my worst ever car journey

crash test dummies

my worst ever car journey


Whilst undeniably short, the worst journey of my life remains eternally etched in my memory, returning whenever I see a Renault 5 GT Turbo (a fine, if somewhat brittle motor car of yore.). Having previously harboured no malice towards them, events of March 1992 ensured that GTs now leave me with sweaty palms whenever I spot one gently oxidising away to itself.

The day had started innocuously enough with a visit to Mel's mushroom farm, an underground edifice that acted as a kind of Purgatory for the written off and stolen vehicles of Brighton, whence they would arise from the bowels of the earth with new identities and once again bestride the A23 like wheeled behemoths. Granadas, Senators, the odd Jag; they were all down there somewhere, the arc welder picking out their tarnished brightwork amongst the gloom. The constituent parts of three written off Renault 5 GT Turbos was sitting in pride of place, its resprayed paintwork a deep lustrous red after a buff with the magic mop. Although a bit low rent now, this was a major vehicle back in the early Nineties, and it was now time for a shakedown before it met the unsuspecting customer.

Being clean and sporting a newly blacked set of remoulds, I'd figured that this would comprise a trundle around the block, some knob twiddling and a bit of reversing backwards and forwards to see if anything fell off, but I hadn't reckoned on Mel and his psychotic driving tendencies. To Mel, every trip behind the wheel offered the opportunity to touch immortality, to embrace the 'No Fear' t-shirt mantra. The car hammered out of the yard, and down the single track road, high hedges bouncing back the frenzied scream of the engine whilst Mel inspected the progress of the driver's electric window.

Second gear caught the turbo in full chat and the resulting torque steer sent the Renault weaving drunkenly towards the T junction of Henfield High Street at a frankly inadvisable lick, before the brakes caught the car in time to send it left around the corner, scattering pedestrians and cyclists in all directions. Somewhat surprisingly, I was neither screaming to slow down or enjoying the ride. I'd reached a zen like state of catatonia and would have probably had an out of body experience had Mel been able to plumb in the factory fit sliding glass sunroof to glance down at myself through. He just drank Iron Bru and drove inexorably faster.

"I was starting to run a mental sweep on exactly what we were going to crash into.."

I was starting to run a mental sweep on exactly what we were going to crash into. Our frequent excursions into the oncoming traffic made that the favourite, closely followed by the back of whatever was in front, a tree, a bridge parapet, or finally the scenery in general. When it did materialise, the accident was spectacular in its sheer banality. A mini roundabout beckoned, and a voice to my right intoned that this was a 50 mph shot across the painted white dot. The exit to the right was obscured by a pile of bricks and as we approached the go/no go decision point, the accelerator was decisively floored.

Back in 1972, the Austin Maxi was a popular, if somewhat stolid, choice of the middle aged family man with a buy-British bent. Its combination of tried and tested mechanicals and cargo swallowing ability endeared it to the public who bought them in not inconsiderable quantities. You don't see so many of them these days, but there it was, lumbering asthmatically in from stage right on its fateful way to the local Pease Pottage scrapyard. In reacting to this, the 5 was pitched into a hard left turn. Cue the understeer. More lock was applied and then the steering lock clicked on. It was a serene moment. Time did indeed seem to stand still as the car hit the kerb and began its graceful pirouette skywards.

A full 360 degrees later, and still airborne, the car impacted upon a pillar box, and wrapped itself around it so comprehensively that the rear offside wheel was buried into the headlight before the impact of the Maxi had snapped the car in half. The front of the car tipped onto the passenger side, my left leg was trapped and clear liquid dripped steadily onto my face. As petrol fumes filled the air I realised I'd survived the crash but now I was toast. I remember yelling for someone to get me out. Despite struggling, we were both stuck fast.

I woke up in Brighton General Hospital with nothing worse than a broken sternum and memory loss. Mel had a punctured lung, a ruptured spleen and two fractured legs. I was covered in Iron Bru and had suffered the indignity of soiling myself in the ambulance, but was otherwise surprisingly OK. From this episode, I learned two things that together made a dangerous combination. Firstly, never get into a car with a myopic, speed-crazed Malaysian bodger and secondly, that no matter how bulletproof you think you are, somewhere out there, there's an Austin Maxi with your name on it