Saturday, 3 August 2013

Safety expenditure, impish thoughts and ponies

Three days ago, when driving home from an electrolysis session in Bexley, a warning message popped up in Fiona's display: 'SRS Airbag Service Urgent', and a red symbol came on and stayed on. This meant that a fault of some kind had been detected in one of the airbags, or in a component that decided when any of them should be deployed, or to what extent. The module inside the steering wheel in front of me has for instance a two-stage deployment.

The last time I had an airbag warning was three years ago, soon after taking delivery of Fiona. It was one of those faults that come to light after a car has been in manufacture for a while. Once its incidence becomes frequent and general, there is a general recall. My case was one of the pioneering ones, before there was a general recall notice, but it was nevertheless a free fix authorised by Volvo HQ. I did not think I would get away with paying nothing this time though.

It was however a fault I wouldn't hestitate to address. This was a safety issue. Airbags protected one from impact injuries. I did not feel at all like ignoring the matter, and relying on just my seat belt, and the sturdiness of Fiona's build, until I could afford to have whatever was amiss dealt with.

In any case, it might not be my airbag, the one (or more than one) that would save me. It might be an airbag for a passenger seat. How could I ask anybody to be a passenger in my car if I knew that a life-saving device might not come into play and save them, should an accident occur? Their injury or death on my hands? What would I say to their loved ones? Really, there was no choice in the matter.

So yesterday my usual Volvo dealer at Portslade carried out a battery of electronic diagnostic tests. It looks as if the airbag module in the steering wheel is indeed the one at fault, although the precise nature of the fault can't be determined without a certain amount of fiddly dismantling to physically get at the module, and then make further tests. Apparently the electrical connections suffer wear from turning the wheel this way and that while driving, as you steer. (I must try to steer less in the future) I'm told the labour for dismantling, inspection, and the reassembly pending a replacement if needed, will be about £100. Sigh. And if replacement is in fact needed (of course it will be) then another £188. Sigh again: a heaving bosom in fact.

But what can you do?

It's no good saying, oh, we all used to drive rickety old rustbuckets held together with string and grease, with no seat belts, crossply tyres, and drum brakes that faded after eleven seconds, and never, never came to harm. The Good Old Days. I say phooey. I never felt safe in Dad's first car, a knackered black base-model late-1940s Ford Prefect (registration number EHT 411) which smelled of leaking petrol and looked nothing like this cherished and gleaming example:

It looked more like this:

And here is the beast itself, in a June 1960 shot with Mum, myself and little brother W---:

We were on holiday in Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. We had driven all the way from Barry in South Wales in the days before there was a Severn Bridge. I don't think we took the Aust Ferry, though we may have tried queuing for it. I think Dad went all the way up to Gloucester, then down the Burnham side of the Bristol Channel. I do remember it raining hard at one point, and the windscreen wiper whizzing off sideways into the road, and Dad stopping to find it. I think he did, but I can't remember whether he managed to reattach it there and then. We probably parked on the side of the A38, and glumly munched cheese sandwiches till the rain eased off. No doubt rain leaked in.

This was the car with direction-indicators in the form of arms that popped out when you turned a switch - or were meant to. Often they wouldn't oblige, or if they did, they stayed out and wouldn't retract. In the end, Dad reverted to hand signals.

EHT 411 was constant trouble, and charmless, though clearly memorable. Dad inevitably took it to the scrapyard in Barry Dock, receiving £5 for it I believe. Even then I was car-aware, and felt a little pang at its passing, but it was very scary for a nervous child. When Dad got promotion in 1963, and we moved to Southampton, he bought a brand-new Hillman Imp, 433 FCR. It was white with red seats, had a rear engine (just like a Porsche 911 did) and looked a lot like this:

That's not me in the picture. Here's a June 1965 shot of our Hillman Imp, standing with trailer on the quay at Southampton ready to be driven onto the Townsend-Thoresen ferry to Le Havre:

We were going to France for three weeeks. The Hillman Imp was bliss after the Ford Prefect, but it had two annoying faults: it wasn't roomy, and its water pump was constantly breaking down, so that on a long journey you had to stop often to let the engine cool off. Also, my younger brother W--- would get car-sick at the drop of a hat, and we'd have to stop for him too. Tiresome. The roominess mattered. Dad and his just-up-the-road pal Les Hinton were constantly nipping off to the New Forest to collect wild pony manure to dig into the poor soil of their gardens, and they would make it a gleeful family outing, complete with picnic items. You can imagine what it was like being in close confines with two or three bags of pony manure. No wonder I developed a taste for big cars that worked properly, and were too nice to taint with awkward passengers and strange whiffs!

But even the relatively civilised Hillman Imp was a tin can of death compared to Fiona, or indeed most modern cars. How things have improved! Most of us have become so safety-conscious, and rightly, because after all the average car can propel itself along at speeds well in excess of the national speed limit of 70mph. But 'can do' is not the same as 'can do safely'. Fiona is fast and powerful, but also heavy and stable, with great brakes, and permanent four-wheel drive. Plus numerous sensors and radar to scan the road in front and rear, and throw noises and flash signals at me, not just to keep me alert, but to warn me of things out of my field of vision. Intrusive? Irritating? No way. The safety systems were a key element in my choosing this car.

So fixing the airbag fault is an expense I will accept without demur. The financial impact can be managed. And there is some hope that it won't quite be £288. The dealer is going to ask Volvo to meet some of the cost, as I am not long out of warranty. Fingers crossed, then.


  1. Thanks for sharing your family car stories and photos.

    Don't be afraid of raising a stink with Volvo, especially as the dealer is on your side.

    You sure you don't want to come over to the dark side and join us "vintage" car owners. You have all those lovely Jaguars, Jensen Interceptors and Bentleys to choose from in England.

  2. No thank you. I vastly prefer up-to-date cars to icons of the past! I'm thinking anyway that owning an old car must be like owning an old boat: if you really maintain it properly, it will drain you of money. And if you don't, it's just taking up space.

    Obviously I can get very sentimental about a favourite car, but it still has to work as advertised, and earn its keep by being practical and always ready and able to take me where I want to go. If it keeps on letting me down, love dies.


  3. Ooh, Jensen Interceptors were and probably still are my favourite car of all time. Although you might say that older cars were not as safe as their modern counterparts most of them were built on a proper steel chassis. They were not as fast in speed nor acceleration so perhaps the safety aspect was not as important, at least to the extent it is today but today's cars are far speedier and have reasonably good acceleration and require greater safety measures as a result. Modern cars are far more reliable too even though there are more components that have the potential to break down. My first car was a Hillman Super Imp (1967) in maroon and it was quick off the mark too. My second car was the Hillman Californian Imp very similar if not the same colour as the one your dad owned. The Californian had a sloping rear end if you remember. I aspired to own the Sunbeam Stiletto, the souped-up version of the Imp but my next car would be the Avenger, a Super Avenger followed by an Avenger GT. Happy driving days I well remember. Has Fiona an automatic gearbox or a manual? I have never owned an automatic as I prefer the manual box. I think automatic boxes, good as they are, take something away from the experience of driving for me.

    Shirley Anne x

  4. I had two Hillman Imps, both of them the Husky Imp variation. The first one was hideously unreliable and I became most adept at changing water pumps and throttle cables. Why I bought a another can only be explained as some sort of brain disorder, though the second one was more reliable... until the seal went on the back door, sucking the exhaust fumes back into the car. How did we survive? My friends called it the Mini Hearse, which could have been horribly true.

    Shirley Anne, my first car was a Triumph Hereld Coupe - 948cc of undiluted power. The first time my wife-to-be got in, she smacked her head on the sloping roof and I laughed my socks off. Turned out nicely in the end, though!


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