I have recently been re-acquainting myself with an old favourite. Exile On Main St By The Rolling Stones turned up in my post-box yesterday, and it hasn’t come out of my CD player yet. A glorious, ramshackle mess of unstructured noise which comes together to form one of the greatest albums of all time. None of the individual tracks were hits but the songs were just killer. My particular favourite is Shine a Light. A simple piano-driven tune that sends a shiver down the spine with its beauty.
The last time I heard Exile was something like fifteen years ago, when I was student; and I owned a record player. I had the album on vinyl and after I lost my record player (sometime between uni and buying my first house) and never thought to buy a tape or CD of it since then; until its re-ascension in the charts last week.
So what has this got to do with cars? Well, in a bizarre way listening to the album brought back memories of the car I took with me to university all those years ago. A nineteen eighty-something Austin Mini City E (the exact provenance has been lost in the mists of time and too many student parties). Normally the City model came in bog standard trim and flat paint colours; but not mine. The previous owner was an old school friend who was so tall he had left a greasy patch of hair gel on the roof lining. He had also painted the bodywork bright red and the roof white. A pair of thick, white stripes adorned the bonnet and the piece de resistance – he’d bolted on white, plastic flared wheel arches. With a decent set of wheels this would have made the car look fantastic but instead with the standard wheels, not really filling the space available, it looked a bit silly.
Notwithstanding that, I loved the Mini. It seemed, but wasn’t, fast and went through corners like a slot car. Like the Stones’ greatest album it was basic, raw and made a cacophonous noise so glorious as to require no further accompaniment. In other words it didn’t have a stereo, and I couldn’t afford one.
The 998cc engine produced a heady 40bhp. This was more than enough when, travelling down the M56 in the fast lane, the throttle decided to stick on. Hurtling along at 70mph I slammed on the brakes and slowed slightly; then took my foot off the pedal when plumes of smoke started to billow behind the car. I had no choice but to shove the gearstick into neutral and grit my teeth as the engine revved way past the red area on the tachometer. After a dizzying few seconds avoiding the angry traffic I coasted to a halt on the hard-shoulder. When I opened the bonnet I could see that the accelerator cable was pretty much the same spec as a push-bike’s brake cable. The individual strands of wire had become mangled and, after I had put my foot down, had refused to go back into the plastic sheath thereby jamming the throttle open.
Not long afterwards I was attempting some work on the Mini in my parents’ garage; a faulty speedo I seem to remember. The battery was in the boot and I’d neglected to disconnect it before I started fiddling with the wiring. I had obviously shorted something and it was only after I started choking on the fumes filling the garage did I realise that the wiring from the boot to the engine bay was on fire. This wiring travelled from the boot to the engine under the carpet so after I’d managed to put the fire out I was left with a nice melted strip of carpet running through the length of the car.
A few months later, whilst travelling to a friend’s house in darkest West Sussex, the Mini died. The battery was fading and it just gave up with twenty miles to go, after a 400 mile trip. It was towed the last few miles and stayed in Sussex, on my friend’s drive, for six months. The Mini was later sold to a friend; after which it decided to break down in every way imaginable. He eventually sold it for scrap and, like Exile on Main Street I forgot all about it. Until yesterday. And I’m getting serious pangs to go and buy another Mini.