The Things We Buy For Love

I was asked by another publication recently to name my favourite automotive sound, as part of a team feature on the topic. And while I ended up nominating the Rover-BRM jet engine, largely because my colleagues had all chosen engine noises and it would mean the feature read nicely, I wanted to write about my love of the Rover P6 door catch.

Regular readers will remember that I bought a P6 solely on account of the way the doors closed four years ago, and that adoration hasn’t dimmed in the intervening years. But our engine note piece got me thinking once again about the reasons we buy the cars we buy, and if we leave personal nostalgia out of the equation I reckon more people buy a classic because of one subtle little attribute than for the overall experience.

I can’t see anybody buying a W123 Mercedes because it’s the last word in driver delight, for instance. No, it’s about the way the seats spring properly, or about the well engineered Germanic click that every panel makes. It’s about the coarse feeling plastic on the steering wheel and the hard wearing tweed. Yes, a Merc’s a status symbol, but only because of what it cost. The thrusting exec would have chosen a BM, ownership of a Merc is testament to the attitude of “buy once, buy well”.

And on a personal note, I can’t see anybody buying a SAAB 9-5 as an all rounder – largely because it feels like a big engined Vectra. If you like cupholders, though, this is the car for you.

In these modern days of autohomogenisation, these neat little touches are being lost. All cars look the same inside, all cars feel the same – I regularly attend new car press events and for every ten new cars I drive, maybe one or two will stand out, and they won’t be run of the mill saloons or hatchbacks. They’re all very capable in ways which, let’s face it, classics often aren’t – but they lack soul, they lack the X factor, they lack that one little touch that makes an owner think “oooh!”

This is what’s driving people toward classics – the deep seated desire to find a way to bond with their transport. And yes, I know, I said it four years ago about the thplunk of the door on my old Rover. But the point stands now more than ever. I miss that thplunk. I want another P6. And I’m not alone.

A mate of mine has just sold his Mercedes 190E. It was doing sterling service as an everyday hack, cheap, cheap to run, never went wrong, useful. Perfect. But it did absolutely nothing for him emotionally. So it’s gone after three years, and in its place sits a thirstier Rover 75 which is almost sure to cost him more in maintenance than the Benz ever did. Why? Because he loves the warm, comforting ambience, the sensation of care, and the slightly ponderous oldeworlde feeling from behind the wheel. When he told me what he’d done, I felt mildly envious, and spent the next hour looking for a nice 75 until I remembered I’d sold mine through lack of use. I need one even less than he did. But the emotional pull drew me in.

Cars of the Unexceptional era have long been criticised for lacking character. But as time goes by, the little touches become more apparent. We like the Vectra’s valve cap tool, the Mondeo’s gearbox, the way a Rover 400’s passenger airbag looks like an afterthought. Does this mean that one day we’ll find something to love about, say, the Peugeot 407?

It’s not an impossible notion.


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