“When I first joined car forums, I joined as ‘Jackson’ because I didn’t want anyone to know that I was a girl and incorrectly assume I didn’t have mechanical knowledge. I wanted to be treated as an equal with the other members, and at the time, it was mainly men expertly talking about cars. Every time I asked a question, I would answer a few others so that the exchange of knowledge was fair. It was only at car meets they’d realise I was a woman, which took some of them by surprise.
I bought a champagne gold Vauxhall Cavalier SRi for about £700 in 2004 from a girl in Essex, and that car took me by surprise. It was a 2.0-litre, 16-valve red top and as a four-door saloon, not the height of coolness. In my mind it was a sensible-ish purchase; a trusty motor that was quick enough to keep me interested. I already had a Citroën AX GT on twin Webers (which were wild by the way) that was meant to be my exciting car, but when I put my foot down in the SRi I realised that thing could really go. For a K-reg car that was already more than 10 years old, it was impressive.
I took ‘K846 KAH’ out on a track day at Castle Combe with my friend who had a Lotus Elise, and even though the Cavalier was a lot heavier and completely standard, it was noted that my laps were faster than his. This was pre-racing, so I wasn’t hugely experienced, but my driving skills were noticed by others way before I realised I had any talent myself, so when some of the guys on MigWeb, the Vauxhall Owners forum, spotted my car going at some pace it felt pretty cool. Little did they know it was being driven by a girl!
The first time I was at a race track I was six weeks old. My dad, a tool maker by trade, was competing in an invitation-only race at Silverstone in a Daytona Yellow (banana yellow as my parents called it) RS3100 Mk1 Ford Capri, while my mum pushed me around in a pram. I slept through the whole lot, only stirring slightly to the sound of a loud V8 Jaguar zooming past. I grew up with cars and motorsport, watching everything from F1 and tin tops to banger racing. We loved it all.
When I was a little girl, there were hardly any women in motorsport, and as I got older Dad said to me: ‘You’ve got ability, you can do something with it’. I didn’t really believe him until I entered a competition in 2011 and won it. Female racers are still very much in the minority, but there has been a massive increase in female fans of motorsport, which means there’s now a queue at the ladies’ toilets at major race events!
Driving down the road, to anybody who doesn’t know about cars, the Cavalier was just an old-fashioned family saloon, and because I was in my early twenties people probably wouldn’t have put us together as a pair, but sometimes an unusual match is a good match. I really fell in love.
When you’re young, you’re more interested in what’s going to happen next than taking a moment to take in the beauty of something, so I couldn’t tell you what colour the SRi’s interior was – maybe beige or black – but I did pay attention to the little bits of red detailing it had on the outside. They were an indication that the Cavalier was a performance saloon and included a red ‘SRi’ badge on the side and a thin red line that ran along the base of a thicker black line that wrapped the entire car. OK, it wasn’t the classiest or most refined performance saloon, and we used to call it the ‘Chav’alier, but I really embraced it. I’d blast Clubland [a dance music compilation album] on full volume.
I was doing promo work when I had the Cavalier, which involved a lot of driving, and I put 30,000 miles on it in a year. It was really reliable and served me well… until it didn’t. Up until that point I’d always worked on the car myself (with a pair of vinyl gloves over a pair of leather gloves to protect my fake nails), but I listened to some bad advice fixing the camshaft position sensor and it went from being a relatively small job to being quite catastrophic. The belt moved so when I fired the car up and the pistons went up, it bent the valves.
I grew up helping my dad maintain classic cars; it was his hobby. I was so interested, I’d ask ‘what’s this for?’ and ‘what’s that for?’ and he’d give me things to do. When I got my first car, a Peugeot 205, we worked on it together, then I worked on it and he supervised, and then when I went off to university he told me to buy a Haynes manual. So I did. I’d go to the scrap yard, unbolt bits of cars and fit them to mine. What I should have done with the Cavalier is got the engine rebuilt, hauling my Dad in for his expertise, but in my haste I got rid of it instead.
I sold it in 2006 for about £200 as a broken car and carried on with my life. I tried out a Supra next, and a few different cars came into the mix after that, but then one day, there I was on eBay and there it was on eBay – my actual Cavalier! I’d found it! I put in a bid, won and got my car back for £600.
I was so excited because I’d really missed it, but as soon as I got in I was disappointed. It was like buying your favourite packet of biscuits, opening them up and finding they were all broken and rotten. All credit to the person who’d bought it from me and did the repairs, but they’d put a Calibra engine in, which is technically the same but didn’t feel the same. It was a little more rugged than the original red top and just didn’t have the same tightness and refinement. The original engine had been so well looked after, it was on point, and I always waited for it to come up to temperature before I revved it, so I felt so much remorse. I wished I’d repaired it, then it wouldn’t have had to go through that transplant. So, I sold it, again, a few weeks later, for £650.
Years ago my dad gave me this amazing piece of advice: Find something you love doing and then find a way to make a living doing it. It was a revelation, and so it’s thanks to him that I’ve made cars my life. I talk about them, I write about them, I race them, I drive them, I review them and I share my knowledge with others about them. It’s safe to say there have been a lot of cars that have come and gone, but the Cavalier is the one that got away because it surprised and impressed me. When something can surprise and impress you that much, how can you not love it? I looked it up recently (I felt like I was stalking an ex) and it’s had no MOT since 2008. It could have been scrapped after a crash but my hope is that it has been turned into a racing car. If it has been, I hope it’s being celebrated for its touring car credentials and shares an equally suiting livery in homage to John Cleland’s BTCC championship-winning Cavalier from 1995.”