Eastern Wales. And my beautiful car is improving it all. 

Wait, if it's the airbag, what does that mean? Is it just going to blow up in my face, at 70-ish miles an hour? What if I have a crash? Will it do nothing? 

"Amber... Amber..."
It's been a long day in London. 
"Do you reckon you could get out the car's handbook out the glovebox and have a look at something for me?"
"..... mmmm, right now?"
"Yeah, if you could wake up a bit"
"I think there's something wrong with the airbag"
"What the - THE AIRBAG? When did that go wrong? Why didn't you say earlier? Pull over! Pull over RIGHT FUCKING NOW AND LOOK YOURSELF, WHY DID YOU BUY A SHIT ALFA ROMEO I KNEW THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN."

We pull over, and I scan the handbook for any information that may save us both from a gruesome death. Nothing. Reading the handbook of an Alfa Romeo, you may think that it would contain information about what to do in the inevitable event of something going wrong. I could just have it as an ornament, and look at how beautiful it is, I suppose.

"Airbag light on: Take to a certified Alfa Romeo garage."

Remembering my harrowing experience of Ford's garages, I decline and instead take it to the place which correctly diagnosed the piston problem. Thankfully, they sort it while I wait, so there was only time for two people to say "Is that your Alfa Romeo there? Ooooh, risky mate, especially at your age!" (ha, good one mate, and despite what you ingest from the Daily fucking Mail, some people under 25 do have jobs, you know) and £30 later, I'm back on the road. 

And I stay on the road. For ages. Oh my god, I've struck gold! The one Alfa Romeo in the world that is - dare I say it? - reliable! In my possession! These are the kind of good-luck-stories that you only see clogging up your Facebook page ("A young man from Cheltenham buys an Alfa Romeo - what happened next will blow your mind!"). Nothing has gone wrong for ages! It's practically biblical! Alfa Romeo will surely be on the phone asking for it back to go in their museum, as an artefact of historical importance. 

But, dearest reader, pride doth often precede the fall. We are two days away from an MOT test, when I offer to drive to Bristol to pick up a couple of friends from a music concert. Feeling a bit like a responsible dad, I drive down early, find somewhere close to the venue to park, and wait for them. 

Beautiful, but stationary. But beautiful. 

It's only when I'm driving slowly through Bristol that I notice a slight grinding noise on the brakes. This sound usually only happens when they're cold, but I've been driving for 45 minutes, what could possibly be wrong?

But before I have a chance to investigate, my fare for the night arrives. Ears ringing from cheers, eyes glazed from beers, they hop into the car ("wow! You cleaned it just for us??" "No, it's filthy, it's just dark so you can't see the mess." "Right! Cool!") and we're on the motorway in no time. 

As we arrive to a set of roadworks, I gently brake, but quite a rumble is fed back to me. And them. The reveller in the backseat, previously snoozing, sits up. 

"What's that?"
"Sorry mate, the brakes have started to grind slightly."
"Okay... Are we safe?"
"Well, I'm taking it for an MOT in a couple of days, so we'll only know with hindsight."

Interestingly, he didn't return to sleep. 

And for 48 hours, my own body clock goes into spasms. What if it does fail? I'm not exactly a Barclays banker, it could spell disaster. 

In it goes. But damn! I left my phone in there! I get home and ring the garage. 

"Hi, I've just taken an Alfa Romeo in for an MOT and I think I left my phone in the car?"
"Oh, hi James! Your car has failed the MOT."
"Oh, that was quick, is it back yet?"
"No, it's there now being tested."
"Okay, so how do you know it's failed?"
"The airbag light came on while I was driving it over there, so that's a fail straight away."
"I see."
"Also, the brakes sounded pretty dodgy, so we'll just have to wait and see what they say, I'll let you know."
"Okay - and was my phone in there?"
"I didn't see."
"Okay, thanks anyway."

10 minutes later. 

"Hi James, it's [the garage] again. Yep, your car failed."
"Yeah, you're colleague said it might."
"Quite spectacularly, really."
"Yeah, he hinted at that as well."
"Even by Alfa Romeo's standar-
"Is my phone in the car?"
"Oh, I don't know, but your car will need some work. You're looking at some new brakes, a new sensor, and three tyres need replacing, and then it'll need a second test."
"It'll be around-" then a figure comes out of her mouth that is usually reserved for NASA's accountants... But it is a beautiful car, right? 

And like most beautiful things, ultimately the Alfa become ravagingly expensive. Cars, diamonds, visits to Twickenham, the Cotswolds, my girlfriend's birthday present - my girlfriend, for that matter. But I would argue with you until the cows come home (just in time to become my girlfriend's next present, no doubt) that all things that are beautiful are worth it. 

Alfa Romeos are worth it, whatever 'it' is. Money, embarrassment, jibes, it doesn't amount to a grain of sand on the warm beaches that Alfa Romeo owners walk upon. 

Months after my own mini-economic recovery from MOT-gate, I am driving back from a day of working in London. The Sun and I are locked in a westerly race, and just as I pass through Oxford, I'm conceding defeat, which is more of a shame for the Sun more than myself, because now he's missing out on one of the best sights in England - the roads and the surrounding environment between Oxford and Cheltenham. A serenely stunning sight, one glance of which would cast away any doubts about the reliability and cost of an Alfa Romeo. 

Life is too short to be pottering about in a dull car, staring at an empty road wondering if you can make it out onto the road in time for tea. It's too short to be sitting on a train pretending to work while you tweet about how shit trains are. It's too short to be on a bus, full stop. 

If you're short on a smile, come and have a ride in my Alfa Romeo. You'll be beaming in seconds. 

But not right now, it's in the garage.

And looking damn beautiful while it's there, I can assure you.  

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Alfa Male or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Brakes, Part Two

I have volunteered to become an environmentalist at work. Y'know, save the planet n' shit. It's a massive character-shift for me, but I'm up for the challenge. 

But there's one tragic condition: I'm to use my car less. LESS! But I bloody love cars. I've always bloody loved cars. What would I do without one? Cars have been a staple of my adult life - so much so, I can't imagine my life without one. Could it be done? There are so many fond memories. So so many. 

Part Two: Pistoff
It was the perfect marriage. I had loved them for years and years. Other kids at school may look at Ferraris, Zondas and McLarens and lust after them as if they were metal supermodels. I had other, loftier ambitions. Driven by my adoration for Colin McRae, I wanted a Ford Focus. Nothing fancy, nothing garish, not even a rally-spec model. Just a humble, simple Focus. And I'd accept any model from any seller. 

The seller in question was just that; rather questionable. In we drove to somewhere "near Fulham", which certainly was not Fulham, and there he was on the corner of a street next to it. A man from Jerusalem who insisted we paid with cash sold it to us, and watched us drive away that very frosty morning. A quick clean sale. He couldn't have wished for a better start to his day. 

Two weeks later, sitting in the garage of a local Ford dealership, I learn that there is a problem with the cooling system, but it's sorted now. 

One a half week later, sitting in a garage just outside Newport, I learn that there is a problem with the cooling system, but it's sorted now. 

Then, two weeks later, while I am at my parents' home, nothing starts. At all. So I have to wait until one of them returns from home for a jump-start (though luckily, an old friend was able to help me out). 

A month after that and almost £400 later (which, in undergraduateland, where I was living at the time, is the equivalent of 400 million billion pounds), I'm told by another man from the RAC at Cardiff Gate services that there's a problem with the fan. 
"Oh, what makes you think it's the fan?"
"Well, it doesn't seem to be kicking at the right time, which means there's a problem with the cooling system."
"Oh. How can I fix it?"
"Just get the car drawing in air. Flick the air con on, and see if it makes a difference."

Fucking hell, the man's a genius. No cooling problem! Not only does the fan work when the car's running, it occasionally carries on cooling the car when I stop at my destination, as if it's making up for lost time! What a good little car! 

I bet he never had any problems with his Focus. 

Until one morning, and I'm driving to work. The heating sensor shoots up as if it were measuring a kettle. Then the engine light comes on. Then the battery light comes on. Then there's a severe loss of power.

"I've got power loss!" I shout, because I'm an idiot and thought there was a Formula 1 garage I could report to. As it is, I'm alone, on a cold October morning, in the middle of fucking nowhere. 

Once my tears had dried and the usually reputable company I work for had a good laugh at my expense as I informed them of my circumstances, I find myself in a familiar position: looking at an engine without a fucking clue what to do or say, while somebody else updates me on the situation. 

"So, this is your engine" (Alright mate, I'm not that bad) "and these are the pistons" (Yep, got that, 'suck, squeeze, bang, blow' - I did do GCSE Physics, you know, Sir!) "and there's the crack in the piston" (woah- what the fuck??)
"How did that happen?"
"Well, there's nothing in the pipes that could have cracked it, so it's been there a while. How long have you had the car?"
"A few months."
"Hmm, it could have been any time. Where did you get it? Do you still have a receipt or a copy of a sale?"
For a brief moment I imagine the man from Jerusalem starring in a P. Diddy music video, flicking notes at women as they all jump into a pool, drinking champagne and wearing neck chains the size of tank tracks. 
"No. I'm due to take it to Ford for a service next week, can they do something about it?"
"Well, we could do it here, but you're looking at (mechanics have a habit of saying to you that you're 'looking at things' that aren't there) a new engine, and a test and a service anyway, so it's probably worth more than the car."
"Right... and how much would I get for scrap?"
"Hm, you're probably looking at about... couple of hundred quid?"

Trudging out of the garage considerably later, a cheque for £138 in one trembling hand, and my phone in the other (also trembling), I make a call to Ford.
"Hi, I had a service booked for a 2002 Ford Focus, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to cancel it."
"Okay, is this Mr Brittain?"
"It is"
"Hi Mr Brittain, may I ask why you're cancelling your service? It does need to be done."
"I've just scrapped my car."
"Oh right, may I ask why?"
"There was a crack in the piston."
"I see... Yes, it's on your file that it was a problem."
"Hold on, so you knew?"
"Yes, I can see it on my screen about your car."
"I was never told about this."
"It passed the engine test, so it wasn't necessary to tell you."
"Right, well it blew while I was driving it this morning, and now I don't have a car."
"Oh... I'm sorry to hear that Mr Brittain... Would you be interested in hearing about our finance deals for a slightly newer Ford?"
"No thank you."

Monday, 23 March 2015

Alfa Male or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Brakes, Part One

There are troubled waters ahead, dear reader. Particularly hot ones, which I have landed myself into. 

I have volunteered to become an environmentalist at work. Y'know, save the planet n' shit. Just imagine me as a Bono-type figure who checks to see how much paper my colleagues are using, and switches lights off after them. 

It's a massive character-shift for me but I promise you, I am up for the challenge. If everything goes smoothly, I may be the first privately educated white male to really influence people. What a time to be alive!

But there's one tragic condition: In order to lessen my own impact on this great giver of life, I'm to use my car less. LESS! As in, drive fewer times than I do now, and travel fewer miles! But I bloody love cars. I've always bloody loved cars. What would I do without one? Cars have been a staple of my adult life - so much so, I can't imagine being without one. 

Could it be done? There are so many fond memories. So so many. 

Let's put on that 'shimmering' effect over our vision and take a stroll back through three of the greatest joys of my life...

Part One: Golden Years

We were first introduced by a care worker in Worcester. She was looking for somebody new, young and exciting, and I was looking for a chance to kickstart my adulthood. 

Admittedly, most people wouldn't look twice at a Peugeot 106, even if it was decorated in such a lurid shade of gold. But to me, my future first car meant the world to me. 48hp, 146,000 miles on the clock, and did I mention about how fucking gold it was? It was the moment I went from a boy to a man (yes, even more than that moment, when I went from a boy to a profusely apologetic boy). If there was a better way to spend six hundred pounds, I did't want to know about it!

Unfortunately, a bit like Ri Sol-ju, (who, you will of course recall, is the wife of Kim Jong-Un), I was a little blind to the real problems my partner was causing. And, behind our backs, our beloveds were subject to much ridicule throughout the Western World. Yes I had freedom, (which is more than Ri Sol-ju can say, I'm certain), but at what cost? 

At just over the weight of a bag of sugar, it was quite easy for a man on each corner to lift it and carry it from the car park to the middle of the road, it turned out. And if you've ever met a BMW X5 in a country lane, and you're driving anything less expensive than a fighter jet, it's a good chance to practise reversing. Something I quickly learned, and slowly perfected. 

With a car so easy to break into, incidents like this were frequent.

It's the kind of car you'd describe to your friends as 'plucky', because you couldn't bring yourself to tell them it was a 'rusty shitebox'. But what a joy it was. Come rain, snow, fog, sun, the Peugeot magnificently performed in all weathers. 

And I mean all weathers. 

It's a snowy December in Swansea, where I have stayed in my student accommodation to work for a terrible telecoms company. The job was thoroughly enjoyable, even if the company was rubbish, so I wouldn't want to do it discredit by naming the store. But it was on the High Street in Swansea, and the logo was orange. Come to think of it, most of the branding was orange. 

Briefly, Wales' second city stops being a dystopia of tracksuits and heroin and looks like a Winter Wonderland. Noticing my car is the only one in the car park, I leave for work two hours early (something I've never repeated, and I've had some pretty fun jobs), and spend an hour and a half my additional commuting time driving my car around the Student's Village, having the time of my life. 

I forget for a moment about the car I'm actually driving, and only focus on the joy of driving it. This little thing is brilliant! Truly amazing! And when it is time to actually drive to work, I notice I'm still the only car on the road. I see Porsche Cayennes abandoned. Jeeps halfway up hills. At most, two or three cars pass me as I head towards the city centre on roads deemed not worthy of grit by the council. 

I arrive at work beaming from ear to ear. Suspicion is instantly aroused. 
"Why are you so happy?"
"I just had a really good drive in, that's all."
"You drove?"
"Well, it was a faff to de-ice the car, but I just got in and drove."
"Fuck! My car's on the side of the road by Sketty (it's a small part of Swansea close to my quarters - and yes, by nature as well as name)".
"Oh, well I'll give you a lift back tonight if you want?"
"Yeah please! What car have you got?"
"A Peugeot 106."
"Oh... Well, yeah if you could give me a lift, that would be great, but it's no big deal."
"No, it's okay, I don't mind." I was too ecstatic about my journey to notice that somebody was, as the kids would say, 'dissing my ride'.

Time crawls almost to the point of standstill throughout the day, offering little in terms of notable events except for a crying teenager, after being told her phone bill is £800 (considerably more than I paid for my car), wailing that her father is going to "literally" kill her. But eventually, 6 o'clock does strike, and it's time to drive home. With ease. And with a grinning passenger. 

"Your car... is fucking LEGENDARY! I know this is a bit cheeky, but could you give me a lift tomorrow? I'll get you a sandwich at lunch or something."
"Wow, yeah sure I'll come and get you - 8:45?"
"Sounds perfect, see you tomorrow!"
My guest practically skips past his abandoned car up to the street where he lives, thinking he's got a great deal. I drive off with glee, thinking I've got another great reason to take the car out in the snow. I completely forget that I don't even have work the next day until I get back to my room. But fuck it, I don't care - I'll just turn up anyway and drive about again! Because my car is fucking legendary. 

People rarely forget their first car, and I'll never ever forget mine. Yes, it didn't look very cool (one friend described the colour as "urine yellow"), and yes it wasn't very fast, except for one heady moment when I was urged by friends to overtake a man cruising in a Ferrari just outside Cardiff, who proceeded to toy with us until we were in the fast lane of the motorway trying to keep up with him, doing about 71 mph, (I think, Officer), at which point he'd decided he'd had enough and sped off into the distance. But when I was alone in Swansea for those couple of weeks in that December, and through many more hardships to come at University, it was a true companion to me. 

When I'm old, grey and living on a diet of blended chicken pie and Countdown, my room will be void of pictures of snotty grandchildren achieving things better than me. There won't be any images of the places I've been, or of the people I've met. There will just be the Peugeot 106 I bought from an estate in Worcester when I was 17, hanging over my bed. My one true love, sadly taken from me by the relentless grip of time, but never, ever forgotten. Even now, as I meet old friends, they still ask after it, as if it were an old friend. But they're wrong to speak of it that way.

It's so much more than that. 

What newer, wiser, nobler car could have possibly taken the place of such steed? How could any vehicle, short of a Concorde, hit the heady heights that the Peugeot achieved? Keep an eye out for Part 2 on Wednesday.