What a saga. The strange humming noise from the rear I first heard a year and a half ago, which gradually turned into a worrying drone, and which could for so long not be diagnosed, turned out to be two things in the end - both of them components of the 'rear differential'. A worn-out electro-hydraulic power-distributor (the Haldex), which had been making most of the noise, and a dodgy bearing in the final drive (the coggy bit between the shafts to the rear wheels) which was causing an underlying rumble masked by the louder howl from the Haldex.
The prop shaft, though it had shown signs of wear in its joints, wasn't to blame. They actually fitted a new prop shaft, and gave it a brief road test. It was a misdiagnosis. As it's been used, it can't now be sent back, but they haven't charged me for it.
They have of course charged me for the new Haldex, and the new final drive, plus the standard labour for inspection and fitting (although it probably all took rather longer), plus VAT.
£5,439 was the bill.
Against that I did have the free use of a very decent nearly-new Volvo V40 for a full eight days in the run-up to Christmas, when it was vital to stay mobile. I hate to think what that would have cost me to hire.
The problem has now shifted from workshop diagnosis and mechanical remedy to one of funding. I paid by credit card and the £5,439 will be repayable in mid-February. I need to pop extra funds into my bank account by then.
I can raid my savings account to some extent, but will certainly have to approach my bank for a further loan. I expect it will be straightforward to obtain another £2,000 over 34 months or so. I had expected to be loan-free by June 2018. Now it will be late 2019.
To help keep the loan requirement reasonable, I'm trimming back my personal expenditure for 2017 onwards. Cutting down by (say) £35 a week makes quite a difference over a year. And of course I've postponed buying a new phone! I looked too at reverting to monthly payment on my insurances and landline rental, instead of paying these outright once a year. But it made no sense to spread the cost. They make you pay too much for that facility. There would be hefty financing charges for paying the insurance premiums monthly, and I'd lose a nice 10% discount on the annual landline fee.
I'm not reducing my savings. I want to maintain them, and eventually to seriously increase them.
Nor am I sacrificing my holidays. I looked at it of course. But affording a decent programme of caravan tours was going to be a problem only during 2017. In effect, some of the fresh borrowing will now subsidise my caravan outings during 2017, Scotland included. But these holidays are a great source of pleasure. Their cost (not great, anyway - I'm talking about £200 to £250 per week) is amply rewarded - photographically, socially, and in many other stimulating ways. And I get to see lots of new places. It's all about broadening one's horizons - a very worthy purpose. I'm happy to give that a much higher priority than clothes and shoes, new bags and jewellery bits and pieces.
So, what about Fiona herself?
I'd adapted quite well to the petite and foxy Volvo V40. Fiona, when I came back to her, was a very different proposition. She seemed in every way a much bigger and taller car. She wasn't really all that larger, but at first she seemed enormous, both inside and out, a real barge, her cabin like a cream-leather cave. Once seated, the view from the driver's eat was commanding - not like the low-down, worm's-eye, view in the sportier V40. The difference was almost shocking.
But when I fired Fiona up, readjusted the seats, and all the instrumentation had lit up in the dark, I quickly felt at home again.
How I had missed the rear view camera, parking sensors, and the handy map on the SatNav screen! And she was definitely more luxurious, and better-equipped. Would you believe it, the V40 had no visible clock once started up, not unless you switched on the radio. And no rolling map onscreen. No compass, even. I'd been driving about without being sure where I was, nor whether I'd get to my destination on time! But now I would know.
We moved off, heading for home. And all was smooth and silent. The annoying drone had indeed gone. Silent Night. You could have heard an angel breathe. Well, myself anyway.
I was in fact expecting more tyre and engine noise than I got. Road rumble and diesel rattle. But the still-new Michelin tyres were quieter than the old set, more than I'd been able to appreciate before, and the diesel engine barely chattered, despite its 97,000 miles.
I'd got used to the V40's nimble ways - it was a lot less heavy. Fiona felt ponderous by comparison. But at the same time, much more solid on the road, more stable, more grippy: the all-wheel drive was getting power down onto the tarmac more efficiently. So despite her greater weight, driving her felt safer and steadier, better for high speeds. Not that I tested Fiona's performance on the way home. I went no faster than 60 mph, and will keep to that speed limit for the first 1,000 miles or so, to allow the new components to bed in without stress.
I kept on listening for 'that noise' or indeed any funny noises, but there were none. It wasn't quite the Silence of the Tomb, but things were hushed in a way I'd long forgotten. I could hardly believe it. Surely I wouldn't get home without hearing something - a warning light coming on, or a message appearing on the display, to tell me that this or that wasn't working properly. But none of this happened.
And nothing happened early this morning, when I went out for some last food shopping at Waitrose. Nor a bit later, when I went to the filling station for diesel. The humming/droning noise had become part of my ordinary driving experience, and now it was gone Fiona seemed odd and unfamiliar. Well, I shall take her out for some local runs, and get re-acquainted. It will be a pleasure.
There are plenty of older cars around. The higher-quality ones, or at least the ones with caring owners, still look smart and dashing; and all seem to be giving sterling service. Why shouldn't Fiona do the same in the years to come? She still looks the business. She's had her expensive hysterectomy, knee replacement and hip job. Why shouldn't she henceforth step forth confidently, and live a full and active life? If, that is, she is allowed to approach her duties in a serene fashion that won't overtax her. In other words, I need to drive her, and cosset her, like a classic car.
But I need to build up a Special Contingency Fund. She might indeed cover another 100,000 miles in triumph, but I would be wise to set aside a few thousand pounds - extra money - just in case she ever has a sudden and completely unexpected heart attack, and needs emergency surgery! That's why I am sacrificing some personal day-to-day spending power, so that savings can be maintained and eventually stepped up. I don't want to be caught out again without enough doubloons in my treasure chest. I want no more loans.
A final thought. I think some people must think me mad, even if too polite to say so, to spend so much on keeping a six-year old car on the road.
But look at it this way. Think of Fiona as a well-bred horse from a good stable, a high-performing thoroughbred. Think of the vet's bills inevitably involved. Those would run into thousands. But I'm quite sure - given the British love of animals - that nobody would raise an eyebrow if I spent a small fortune on keeping a beloved horse in fine fettle.
A well cared-for horse and a well cared-for Volvo have a comparable lifespan. Both look good and are satisfying to own - if expensive to run. But Fiona is a lot more useful than any horse. QED.