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Alto

This is a guest post, written by the owner of the car.

Some people will try telling you that a Morris Marina is the best choice for a first car. It’s fun, it’s hair-raising, it’ll teach you how to own, drive, and repair a car that comes with a lot of quirks.

But let’s be honest. For a teenager, particularly one who lives in the ‘wop wops’, the best first car is the first one that’s available, that you can afford.

And that, was how I ended up the proud owner of a 1986 Suzuki Alto. With an F8B engine in an SB308 chassis, it was a whole three cylinders and 800cc of automatic fury – that yellow spot on the horizon zooming around the countryside; That was me.

I should warn though, small, yellow cars can attract unwanted attention. Police won’t give you a second glance – but everyone else will. You’ll get pranked, like the guys at school who picked up and turned my car around in the car park to see if I noticed (I didn’t…), and it was also prone to mindless vandalism. I did add an alarm, which made the car super inconspicuous (flashing blue LEDs without the discretion of a footwell/tinted windows, turns your car into a disco-partying target) – it didn’t stop the vandalism, but I did catch the culprit red-handed so received $10/week compensation (good ol’ NZ justice system). Speaking of unwanted attention, bees also follow yellow cars then swarm and hover at intersections (or so was the experience with the Swift – I never counted the bodies).

I knew the car was going to be special when I was driving through the country and pulled up at a traffic light designed to guide trucks over a one-lane bridge. I waited. I inched forward and waited some more. A cyclist came along and pressed the bike crossing button and the light instantly changed. Yup, the Alto was too small to trigger a country traffic light sensor.

The car had just enough pep to get me around and keep me connected with friends but, let’s face it, not enough power to push the car beyond my own capability as a young driver. I remember once carrying a car full of people up a modest hill “lean forward!” was the cry I heard from the back seat as foot flat we inched our way to the top of the hill at 25kph.

The Alto and I had our moments. Like going for my Restricted drivers licence test – squeezing in some last-minute parallel parking practice – not realizing that the engine fan was manual. Yes, the car overheated and had a mini geyser of water coming out from the engine bay 20 minutes before my test. Then there was the time the inhibitor switch got sticky and I couldn’t work out why the car wouldn’t start. And then there was the long saga with the carburetor. But I loved it – my yellow car, my symbol of independence.

I cannot say whether this is a common experience, but I have never been a fan of taking my car to the mechanics. Many “professionals” scoffed at my car, and at me.

  • Car needs rear suspension “the car’s a write off, here’s a number for the scrap metal yard, they may give you $50 for it”
  • Car needs an oil change “your car is obsolete and next time you won’t be able to get an oil filter, better get a new car” (yes, actually)
  • Incompetent brake work was done and the car didn’t feel right when I got in so asked the mechanic to jump in – “Nah, she feels all good”. I pull out into the street and suddenly my brakes DO NOT WORK so I cruise around the block and take it right back “brakes are meant to feel like that” was what the mechanic said, giving me the you’re-a-stupid-woman-now-let-me-get-back-to-my-coffee glare. Kelvinator thought I was exaggerating, until he got in the car and nearly died.
  • Car needs some carb work so I go into the Suzuki workshop for some expert advice – they try to sell a clearly broke student a new car so they don’t have to get their hands dirty.

In my experience very few people respected this little car. Other than Kelvinator, I’ve only found two mechanics to have a genuine respect (and possible soft spot) for my car – Thanks Wally (Pit Stop Christchurch – circa 2008) and Tony (Moorhouse WOF – pre-earthquakes).

The Alto noticed too (it had quite the personality). If someone who respected the car serviced it, there were never any issues with the work. If someone who had no respect for the car serviced it, my wallet was always empty and the car was never running right afterwards. The amount of rework was appalling.

But that’s okay, it just made me more determined to learn my own car and do my work myself. Altos are perfect for learning about (carburetor) engines and doing a bit of DIY work. The engine is incredibly accessible, there’s space to get in and do what you need to – modern cars with all their cramped glory that require a full engine removal just for minor maintenance don’t make sense to me. With everything accessible, and the mechanics so… mechanical – no black magic – I could get in there and find my way around. I self-serviced the distributor, rotor, ignition leads, spark plugs, coolant system, air filter, battery, and with help have done engine and transmission oil changes, changed brake pads, fuel filter, worked on the carburetor, alternator, and replaced a wheel bearing. I basically had a brand new car.

I got the Alto when it had about 165,000k’s on the clock (though the odometer only has five digits!) We reluctantly parted ways at 223,500k’s as I was relocating to a city with many, many hills. I couldn’t bare to forever lose the car, so gave it to family as a runabout where it happily trucked along to 236,635ks when it “blew up” because “it was accidentally overfilled with oil” and “was a complete write off” – no, I may not agree with that assessment. If I had the garage space, I would’ve shipped the car to me and fixed it myself – just to prove a point. Alas, that wasn’t an option. The registration was put on hold and has been sold to someone who, I believe, hopes to get it back on the road. I hope the Amazing Alto’s personality lives to terrorize the streets another day.

Tastes Like Petrol
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