Act of Defiance

Amid the Pandemic’s height, a reminder of a more resilient time.

All images: the author

There is a certain perverse satisfaction in driving what in automotive terms amounts to an old shoe. Banger, beater, clunker or jalopy – whatever term you prefer, once a car reaches a certain level of decrepitude, the keeper soon realises that not only is there no route back, but that they have been released – freed from the grinding tyranny of upkeep. It is now possible to park the wretched thing anywhere, to take all manner of traffic-related liberties: ‘oh really matey, you want some, do you?

During my early, impecunious years in London, I rattled around the capital in a spectacularly decrepit X-reg Fiat 127. It had left the Mirafiori factory red in colour, but had faded to something a good deal less vibrant in tone – I let the rain wash it. It had mismatched bumpers, and if memory serves, half a grille – not exactly the one it left the factory with either. The doors would have made excellent colanders.

I drove that Fiat like I had stolen it and took few prisoners in the cut and thrust of Hyde Park Corner, the Fulham Palace Road or the Elephant and Castle. White van man frequently thought about it, then thought better. The Metropolitan police could never believe the thing was road legal, so I spent a good deal of time handing out my particulars to a predictable array of good cop/bad cop duos. It finally gave its last, one wet Saturday afternoon on Wandsworth bridge – a scrappy took it away on a flatbed and I became twenty quid better off. Seemed fair.

Today’s example of automotive decrepitude lies closer to what your West Cork correspondent (he’s lying low for the present) now calls home. The photos were in fact taken earlier in the year, when this part of Ireland was in the midst of what the New Zealand premier (congratulations on your re-election, Jacinda) described as ‘hunkering down’ amid the first C-19 wave.

I have seen this Passat about town a number of times since these photos were taken. It’s a working car (in both senses of the term) and one that has clearly served its keeper faithfully. As much as the Irish climate tends to reduce cars to ferrous shavings over a relatively short space of time, vehicles like this one are nowadays rare sightings, largely because people have become a good deal more self conscious about appearances and decent cars have become a good deal more affordable.

All of which makes this, not only something of a throwback to an earlier, less outwardly affluent era, but perhaps a what might constitute a contrarian statement in these more is more times. At what point does a car go from being a statement of attainment – to being its inverse – to being an anti-statement?

There is an honesty and unambiguous authenticity to this car which gives me a sense of pleasure I’m not sure I can wholly explain. It lies in the gaps between words, in that nebulous idea of outside. As our lives increasingly become acts of capitulation to someone’s idea of consumerist perfection, there is something thrillingly subversive about a decrepit Passat which really doesn’t give a flying about what you, I, or anyone thinks – nor, I’d like to believe, does its owner.

Times have been tough before – especially in this part of the world. We drove cars like this because we had to. We endured, we abided and we saw things through to better times. We shall do so again. I think about these things when I look at this Passat – an example which would have given Dr Piëch apoplexy – had he been around to witness it.

We’ll get through this – all of us. We just just have to endure.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

17 thoughts on “Act of Defiance”

  1. Hi, a majority of cars in Nice look like this. Given that the locals treat their vehicles as bumper cars it’s not surprising.

    1. I can only agree. And not just in Nice, but in all the villages and cities of southern France, as far as I can remember my travels.
      We had a local service producer in the late 80s and early 90s, she always parked her car without the handbrake and out of gear so that other parked people could easily move the car without damaging it. At first I thought, what a nerd, until after a few days one of our production cars looked something like the Passat in the photos above.

  2. Good morning Eóin. What a nice, uplifting message to start the day, so thank you for that.

    You’re absolutely right, of course, and we should be especially grateful if we are still healthy and in employment, or otherwise financially secure. I’m afraid I have limited patience for those who whinge about minor privations at the present time, given the awful problems face by people whose livelihoods and homes are threatened by the pandemic.

    The Passat is a great reminder of former times in the Ireland of my childhood. With no equivalent MOT test, cars like this were commonplace, especially in rural areas. They were kept going by all sorts of Heath Robinson arrangements until they finally expired, then were abandoned in a bog to return to nature.

    The Passat was once loved by someone who went to the trouble and expense of fitting unusual and rather smart aftermarket tail lights to it. This is what the originals looked like:

    Incidentally, doesn’t the Passat B5 still look the perfect design? I cannot think of a single thing I would change on it.

    1. Quite right: there´s nothing wrong with it in itself. I remember Car saying it looked a bit GM at the back. What were they thinking? The other thing was the patently false claim that it was a departure from car design habits and the beginning of product design approaches to automotive objects at VW. Tommyrot. The problem with this car is that it is very much a piece of styling (good and all, I admit) whereas VW had been quite serious about their robust industrial design philosophy up to then. After that, it was all styling at VW.

    2. that VW period, Piech period, it was the best for VW, next Passat was a shame together with the Golf V.

    3. Is it true that they chamfered the trailing edge of the third side window so that it wouldn’t look just like the contemporary Audis? This Passat was based on the same longitudinal engine platform as the A4 and A6.

  3. Beautifully described, thank you once again. When we finally sold our ancient 307SW I’m sure the neighbours were pleased but my wife mourned for over a year – this shiny new car, did she really have to keep out of hedgerows when passing other cars? Avoid kerbs, walls and bollards all of the time, not just almost all of the time? So stressful!

    Talking of unusual sightings, is that a Reliant Regal Supervan further down the road?

  4. In this case, I think appearances are a bit deceptive – it wouldn’t take much to revive the paintwork, fix the front arches and boot lid and buy it some wheel trims.

    It makes me sad to see things being neglected, especially when they are as attractive as this car could be.

  5. Old bangers are the cars that later provide the best memories, in my experience.
    When studying at the Automotive Management Institute in the late eighties I commuted to and from school with a friend and classmate for two years in his old yellow Volvo 66GL. By that time it was well past its best and the tinkering by adding accessories by its owner had not helped it; as the electrical add-ons had been wired and connected by ourselves more than a few problems developed over time- my nickname in practicum electrics was “Sparky” for a reason.
    Some of the idiosyncracies I remember that resulted were: If you had the headlights switched on, but during the trip switched on the radio after the turn signal had been used before that time, the headlights would extinguish. If you hadn’t used your turn signals everything was fine.
    Also, whenever the radio was on (and we had it on almost all the time, if only to overpower the drone of a worn left rear wheel bearing) and you used the horn, the left front turn indicator would light up but not go out again. The only remedy was getting out of the car, and the front wing a good bang with your hand.
    The old Volvo also had a tendency to magically switch on both front foglights (installed by us of course) all by itself at
    any time, a few times even when the car was parked at school. Sometimes my friend was not so lucky and found his car with a dead battery in the morning causing both of us to be late.
    But we had so much fun in that little yellow banger and on most days it got us to school on time, because it never actually broke down- so at least it did stay true to the Volvo image until the end, electrical warts installed by impatient, inexperienced
    youngsters included.

    1. A very amusing anecdote, thank you Bruno. Those apparent random automotive electrical happenings were most often caused by one or more faulty earth connection to the body somewhere (not strictly an ‘earth’ of course, but a negative return connection to the battery). We’ve all sat behind a car at traffic lights and watched the weird light show when the indicators are switched on!

    2. Sometimes you get funny light effects in a brand new car.
      When my barchetta was new, everytime I hit the brake pedal the ‘lights on’ idiot light went on.
      The solution was that in the right hand rear light the twin wire bulb for brake and rear light had a shortcut between the two wires. Therefore everytime the brake light went on, current went through the light circuit as well and lit the control lamp in the dashboard.

  6. Super stuff – I love seeing a old shoe, a warhorse, something used purely for function and never cosseted with foam and chamois on a Sunday. And yes – a visit to anywhere in Southern europe still rewards in that respect – seems the culture is use things, mend them, repeat rather than subscribe to the dubious hyper-capitalist notion of ‘upgrade when it goes out of warranty’ that seems to be the mantra of more throwaway societies.

    The B5 does still look great – what I used to love doing when I had an A2 was park next to one – it was basically the exact same middle-section (a/b/c profile) but with a short bonnet and no boot – like the A2 was a B5 not yet ready to unfurl 🙂

  7. Delightful descriptions from Eóin, Bruno, et al.
    The car in question wears a proud veil of vagrancy, showing beauty in decay. I’d park a mile away from it but there’s charm, a characterful journey from Gamekeeper to poacher in this kind of vehicle.
    I both applaud and concur with Richard and Daniel’s viewpoints; this Passat was a handsome, honest Old Hector and we shall not see the likes of them again.

  8. What a splendid set of reminiscences in the comments here. I fear I have missed out on an important formative experience by never having run a banger. Whilst my sister has driven cars into the scrapyard (literally) and my brother’s VW Beetle fell apart on the driveway (again, literally), my youthful city-centre dwelling habits meant I started my career as a car owner much later and have only owned an immaculately preserved ‘modern classic’ and a brand new car so far.

    I also concur as to the nature of driving in France: Driving in French city traffic remains one of the most alarming experiences of my life, particularly the moment when I realised every one of the cars giving me no quarter as I attempted to change lane already had an extensive collection of dents and scrapes…

  9. In certain periods of one’s life, there is literally nothing better for one’s mental wellbeing then driving a car that’s cosmetically unfit
    (not necessarily a banger – more on the lines of being technically
    in top order & regularly maintained, just intentionally
    cosmetically neglected so as to remove any remnants
    of OCD-inducing instincts).

    During my most creative stints, I tend to either avoid commuting by a car at all (as it inevitably causes more worries than pleasure these days), or pick the 3rd road-legal car I own, which largely fits the ‘cosmetically challenged’ condition described above.

    As for the B5, agree with most other comments above:
    its styling most definitely wasn’t the culprit – it was simply a matter of it being a thinly (DLO-kink et al.) disguised Audi underneath, with all Audi typical reliability- / demanding maintenance- related challenges, that rendered it, psychologically, not worthy
    of the keep-it-simple VW essence that buyers demand(ed).

    Very fine cars they were, if one treated them delicately and with
    an overarching technical dedication, not with the “serve you humbly” expectations that many VWs have fallen victim of.

    1. In a way I regret respraying my XM. It was 20 and a bit faded and when I got a new coat of paint it became an object requiring more care and attention. I had to fuss over it. I didn´t realise that it was quite handy having a faded old car instead of a glossy pampered one. The current car, a 406, is in the tatty but well-maintained category and it´s very easy going. I vacuum clean it now and again and wash it annually, without fail.

  10. This article spoke volumes to the new unencumbered lifestyle I live with my new beaut of a vehicle- the Red Rocket. Purchased complete with rust, dents and yes bullet-holes!! You’ll be hard pressed to find a square inch on the car that hasn’t been deformed in some way– all within the cars first 100,000 miles of its young life.

    Gone are the days of worrying about leaving my windows open in the rain and returning to the unpleasant wet-dog smell. Or forgetting my bait bucket after a long day of fishing and retuning to the gut wrenching odor of dead rotting fish. Even the innocent act of going to the beach or camping is less stressful without the inevitable end of the day packing of sand/ dirt and leftover grill grease into the trunk.

    Even if/when I have the finances to justify a more modern luxury.. I think I still might defer to keep enjoying this more fitting ‘luxury’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: