You Take the High Road, and I'll Just Break Down in Edinburgh

It's easy with computers. When they get a bit old and start to go wrong you just throw them away and buy a new one. After all, you won't be able to get bits for the old one, and the new one will be four times faster and cheaper anyway. That's how the computer market works. Like everything else, such as toasters, TVs, video recorders, and even your electric toothbrush. Nothing is worth repairing any more because you can't get the bits, it will never work right again, and the repair costs more than a new one.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately depending on the position you view the issue from, the same doesn't apply to motor cars. When it goes wrong you take it to the dealer who makes sucking-through-the-teeth-and-raising-eyebrow noises and tells you it will cost twice as much as you thought. But they can fix it and (usually) it works again. Of course, you go through this process many times during the life of the car, so you end up spending more than a new one would cost.

But there is no obvious "stop now" point where you decide to throw it away and buy a new one. Each time it needs fixing, you remember how much it cost, how much you've already spent on it, and how little you will get in a part-exchange for another one. Mathematicians seem able to come up with formulas for calculating the optimum time to boil an egg, the ideal way to reverse-park a car, and the amount of ironing you have to do to lose ten pounds in weight. So it's amazing that they haven't come up with a formula for the best time to trade in your car for a new(er) one.

As you can probably guess, I've been through just this dilemma. We decided to spend a week touring Scotland in the car - a nine year old mid-range Ford hatchback with a big engine and comfy seats that I've loved all the time I've owned it and never wanted to exchange for another (unless, perhaps, someone offered me a swap against an Aston Martin DB9). Like most cars of this age, it has absorbed increasing amounts of cash replacing all kinds of bits. And, as it was worth only about a thousand (UK) pounds I'd decided to just keep it till it fell apart.

However, that decision comes back to haunt when - in the week we were away - the central locking failed, quickly followed by the ignition key no longer releasing the immobiliser, then signs that the clutch was well past its best, culminating with interesting disco-style flashing displays from the dashboard lights at irregular intervals (and I mean all of them!). Then, three hundred miles from home, several minutes of irregular chugging effects from the engine till it finally expired in the back streets of Edinburgh.

Now, Edinburgh is a lovely city, and I briefly considered just staying there for good. I even contemplated breaking a branch off the tree by the road and performing a "Fawlty Towers" car-thrashing exercise to see if it helped (it seemed to do John Cleese a lot of good). However, in the end, the only sensible solution was a tow to the nearest Ford dealer.

So, following the theme so neatly introduced in the preceding paragraphs, it will come as no surprise to find that this repair was going to cost more than the car was worth. Plus, We would have to get home (it was a holiday weekend Saturday), then go back and fetch the car the following week. As we arrived, a nice salesman (Hi Steven) had joked that we should just let him sell us a new car instead. So we did. He gave me only a bit less than the book value for the old car, and we ended up driving home in rather pretty, diesel engined, and gleaming newish model.

As a bonus, after spending nine hours in the showroom while what normally takes three days was sorted in one-and-a-bit days, we got to know all the staff and disposed of lots of free coffee, toast, and bowls of fries and ketchup (that's Scottish-style hospitality). Steven even took us home to meet his partner and plied us with beers when it turned out that we had to wait till the next morning to finalise the paperwork. So we got new friends as well as a new car. I suppose I'll have to go back to Scotland to buy my next car now...

What's interesting is how much the equivalent model (a Ford Mondeo for the technically inquisitive) has changed in nine years. Much is hauntingly familiar, but with a new modern appearance both inside and out. But now you get six gears instead of five, so sixth is where you expect reverse to be - disconcerting enough for me to put a big sticker on the dashboard to remind me. What's really worrying, however, is the massive increase in complexity and the even more obvious "you can't fix anything yourself" design.

When you open the hood/bonnet, all you see is a plastic cover over the whole engine bay with "DO NOT TOUCH" signs. The few "user-serviceable" items (basically just the dipstick and oil and water fillers) are painted yellow. Everything else needs several hours labour in the dealer's workshop. And that's just the start. Now you have to have two fuse boxes to cope with all the electrics, and I confidently expect even more exciting disco light simulations in the future.

I mean, who actually needs wipers that come on automatically when it rains, or lights that come on automatically when it gets dark? Or a remote button to open all the windows with a single touch? In fact, according to the handbook, if you disconnect the battery (assuming you can actually find it), you have to "reprogram the electric window mechanisms" by following an eight-step set of instructions - for each window! Even the doors lock themselves if you forget, and the electric door mirror control has eleven different actions. And don't get me started on trying to understand the book for the audio system or the climate control management console. Mind you, it's the first car I've had with a hydraulically-damped drink holder.

Anyway, here's some pretty pictures of Scotland...

Urquart Castle, Loch Ness

Glen Coe Pass

Neptune's Steps on the Caledonian Canal, Fort William

Oban and the Western Isles

Oban Harbour and Beach

Glen Nevis and Ben Nevis
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