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View from Vitalia: Of ‘Nessie’, ‘Hexie’ and ‘Limonchik’

Not only do our cars have souls, they can behave like humans in lots of other ways, too.

Last week, my attention was drawn to a seemingly insignificant piece of news from the Intelligent Transport online newsletter, to which I subscribe. It was about an autonomous shuttle bus service to connect Melbourne’s La Trobe University’s Bandoora campus with the city centre, about 20km away.

Having lived in Melbourne for a number of years, I can confirm that Victoria’s state capital is a huge urban sprawl comprising nearly two hundred suburbs, which appear strikingly similar to each other in layout, architecture (if any) and street names. My copy of the comprehensive Melbourne Atlas used to feature over a hundred Victoria Streets (one for each suburb) and dozens of Park Streets too – the fact pointing not so much at the first settlers’ lack of fantasy and imagination as to their nostalgia for ‘good old England’, to where most of them could not afford to return.

La Trobe Uni campus, where I once had to stay for a couple of months, was special not just by being remote from Melbourne’s CBD, but also by its size, which greatly exceeded the area of the CBD itself, and by its near-total lack of public transport. It so happened that as I was residing on the campus, my mother was dying in a hospital in South Caulfield, the suburb in the diametrically opposite part of the Greater Melbourne conurbation, and I had to visit her there every day.

At that time, I didn’t have a car and the only ramshackle (yet normally air-conditioned!) bus from La Trobe to the City centre (where I had to change to another bus to Caulfield) would run once every couple of hours. It was a bumpy and seemingly endless journey from the almost pristine possum-ridden bush of La Trobe campus, via countless twin suburbs, overgrown with gum trees, to the CBD’s skyscrapers.

The unhurried ride would take about two hours, during which I would normally try to read a book only to be promptly rocked to sleep and then brutally shaken back to reality and some more book reading. Having finally reached the hospital, I had to keep looking at my watch not to miss the last bus back to La Trobe which departed around 6pm and would take me back to the campus for my bedtime, coinciding with a wake-up call for the countless campus possums, who would abandon their gum tree branches and start running along electric wires with the dexterity of circus tightrope walkers.

The only alternative to the bus was an old and rattling Melbourne tram, with the last stop a couple of miles away from the campus and the journey taking twice as long.

The new autonomous on-demand shuttle bus is therefore a brilliant piece of news for those who still have to commute on that long-haul public transport route – those few Melbournians who, for some mysterious reasons, remain car-less and therefore cannot drive.

This brings me straight to the main topic of this blog – my complicated and rather tempestuous relationship with my own cars of which, having got my first driving licence at the tender age of 37, I haven’t had that many, so no one can call me a promiscuous driver.

Today, I’d like to expand on this topic due to the fact that I have just acquired a new second-hand car to replace my previous one – a sturdy green Fiat called Hexie (with letters HEX on its number plate), which, or rather who (cars have souls, remember?), after 17 years of service finally failed its MOT and thus went past its use-by date.

Yes, I learned to drive when living in Melbourne, that giant suburban sprawl, once called ‘a suburb without an urb’ by a visiting British satirist. I arrived there in the European summer (Aussie winter) of 1990 and for about a year had somehow managed to live and work there without a car. Despite the fact that the paper I worked for was kind enough to supply me with lots of cab vouchers, I was increasingly feeling deprived and isolated – like a horseless peasant on the hippodrome of life (my own metaphor!) – among my highly motorised new friends and colleagues, some of whom boasted of not having walked more than 300 metres at a time during the last 15 years or so.

I simply had to learn to drive, but, not fancying doing so in the company of ever-giggling spotty teenagers (nearly everyone in Australia gets a driving licence by the age of 18), kept putting it off. Until one day I was approached by Mazda Australia, who ventured to donate me a brand-new car and a free driving instructor, both for 6 months, in exchange for the coverage of my learning to drive experience in my Age newspaper weekly column ‘Vitali on Monday’. The car was a bright-yellow compact Mazda 121, which I immediately nicknamed ‘Limonchik’ (‘Little Lemon’ in Russian) and the instructor was Kevin, with whom we quickly developed a kind of friendship.

None of the above, however, stopped me from nearly ruining Limonchik and killing Kevin and myself as I, with Kevin in the passenger seat, was making my first ever left-hand turn during my first-ever driving lesson and, having confused the brake and accelerator pedals, threw the car forward, towards a lonely road-side fire hydrant with which it successfully collided before turning over and landing in a ditch, with Kevin and myself giggling nervously inside it, our heads facing down. All the while, Limonchik kept being showered by the fountain of water beating out of the damaged fire hydrant. Well, at least it was clean when picked up by a tow truck to be taken to a nearby garage.

After that episode, Mazda decided to invest in a spare set of pedals at the passenger seat, from where Kevin could now control my sporadic and inexperienced manoeuvres.

Limonchik was the first and so far the last (if not to count vehicles on short-term hire) brand-new car in my driver’s life. Well, it did not look very new when I reluctantly had to return it to Mazda Australia, who despite - or probably because of - my initial accident (which I, no doubt, described in detail in my Age column) appeared very pleased with the publicity they got.

Not only was Limonchik the last new car I have ever driven, it was also the last free car. For all the subsequent ones I had to pay, of course. Having passed my driving test from the first go (“I never knew you were such a good driver,” mumbled Kevin from his passenger seat – he was joking, of course), I hastily acquired a huge and bulky old Volvo that had only one thing in common with Limonchik: it was yellow, too. 

Driving Volvo (to which, incidentally, I never gave a nickname) after Limonchik was like swapping a bicycle for a tank. Yes, just like a tank, Volvo had powerful armour, which didn’t save me (and it, I mean Volvo) from multiple accidents and collisions, out of which it - due to its sheer weight and sturdiness - always came out unscathed. Well, nearly. It was interesting to see how Melbourne drivers - realising they didn’t stand a chance in a would-be collision with my armoured vehicle - would always back down and give my Volvo the right of way. Let’s face it, it is sheer fear and brutal force that rule the world of driving - and the world in general, too! My Volvo was eventually finished off by my son, who inherited whatever was left of it as his first car.

Having left Australia, I moved back to the UK, where for a number of years I led a rather tempestuous life, which resulted in certain motorist promiscuity. I drove lots of soulless and therefore nameless vehicles, yet none of them touched my heart until I - almost accidentally - acquired an ancient shoebox-shaped Honda, with all but extinct B-reg number plates. My younger son christened it Super Jalopy, or SJ.

Despite its anachronistic looks, SJ still had a powerful engine and I liked (when alone in the car, no doubt) playing racing games with some gleaming and stuck-up new limos by not letting them overtake my SJ on motorways (please do not try it at home!). I could see in the rear-view mirror the puzzled, well-groomed faces of limo drivers unable to comprehend how that ancient wreck was getting ahead of them with such ease.

SJ’s unorthodox historical looks, however, used to irritate drunks and street bullies, who repeatedly tried to damage it when parked by tying its windscreen wipers into a knot, until I had to eventually part company with SJ and leave it in a car cemetery (read dump) in Ireland.

Then there was a green Suzuki Swift, which I acquired in Scotland. Being both green and Scottish, the car of course could not avoid being nicknamed Nessie, her number plate also starting with ‘NES’. Several years later, I replaced Nessie with Hexie, having hesitated for a while before buying a green Fiat Punto, with HEX (which means ‘bad omen’) on its number plates.

Despite the witchy number-plate connotations, Hexie was an extremely lucky car. I drove it happily for nearly eight years (in England, Scotland and even in France) without a single accident or a problem until it became senile and lazy, having developed a strong allergy to damp and refusing to start in the morning, even after little more than short, overnight rain. With heavy heart, I called a car scrapper, who agreed to come and pick up Hexie and promised to pay me £70, but refused to do so (I mean to pay) when he did arrive with his horrible pick-up truck and blackmailed me into either letting him take Hexie for free or not taking it at all. Funnily enough, a couple of days prior to that, Hexie suddenly stopped malfunctioning and got back to normal, as if it/he could feel the approaching doom - just as a human patient often starts feeling better while waiting to be seen by a doctor.

Jauntily, Hexie climbed up the ramp into the back of the pick-up truck probably thinking it was being taken out for a ride (and it was). I could hardly hold back tears when it or he – of course it was ‘he’! – winked at me playfully with both of its rear indicator lights. He didn’t realise it was not a pick-up truck but a hearse he was climbing into – the hearse that would take him not for a jolly country ride, but to a graveyard.  Unless, of course, the cunning scrapper was secretly planning to mend Hexie and to sell it again, which, as I was sure, was not technically impossible. Or maybe I was simply trying to console myself.

Life moves in circles, or so they say. Having started my driving life with Mazda, it was only natural that I wandered into our local Mazda dealership in search of a Hexie successor. It was my very first port of call, but I did end up buying the car there and then. Not a Mazda, but a Toyota, which was also on their list. And not a brand-new young car, but again a second-hand one, if only slightly so. Symmetry. It was also the first-ever red car in my life. After 35 years in the USSR, I had been somewhat wary of anything red.

I fell in love with Lucy (yes, that’s its, or rather her, name – what else can it be with ‘LC’ on her number plate?) at first sight, a feeling that was greatly enhanced after the first test drive. The car was a real lady – smooth, gentle, easy-to-lead (read drive) and not too demanding (meaning much more economical in terms of petrol compared to Hexie).

With Lucy, I finally stopped suffering from the widespread secondhand-car drivers’ disease called ‘NPIC’ – number plate inferiority complex, when other drivers pooh-pooh you due to older number plates on your car (we all know that in the UK it is possible to tell the car’s age by its number plates). I suffered from it severely with the B-plated SJ, as well as with Nessie and Hexie.

With Lucy, however, it shouldn’t be the case. Not that I care, really. After all, it is not the age that matters – it’s the engine. Just like with humans.

P.S. This is the perfect opportunity to remind you that now is your last chance to enter E&T’s ‘World’s Worst Banger’ competition, which we’ll be summing up at the end of February. Please email your photographic entries to vvitaliev@theiet.org.

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