The idea of identifying a vehicle’s age by a letter on the numberplate started in 1963. But quite quickly the car makers noticed that it was creating a massive problem. Because the letter denoting age changed on January 1, everyone wanted to take delivery of their new vehicle on New Year’s Day. This meant car salesmen had to sit about dusting the pot plants for 11 months and then work like mad ants over the Christmas holidays. It made life tough in the car factories as well and created a cash-flow headache seen previously only in the nation’s turkey industry.
And so in 1967 the changeover date became August 1. This, it was felt, would create two spikes. One at the beginning of the year, when people could take delivery of a 1968 model. And one in August, when the new letter became available. But it didn’t work. That letter meant more than the endeavours of Pope Gregory.
That letter trumped everything. It said you were doing well. That life was being kind. It was critical. Nobody cared what sort of car they bought just as long as other road users knew it was new. And strangely the people this helped most of all were the comrades behind the Iron Curtain.
Cars made in the Soviet bloc were cheap. They were therefore the easiest way of getting the right letter on your driveway. People would see the H- registration plate and say, “Have you seen the Joneses at No 47 have a new car?” and simply not notice that it was a Moskvich. Which wasn’t really a car, so much as a collection of pig iron fashioned into a rough approximation of a car.
Or the FSO Polonez. Made in Poland by people who didn’t care, from steel that was both heavy and see-through, it was utterly dreadful. The steering wheel was connected to the front wheels by cement, and when you pressed the accelerator, it felt as though you had sent a signal to an overweight and sweaty man in a vest, who rose in a disgruntled manner from his seat in the boot to put some more coal on the fire. Eventually this would cause you to go 1mph faster.
Braking? Yes. It had that. Though really it was like trying to stop an overloaded wheelbarrow on a steep, muddy hill. Certainly in both cases you tended to end up with brown trousers. But despite all this the FSO sold in respectable numbers because it was available at no extra cost with a V on its numberplate.
Then there was the Lada Riva. It was originally designed by Fiat when Ben-Hur was still the star attraction in Rome — I mean the actual Ben-Hur, not Charlton Heston — and the design rights were sold to Lada, which promptly didn’t develop it at all. Why should it? There was a 30-year waiting list at home, there was no competition and there were plenty of people in Britain who’d buy one because of its numberplate.
Oh, the company had other reasons. It would argue that because the Lada was designed and built to handle Russian roads, it was tough. This was untrue. It was actually designed to handle Italian roads and it had the crash protection of a paper bag. The pillars supporting the roof had the strength of drinking straws, which meant that if you rolled during an accident your head was going to end up adjacent to your heart.
Skoda, bless it, tried its hardest with some interesting designs. But back at home it had no yardstick against which these designs could be measured. So often they didn’t work. Though when I say “often”, I mean “always”.
Unusual rear suspension design on rear-engined cars meant that if you tried to take any corner at any speed, the rear wheel would fold up, the car would spin and you’d hit a tree and die screaming in a terrifying fireball. And at your funeral they’d say how sad it was because you’d just bought a new car.
Of course it was inevitable that one day the alphabet would run out of new letters for car registration plates, and so someone came up with the system we have today. You can still tell a car’s age from its registration plate, but only if you have a calculator and the brain of an elephant.
Some say it was Ronald Reagan’s proposed Star Wars technology that finished the Cold War and brought down the Berlin Wall. Others reckon it was the accident at Chernobyl that caused Mikhail Gorbachev to come to do the business with Margaret Thatcher. But actually it was the registration-plate change. Because that one single thing ended the demand for cheap-at-any-price new cars.
Which brings me, after quite a long run-up, to the Dacia Sandero. Prices start at £5,995, which on the face of it is astonishing value for money. Yes, it’s built in Romania, which has exactly the same car-building history as Ghana, but it’s actually based on the one-before-last Renault Clio. So. This is a car that is based on a 2007 Renault, that does more than 55mpg and that is yours for less than the price of most holidays.
There is probably an inconsequential issue with its name. Even though it’s spelt Dacia, which in English rhymes with fascia, its maker insists that actually it should be pronounced “datcha”. Which means you could end up with a Russian country house.
Using the Romanian pronunciation is silly. It’d be like the Florentine marketing board urging British people to visit Firenze. We wouldn’t know where to go.
But what of the Sandero itself? Drawbacks? Yes. Plenty. It looks as if it’s been styled by someone who’s never actually seen a car before. And it is a bit spartan. And a bit cramped in the back. And a bit slow. And a bit roly-poly in the corners. And, compared with some of its rivals, it produces quite a few carbon dioxides, which means you have to pay £125 a year in vehicle tax.
In the olden days none of these things would have mattered, because for less than £6,000 you could have had the latest registration prefix. But now you just get a 13 or a 63 and nobody really knows what any of that means.
So the Sandero must be judged as a car, and I’m sorry but for £5,995 you can do quite a lot better by trawling through driving.co.uk for second-hand cars. This, then, is why buying a cheap new car is so much more difficult than it was. Because without anything that identifies it as new, you may as well plunge into the vastly more complex world of pre-owned.
Sometimes you get what you pay for
Dacia Sandero Access 1.2
- 1149cc, 4 cylinders
- 74bhp @ 5500rpm
- 79 lb ft @ 4250rpm
- 5-speed manual
- 0-62mph: 14.5sec
- Top speed:
- 48.7mpg (combined)
- Road tax band:
- E (£125 a year)
- L 4058mm, W 1733mm, H 1518mm