Ah, you never forget those all-important firsts. First pet, first love, first job… and first car.
For people of a certain age, just mentioning their first car is enough to make them go all misty-eyed. Maybe it’s because first cars are a reminder of freedom and youth, of a time in our lives when mortgages were still a distant idea and gravity hadn’t taken revenge on our faces.
Our recent pieces on best cars for young drivers put us firmly aboard the nostalgia train, so this time we’re revisiting four classic first cars from the seventies and eighties. They may have been slow, basic and unreliable, but oh, how we loved them.
1. Vauxhall Nova (1982-1993)
The Vauxhall Nova was the UK version of the Opel Corsa. So why wasn’t it called the Vauxhall Corsa? According to this splendid article at Not Two Grand, that was because back in genteel 1982, Vauxhall didn’t want a car that sounded like ‘coarser’. Aw, bless. We have no idea whether that’s true, but it’s a good story.
A replacement for the ancient and cranky Chevette, Vauxhall’s first supermini was an ideal first car for thousands of Generation X-ers. It had nice handling, front-wheel drive and came with a dizzying variety of trims and engine sizes.
Of course, the Nova was also a weapon of choice for boy racers — those Max Power-reading, backwards-cap-wearing, car-modding lads who hooned around our roads in the 80s and early 90s. As a cheap and durable little motor, the Nova was often to be seen decked out with improbable spoilers, a raspy sports exhaust and a fine collection of vehicle stickers.
2. Renault 5 (1972-1996)
The Renault 5 was the best-selling car in France for a staggering 12 years (1972-1986). Many Brits too fell for its Gallic charm and it was particularly popular as a first car.
If you look at a model like the 1983 R5 TX, it’s easy to see why. There was a five-speed gearbox, power-assisted steering, velour interior and even – Heavens to Betsy – electric windows. With just 63 bhp on tap, you weren’t going to be slammed back in your seat, but it all felt reasonably lively given that it weighed less than a crisp packet. It was a car that truly crossed the class divide: everyone from cash-strapped students to silver-spoon poshos could feel effortlessly cool in this little French masterpiece.
3. Volkswagen Beetle (1938 – 2003)
We love this American advert for the Beetle, because we wonder if the US marketers had completely missed the point. Were buyers really interested in the Volkswagen’s 13 pounds of paint, solid steel bottom and overall durability? Or were they, like legions of first-car buyers in the UK, interested in something else entirely?
If you were around in the early 1970s, every other teenage driver seemed to have a Beetle, but we don’t think they were attracted to anything as stuffy as its practicality or durability. It was more that the Beetle was cheap, cute, quirky and instantly recognisable. It was the star of the wildly-popular Herbie films and had been the car of choice (along with the VW Campervan) for the US hippie movement. Now granted, Woodstock was done and dusted by then, but we think that image of sun-bronzed freedom still had a resonance in rainy old Blighty.
4. Ford Orion (1983 – 1993)
The Ford Orion might not be an obvious choice for a classic first-time car, but it’s in here to remind us that not everyone drove out of the test centre in a neat little supermini. Plenty of us started with a proper grown-up saloon.
Take the Ford Orion, for example. Something of a forgotten hero, the Orion was essentially a stretched-out Escort with a boot. In its 10 year lifespan, 3.5 million Orions were sold in the UK, and it was the seventh best-selling car over 1987-1988. A fair few of Orions got passed down the chain to eager young drivers.
The Orion certainly didn’t have the cachet of a Nova or Renault 5, it looked like something which your dad would (and probably did) drive, and it was less nimble than a three-legged basset hound. But in an Orion, you could drive your mates to Ipswich and back without them enduring a prolonged and unnatural closeness — and you could get all their kit in the cavernous boot. You couldn’t do that in a fluffy French hatchback.
Three cheers for first-timers who picked Orions (or any of the other saloons). You were so cool, you didn’t even need a cool car.
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