The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away: Alex Riley’s disastrous summer with a Citroën Visa

by Charlotte Vowden
28 November 2022 7 min read
The One That Got Away: Alex Riley’s disastrous summer with a Citroën Visa
Photos: Alex Riley and The Car Years

Alex Riley is a television presenter and journalist, appearing on The Car Years, The Classic Car Show, The One Show and Britain’s Really Disgusting Foods. But his claim to true fame is winning Celebrity Mastermind in 2014, tackling the specialist subject of Triumph’s TR sports cars.

“The summer of 1989 was a disaster in many ways. I’d got a job as a door-to-door salesman flogging aerial photographs of villages in Lincolnshire (which made me public enemy number one) thinking I’d earn enough to buy a five-speed Peugeot 205 XS, which was one of the best sporty superminis available at the time, but I ended up with a very flaky Citroën Visa and hundreds of pounds out of pocket. 

I was at university, or polytechnic as it was called in those days, and the year before my mate had made an absolute fortune selling these pictures down South, and I thought I’d do the same, but despite going on the training course, it didn’t go well. The economy had gone down the pan, the prices had gone up and my patch was basically populated by poor farm labourers who didn’t want to give 49 quid to someone who’d come knocking at their door. But, one of the most exciting things about the job was that I had to have my own car, something I’d never had before.

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My Mum and Dad were worried about me buying something cheap, dangerous and unreliable so gave me 500 quid to spend on top of the thousand I’d managed to save working in London the year before. I was 21 and had no idea what the hell I was doing, so looked in Auto Trader (an actual magazine at the time), and identified a couple of cars I wanted to see, including the aforementioned Citroën Visa. I was obsessed with Car magazine and the Visa was one of their favourite cars, and couldn’t believe my budget would get me one that was less than four years old. My parents insisted my brother came down to help, (I was studying in South London), which was a ridiculous idea because he knew even less about buying cars than I did.

The One That Got Away: Alex Riley's disastrous summer with a Citroën Visa

The one I’d found had the 1360cc engine and a five-speed gearbox, (like a Peugeot 205), chipped paint on the inside of the door and a cigarette burn on the driver’s seat – all for 1550 quid! The owner took me for a drive and told me he was only selling because his dog couldn’t jump into the boot anymore, but when he put the brakes on it seemed to dive forward really badly – like when you go over the handlebars on a bicycle. Even so, I decided I had to have it, and negotiated 50 quid off for six months tax. The owner must’ve been laughing his head off because it turned out to be a complete shed.

This particular Visa was a 14 TRS, with five doors, slightly fancy pronged wheels that looked like a radioactive sign and a rear spoiler that probably had no actual aerodynamic function whatsoever because it was in completely the wrong place. It had squidgy silvery grey fabric seats that were like arm chairs (which went well with the car’s soft ride) but I realised it had problems straight away. Everything behind the driver’s seat was broken – the rear lights, wiper and most importantly rear brakes didn’t work – and on the way home from Woolwich it boiled over in traffic in North London. To top it off, the clutch cable kept falling off the back of the clutch pedal, so I couldn’t change gear. But at least I had my own car!

The Summer of ’89 was very hot, and my days out selling were dominated by the overheating issue. I’d be driving along the road and the needle on the temperature gauge would start to go up, so I’d put the heater on max and fan position number 1. It’d get hotter so I’d go up to number 2, and before long it’d be on full and I’d be absolutely melting, not helped by the fact I wore thick wool ‘selling’ trousers to look smart.

When I came to traffic my heart would be in my mouth. Was the car going to boil, which would send the water out of the expansion tank and all over the distributor, completely killing the engine? One particularly scorching day, while queuing up at some traffic lights, I started to get that awful feeling as the Visa got hotter, and hotter, and hotter before boiling and cutting out. By now the lights were on green and so a couple of blokes jumped out of their cars to help me push… until the road started to slope downwards and the Visa began gathering speed. I looked over my shoulder and the two blokes were now miles behind and I was running to keep up. I made a spectacular running jump into the driver’s seat, clouting my back against the frame, and just managed to squeal it round the junction and swerve into a pub car park. Happy days. Half an hour later and a top up of water from the pub toilet and I was away.

Alex Riley and Vicki Butler-Henderson

I’m not great on the spanners but I did manage to bypass the thermostat so the electric cooling fan could be on the whole time, so that helped a bit. The clutch was also one of those problems you have with a car that you live with for ages because it’s going to cost you a few bob to fix. I became quite good at getting down in the footwell and hooking the cable onto the back of the pedal but eventually I had it fixed. After that, the clutch cable snapped a couple of times – I once had to drive home from Donington Park doing clutchless changes for 40-odd miles.

I could have done with being in the AA because I broke down a lot. On one occasion, in the middle of the night I broke down on an isolated country road and had to walk through fields to find a house with a phone I could use to call a friend to collect me. I ended up having a lovely time with the couple that lived there, chatting away and drinking tea in their lounge, they even made me a sandwich.  

On another night, I got back to the car to find I’d left the interior light on all day and the battery was as flat as a pancake. I was stranded in a village that I couldn’t wait to leave. Sometimes locals could be quite hostile and shout abuse because they thought you were some sort of conman or criminal, so you can just imagine; it’s dark, I just want to get the hell out of there, and I have to knock on somebody’s door… again. Thankfully a bloke agreed to tow the car (in gear) so that it’d charge the battery enough for me to start – I didn’t really understand what to do and nearly snapped the rope a couple of times, which tested his patience, but it worked in the end. These days, with mobile phones, you miss out on all these strange interactions with people and little adventures.

The Visa had about 60 horsepower and only weighed about 800 kilos so it was quite perky, but it wasn’t the most exciting driver’s car. I remember sliding it round every corner in a village one day. They were the slowest corners you could imagine but the tyres screeched so much it was like an episode of Kojak. I got some funny looks I can tell you.  

It may have been a shed, but it was brilliant having my own car for the whole summer. I lived in a house with three other young lads doing the same job and we were seen as quite exotic by the young woman who lived next door; she thought we were in a band because of our weird cars and the fact that one of us had a turquoise Bedford CF van with Jaguar seats, and we didn’t want to shatter her illusions.

I had the Visa, my mate Nick had a Nova SR and Tim had a Datsun 100A and we were free to do whatever we wanted. We’d all drive out to this amazing restaurant in the middle of nowhere, (everywhere in Lincolnshire is in the middle of nowhere), that was a kind of 1960’s flying saucer design. It was really cool inside and the house speciality was an entire loaf made from onion rings, which was delicious. We loved going out in convoy to visit random places on the map, sleep on the beach and go to clubs. 

I absolutely love singing in the car – the acoustics are great because the windscreen bounces your voice back to you – and I had this tape ‘20 Beat Classics’ by Georgie Fame which became the soundtrack of the summer, with me and the other lads learning all the words and singing along. I do remember some kids in a pub car park taking the piss out of the Visa though – it was an eccentric car that the enthusiast appreciated, but it wasn’t very cool. 

By September it became obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to keep hold of the Visa because it was costing me a fortune. I’d used up all my savings and was now £300 into my overdraft so when I went back to poly’, my Mum and Dad sold it at auction for £500. I’d lost £1,000 in just four months. It was at least two years before I got another car because I had no money. I looked the Visa up on the DVLA and it was scrapped in 1992; it was only seven years old.

Alex Riley's favourite French car is the Renault 5 Turbo
Alex Riley’s favourite French hatch’ is the Renault 5 Turbo

The Visa wasn’t one of the greatest cars of all time, or even a great Citroën, so it probably won’t make it onto The Car Years, but sometimes I get a car where I start off thinking ‘Flipping heck, what am I going to to say about this?’ and then once I start doing the research I begin to really believe in it and by the end I’m convinced it would be a travesty if it lost.  

So for the Visa, the angle would probably be that when Citroën was rescued by Peugeot in the mid 70’s people expected Citroëns to end up as badge engineered Peugeots. But no, the Visa showed that by taking Peugeot ingredients they could still create characterful, clever and interesting cars. I’d probably concentrate on its successful rallying career – did you know there was a four wheel drive Group B Visa called the Mille Pistes? And then, obviously, Vicki would win.

Yes, the Visa was a bit funny looking, but it was roomy, very comfortable, handled well and was great value new. If they were going to make a museum of my life it would be nice to have the Visa in there, but you know, I’m at peace with it. That being said, it would be great to revisit that unforgettable Summer of 1989 and drive a Visa 14TRS one more time, listening to Georgie Fame while eating a loaf of onion rings. As long as the AA was on standby.”

Watch the latest series of The Car Years, here

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