James May

Cartoon of a classic car falling apart

Trouble in store

Every now and then, one of the classic car magazines runs a type of story that has always baffled me. It begins with the revelation that something like a rare Lambo has been found abandoned in a garage.

Reading on, we discover that it’s been there since 1980. It’s very dusty and the tyres are flat but, remarkably, it’s complete and in need of only ‘gentle recommissioning’, as the classics lot put it.

A few months later we see a picture of the same car bowling down a tree-lined road in the hands of a bloke who never imagined he could get his aforementioned hands on such a thing. Marvellous.

Now here’s what I’ve never understood. How did anyone ever forget about owning a Lamborghini? Or grow bored of owning one? How did a car that is obviously in sound condition end up sitting idle for 25 years? If the previous owner didn’t like it, why wasn’t it sold? Or even given away? All it took was a postcard in the local newsagent’s window.

I can see how a fountain pen might work its way to the back of a desk drawer and be overlooked for two decades. A few years ago I bought my girlfriend a pair of boots that she didn’t really like, and they are in the corner of her wardrobe, still in the original box and awaiting the great day when they appear on eBay as an item of mint and unused retro chic. But a car? I really don’t foresee a day when I can’t be bothered with my Boxster any more and I just leave it in its garage gathering mould and mouse droppings. Apart from anything else, I’d want the storage space.

But now I understand exactly how it happens. For the past month I’ve been driving around France making a new programme for the BBC, and for this purpose I bought a 1989 Jaguar XJ-S convertible. It was a good one. Everything on it worked, there was no rot, the hood was free of tears, the mileage was confirmed at under 60,000, and I loved it. Before I left I had it thoroughly serviced and checked, and a few marginal components such as radiator hoses and brake pads were replaced. It still had its original toolkit and spare wheel, and even the unused bag thing that the conscientious owner is supposed to use to cover the hood when it’s folded. And I’ve always wanted an XJ-S convertible.

After a few days of driving around France, it sprang a small oil leak. Tiny, really, and from the little micro switch that governs the oil pressure gauge on the instrument panel. Sadly, this little component was not available in any of the local garages I tried, so I resigned myself to topping up the oil instead. It was only losing a spoonful of 20/50 each day, and as it was all dripping on France I wasn’t actually that bothered. I’d sort it out when I got home.

“Here’s what I’ve never understood. How did anyone ever forget about owning a Lamborghini? Or grow bored of owning one?”

And this is exactly where all those Lamborghini-in-a-barn stories really begin. The Jaguar had crossed that invisible line between being a car and being a car that ‘needs some work’. It was the first scuff on a new pair of shoes, the first chip in the paint of a newly-decorated room, that moment when the case for your sunglasses disappears.

So when the air-conditioning packed up owing to some otherwise minor electrical fault, I decided to live with it for the moment. The car needed work anyway, so that was just something else to add to the list. As was the passenger door mirror, which somehow became detached from its electric motor, so that the motor whirred away but the mirror didn’t move. I could sort that out in half an hour when I was in my own garage with my own toolbox.

I think you can see where this is going. There were now three faults with the Jag, and fixing them all was probably a day’s work. That became two days when a Frenchman drove into the back of me and bent the bumper. And then it needed another day, because another Frenchman (or it may have been a German, since we were in Alsace and no one is entirely sure who owns it at the moment) scraped a rear wheelarch in a car park.

This is why the so-called ‘rolling restoration’ of an old car never works; the notion that the car can be driven while you complete all those little jobs concerning trim, paint, interior lights, dicky alternators and so on. It’s not possible, because in driving the car you will create problems quicker than they can be cured. A rolling restoration is really just a headlong and brakeless descent to the scrapyard.

And as the weeks passed, more things fell apart. The trip computer died, the back section of the driver’s seat fell off, one of the windows became loose, the exhaust started blowing when I clouted it on a boulder, the radio aerial jammed in the down position.

Here’s where it ends. For complex reasons to do with insurance for filming, the Jag was actually bought by the production company making the programme, the idea being that I would buy it from them when we’d finished. I’ve now put it in their car park and run away, so it could stay there for 20 years. And then a Classic Cars journalist as yet unborn will find it and wonder how it came to be forgotten.

I still want an XJ-S, but I don’t want that one. It’s broken. If I’d mended the oil leak I might have stayed on top of it, but I didn’t and now it’s ruined. It’s been filed under ‘too difficult’ like the letter from the video-hire shop reminding me that I still have their copy of Where Eagles Dare and owe them £120. That’s been at the bottom of my in-tray for at least six years.

If there’s anything wrong with your car – anything – stop what you’re doing and go and sort it out. Now. Same goes for your house. There’s probably a loose doorknob or a damp patch that needs fixing. Do it.

Do it, before the next problem comes along, or it will all become too much. It may seem like nothing more than an irritating small job to you, but somewhere, a man with a bulldozer is limbering up for the demolition job.



James May, Column, Jaguar

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