Boy racers, super-cars… and THAT invention

For a teenager in 2011, passing his or her driving test is the least of their problems.

Even if they can take off the L plates the chances are they won’t be able to afford the insurance to enable them to drive because it will resemble a telephone number more than a quote.

This wasn’t always the case, however. Back in the Eighties, insuring your little runaround for a few hundred quid put millions of us on the road to motoring independence.

For yours truly it was a case of making do with a canary yellow Austin Metro. I kid you not. (At least the stereo was decent – graphic equaliser I’ll have you know).

My car may not have had the cool of David Hasslehoff’s black Pontiac Trans Am or packed the punch of Michael J. Fox’s silver Delorean time machine but then again I was only driving from Sneyd Green to Norton.

For many of us, the likes of the Nissan Micra – the car I learned in – were an essential tool to get us from A to B.

But for others, their cars became an obsession – a source of immense pride and a toy in a game of one-upmanship with like-minded mates.

For such people the decade of decadence equalled spoilers, body kits, suspension modifications, tinted windows and alloy wheels.

They were the boy racers and the Eighties was made for them.

I can still recall one such group – the engines of their Ford Escort XR3is purring outside the kebab shop in Glass Street, Hanley, (boy racer alley, as we knew it) after nightclub closing time.

It seems I’m not the only one who immediately associates Eighties cars with this phenomenon, either.

John Swift worked for The Sentinel for 16 years and for much of that time was this newspaper’s motoring correspondent – scooping the Guild of Motor Writers’ Regional Journalist Of The Year Award no less than five times.

His dad ran Byatt’s car dealership in Victoria Road, Fenton, and had raced Jaguar sports cars in the Fifties.

No wonder John became a passionate and knowledgeable ‘petrol head’, I think the phrase is these days.

I asked John what immediately springs to mind with regard to motoring when someone says the Eighties to him.

He said: “It was the decade of boy racers. It was a case of ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’ – and that applied to cars too.

“In many ways the 1950s can be considered the halcyon days on the bike industry because, back then, people couldn’t afford cars. It was a case of walk, catch the bus – or buy a bike or scooter.

“By the Eighties cars were far more affordable and manufacturers began targeting younger drivers.

“The problem was, however, that there were almost as many crashes as there was suped-up cars – basically because these young people didn’t have the skills or experience to handle the vehicles they were driving.”

Understandably, insurance companies got fed up of shelling out for these accidents and that’s one of the reasons why new drivers these days are facing such astronomical premiums.

John’s answer? A graduated driving licence which restricts young people to learn and then drive less powerful motor cars – which their limited skills and experience can cope with – before they progress to more powerful motors.

Of course, there was more to motoring in the Eighties than white baseball caps and sound systems which made your ears bleed.

Who could forget the infamous Sinclair C5 electric car which was set to revolutionise urban transport?

In the end it became the subject of ridicule and was a commercial disaster – not least because it asked drivers whose heads were at the height of a lorry’s wheel nuts to take their life, literally, in their hands.

The C5 aside, many of the vehicles from the Eighties were firm family favourites and first loves of drivers which have more than stood the test of time.

Such motors included the Peugeot 205, which John describes as “a fantastic little car” and earned the title ‘Car Of The Decade’ from Car Magazine in 1990.

But beyond the reach of most mortals were the super cars – so expensive that the only time many of us ever saw them was on telly or being driven by a City boy wearing red braces.

These included the Lotus Esprit, the Porsche 911 and the fearsome Ferrari Testarossa which John had the pleasure of test driving.

He said: “I remember it was pretty quick. The styling was certainly of its time – very bold and really made a statement.”

For the record, John’s first car in the mid-Eighties was a B reg Vauxhall Nova and he can still remember the number plate.

He is equally nostalgic about his favourite car of the decade – the Ferrari 328 GTB

John said: “I remember it very fondly because it was the first time I’d ever driven a Ferrari.

“I took it on one of my test routes – along the A34 towards Stone, up Bury Bank and towards Eccleshall. It was fabulous.”

I asked John to gaze into his crystal ball and tell us what motoring in the UK might look like in another quarter of a century.

He said: “The old combustion engine still has a lot to offer in terms of its development potential. However, the manufacturers now have a real incentive to try to produce vehicles that run on alternative sources of fuel.

“There have been many years of unrestricted growth in car usage and I expect this to change.

“I think we will see a lot more battery-powered cars and hybrids.

“If more roads are built I expect them to be toll roads as we attempt to create workable public transport systems.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia


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