Alpine transport can prove a bit of a poser for the impoverished seasonnaire, particularly those still doing the biannual commute between UK and Alps. The ideal day to day vehicle for the mountains in winter is probably some kind of rugged little 4×4, which is going to be far from perfect from the point of view of motorway comfort (it’s a long way from Calais in a vintage Lada Niva with a pair of skis lodged in your left ear) or petrol consumption, which is a prime consideration when your employer thinks £200 a month is adequate remuneration for a full time member of staff.
On top of that, there’s the fact that British insurance companies seem to consider it reasonable to charge you extra if you wish to leave the country. Possibly it’s time someone explained to them that the rest of the world is not actually a war zone, despite the best efforts of Messers Blair and Bush in that direction. But no, should you have the temerity to leave the British Isles you can expect to have your pocket picked for the privilege of driving your own vehicle around on the same bloody continent. And what’s more, you can only expect to do so for a month, after which you have to scuttle off home or they’ll drop your insurance cover to third party only, despite the fact that you paid through the nose for fully comp in the first place.
My solution to this was to drive old bangers worth £500 a time, insure them third party only in the UK and give the prongs to venal insurance ‘customer service executives’ when they told me lies about needing to pay for a green card. Of course, this strategy only works for as long as you can reasonably pretend to be domiciled at your parents’ UK address – it wears a bit thin once you’ve bought a house in France and haven’t crossed the channel in two years.
The advantage of giving up any pretence that the whole seasonal arrangement is temporary and you fully intend to get a real job and a mountain of unmanageable debt like a proper adult is that you can stop looking for compromise transport, forget the motorway thing and just get something in which to tootle around the Alps.
My first bagnole was a very elderly Fiat Panda 4×4, which was, to be frank, an overpriced old heap. Had I inspected it myself I probably wouldn’t have bought it, but I made the fatal error of sending JC, forgetting that he is a confirmed motard who doesn’t know the first thing about cars and doesn’t care either.
In the Panda’s favour, it drove like magic in the snow. I frequently passed the drivers of much fancier and more expensive vehicles grovelling in the slush with torches and snowchain instruction books while my trusty heap beetled doggedly on through axle-deep snow. No, it wasn’t very fast, but nor did I have frostbitten fingers, a wet arse and an imminent divorce following the I-said-you-should-have-tried-them-at-home-first conversation regarding the snowchains.
The down side turned out to be a problem with the carburettor, water in the fuel system and a cross-threaded spark plug which wasn’t about to leave the engine block even in the event of a small thermonuclear explosion. Though it did have leather upholstery. (Honestly, why does anyone pay extra for that? Frostbite in the winter and third degree burns to the legs all summer.)
Selling the thing proved less than easy as well, since other buyers were clearly much more savvy than JC and recognised someone trying to offload a complete liability of an old banger when they saw it.
Having finally shifted it, I drew up criteria for new transport. It had to be 10 years old or less (no more antiques with manual chokes, thank you very much), small (ie cheap), French (ditto) and cost no more than 2000€. I reluctantly dropped the 4×4 requirement – at that price I’d probably end up with a donkey.
Which is why I am now the proud owner of a Twingo, a vehicle which is about as small and French as it gets, and looks like a frog into the bargain, which is a bit of a bonus. Renault never sold the Twingo in the UK and Ireland in the mistaken belief that there wasn’t a market for small cars (because the Mini was never popular, was it?) so it wasn’t worth going to all the effort of makng a right hand drive version. Obviously this hasn’t stopped mad British eccentrics founding an owners club and pestering MEPs about import rules.
The car sold like hot cakes in France, particularly to students and young drivers, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that you can fold all the seats flat into a makeshift double bed.
Fitted with snow tyres it even makes light of knee-deep snow, which is just as well, since my quest to find snowchains small enough for it has been an abject failure and I’ve been driving around without any all winter.