George Bishop on the cost of running German cars: CAR+ archive, May 1994

Published: 09 May 1994

► George Bishop on running German cars
► Were they that much costlier than Brits?
► A look back to 1994, courtesy of CAR+

For several months my life has been dominated by German cars. Like everything else, it wasn’t planned but just crept up on me. I have already explained how a young idiot pulled out of a line of traffic and wrote off my beloved Colt. He has since been fined a very modest £75 for careless riving and gone merrily on his way. After the stunt, his tearful young wife said to me, ‘Will the police take my husband to prison tonight?’ I felt like saying, ‘I hope so,’ but forbore – I didn’t wish to add to her grief. At the time, the police explained to me that the difference between dangerous and careless driving is almost like that between murder and manslaughter, and that it is very difficult to pin a dangerous driving charge on anyone. More’s the pity, I say. 

As related, I was going on holiday in two days and needed instant transport, so I bought my neighbour’s BMW 320i. It had covered 120,000 or so miles, and I put another 5000 on it while nursing my son’s 635CSi. Ancient BMWs are best run in pairs, so that you have one to drive while the other is in the workshop. 

First I took the 635 to my friend Brian to be restored under the front wings where the tin worm lurked. Then, after I’d fitted some nice new Michelin tyres, it went to David Wild in Ivybridge to have the camshaft noise attended to. However, after keeping the car for three week, he said he could not do the job as the engine had been changed at some time and he did not know what sort of unit it was. Eventually, Grevan’s, the BMW dealer in Plymouth, produced its oldest inhabitant who said that the engine had legend ‘635SCi’ embossed on the side. This solved the problem, which had arisen partly because the car had a 7-series exhaust system. BMW quoted about £1000 for a new exhaust, but Kwikfit came to the rescue, supplying the whole set, including VAT, fitment and a two-year warranty, for £500. 

Once the 635 was back on the road I flogged the 320i to David Wild. The 635 is, of course, a much nicer car to drive and I have fallen in love with it, warts and all. I chanced taking it up to Lucknam Park near Bath, a hotel dating from 1720 that looks like a mediaeval castle and has looked after me well in the past. Before leaving home I discovered that the BMW had no jack so, for a king’s ransom, I purchased a mini hydraulic jack made in China. 

Lacking faith in the car, I stuck to back roads and modest speeds at first, but once I’d gained confidence I found it would cruise at 80mph on the motorway without bother. Even the camshaft noise faded a bit after 300 miles.

I was at Lucknam Park to drive the new VW Passat which comes in a multitude of forms: saloon, station wagon, petrol, diesel, narrow V engine or straight. VW gave me a volume of information but seemed shy about revealing how many cylinders the engines have. I suppose it is four or five as usual. I have lost the large piece of paper that listed the prices – easily done as they give us so many – but I seem to remember that they range from about £14,000 to £22,000, so you can imagine the vast array of spec levels and engines on offer. One of the engines used is the 150bhp 16-valve Golf unit, which has good low-speed torque as well as a high power output. 

Basically the new Passat is a facelifted version of the previous one, but the only panel carried over from the old model is the roof. This must be very costly but I have never understood the economics of the motor industry. First of the three different models I drove was an estate powered by a narrow 2.8-litre V6. It had 174bhp at 58000rpm and all the other accoutrements such as fuel injection, ABS, alloy wheels and so forth. That it went, it goes without saying, but it also had excellent handling and roadholding. After that I tried a 1.9-litre diesel, which did not disgrace itself, and the 150bhp 2.0-litre saloon which whispered along very nicely, thank you. When I think of the Beetle, an example of which I once owned, and the modern VW, I scratch my head in bewilderment. But then BMW once made saucepans. 

I find these compressed exercises in which you drive several versions of the same car difficult to report intelligently as you don’t cover enough miles in them before lunch to gain a precise view of their behaviour. Automatic transmission (four-speed) is available on many models, but I don’t think there were any examples present as manufacturers have this strange idea that writers don’t like automatics. All in all, I found no fault with any of the Passats I drove, and much to like. 

For dinner (now he’s talking) the evening before, we had grilled wood pigeon with wild mushrooms (I tamed mine). This took me back to wartime Cairo where the locals considered pigeon an aphrodisiac. There was an open-air restaurant (it rained once every four years) on the bank of the Nile where you could take your enamourata for a plateful. The tables were surrounded by Privet-hedge fences to make it all private. Happy days. 

The pigeon starter was followed by sautéed fillet of pork with caraway-scented port-wine sauce and shallots. The wine was nectar, a 1988 Chinon. When vintage wine is served in superior places, the waiters usually just moisten your glass with it, but here we had great bucket-like glasses which they filled to the brim – frequently. M Bibendum would have approved the detour. Before this was a 1988 Saint Aubin, which I liked even though I am not a white-wine man. 

At lunch the next day we were given mineral water to drink without option – a good idea, I suppose as we had a long way to drive home. Mineral water, I discovered, is a rather flavourless fluid with bubbles in it, like champagne but less noisy. I prefer champers. 

I had my usual adventures on the way home but won’t bore you with those. What was amusing was that my hazard lights would not shut off, so I asked a friendly mechanic for a length of wood to jam between the pushbutton and the seat. He had a better idea and stuck a matchstick in the switch. Cheaper than a new switch at £16-odd. BMW spares are a frightful price. 

Incidentally, the heavy exhaust systems on cars such as BMWs are offered up and fitted, and then fitted. They don’t trust clamps and bolts to hold the weight, but it involves a lot more work for the fitter. I clearly love the 635CSi, but I am afraid it will ruin me. The heater fan switch costs £75, would you believe? 

There’s a chap you may have seen on television who sells BMW spares at a fraction of the price. The only snag is he won’t guarantee that the bits will fit. He has now expanded, and will supply parts for all German cars, including Audi and VW. I have to go to sunny Milton Keynes soon to drive the new Golf. I‘m looking forward to that and perhaps a better brand of water. 

By George Bishop

Roguish wit, brilliant columnist, our founding editor 1962-64