‘Always buy the best example you can afford.’ It’s a mantra of classic car fans the world over.
Unfortunately the best example of an MGB GT I could afford was a rusty one with a knackered engine. All of which culminated on my spending two and a half years completely restoring the car from the ground up. The only original panels left on it when I’d finished were the roof and the bonnet. I’d spent a fortune on parts and I dread to think how many hours I spent lying on my back waiting for the next lump of white-hot welding spatter to burn through my overalls and brand me as a serial petrolhead. I should have just got a bank loan and bought a decent car in the first place.
However, apart from a pristine MGB and some interesting scars I also gained a massive sense of achievement when the car passed its first MoT test, and a smug glow when friends who’d long since given up hope of ever seeing it again were amazed when I pulled up in it. But the glow was permanently extinguished just six months later when the car was stolen from outside my flat.
I’d spent a fortune on parts and I dread to think how many hours lying on my back waiting for the next lump of white-hot welding spatter.
I’d moved from a quiet Devon village to Brixton in London. These days Brixton’s all baristas and hand-filled baguettes but back in 1989 it was still reeling from the riots of recent years and had a reputation as a challenging, if affordable part of the capital. I wasn’t so keen on the challenging aspect but the affordable part of the equation was a necessity with the salary I’d managed to negotiate. It was based on a four-day week, the fifth day being left free for me to pursue a stalled musical career – stalled primarily because nobody became a rock god living in a small Devon village in those pre-internet days. (I didn’t become one living in London either – I blame the lack of broadband.)
I still visited my parents in Devon quite often though, which was about the only time I got to drive the MG as using it in London was pointless, when it was so much quicker and easier to hop on a bus or a tube train. It was the lack of use that led to the battery being flat, so the evening before I planned to head to the south west I took the battery out and charged it overnight. When I reinstalled it the following morning I was surprised to hear the car’s electric fuel pump making its characteristic ticking noise as I reconnected the earth lead. Odd, I thought. The fuel pump should only operate with the ignition switched on. Which is when I tried to start the car.
I moved from a quiet Devon village to Brixton. These days Brixton’s all baristas and hand-filled baguettes but in 1989 it was still reeling from the riots.
The key wouldn’t go into the ignition switch, which I soon realised was because the ignition switch had been drilled out. Someone had tried to steal the car, but failed to get it started because the battery was plugged into a charger next to my bed, instead of in the MG. If it had been fitted the car wouldn’t be parked outside my flat anymore. I had to use the end of a teaspoon to switch the car off and on, but it was otherwise undamaged. However, I had a hunch I wasn’t the only person in Brixton with a teaspoon, so when I returned from my Devon weekend on Sunday evening I removed not only the battery, but several vital ignition parts so that if the thief returned he’d again be thwarted. And just to be on the safe side I fitted an anti-theft device that locked the steering wheel to the brake pedal, making the car impossible to steer or stop. On Monday morning my MG had gone.
All that was left was the brand new anti-theft device, which was lying where the MG had been, undamaged and still locked. I immediately reported the theft to Brixton police, who exchanged my details for a crime reference number. They were efficient and sympathetic, but warned me not to expect to see the car again. ‘It’s clearly a professional theft if they managed to take it when it didn’t run. It’ll have new number plates and a different identity by now I’m afraid sir. It may even have been stolen to order.’
All that was left was the brand new anti-theft device, which was lying where the MG had been.
So when the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) wrote to me the following week with the news that someone else had applied for a registration document for my MG, and enquiring whether I had sold it, I rang them straight away. I explained it had been stolen, gave them Brixton police’s details, the crime reference number and waited for them to tell the police the name and address of the idiot who’d applied for paperwork. I couldn’t believe my luck– the thief was so stupid he’d given away his identity to the authorities. Except the police heard nothing from DVLA. I did though – they sent me an identical letter to the first 10 days later. When I rang them to ask why, they played switchboard pinball with my call while they decided which poor sap was to inform me that they’d made a mistake and issued the thief with a registration document for my car.
After I regained the ability to breathe, I insisted they immediately tell Brixton Police the identity of the fraudulent thief, who now had not only my MGB, but paperwork declaring him the legal owner of it. I was going to get my car back!
The DVLA, an organization famed for its ability to turn inefficiency into an art form, raised the incompetence bar to a new high…
Except DVLA, an organisation famed for its ability to turn inefficiency into an art form, raised the incompetence bar to a new high by taking six weeks to tell Brixton Police who’d stolen the car. I could have swum the information from Swansea to London quicker. When DVLA’s carrier pigeon finally landed on Brixton Police Station’s windowsill, the coppers arrested the thief within hours. But he’d already sold the car. And he claimed it had been abandoned when he took it. And thanks to the DVLA I now faced a fight to prove the car he’d stolen from me was actually mine.
Mr Lowe eventually admitted he’d stolen the car and, as my insurance wouldn’t cover its full value, was ordered by the court to pay me £2,500 in compensation. He opted to pay this weekly and the first cheque for £8 saw me writing to the authorities to point out there was a good chance fossil fuels would have run out by the time he’d paid me off. I needn’t have worried though. The first cheque from him turned out to be unique. I never saw another penny, nor my MG again.