The story of how I met my car - and be sure that it is in fact a story, not merely a sequence of events, but for brevity I'll try to keep it in York Notes format tonight - is a romance. A traditional, classical romance, full of twists and turns and strokes of luck both good and bad, familiar to chick-lit readers everywhere and as hoary and cliched as it is essential and familiar.
I learned to drive in a Ford Fiesta. It was brand new - they all are, AA learner cars, presumably to provide as neutral an experience as possible, lest the student learn to negotiate the car's quirks rather than the road - and did precisely what it was designed to do, namely ferry persons from point A to point B without any unexpected deaths or embarrassment. It was a device, a travel machine, nothing more.
Despite being an avid viewer of Top Gear even as a pedestrian, I had never really understood the idea of a car having a personality. The Cult Of Car was beyond me: they were practical inventions, a means to an end. I learned to drive for practical reasons, not to belong to a culture - between Top Gear and The Fast & The Furious (both things I found, and find, enjoyable, by the way) there didn't seem to be that much actual culture to go round.
Having passed my test such practical concerns became the primary driver of car choice. It seemed sensible to get something small, old and cheap: Fords of various kinds are plentiful and easy to find spares for, so the Ka (the original, not the bloated replacement) was my first target. Small, easy to park, easy to buy, eminently maintainable. A small car from a time when small cars were in fact small: modern small cars seem to have been inflated with every passing generation.
My best and dearest friend, who is a passionate and committed petrolhead (well, dieselhead), warned me off the Ka due to it's poor safety record, a factor I admit I had not considered, my plan being to Avoid Crashing. A Fiesta, she opined, would be safer.
Some Googling revealed that the Fiesta of that era - the Mark 4 - was indeed slightly safer according to Euro NCAP, and somewhat cheaper: a curious-looking beast, a 90s car with 70s looks, it was much less popular than the revamped Mark 5, which endeared me to it immediately. I did my research, checked insurance costs, scoured AutoTrader and decided a 1.25l LX would do.
Then something weird happened. I had a dream about driving a car, and it was a Focus. I have never liked Focuses (I know, I know, Foci, but we're not on the PassionFord forums here) - bank manager cars, dull and commonplace, a staple of company fleets and lower-middle-class families everywhere. But there it was, a dream. Like one of those dreams where you make love to someone you never fancied before, and the next morning you find you feel differently about them in real life too.
I have a rule, possible pagan, about such things: once is odd, twice is coincidence, three times is the gods shouting "it's behind you". The 'twice' in this context was rewatching the clumsily-titled but otherwise underrated 2Fast 2Furious and spotting what appeared to be (and later confirmed to be) a heavily modified Focus in a background shot. Tertiarily (shut up, it's a word) I entered the details of a 1.6 litre Focus into MoneySupermarket out of blithe curiosity, only to find it around a third cheaper to insure than a 1.25 Fiesta.
On the face of it, this makes no sense - the Focus is bigger and more powerful - but I suspect the apparent dullness of the thing combined with the sheer number on the roads brought the price down. Cool cars cost more, and nothing is less cool than a Focus. Well, except a Lexus, perhaps, or a Dacia. Anyway, three things! So, back to AutoTrader and off I dove into the pit of vipers that is the second-hand car market.
Make no mistake, car dealerships exist outside the law. Legal requirements mean nothing here: statute is something that happens to other people. There is a whole subculture of Britain that sees the law as something that only suckers adhere to and that is optional to the rest: most of this subculture work in the used car trade. Dodgy as fuck. Of the first three cars I went for, one had undeclared modifications which I could never have insured; one had sported an apparently fake numberplate for the last eight years, so no meaningful history could be had, and the last was an insurance write-off. If you're buying a second-hand car for Goddess' sake do an HPI check on everything.
Finally I found a silver 1999 1.6 Ghia at a dealership a few miles from home, situated by a canal in an old quarry that had been converted (very minimally) to a business park. The walk there, through marshland and forest, was quite picturesque and muddy as hell, but as soon as I sat in the car I knew it was the one. The test drive - a couple of miles through congested Rickmansworth side roads - told me little bar that it worked at very low speeds, but it was good enough for me. Sometimes you must follow your instincts.
On taking it home (a couple of days later to allow them time to re-MOT it) I found myself on proper roads, at a proper speed, alone, for the first time. The Fiesta I had learned in had been a dour, doubtful, frigid librarian of a car: reacting to every turn of the wheel with a faintly irritated are-you-quite-sure-about-that? The Focus on the other hand was nothing like that. When I steered, it did not just comply but positively threw itself round the bends. She (by this point I'd already decided it was a she) punched her way through traffic, hurled herself round roundabouts giggling maniacally and just generally made driving fun.
I had never had fun driving before, and fell in love immediately. The Focus looks boring but isn't: at the time it was a radical design, it's only the massive popularity of it that gives it that girl-next-door look. Some Googling revealed that this was an open secret among car people: if the Fiesta is a librarian, the Focus is a drunk, horny librarian with a gun, blowing you a kiss as she straps on a parachute at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Sylvia (she's silver, you see) is fourteen years old, so she has her foibles and flaws - idles high when cold, the electric mirrors only work sideways and the driver's door won't unlock in wet weather - but she has personality. Car people - and I suppose, after an hour rambling about this, I am such a one - don't fetishise the automobile: they love it.