My first car was a clapped-out Mini. It had lowered suspension and alloy wheels, and was a strange shade of orange. I made all my mistakes in that car, after passing my test and being officially allowed out on the roads to play with the other hooligans. (He Who Does Everything Around Here believes that I’m still a hooligan behind the wheel, but I beg to differ.) The good thing was that, being so small, I could mess up the parking and there would always be room around me, no matter what the angle (and I did leave a note for the owner of that car that wasn’t quite as far over as I thought).
She served her purpose – she kept me out of the rain, carried my shopping, and did the school run. She changed my life. I called her Edna the Inebriate Mini, and I was very fond of her, right up until the day I was preparing her for an MOT. It seemed to me that if you presented a clean, well-cared-for looking car, it would do a lot better than an obvious heap of junk, so I washed her and polished her, and hoovered her out – and sucked up half the floor panel on the driver’s side.
Edna had to go to a new home, where a young man learned to weld on her. I’m not sure what he did, but she ended up being called Barney, and came to a final stop nose-down in a ditch.
I was reminded of this the other day when I read a story about two retired farmers (though that seems to be a contradiction in terms); brothers – you only had to look at the nose – who fifty years ago put their work horse out to pasture and bought a tractor.
Fifty years ago means 1963. Carnaby Street, The Beatles, The Mini, the E-type Jaguar; and in this part of France, people farming with horsepower.
Their new tractor was a revelation. They could do everything the horse had done, at twice the speed. They could use it for forestry, for ploughing, for harvesting. It revolutionised their lives: and they respected it, as they had their horse. After all, without it, and without the horse, they may as well be back in the Middle Ages.
For fifty years that machine worked their farm, whatever the weather. It had no cab, so it was still fairly brutal work at times, in heat and rain and cold, but it provided the muscle, and they were grateful.
So much so, that they have celebrated its half-centenary by giving it an overhaul. It’s been repainted, its engine sorted out, everything made to be just as it was when it left the factory – to the tune of some 20,000 euros.
They wanted to give back something for all those years of loyal service.
Our sheep-farming neighbour down south had to replace his ancient Czech Zetor tractor (bought in the distant past for 700 francs) that had carried his logs from woodland to farm and then to us, and all the feed for his sheep, and the million and one other things he had used it for (to the point where his doctor told him to get off and walk for the sake of his health. He climbed onto his daughter’s bicycle instead). He went for another old machine, because it would do what he wanted. He didn’t want to pay for a cab and a soft seat and suspension, or shiny green paint: he just wanted an engine to pull and carry.
The value of a thing isn’t just in the monetary worth; it lies in its ability to do what you need it to do. When times are hard, maybe that’s something we should rediscover. Forget built-in obsolescence: bring back the repair man and the spare parts stockist. A bad workman may blame his tools, but a good one will respect them. If he respects them highly, maybe he’ll buy them a 50th birthday present.