My first memory of a holiday hire car was at the tender age of five when the family trip our villa in Menorca ended up with all of us piling into a Fiat 126, after a hot flight in an Iberia Tri-Star for four hours. I distinctly recollect the baked interior plastics and rough cloth seats from our Fiat giving off an odour that sticks in my mind even to this day. I’m sure it was down to the ‘126 sitting in the midday sun with the windows closed cooking up a temperature inside hotter than scorching sand at the local beach, as it sat idle waiting for the our family to turn up. I also remember the loose sand stuck in between the tweedy seat fabric whilst the rest of Son Beau beach remained lightly dusted across the plastic floor mats that had been left behind by the previous renters. Forget a quick wash ‘n’ vac and to be asked to return it with the same amount of fuel. Back then when you picked up a hire car the likelihood of it being dumped in the compound with the keys still in the ignition was high. Instead of waiting for you car to be driven round to reception, we had to lug our cases across a dusty make-shift car park with the ”old dear” moaning about the exchange rate and the dry heat of the day. I hate to stereotype but our rental manager was your typical local: massive handle-bar moustache, smouldering Fortuna sticking out the corner of his mouth with the smoke emanating from the burnt embers stinging his left eye, with his broken English earning him another few hundred Pesetas as we tried to compress two huge Samsonite suitcases into the Fiat’s ridiculously small boot.
Although it was small, it got us from A to B and didn’t break down. Year after year we seemed to get the same car until my father invested in our very own holiday set of wheels. Going up the ranks seemed perfect for me as I didn’t want to look like a plonker in a shit-brown 126 anymore, whilst other newly established rental firms on the Island had brand new Seat’s at their disposal. Thanks to a three-hundred Peseta deal we had our very own Renault 4 (yes the one with the dash-mounted gearlever and the ultra complicated gear-shift patterns) – something my Mother never figured out in the five years we had it. Our Renault was stored in an underground car park over the winter months and every year the attendant always drove it nose-in into a space which made getting out in reverse an absolute nightmare come the summer. Twelve months later the “old-dear” always insisted that it would be quicker to drive it out of storage herself, thus always bending the front bumper into a nice flat pancake as she butted the Renault’s nose into the brick wall as reverse (followed by a crunch from the gearbox) always ended up as first – where was the owners’ manual when you needed it? Having sold the villa years later, I vowed to secure us a decent hire car for our future family holidays.
Interestingly, my first introduction to a hire car as a driving tourist was another Fiat. Luckily it was a 1.9 diesel Brava for a short weekend in Italy, albeit as an alternative. It wouldn’t be Italy without having an Alfa 156 in the same car category, but our first Italian choice typically had a flat battery when we arrived to collect it. The first twenty seconds of driving abroad couldn’t have been more intense. Italians aren’t known for their patience on the road and I duly received a blast from an undertaking Peugeot as I emerged slightly confused from the airport trying to fathom out the road signs. I quickly caught him up as I was determined to fit in and not be recognised as a tourist – although the rental sticker in the back window did rather give it away. Our four day trip was successful and the driving thankfully uneventful so I returned the Brava unscathed. Our next family holiday, again in Italy, also served up another Fiat Brava, this time an estate as we had two kids in tow. I was prepared for the barrage of abuse this time from the locals as we filtered onto the Autostrada quickly slipping straight into Italian mode and tailgating the locals.
A year or so later we booked a break in Mallorca and thanks to a cracking villa deal we were able to upgrade our Group B car (Ford Focus et al) to a Group D (MPV). From a Picasso to a Citroen C8 even down to a Lancia Phedra, for once we had a half-decent choice. So with the Phedra booked, we arrived at the rental desk and waited for our car. Expecting to be shuffled outside, the horror family from Bolton who had been the plane passengers from hell on our flight were ushered to the waiting Lancia. Popping off to get a drink from the vending machine, I came back out to reception to find the rest of our family packing the cases into another Fiat. Damn. Are these following me around or what? Our Lancia Phedra had been swapped for a Fiat Ulysse. Having got up at four in the morning to catch our flight then endured the horrors of Terminal 4, traipsed round Boots for sun cream and Paracetamol, then stood in a cue at WH Smiths for a few magazines and a lousy book, the family from Bolton moaning about everything on the BA flight stole my Phedra. Grrr….
Nowadays holiday rentals are far more varied than they were twenty years ago. You can expect to have a choice from a Vauxhall Corsa right through to a BMW or Mercedes. Yet we have become far more insistent on what we actually want even though Group A, B, or C tells us that we only ‘might’ get what we’ve asked for. Also, more and more rental companies have a high rate of ‘breakers’ during the peak summer months as new arrivals will only last six weeks before they’re carted off for a new clutch or worse still, crash damage. Holiday makers just pay, drive and mostly abuse their rental. The big players like Budget or Avis seem to pile through new registrations as people like us don’t look after a two-hundred mile diesel Astra. And most would say “why should we?” It’s a deep debate to have, but I suppose you’re paying for the use of a mode of transport that’s only needed for a short period of time and all we do is hand it back when we’re finished.
Another family holiday a few years later turned up an interesting set of wheels: a Chrysler 300C. Instead of getting the fuel-guzzling V8, all rental 300’s seemed to be the V6 model. And that’s an interesting point.
Americans have V8’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner so why not have a V8 as a hire car? Even the Mustang, several well known rental companies only have V6’s on their fleet, for Insurance purposes I’m told. Yet walk up to a rental desk in Australia and you’re bound to get a 300 horsepower Ford or Holden waiting out front.
In Europe especially, a diesel rental is mostly the only option available. Even if we go back twenty years or so, diesel has outsold petrol. We all know that this has been down to the cheaper price of diesel, but with the UK being one of the most expensive EU countries for fuel, petrol and diesel are virtually the same per gallon now. And this was something I noticed on my recent holiday to Crete.
When we decided on Greece one of the most important factors, for me anyway, was what hire car we could expect. It doesn’t matter about the hotel or what town we were staying in, all that matters to any bloke is what hire car do we get, right? Group C was the menu of choice this year and seeing as I had never driven one before I thought the new Seat Leon would be a good chariot for our now growing family of four. We were, surprisingly, promised the Leon and as all European rentals before, thought nothing about getting a diesel even if it was Seat’s underpowered 105bhp. As promised, we received a Leon when we arrived at the hotel, but when I asked what engine size we had been given the rental agent duly replied “the 1.4”. Huh? Apparently in Greece it is illegal to have diesel powered hire cars, or any private car for that matter, something to do with the diesel particulates destroying the ancient monuments. It’s been the law for some time and he pointed out that this rule may be phased in across all of this well known hire companies’ outlets across Europe as petrol power is becoming more efficient and environmentally friendly. Good point, but when you have some of the best roads I have driven on in the last ten years at your disposal, a poxy 1.4 Leon isn’t the best to enjoy them with. Still, the scenery was stunning and I managed to squeeze every last horsepower from VW’s 4-cylinder, and the Leon wasn’t a bad car either, although the locals drive like complete maniacs: Overtaking on blind bends and slotting in behind cars too closely, then trying to overtake by pulling out a whole cars’ width to see ahead. Even with a few advanced driver skills under my belt and with a heavily laden Leon, overtaking was challenging to say the least.
From the early days of a Fiat 126 I’ve enjoyed every last one of my holiday rentals but what will the future hold with regard to the choices we have? Will we all be driving around in Hybrids? No matter what we can hire, I can’t wait for our summer holiday next year to see what poor car will receive the wrong end of a British tourist.