How Dad Cars Shaped My Life
Fathers Day is coming. For some of us that’s a time for reflection, for others a time of celebration.
My dad, in the words of Monty Python, shuffled off this mortal coil in February 2022. He gifted me and taught me many things but it was something he had absolutely no interest in that, strangely enough, probably cast the longest shadow.
His choice of cars.
Cars were, it seems, not so much in my blood as in the air. My first word was ‘car.’ The only gifts I wanted were ones with four wheels. Thankfully my parents indulged this prepubescent weirdness.
But I wonder whether that might have eventually withered away if it hadn’t been for my dad’s choice of cars. There doesn‘t seem to have been much logic behind the choices, but one thing does unite them: if there was an obvious mainstream choice available, my dad would avoid it like the plague. Whether this is had something to do with his disastrous rare foray into normality - a Cortina estate that gave him a slipped disk because he had to push it most mornings - we’ll never know as he’s no longer here to ask.
Whatever the reasons, the progression from VW Beetles to Volvos via Saabs, Renaults, Fiats and Seats seems characterised by a desire to do different that was fundamentally him. For the impressionable Eason Junior it was evidence that cars can be an unconscious reflection of the soul and proof that my dad walked a different path.
On a more practical level it introduced me to cars that most car magazines outside of actual Car magazine, mostly ignored. Cars like the Renault 20 were a rare sight in leafy Pyrford, Surrey, and, as it turned out during his brief tenure, an even rarer sight on the Eason driveway. Less so the service department at Renault Guildford.
The Renault was a rare foray into something family-friendly. At one point we had his n hers Beetles, a car not strictly suited to family of four motoring. Or child friendly - my brother enjoyed climbing up the eiger-esque rear bodywork via the exposed tailpipes. Sadly on one occasion he chose to do this just after my dad had got home from work, causing a blister and blood curdling wail that lives on in my memory.
One day, a day that was to cast a multi-decade shadow, my dad came home in a nearly-new dark blue Saab 99 GL. He’d recently taken a work trip to Norway where a local colleague had taken him across country at high speed in a 99. So impressed was he with the car that he ploughed his newly-gifted company car allowance into one.
Here our recollections of Saabs diverge. I recall a brilliant, stylish car driven by an individualist, where you could comfortably rest on the front of the centre of the rear seat and chat to your parents for an entire journey. That car is the genesis of my serial Saab ownership of the last 20 years.
He, were he still able to, would see things a bit differently. The 99 was disastrously unreliable. It overheated. A lot. It refused to start. The electrics didn’t always electric. He hated it. Obviously he replaced it with that paragon of reliability, a Renault.
In the 80s, just as he was starting his own business, my dad skewed away from sub-premium barges like the Saab and Renault and bought a nearly new Fiat Strada. At the time there was quite a lot of hoopla about how the Strada was Fiat’s brand new start, a well built Golf rival that was better and cheaper than the VW and, of course, built by something called Robots.
Whether, after the disaster of the Renault and Saab, my dad fell for this marketing myth making is not clear. Perhaps the fact he chose a car from a dealership within walking distance provides a clue.
Several of our neighbours also bought Stradas. Despite waiving two fingers in the face of the word ‘risk’ the Strada turned out to be a decent buy. Less so for those neighbours whose cars quickly developed rust holes the size of the newly introduced 20 pence piece. I like to think my self-enforced Saturday morning cleaning regime explains how our Fiat survived unscathed.
The Strada‘s Robot advertising campaign was much mocked. For his birthday a teenage me bought my dad a ‘Built by robots, driven by morons’ sticker for his lovely Strada. Smile he did not. I learnt a valuable lesson about reading the room right there.
As his business took off, so did the scope of his motoring ambitions. But with financial security it seems came a more robust, more consistent and stolid approach to motoring. Or, in simple motoring terms: a lot of Volvos.
The Strada made way for a second hand Volvo 244. Our upmarket GL had previously been owned by some sort of Ambassador so it had heated leather, a better stereo, a sunroof and other accoutrements befitting of a man of international politics.
The Volvo, our poshest and biggest car to date, arrived on the cusp of my driving years, just as I was learning to drive. Since our other car at the time was a Renault 4, with its notably awkward - or, if you prefer, plain odd - gearchange, I learnt to drive in the Swede. This enforced father/son bonding exercise didn't, perhaps inevitably, always go entirely smoothly. Much like my clutch operation. I memorably stalled the big old bus exiting a junction just over a blind bend. It is a credit to my cool-nerved father that he didn't jump out and run for the nearest hedge.
My dad was an inveterate thinker and ideas man. This was in the days before voice notes and Apple Reminders so the 244 dashboard was always festooned with a carpet of yellow Post-It notes, two or three word mind-jogs for my dad's day ahead.
Clearly impressed by the Volvo's uncanny ability to start every morning, every time, it was replaced with a nearly new base model 740. For its youthful passenger its cloth seats and untinted windows felt like a real step backwards after the kit-dripping 244. It coincided with my dawning realisation that 1980s Volvos really were not at all cool: our neighbours had Granadas and BMWs and Audis, we had a car that wouldn't have looked out of place on a 1970s American crime drama. The 740 was distinctive, yes, but painfully slow and everything the lover of driving would actively avoid.
Naturally when it came to replacing the 740 my dad got another one. This time a brand new one, a special edition 'SE' spec that added goodies like a sunroof but kept to a strict 'no alloys' base model code. By this time I was at university and had firmly drawn a line between 'dad cars' and 'my cars,' namely cars I would actually like to own.
The 740s clearly marked a parting of motoring ways between me and my dad. But each of the previous cars, in their own way, shaped my passion for cars. My love of Saabs is perhaps the most obvious influence, but his eclectic choices mean I love pretty much most cars but particularly the less obvious. He would never have bought a BMW and until recently I also avoided them.
In retirement my dad briefly seems to have dabbled in car enthusiasm. The 740 SE was sold and replaced with a Seat Toledo hatchback. But not any old Toledo, the 2 litre GTI. Admittedly this was from the early 90s era when VAG GTI badges were pretty much just that, badges, but the 150 bhp in a relatively small car must surely have been a revelation after the Volvo. Since the Toledo made way for a brand new Toyota Yaris perhaps we can deduce that, rather than reflecting actual enthusiasm, the Toledo GTI just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Cars were an unavoidable part of my dad's life but they were just that - cars. A form of transport. They weren't a status symbol: he chose them for practical reasons, most importantly whether they would actually start and ensure he avoided a second slipped disc. And yet, something he cared so little about has had a very significant impact on my life.
My dad was an individualist. He thought differently. He did differently. For someone who had no interest in cars and disliked the idea that cars were status symbols or a reflection of who we are, his choices were very clearly a reflection of who he was. I'm grateful he was who he was and made the choices he did because it has given me my own unique enthusiasm for cars that also, in its way, defines who I am.
And yes, from time to time I do search for Volvo 740s for sale online.
My love of cars, which I owe to my dad, explains why I run a car-based business. My dad may no longer be with us but it gives me a lot of joy to see 'lads and dads' enjoying days out in our cars on our various experiences. Stuff like that is genuinely why I do what I do.
To help you toast your dad or enjoy a lads and dads day out, until Fathers Day 2022 (June 19th) we're knocking 24% off our classic driving experiences. So we're pretty much doing them at cost. You can claim the saving by using code DAD24 online before midnight on June 19th 2022. Or call 01527 893733.
To view our most popular Fathers Day gifts, which start at under £50, CLICK HERE.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733