In the 2010 film The American, there is a scene where a catholic priest tells George Clooney “Journalism can’t make you rich”, hinting that he knows the latter is not the photographer he claims to be but something much more sinister.
Truer words have rarely been spoken, especially when it comes to the specialized sector that is motoring journalism. It won’t make you rich* but, on the other hand, you’ve turned your hobby into a job and that job does come with certain perks.
First and foremost, you get to drive nearly every new car and that includes some of the best. You also visit some amazing places, meet very interesting people and gain an insight about the inner workings of the automotive industry.
Yours truly enjoyed it until it became apparent that the job was quickly turning into a hobby that I couldn’t indulge in any more due to practical reasons, aka pay cuts due to falling sales and advertising income.
This brought me to a position I hadn’t been in since the previous century: I was out in the market for a car.
I had sold my cherished Alfa Romeo 156 to a cousin/dear friend a few years back because I couldn’t stand watching it sitting in the garage as I had no time to take it out and my better half didn’t have a driving license.
Having driven a different car practically each day for more than a decade, I now had to get used to living with the same vehicle day in, day out. Think of it as the automotive equivalent of settling down with one woman after countless one-night stands: she’ll have to be real good for you not to be truly satisfied.
Even if money was no object, I’d really have a hard time deciding. As it happened, money was definitely an object and, in the meanwhile, the aforementioned better half had learned how to drive so her needs became a factor.
In the end, I settled for a Kia Venga small MPV. The price was a steal, the car was extremely roomy, practical and loaded to the gills with extras (six airbags, ESP, part leather seats, folding mirrors, the lot) and, with just 3,400 km (a bit over 2,100 miles) on the odometer it was as good as new.
Its 1.6-liter four-cylinder was sprightly and yet frugal, the ride was compliant save for sharp undulations that jolted the rear torsion beam suspension, the visibility perfect.
After more than a year living with it, I’d rate the Venga an A+ as an utterly relaxing and reliable little car to spend a trouble-free life with.
I’d also give it a D in the fun factor department. Not its fault, really, as it did exactly what it was designed for. The problem was that it did none of the things I wanted.
My list of “must-haves” includes a steering with real feedback, sporty handling, the ability to put the electronics to sleep if I wished and, preferably, rear-wheel drive.
Being on a tight budget that was getting smaller, as expenditures always rise to meet income, meant I wasn’t exactly spoilt for choice. BMWs within reach came with a gazillion miles on the odometer and/or a patchy history - the rest were just very old or absurdly overpriced. A Mini would be fun but the Cooper is underpowered and a Cooper S in decent condition too steep for my pocket. The list was long and the search yielded no results.
Apparently, I had great expectations. Needless to say, I was depressed.
Help came by a former colleague. He happened to have a friend who was selling exactly the kind of car I was looking for. It was compact, low, rear-wheel drive, with a short-throw six-speed manual transmission and a mechanical limited-slip differential.
There was no service book but said colleague vouched for the car being serviced meticulously and some scratches and dings didn’t put me off as the cream leather interior with the Nardi wooden-rimmed wheel and gear lever was in tip-top condition.
It was a Mazda MX-5 with nearly 160,000 km (100,000 miles) and a 1.8-liter engine. Even though its 140PS output wasn’t ripping the tarmac apart, the low weight made up for it, it had adequate low-end torque and oversteer was easy to induce and control. It was well within my allocated budget and, having a family car, being a two-seater wasn't a problem.
Mission accomplished - or so I thought, but you'll have to wait for the next session to find out what happened…
*PS: I am fully aware of Harry Metcalfe (who, as far as I know, didn’t make his money out of Evo) and Chris Harris (who I have absolutely no clue about; maybe he was born into money, maybe he won the lottery – it’s not my business, either way). The only ones I can think off are the three Top Gear TV show hosts; every rule has an exception. BTW, well done, old chaps, and nice to have you back for the 19th season.
By Andrew Tsaousis