I have been through quite a few cars in the last years of my life. Petrol has gone to my head. I have learnt to dirty my hands, empty my pockets and feel the immense joy of losing a tenth of a second at the track. I have made impulse decisions which haven’t always gone well and I have driven through some beautiful roads on numerous road-trips. Cars are a disease, an incurable mental condition that intensifies as the years go by.
Here are a few of the lessons I have learnt along the way:
Decide what you want from the car. Looks, performance, practicality, reliability, all-rounder? Will it be your daily runner or a second (third or fourth etc) car? Think long and hard about this. Some cars look like all-rounders but they aren’t. They might not have the looks or not handle well enough to satisfy your inner petrol-induced lust. Other cars look like out-and-out sports cars but offer surprising levels of comfort, practicality and every-day usability. The truth is that the dissatisfaction takes about 42 days into ownership to surface. And by then you have lost time, money, effort, and possibly a wife. So think, long and hard. What do you really want?
It might sound obvious, but set yourself a maximum budget. Don’t feel the need to spend it all. But crucially, especially if you intend tracking the car, research it well and include a rough estimate of after-market mods within that budget.
Most cars are built with components that do very well on the road but just don’t cut it on the track. This is especially true for brakes, suspension, gearbox and cooling. Power without control is dangerous, pointless and ironically, slow. Power at the risk of reliability is costlier in the long run. And what gets you faster around a track is the ability to brake late and carry speed through corners. BHP won’t give you that. Suspension, brakes, aerodynamics (depending on the track) and cooling are your top priorities.
Do you want a car to be reliable, to look good, to sound good, to handle like a go-cart, drift at every round-about, to race, to time-attack? Are you competitive by nature? There are very few cars that can do all of the above. And fewer cars that can do all of the above and still be driven to and from the track. So again, think of whether you are prepared to have a car that is towed to and from the track especially if the closest track is not exactly close to home. The only car I have ever owned which ticked practically all of the above boxes was the Honda S2000. In most cars you are going to have to give up one or more of the above criteria – so again, think long and hard about what you are willing to give up.
And just how important is the engine? For some people the sound and torque offered by higher displacement engines is a must. If this is the case, then avoid trying to satisfy that thirst with forced induction. After 42 days you know exactly what will happen. Likewise if you are a turbo or supercharger junkie, look past that high revving V-Tec. Naturally aspirated engines tend to need ‘trashing’ to bring out their potential. You need to be ready to drive very close to the red line and to learn to shift gears up and down keeping that needle within the power band. Forced induction comes by way of turbos and superchargers. Careful with turbos – the larger the turbo the more you risk lag – that delay of power and sudden, difficult to control kick in the arse. But the value for money power which a turbo offers is hard to beat. Superchargers tend to offer more linear, and hence controllable power and tend to come at a higher price too. I will not, and cannot claim what is ‘best’. I have driven, and enjoyed ‘turboed’, supercharged and natural aspirated cars. And I have learnt to appreciate the beauty of all of them for different applications.
Some purists claim that 50/50 weight distribution is essential. A lot of racers will vouch for mid-engined cars. And Impreza owners will argue that 4WD is the only way to go. There is no right and wrong. Try to drive as many cars as you can and then decide for yourself. Handling is subjective but not to be underestimated. The steering feel and weight distribution on my super-slow MK1 MX5 ‘hair-dresser car’ make it a joy to drive every single time. And I never feel the need for more power because my senses are being fed and satisfied through the steering with every bend and every undulation in the road.
Consult forums! There is a plethora of information out there about every conceivable car and every imaginable related problem. Someone has been through it before you. So learn from their advice, possibly before purchasing the car. Car magazines can only get you so far. Tested cars are generally new. So while you can read into the performance figures and power delivery, plastic feel of the dashboard, real world economy, and whether you can fit an IKEA flat-packed bed in the rear, truth is you will never be advised as to the real pit-falls of certain cars. And especially if you are buying second hand this lack of knowledge can prove to be much costlier than you ever possibly fathomed.
And last but not least, enjoy the drive. Cars are there to be driven. Red lines are there to be reached. And apexes are there to be clipped. The only question you should never ask yourself is whether it’s ‘worth it’. From the moment you’ve set yourself a budget that money is going to be spent. ‘Worth it’ from then on is the smile across your face every time you take her out, floor her and hear that engine screaming.