Henry: a love story

The problem with love at first sight is that you just don’t know when it’s going to strike. And when it does, it can impact on your life even decades later.

In 1994, we went on a trip from our inner city Birmingham flat to visit Geoff’s brother in Shropshire. He picked us up from the railway station and drove us out into the countryside, chatting about our journey.

At one point another car came hurtling towards us on the damp road, apparently heading somewhere in a hurry. The vehicle was tatty, with black paint weathered to a matte finish, dents here and there and mud splashed all up the sides. As it neared the car we were in, it screeched from far too fast to a complete stop in an impossibly short distance, and the driver wound the window down and began a shouted conversation with Geoff’s brother. It turned out that this was the latter’s girlfriend, who’d got tired of waiting for us and come out to see where we’d got to. And the car was a 1980 Toyota Corolla E70 liftback – a sporty looking thing amongst the relatively square models of the time, and which, we were informed, went by the rather prosaic name of Henry. And, as it happened, Henry was for sale.

£175 later, we were the proud owners of a new (second-hand) car, which didn’t even get us back to Birmingham before the brakes bound on and we had to pull off the road into a car park, trailing foul-smelling smoke behind us.

Henry (and Geoff), on a rather bleak looking winter’s day in the Lickey Hills.

As a child I’d spent many cold, uncomfortable hours holding a torch while my dad worked on a variety of old vehicles, so I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the concept of car repairs. And Geoff had not long completed a 4-year maintenance apprenticeship at Leyland. The fact that we were both reasonably practical was just as well, because over the next couple of years we spent quite a lot of time in scrapyards sourcing parts for Henry.

But there was one problem we couldn’t fix with the minimal tools we had available – rust. Even when we got him, Henry had a couple of nasty holes in his sills. These would pick up water from the road, and – because eventually the footwells were the only places where there weren’t holes – this gradually accumulated to the point where, when we came to a stop at a traffic light, everyone in the car had to lift their feet up to avoid the wave that sloshed backwards and forwards over the by now rather smelly carpet.

And so eventually Henry went to the great scrapyard in the sky. It was a very sad day, and for several years afterwards friends and acquaintances would ask me if I still had “that cool car”. Well, no I hadn’t. But I never forgot it.

Fast forward rather more years than I care to think about, and I’ve graduated from cars I had to fix myself  – and in one memorable case that I had to keep a roasting tin underneath to collect the oil that seeped out of it every time it was stationary – and my last two cars have been leased. As it happens, they’ve been Toyota Corollas too, but in name only, and simply because the latest Kias (my preferred brand) were both too expensive and underpowered.

I’m happy with new cars. I love the idea of leasing, where you don’t have to pay for any servicing or repairs at all. You simply ring someone else and make an appointment for them to worry about whatever’s wrong.

But, just like the rust on Henry, there’s one problem with new cars that I can’t overcome, and that’s the gradual, insidious creep of technology. I enjoy driving. I’m a good driver. I enjoy reading maps. I’m pretty good at finding my way in an unfamiliar area. I don’t need a car that beeps to tell me I’ve put it in reverse, that it’s going backwards or that I’ve crossed the dividing line between traffic lanes as I overtake someone else. Or a car that has umpteen distracting lights and a vast GPS screen taking my attention away from the business of driving. I certainly don’t need a car that’s going to stick slavishly to the speed limit, regardless of road conditions.

So I’ve known for a while that this golden age of driving cars I don’t have to repair was going to come to an end fairly soon. What I needed, I decided, was an analogue car. A car like Henry. And, because I’ve never forgotten that car (and with possibly a little encouragement both from the vehicle restoration exploits of my dad and brother, and from watching Rust Valley Restorers and similar programmes), I’ve long thought I’d like another old Toyota Corolla. But not just any model. That exact one.

They do come up for sale from time to time. They vary wildly in price, from a few hundred euros for what’s essentially a shell, to more than 20,000€ for one that’s been, one assumes, thoroughly restored.

Anyway, I had the misfortune of driving a new Kia a couple of weeks ago, and its incessant bleating reminded me that I was due to check the various used car sites again. For example, in Portugal there’s an exact match for Henry, right down to the patchy matte black paint job, but it’s clearly in a bit of a state and at 2000€ rather expensive, especially as I have no idea how I’d get it home (wherever ‘home’ is these days).

I checked the French sites. And then I idly checked the Swedish ones. And I found exactly the right model, in what looked like very good condition for its age, and only a few hundred euros more than the Portuguese one… only 100 km from my place in Skåne.

A couple of emails to my car-loving friends in Sweden, a check by them to verify that it is indeed in nice clean condition as it appeared on the photos – and three days later I’m now finally once again the proud owner of a 1980 Toyota Corolla liftback.

As yet unnamed new (very much second-hand) car. I’m told this one actually got home without something going wrong!

It’s not the same colour as Henry, but as those of you who’ve seen my nail varnish will know, I’m rather partial to this particular shade of emerald green.

Of course the story doesn’t end there. I still have my leased car for the next year (assuming I ever manage to extract it from the car park at Copenhagen Airport where it’s been languishing since mid-March). And I’m well aware that an old car isn’t something you just get into and drive. I fully expect to spend more time with my head under the bonnet trying to work out why it’s not running than actually driving it. But to my mind, that’s a price well worth paying for a car that doesn’t whinge at me every time I think about changing gear.