Replacing your car isn't easy these days.
My apologies for not posting anything new here for a while. Retirements and Covid infections in work have made work crazy for the last month or two. I have written this over the last 4 or 5 weeks every time that I had five minutes to spare so hopefully it will not read like some disjointed series of random thoughts.
I mentioned here months ago that I had been forced to get rid of my old Vauxhall Astra. I had started early on prepping it for it’s MOT, but discovered a few good sized rust patches. One, for example was just beside the suspension mount under the front passenger wing. Looking at this area I noticed a loose piece of the sealant used at the joint between the different panels there, but when I went to peel the loose sealant away, a large piece of the inner wing came away with it! This and a few other patches made it seem unviable for a fix, so only one month before its 20th anniversary, it went for scrap. I liked that car, and we had had it for 18 years.
A month or so before the old Astra finally went to that great parking lot in the sky, the hunt for a replacement began. My wish list was fairly flexible since all I wanted was a workhorse to see me through the next five or six years at a minimum. It needed to be solid and reliable, petrol rather than a dirty diesel since I do not believe the rubbish talked about diesels being in any way more environmentally friendly than petrol cars, and since performance is not an issue when towing a trailer or taking the dog for a walk, a 1.4 or 1.6 engine would do fine.
Local ad sites provided nothing. I did go to look at a few. One, a Ford Focus was 10 years old but already rusting, and a newer Hyundai that I looked at was quite obviously full of body filler, some of which had cracked. The woman who owned the Hyundai seemed genuinely surprized when I pointed the filler out to her. Eventually, I gave up on the ad sites and dragged my brother off to a local car auction for the day, having already shortlisted a number of cars from their online auction catalogue.
Although I had looked around a car auction with friends years ago, I had never actually bid on anything at one before. We arrived well before the auction and went off to give my shortlisted cars a good look over. Even after discounting the dross, like an obviously repaired Seat Leon which had paint overspray even over the headlights, there were still a few good candidates, so I coughed up the £500 up front payment and got a bidding number. At this point I should point out that between Covid, and that ship that had been stuck in the Suez Canal, there was apparently a shortage of new cars at the time (apparently there was a shortage of control chips for ignition and other functions), and this was causing a knock-on effect on the price of second hand ones. I had used the Auto Trader web site to get valuations for the cars on my shortlist, having found that it was pretty accurate in the past.
Being new to car auctions, I found it a pretty weird experience. I suppose if you were a trader you could develop a sort of business relationship with some of the auctions staff to help make decent decisions about which vehicles might be worth buying or avoiding (that relationship might even be based on the odd backhander, or am I being too cynical here?). Certainly making a decent buying decision for a one off punter like me was not easy. For example, all the cars are locked until shortly before they are driven into the bidding ring. Thus, although you can browse around the outside of them and peer through the windows, you are really not getting a good chance to inspect the cars properly. Instead, buyers are forced to rely heavily on the inspection/grading report written for each car (a fee of over £50 is charged to buyers for this report, so you would think it should be fairly accurate). Frankly the report is not worth the paper it is printed on. That and the lack of any other real alternative to value the cars is one reason I will not be using auctions again.
And so the crowds gathered, and it was auction time. The newer, and supposedly better cars came first, but there were no bargains. Even dealers were buying cars for more than the figure Autotrader gave for what they could sell them for! It seemed ridiculous. As time went on this trend for overpayment went on and I was quickly out of the bidding for anything that had looked reasonable. Eventually towards the end of the lots for sale, the crowd of buyers thinned out, but some of the cars up for sale looked like they were only fit for scrap. I had two choices left from my list, both were Astras and both were about 10 years old.
When the first of these was due, both my brother and I were standing by it. It looked OK, but when it was started it smoked heavily from the exhaust so it was now off the list. The other was graded low in the auctions estimation and was supposed to have a brake fault. I could see why it had earned its low grading. Although the bodywork looked solid, there were a lot of stone chips, particularly on the bonnet, a small dent in the rear passenger side door, and both bumpers were scratched. Since the car had reversing sensors, the scratches on the rear one must have taken a real lack of concentration to do! Both front tyres were long past their use by date as well, and the passenger side one looked like it had a puncture. Inside it, I could see some damage to the centre console, and that the upholstery looked pretty dirty. Still, when started it sounded OK, didn’t smoke, and had only 59,000 miles on it. I mean, how much damage can anyone inflict on a car in 59,000 miles? Since I don’t care what it looks like so long as it goes and thought the tatty condition would keep the price down, I decided to bid on it anyway.
Only one other person bid on this car. In hindsight, I suspect that person may have been in league with the seller. I may be being cynical again here, but was slow to pick up on this possibility at the time, so possibly could have got the car a bit cheaper. The hammer price was around £1000 under the private sale price for the car, although commission and paying for that bloody inaccurate condition report brought this up a bit.
So what did I get? It is a 1.4 Astra Excite, and as stated above, it had 59,000 miles on it. Although the auction had cleaned the car, the first impressions of it were that this had not been done well. The interior stank, and whoever had owned it had obviously had unruly kids, because every storage area from door pockets to the glove compartment had a sticky sugar residue in it. The most immediate issue was the two bald tyres on the front, one of which had a puncture, so since the car drove well enough, I went straight to a tyre fitter on the way home and bought two new tyres. In fact, as I discovered over the next few days, both the rear tyres had punctures too! Fortunately these were reparable, but really, 3 punctures on one car! On day one, I spent about 4 hours cleaning the gunk out of the inside of it with loads of upholstery shampoo and a steam cleaner. It looked and smelled a great deal better after that.
Other than the above, I tackled the following over the few weeks.
1) The drivers door strap that stops the door opening too far clicked badly so this was replaced. It is cheap, around a tenner, but needs the door trim removed to fit it.
2) There was a squeak and a rattle in the car when bought more on which shortly, but another squeak developed in the engine area very soon after its purchase. This turned out to be the water pump, which some idiot had removed and reused. A new replacement was about £40 (why would anyone reuse one when the replacement is so cheap?). Again it is a bit of a pain to fit, because you have to remove one of the engine mounts to get at it. Since the auxiliary belt had to come off when replacing the water pump, it was replaced during this procedure.
3) There was a warning code showing on the dash. It was only notification that the car needed an oil and filter change, so it got all of these, including the cabin filter, which didn’t look like it had been changed since the car was new. It got new plugs too. The brake fault listed by the auction turned out to be worn rear brake pads, so during the car’s service, these too were replaced. There were two codes showing for blown bulbs. Fortunately these were a great deal easier to replace than the headlight bulb in my wife’s MX5.
4) I noticed a very slight misfire in the car when driving, even after I had replaced the plugs. Removing the insulators and contact springs from the coil pack showed that one spring was an incorrect replacement and was a little shorter than the others. Someone had obviously lost one of the springs when working on the car and had used whatever was to hand as a replacement. I could not buy the spring on its own, so replaced the coil pack. Again, these are cheap. I was less than impressed by the standard of maintenance that this car had received though.
5) A week or two in, a low voltage warning started to show on the battery, so it was replaced. The owner must have charged it up specially for the auction. By this time I was beginning to wish that I had just paid a fortune to have the old Astra fixed, especially as the rattle and a squeak under the new one were still there despite a lot of crawling around under the car trying to see what was wrong.
6) Since I need the car to have a tow bar, I bought and fitted one from Italy. It has a removable hitch since a fixed one would interfere with the reversing sensors. The wiring is a little more complex than I have been used to with other tow bars because this car has CAN bus electrics. The whole tow bar kit was £167 including post from Italy.
7) I replaced the damaged centre console section with one bought on Ebay for £14. It was just annoying to look at, and I couldn’t understand how the damage was even possible.
8) I touched up all the stone chips and some of the scrapes around the car. By now it looked, smelled and drove like it should, but that damned rattle was proving elusive.
9) THE RATTLE AND THE SQUEAK. Initially I jacked up each wheel individually and tested all the bearings and bushes. All were OK. Underneath, I found that the front section of the exhaust had recently been replaced, but where there should have been two large rubber bushes, one on either side of this exhaust section, only one of these was fitted. Worse yet, the additional strain on the one rubber mount had cracked the steel ring around it at the point where the mounting bolt was.
The additional movement this allowed was the cause of the squeak, which happened as the exhaust moved sideways in the rubber. Unfortunately, the idiot who had maintained the car before me must have thought that the rattle was caused by the unused bit of mounting bar where they hadn’t refitted the rubber exhaust mount, and they had simply cut the bar off. There was no way of welding a replacement bar on in situ, so to ensure that the car would be off road for a minimum of time, I bought another front exhaust section, and two new rubber mounts. I had hoped that this would get rid of the rattle too, but this was not to be.
I replaced all of the other rubber mounts on the exhaust, but the rattle remained. This made me think that the problem must lie elsewhere so I first replaced the roll bar bushes, but this too made no difference. Next, and increasingly clutching at straws, I removed the front drivers side suspension unit to test it. It was fine and went back in again. Now I was totally out of ideas, and since the cars MOT was due, I even gave it to trustworthy local mechanic to see if he could find the fault. He couldn’t but replaced the drop links in the hope that this might be the cause. It wasn’t. The car passed its MOT though with no advisory warnings, so I am at least convinced that I have not missed anything of importance.
The rattle does not appear to originate from any one area under the car. Left, right, front or back, at various times it sounds like it comes from any one of these. The only component that I can think of that runs the full length of the car is the exhaust, so I began to think that since I had replaced the rear exhaust rubber with an aftermarket one that was made from a harder material, that perhaps the exhaust did not have enough freedom of movement, so I replaced this mount again with a standard one. The rattle got worse, so I suppose this is some kind of confirmation that my diagnosis is correct. But the exhaust is solid and not in danger of contacting any of the bodywork or components, so I still have no idea why this is happening. This is on of the two things that I truly dislike about this Astra.
The other is its fuel economy. The screen shot above shows what Vauxhall are claiming for this car. I don’t know whose rather vivid imagination these figures came from; the true ones are considerably worse. I know that manufacturers claims are not accurate, but since they are supposed to guide customers when buying a car, they should at least have some semblance of reality. Over the 2800 miles that I have owned this car, it has averaged just 34.47mpg. This figure is not dissimilar to what other owners are reporting on the Fuelly web site. That is bloody awful, especially since over 18 years, the old Astra never failed to average between 40 to 42 mpg, and I tested it on numerous occasions. Come on Vauxhall, where are the 10 years of progress here? This car claims to have about the same power as the old 1.6 engine (I doubt that too), yet despite its smaller and newer design, it does more than 5mpg less and a whopping 33% less than what Vauxhall claims! Manufacturers should not be able to get away with that level of deceit.
Had I known that I was going to have to do this much work to fix this Astra's faults and get it to a good useable condition I would never have bought it. Unfortunately the auction process makes buyers so reliant on that damned condition report that a good choice could not be made because it was so incomplete. In a similar manner, had I realised that Vauxhall's claims for the car were so grossly inflated, I would never have bought it. Their claims are criminally inaccurate. The one good thing about buying the car last year is that the private sale price for it has actually risen by £750 since I bought it!