Unless your parents are rich, or you win the lottery in your late teens, or you don’t pass your driving test until your 40s, the chances are that your first ride will not be a racy sports car or luxury saloon. It probably won’t cost tens of thousands of pounds – indeed, it may very well not be paid for yet, and if it is the bank of mum and dad may have been called upon.
This writer’s first car was a 1.4 litre Astra with something called a “manual choke”. The best word to describe the gearstick operation was “cloggy” and any manoeuvre needed bulging biceps. The radio was seemingly from World War Two, and that was one of the modern parts. However, it was a reliable old beast, well worth the £400, and definitely deserved a better ending than smashing into a sign on the A17 – but that’s another story.
Another friend had a bronze Datsun Sunny, described as “lovely until a lorry took the back end off.” A third was told by mechanics that her car was so rotten underneath that it was a miracle her feet didn’t go through the floor when she placed them down.
Yes, the first car is probably not the most reliable or efficient of machines, and may have rust in places that it shouldn’t. The engine may make bleak sounds that should only be heard in horror films or a northern industrial factory in the 1920s, and the steering might be easier on an ocean liner.
But here’s the thing that only motorists will understand – first cars are a slice of your life. Unforgettable and undeniably a symbol of freedom, those visits that previously relied upon public transport or lifts are now yours to enjoy, providing you can cover the petrol. And there’s also a passenger seat…
Even the celebrities who are now pulling in astronomic sums of cash once only drove beaten up cars, the sort movie characters drive in downbeat towns or rock stars throw around in videos staged in dustbowls or down-and-out hinterlands.
For example, the Hollywood Gossip lists a car park’s worth of 15 celebrities and their first cars, and one can imagine Taylor Swift in a pink Chevy Silverado or Brad Pitt in a magnificent Buick Centurion. It’s slightly more difficult to envisage American actor Taye Diggs driving a station wagon, or Wayne Rooney in a Ka. England’s captain has moved on to a slightly more exotic motor now in the form of a hybrid £104,590 BMW i8, but no one should knock the humble Ford as a great little starter car.
When Daniel Radcliffe reached his 18th birthday he also gained access to some of his mega-earnings from Harry Potter, and immediately splashed the cash on a new broomstick, ahem, 2007 Fiat Punto Grande. His Potter co-star Rupert Grint licked the opposition with a pink 1974 Bedford ice cream van.
Fellow Brit actor and Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch might have battled Moriarty and various shady London villains as Sherlock, but a boulder proved too much when he borrowed a classic Austin Mini from his mum 20 years ago.
American satirist Jon Stewart took his first date to the prom in an AMC Gremlin, which is as hideous as it sounds, while Jay Leno spent two years working on a Ford pickup from the age of 14 to bring it back to life in time to take his driving test.
The Ka is the sort of car that mere mortals would choose as their first ride, as it’s small, economical and nippy enough to get you where you want. According to this Telegraph comparison piece using data from Confused.com, the cars that are best for first time drivers include the Ka 2, the Peugeot 107, and the Daewoo Matiz. These hatchbacks won’t go from 0-60 in five seconds, but economy is the most important factor for most young buyers, who could still be at school/college and hence not bringing in enough to pay large amounts for petrol, tax and insurance.
Choosing the first car is a job where mums and dads, or expert mechanic friends, can be vital. It’s important not to be ripped off, but equally important not to buy something on the cheap from an unscrupulous dealer. A knowledgeable friend will check for rust in places that you wouldn’t think of checking. They’ll look at the underbelly and its structure, and at the tyre condition. They might also know how it should sound and feel on the road.
It’s also worth spending to investigate the vehicle’s history, which could save you big. These online checks will look into the number of previous owners, any registration plate changes and most importantly of all, the possibility of any logbook loans that may be tied into the car, or whether it’s been stolen.
APR deals can be fairly painful for a young driver, so make sure you shop around for loan deals before taking the plunge. You’ll need to consider the tax, which should be relatively cheap for a car with a small engine, the MOT test, and insurance, which could be especially painful.
The average insurance for a 17-22 year old is a painful £1,217 a year. There are ways of knocking this down, such as insuring with a company that uses telematics (an electronic system which monitors your habits such as speed and harsh braking), or paying for a multi-car policy if you still live with parents. Young petrol heads should remember that modifications fitted to a car such as spoilers and hubs are likely to push up the premium costs.
In the end, buying a first car boils down to one, overriding concern, and that is reliability. A quirky old Beetle or camper-van type might look sensational, but if it doesn’t start or steer properly then it will always taint your memories later in life. Pride will turn to regret and you’ll spend more on repairs than the car itself.
The perfect fit is a sturdy, economical model that needs little work and simply gets you from A to B. Because if there’s one compliment that you’ll want to pay your first ride when you look back, long after you’ve sold it or sent it to the garage in the sky, it is this: “That was a good little car, it never let me down.”