James May

James May

Calling Hammond's bluff

A year and a half ago, I bought a 1980 Bentley T2 as one of those ‘Bentley-for-Mondeo-money’ experiments that car journalists are always writing about but never actually try for real.

Well, I did. So I can now tell you, from a position of absolute authority, that it’s bollocks.

The Bentley is a lovely old bus and I’m keeping it. Nothing much compares to an early morning swoop along a tree-lined B-road, Parry or Britten or some other domestic composer slotted in the CD player, Crewe’s finest ironmongery wafting me from crest to crest through the very landscape that inspired the sounds in the aromatic cabin. Now That’s What I Call England.

However, I’m tired of having to flog off my childhood treasures on eBay just to pay for the fuel, and the simple fact is that although the value of the car may be at Mondeo levels, the cost of maintenance is going the other way. Because it is built entirely of perishable materials, it has to live in a garage, and the nearest one long enough is nearly eight miles away. That means spending yet more on a folding bicycle.

Finally, I’m heartily sick of people climbing into the back and exclaiming, as if no-one has ever thought of it before, “Ha-ha! Home, James!”

So I needed another car. Something for local use. If I were driving to Scotland then I would sell some more Dinky toys and take the T2, but the rest of the time I would make do with something smaller and more frugal.

And a car I’ve always fancied is the Range Rover Classic, the Vogue SE model with air suspension. I know this sounds a bit daft but if you’re used to a T2, the Rangey counts as a handy hatchback. You might think 20mpg is a bit excessive, but when you’re used to 12 or 13 it represents a 50 per cent improvement.

Remarkably, Richard Hammond had come up with exactly the same idea. He’d even found one to go and look at – a one-owner 1993 car belonging to a man he knew, with a full history, and for a frankly incredible £4,000. “Let me know what it’s like,” I said. “If it’s good, I’ll have it.” That evening he rang me, and from the uninterrupted tirade of yokel exclamations I gleaned that it was a ‘minter’.

So good, in fact, that he’d taken the money he was supposed to be using to mend his house and bought it for himself.

You can imagine how annoyed I was. A mint Range Rover for £4,000 didn’t sound like the sort of thing that would come up very often. “Bring it round,” I suggested. “I’d like to see what you really get for that sort of money.”

“No,” he said.

“I got sick of people climbing into the Bentley and exclaiming, as if no-one has before, “Ha-ha! Home, James””

Instead, he challenged me to a game of Car Poker. Here’s how it works. Hammond would bring his Range Rover round, but only once I’d bought the same model at the same price. I had to pay to ‘see’ him, if you like. The best car would win, and there was a curry on the table.

Well, I still wanted one so off I went, scouring the country, Hammond ringing me up every few hours to bait me with more news of how good his was. I soon learned that £4,000 Range Rovers vary enormously: some were positively whiffy, some were quite nice. But it was tricky to know how good Hammond’s really was. He could be bluffing.

Eventually, I found myself at a small dealership called Impulse Motors looking at something very promising – the same year as Hammond’s, similar mileage and with a full service history. It was silver with grey leather, which I thought looked very urban and sophisticated. Hammond’s, I knew, was green with brown trim, as befitting his hurdy-gurdy rural lifestyle amongst the mud and peasants of Gloucestershire.

The upper tailgate was a bit rusty, but then, they always are on old Range Rovers, aren’t they? The front bumper had been dinged too, but so what? There were a few minor scuffs on the leather but as Hammond’s car had seen the same amount of use, his must have them as well. Or would it? He said it was ‘mint’ but then, his idea of mint might not be mine. By ‘mint’ he might merely mean ‘complete’.

Still, Car Poker provided an interesting new spin on the hackneyed language of haggling.

“I can’t give you four and a half for this,” I said to the slightly baffled salesman. “Hammond only paid four grand, and his is mint.”

“What?” he said, “Better than this one?”

“Don’t know. I haven’t seen it yet.”

Eventually, I parted with £4,100 and came home quaking with nervous excitement. It wasn’t the money for the car. It wasn’t the cost of the insurance. It wasn’t even the burden of another complex old British barge to attend to. It was the fear that I might have to buy Hamster a bhuna. That would really hurt.

We met in the Top Gear car park. I couldn’t believe it. He had bought the only Range Rover in Britain with an unblemished tailgate. He had a patch of rust on a wheel-arch, but I had my knackered front bumper. Mine was a more interesting colour scheme, but his smelled better. It was close, but then he played the card that Motorhead warned us about: the joker.

An LPG conversion. His was bi-fuel. The duty might go up in a few months’ time and the whole thing will look like a waste of boot space, but until then he’s running his Range Rover at two-thirds the money it’s costing me. Worse, I had to take him to the Light of Nepal at my expense. I’d lost.

But what a great way to go car-buying. Left to my own devices, I might have become impatient and impulsive. Instead, the spectre of Hammond stuffing his smug face at my expense forced me to search harder and haggle more aggressively. I didn’t win, but Car Poker has provided the second-best Rangey instead of the bag of bolts I usually buy.

Someone should set up a Car Poker website to unite people searching for the same car at the same price. At the end of the game, they meet in a mutually convenient Little Chef to compare purchases. Loser buys the Olympic Breakfast.


James May, Column, Bentley, Range Rover

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