11 centimetres. I measured. No, not that - I am merely referring to how much column space my newspaper classifieds has devoted to second hand car sales.
Not commercial ones mind you, I mean private sales - the sort of place where you and I would buy our next car or sell our current one. Project cars. A to Bers. Cars Under R5,000. That sort of thing.
Well, the section (if you can call eleven centimetres a section at all) was titled Cars Under R25,000, reminding me of many things not the least of which being how old I am now. I still remember the day I came painfully close to buying my second car. I was 16 years old and well, the classic Mini I owned and ultimately swapped for an IBM PC was a distant memory. And I was craving wheels once more.
This was circa 1994 and back then we even had an Under R2000 category. Keep in mind I was a youngun' from the Cape flats. Also that this was the height of the illegal drag racing scene and I wanted something that sounded fast. And there it was. A Ford 20M.
I didn’t have a clue what it was but it sure sounded a lot like a Ford 30S. While that latter car was a fairly potent breed of Cortina, the 20M was more akin to its problematic, alcoholic, inappropriate uncle. But – and this part was crucial – it was selling for R900. In 1994, it was feasible, I thought. See, I had R950, which means if I bought it, I'd also have enough money for half a tank of fuel.
This was the 90s, folks. I asked my older brother Ralph to take me to view it. It wasn’t in the part of town where good cars usually came from. He was sceptical. I was convincing. We hopped aboard his Chevair 2.8 and puttered off to a part of Athlone I wasn’t used to at that time, navigating by memory. See in those days we didn’t have GPS to guide us. We didn’t have a cell phone to bail us out. Instead, we’d make a phone call on a land line handset, take directions using a pen and a paper (Google these) and follow them. And if we wrote them down wrong we would drive back home and phone again.
We managed to nail it the first time and soon enough there I was, on the curb of the seller, staring at what can only be described as 1.2 tons of rust, resting on four rotten wheels loosely covered in arbitrary rubber. See, in a world before Facebook Marketplace, there wasn’t any meaningful way to see a car until you were in close proximity to it. I was promised that it could make it home, should I still want to buy it. The look on Ralph’s face affirmed what I was already feeling. It was time to bail.
I never bought that car, but the Ford 20M is a good car. Sure, as far as classics go, it is seldom filed under desirable. But I love it in the most anecdotal of ways, because if nothing else, it gave me this story.
Now, I’m not a hopeless nostalgic, I don’t often romanticise about the past – in fact I consider myself quite the geek. I love technology and there’s no doubt that the internet is a more efficient place to trade cars. But I do miss a simpler time when a well-worded string of sentences was all it took to evoke within another person the desire to drive 40km into unknown territory just for the opportunity to look at a 20 year old car in case he might want to own it.