You could say that Derek had been a “motoring enthusiast” rather than a car guy. He used to love to take Doreen out for a little jaunt in the countryside, they’d find a nice pub, have the same meal every time (Hunters Chicken and a John Smiths for him, a Ploughmans and a dry white wine for her), then skip dessert, drive back home and split a Walls Vienetta in their conservatory. He was a man of routines.
Derek had bought the Astra brand new, back in ’93. After forty years as a woodwork teacher, it made sense to move out of London. Doreen had seen just how much they could get for their money if they left Romford and headed for the seaside. Treating himself to a new car, for the first time ever, would get retirement off to a flying start. Plus something with folding back seats and a hatchback would be pretty handy for the move; handier than the Vauxhall Carlton he had cherished for the last eight years.
A nice new Astra would be just the thing. “It’ll see me out”, he joked, darkly.
Derek had never owned a car this small before, and had been a little nervous making the change. A retired teacher isn’t exactly made of money, but his funds could at least stretch to an Astra rather than a Corsa. The Vauxhall salesman had been OK, but had seemed a little over keen on pushing features that neither Derek nor Doreen actually wanted. Alloy wheels? Electrically powered windows? Derek had never had these before, and had never wanted them either. In fact, the base model Astra Merit had every feature he had enjoyed in his Carlton L, plus the cassette player was standard (it had been an optional extra in the Carlton) and could receive FM stations!
During the test drive Derek had found that the 1.4 actually felt nippier than his old 1.8. It would do for him, and he signed for a new, three door (he reckoned that back doors would never get used, just another pair of hinges to keep greasing) Vauxhall Astra Merit. He didn’t want to pay extra for metallic paint, so went for a bright, sporty red. He was a bit teary eyed when he handed over the Carlton keys for trade-in on collection day, but he was also exited.
Doreen was made a widow twenty one years later. Those last five years hadn’t been easy with Derek’s declining health, but the family had been wonderful, regularly making trips out to Clacton to help out. Derek had never actually “given up driving”. He knew that he shouldn’t, he knew that he wouldn’t. But the thought that the car was always ready if he needed it certainly kept depression at bay. The family kept the Astra serviced, taxed and road legal when Derek couldn’t. In return they were able to use it at any time they wanted. The same went for the neighbours. And friends, and acquaintances. Derek just wanted to see his retirement car being used.
Jack had been 16 when his Grandfather died. There had been no real surprise, but he was still pretty upset. He used to earn extra pocket money by riding his bike to Derek’s house and polishing the Astra. “One day it’ll probably be yours”, Derek would say, every single time. After the first year or so, Jack started turning up less frequently, then only occasionally, then hardly ever at all. There were girls at school, you see, and Jack had become acutely aware of them. Boys, too, if we’re honest, but that was just a passing phase. And at any rate, Derek didn’t really mind Jack losing interest. He was bound to change his priorities, it’s only natural. It so happens that, towards the end and growing increasingly, confused Derek didn’t really know who Jack was any more anyway. As the frequency of polishing decreased, the Astra’s bright red paint slowly turned to salmon pink.
Jack finally passed his driving test a little after his seventeenth birthday. He had never really had the heart to tell Grandma Doreen that he didn’t want the Astra; every time she greeted him it would be with a “you know you can take Grandads car any time you like”. He would smile sweetly, indicating that he knew, and was grateful. But he didn’t want a twenty three year old Vauxhall. He wanted to stand out as an individual, and the way to do this, he thought, was to get his hands on a VW and customise it.
A few of his friends had bought Polos and small-engined Golfs. His mate Kevin had a really cool Lupo that he had poured paint stripper over the bonnet and made it go all rusty, and he’d lowered it and put loads of stickers on the doors, and put the number plate on at a funny angle, and fitted a roof rack with some old luggage on it. Jack couldn’t really put his finger on why, but he thought this looked really awesome. And, going by the number of other Volkswagens he’d seen where the owner had put stickers all over the doors, lowered the suspension, taken the paint off the bonnet so it went all rusty and then put the number plate on at a funny angle, he was in good company. As soon as he got his VW he’d perform all these amazing modifications and more. It would be fantastic.
Jack, unfortunately, had no money. He had no talent, either. But he did have the offer of a faded red Vauxhall Astra. Eventually his urge to turn up at school under his own power outweighed his longing not to have to drive the Astra. A call was made, insurance was arranged, a “Refreshers” air-freshener and a Bluetooth capable stereo was fitted by Dad and the next day his Grandfather’s old car was parked among the Polos, Golfs and, interestingly, a MK1 Scirocco outside the sixth form centre.
There was much sniggering.
“Hi Jack, nice car, m8. Does your Grandad know you’ve got it?”
“Can you help me later, Jack? I need a lift to the bowls club”
“Oh I’m sorry, Jack, DO YOU NEED ME TO SPEAK UP A LITTLE BIT?”
Jack was mortified. No congratulations for his new-found mobility, just a solid round of ribbing and jesting. Jack, you see, was not only not an intelligent lad, but was also somewhat thin skinned. He also was easily led and prone to accept things at face value, which made him a soft target for bullies. He hatched a plan that would see him win favour with his peers, as well as dovetailing neatly with his unknowingly conformist ways.
That afternoon he set upon the Astra armed with a screwdriver, a can of black spray paint, some sandpaper and a total lack of other resources. Aside from its function as transportation, Jack didn’t really care about his Grandfather’s beloved Astra, and he wanted the world to know about it. The fact that the paintwork was faded already got him off to a head start, so he stood back and gazed, deep in though, about what he could do to radically change the appearance of the car. A rare spark of inspiration filled the entirety of Jack’s brain. “The grille!”.
Jack was correct to identify that, when viewed in a rear view mirror, the front grille of the MK3 Astra is it’s most distinctive identifying feature. If he could get rid of that, he’d be heading towards his goal of massive parking lot respect. After an hour of peering hopelessly under the bonnet, Jack worked out that the grille wasn’t held on by anything his screwdrivers could negotiate with. This brought on his second clever thought of the day; “there might be some tools in the boot”. As an ex woodworking teacher, Derek would, of course, have loads of tools, and some of them had indeed made it into the luggage compartment of the Astra. Jack couldn’t identify the plane, the chisels (he thought they were screwdrivers) the surform or the mitre box, but the rusty old adjustable wrench looked familiar.
It took Jack three and a half hours of determination to un-bolt the grille, but he was very pleased with the result which did in fact lend the Astra a somewhat mean looking frontal aspect. It was a good start, but the light was beginning to fail, so he quickly moved on to phase two of the makeover programme- paint. The flow rate of the Holts spray paint turned out to be rather greater than Jack expected, but speed was of the essence so it possibly helped him more than it hindered him. Alas, the can ran out after he had covered rather less of the faded red paint than he had intended.
It looked bloody awful to anybody with an ounce of aesthetic sense. It looked great to Jack, but would be better when it was “finished”. Jack spent the next three hours grafting away at the just-set paint with sandpaper, getting it to the point where it looked like it hadn’t been applied that afternoon. By the time he had finished the red was starting to peek through. Next morning he reluctantly scraped himself out from between his bedsheets, ate breakfast and went outside to see his creation in daylight.
He recoiled in horror. It didn’t look good after all. He had been gunning for “rat look” but had ended up with “shit car”. What on Earth would he do now? He tried in vain to begin to scratch the paint off with his fingernails, but that had more effect on the original red than his black handiwork from the other night. He began to panic. He couldn’t drive this to school or he’d be the subject of even greater mirth than he had been yesterday. He had ruined his late grandfather’s car to beyond the point of salvation. He felt sick.
The Astra, which started on the button, was driven around the side of the house and parked. Jack walked to school that day. And the next. And the next. After a while he started to accept lifts from other people. As far as he was concerned, he had never had a car. The red Astra he once turned up in had been his Grandfather’s car, which he had borrowed for a day, and that was an end to it. Fortuitously, and unbeknown to Jack, Kevin had been having the devil’s own time trying to find a buyer for his rat-look Lupo, which had recently gained a set of banded steels and been lowered to the point that the suspension basically wasn’t there any more. A deal was agreed, strongly stacked in Kevin’s favour, and Jack became the Dubber he always wanted to be.
The Astra was, once again, redundant. It sat for weeks, which became months, which became a year. The MOT and tax both expired as it waited for a driver that never came. When Jack’s mum eventually protested about the negative effect her father-in-law’s car was having on property values in the area, Jack had to get shot. Scrapyards were called, but the price of mixed metals was so low he’d only get £35 even if he could deliver it to the yard. If he couldn’t they’d be charging him.
Kevin was called upon to provide motive power once more, driving his brand new Golf which his parents had signed the finance documents for. A tow-line was hitched from the Golf to to the sturdiest piece of Astra they could find, and the pair set off in the direction of the scrapyard. Jack did all he could to prevent Kevin from seeing his tears, as he guided his Grandfather’s pride and joy towards its final resting place, but when all of a sudden he found himself making extraordinary steering movements to keep control, a new fear caused his tears to evaporate. He frantically leant on the horn to attract Kevin’s attention, but Kev had already felt the back of the Golf bucking and swaying and was already finding somewhere to stop.
At 78095 miles elapsed the Astra came to a halt for what would be the last time. The two lads got out, surveyed the car and found the nearside front tyre completely devoid of air. Even the spangly new compressor in Kevin’s boot wasn’t man enough to inflate it, and of course there was no spare. With no way of safely delivering the car to the scrapyard, after first removing the stereo (something inside him told Jack to do this, and it came out remarkably easily) the Astra was locked and left with a view to returning tomorrow to complete the job. Tomorrow became the next day, then the next, then the next. Nobody came.
The next two bits of excitement for our little red Astra came in late February, when the Astra was woken from its slumber by a passing policeman, who took the car’s details in his warrant book, took some photos and applied a large, final looking, “Police Aware” notice on the windscreen. He then left, and once more the Vauxhall was alone. Until, that is, a moron called Steve came past in a Ford Focus with the stereo up. He suddenly grabbed the dial and lowered the volume to exclaim to his mates:
“Hey, did you see that shit old Astra? Dave, back up a second, it’s just there in that layby, do you see?”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, looks like it’s been dumped.”
Silence for three seconds, then:
“Shall we kick the windows in?”
(All images copyright Chris Haining, for Hooniverse 2016. Any similarities to actual events are purely coincidental)