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My First Car: Bitter Lessons From Skipping Due Diligence 
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My First Car: Bitter Lessons From Skipping Due Diligence 

What would you do if, upon flinging open your front door one morning, you discover that a neighbour has marked your parked car's bonnet as the perfect drying spot for her running sneakers? I suppose you'd shrug it off - ask them to move them - and drive off to work.

Well, not so much if the said car is a 40yr-old vintage steadily becoming a collector's item. You'd lose it, fly into a temper - fling the sneakers across the driveway - and scream: "I don't want laundry stains on my car!". 

This is a 1984 Peugeot 205, the first generation model. It's unimportant that the car now has grass sprouting around it, she's still a coveted classic!

Generally, most people have pleasant memories of their first cars. Well, I do not. I had a horrible experience with the 205 - my first car. The passage of a few years has done little to numb the pain of that expensive mistake.

After a year of saving,  painstakingly living hand to mouth - I had enough - Ksh500,000. I preferred an average sedan, relatively used, easy to run, and with a good history. I had spent a fair amount of time online reading car reviews.

Anyways, I had a senior confidant - a mentor, an uncle.

Every family has that one uncle - cool, fun, and easy to talk to. Mine, we had built an accommodative relationship, I would share confidential stuff.  He knew I had almost starved on my car-savings journey. We would hang out - we both loved cars and music. 

Especially music in cars.

In July 2007, I declared myself officially searching. He casually offered to sell me his old car - the Peugo - since he had upgraded to a newer version. I was taken aback - everyone knew how much he fussed over it. At family events, he would brag of an 'accident-free' record spanning two decades!

I had my reservations about buying a classic as a first car. She's old, spare parts may be a problem, and modern mechanics familiar with earlier models may be hard to find. 

I asked for a few days to think it over. That's all he needed. The sly fox would use that time to turn my passions into weaknesses.

He wheeled the classic into a garage and serviced her. He then buffed up the paintwork, fluffed up the faux-leather-padded interior - and, wait for it, installed the baddest car stereo system on the market.

Also, an aftermarket exhaust is common with Subaru enthusiasts. 

Now, the 205 had a flawless silver coat, sparkling chrome bumpers, a killer sound system, and a throaty exhaust roar. I was smitten.

The 'My-Son' Trump Card Trick

On the following Sunday, uncle called me asking if I was free for a ride. I would drive, he added. A surprise, alright. In two decades, not even his wife had touched the 205.

Now, the Peugeot 205 packs a 1.1 liter with moderate horsepower, a 5-speed manual gearbox, and is capable of getting to 140kph. I had no intention of speeding, but - hey, it is such fun roaring around corners.

An hour into the drive, Uncle unapologetically unleashed the 'My Son' card.

In family circles, this is the trump card that's used to emotionally manipulate someone to unconsciously agree to a biased decision.

"I need a small loan, my son. We used to walk barefoot to school with your dad", someone says.

Or, nearing the planting season - a relative calls: "My daughter, I need some fertiliser. I'll bless you so much". See the drift?

I agreed to buy the Peugeot 205, for Ksh250,000. I recall Uncle remarking of the car being a collector's item worth over a million bob, if 'you take good care of her'. 

Frankly, it was a betrayal of trust as I would painfully realise a few months down the road.

To be fair, the Peugeot 205 is quite robust and capable of taking extreme abuse for extended periods. We had ignored the age factor - she was creeping towards 40.

More importantly, at that age, a car may frown at the exuberance of youthful ownership. I was just 23, with girlfriends to please, parties to be at, and far-flung places to visit - with friends.

Either I had abused the poor vintage or had fallen hook, line, and sinker for the biggest fraud in history.

Friends Messed Up My Clutch

The clutch started getting stuck, in the second month. Not every friend I had was used to a manual gear setup.

The gearbox, too, developed issues. For the longest time, I would be shifting from 1st to 3rd gear - then, to 5th. The reverse, too, would eject often.

The car would break down without warning. In the middle of a road trip. On the way to church, with my mother in the front seat.

One time, she cheekily offered to ask her prayer group to 'fast over it'. She reckoned that, perhaps, her wayward brother had had too many questionable trysts in it before I took ownership.

I'd consistently be at pains to answer one question from my friends: Kwani haukufanya road test ukinunua hii gari?

The last straw came one evening on the way to work. The clutch and the gearbox failed completely, without warning. I had to ask for help to get off the road. A friend towed me home.

Hard-to-find Spare Parts 

One problem with vintage cars is the spare parts.

I spent a month searching online for someone with a clutch and gearbox system. Turns out local franchises did not stock spare parts for models out of production.

I turned to salvage yards, no success. When I got a referral to an enthusiast, the setup was relatively used, and not cheap - I had to approach my Sacco for an emergency loan.

Then, finding a competent mechanic came up. A series of quacks tinkering under the hood in turn messed up the wiring. I couldn't get the lights to work, and on occasions - started smelling burning rubber when I switched on the engine. 

After a few weeks, I gave up. I lost patience. Some days, she'd start and totally play dead the next. I did not have the financial might to ship all the parts that were failing from Europe.

Even if I did, who would fix it? 

In retrospect, I should not have bought a vintage as a first car, or for that much.

Worse, the relationship with Uncle irrevocably broke down. We no longer talk, share drives, or the old jokes. To date, I feel betrayed for financial gain by a close relative. He abused my trust.

I should have taken the car for a proper test drive. But, even if I had, I wouldn't have known what to look out for. I was too naive.

My beloved Peugeot 205 has been parked for over a decade now. On weekly intervals, in the beginning, I used to crank her engine. If she lights up, I would just sit and listen to music. 

Interestingly, the stereo worked just as fine for a few months - probably wondering where the long drives and the crowd of friends disappeared to. Then, I had it pulled out when the battery gave up its ghost. 

Each morning, she's a reminder of the mistakes I made. I'm now saving for another car. It will take longer, with more commitments up my alley. 

I covered her up with tarpaulin as protection from weather elements - and obnoxious neighbours. Someday, I'll spruce her up enough to get an offer at a local Classic Car show. 

If you are buying a used car, here are a few things to check on a test drive before the purchase:

Seek Experience

In matters cars, do not be a Know-It-All. There's no glamour in surprising family and friends with a new car if it breaks down once you get home.

Seek help from an experienced car owner, or better still - hire an experienced and certified mechanic - for the particular model you wish to purchase. 

On the test drive, do not drive. Be a passenger - you'll have the time to observe the little things about your prospective purchase.

Rattles and Shakes

Use your ears. It's not the time to test the music system. Switch off the radio. (This is the source of my pain. I loved the music, didn't pay attention to the noises).

Cars are like people, with their temperaments - unhappy, scared, or angry moods are easy to spot. They come off in the sounds a car makes while in motion - listen for engine tone, clicks, and rattles. A slight noise can signal the onset of a major problem later on.

Read Also: Why Leaving Your Car at The Mechanics is a Bad Idea

Drive Lines

As you test drive, seek a smooth stretch - hopefully not busy. Maintain moderate speed, and - once in a while - let go of the steering wheel. Well, not in an 'auto-pilot' assumption - but, long enough to observe the steering for wobbles at coasting and braking.

Wobbling points to worn tires, bent wheel brake disks, or unbalanced wheels.  

Car Basics and Add-ons

At the end of the test drive, check what else is functional, and what's not. Do a systemic check - windscreen wipers, washer vents, air conditioning, rear and side mirrors, central locking, boot and bonnet locks, and so on.

Yes, if you love music - blast it. Note, the car shouldn't rattle and shake at good bass levels!

Put on the headlights, at full beam and dim. Walk around the car and check if they work fine. Be sure not to forget the reverse and brake lights, too. 

Flick the indicators on and off, are any missing? 

The Car Manual 

Hey - it pays to go through a vehicle's manual with a toothcomb. Besides basic troubleshooting tips in case something doesn't work - there's a whole lot of useful - and, often hidden accessories in most models.

Yes - used cars may lack the hard copy of the manual - but, presently - there's usually a pdf copy available for download. There's nothing to lose, and much to gain in a new vehicle's operator manual.

For example, what does a flashing blue, green or red light on your dashboard mean? A manual comes in handy.

For what it's worth, I wouldn't touch a vintage car with a 10-foot pole again.

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Kibaki Muthamia is a creative non-fiction writer with over three years in narrative-style content writing, SEO, digital marketing and social media copywriting. Away from writing, if you don't find him volunteering with St John's Ambulance, he's weaving spoken word and poetry at the Kenya National Theatre. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

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