My first car - Jon Culshaw:  'Its seatbelt sounded like the mating call of a Serengeti antelope'

Jon Culshaw Mini
Jon Culshaw learned to drive in his mum's Mini

Forging a career as the nation’s foremost impressionist requires spending weeks perfecting the act of being someone you’re not, writes Keith Jones. It’s a tightly defined form of entertainment where every facial flicker and physical nuance is under close scrutiny.

That’s the path Jon Culshaw, star of BBC Radio 4’s Dead Ringers, chose, but when he’s away from his work and back in his own reality, few things are as reassuringly comforting as the velvety interiors of his collection of 1970s Fords.

Here Jon gives Telegraph Cars an insight into the cars that shaped his motoring history and his affection for 40-year old Granadas.

So, Jon – what was your first car, and why?

What I tend to think of as my first car was actually my mum’s 1972 Mini 1000. I learned to drive in it back in 1985 and it set the tone for the kind of cars I like today – they’ve got to have character. It produced a high pitched mechanical tune and the caramel leatherette interior had the same aroma as the plastic footballs in Woolworths.

Jon Culshaw with his classic Ford Cortina

I decided I wanted something the polar opposite of the Mini so in 1988 I bought an Audi 100, one of the last of the boxier ones from 1982. In comparison it was like driving around in a four-bedroomed flat, with all the interior décor finished in velour, reminiscent of Cadbury’s Bourneville chocolate. It had a real kick, that car – a proper unit – but sadly it was prone to requiring expensive repairs, so I eventually traded it in for a Vauxhall Cavalier.

For a moment I thought 'bloody hell – is this the afterlife? In Nottinghamshire?'

Can you remember what kicked off your love of cars?

When I was growing up, those big Cortinas, Consuls and Granadas seemed to be everywhere. They were the backbone of Britain, used for everything from journeys to school and trips to your aunt’s or being piloted by sales executives powering along much less congested motorways. Now I look back on Fords from that era fondly – their designs really resonate with me, particularly all the chromework and vinyl roofs. You simply don’t get that any more on modern cars.

What was your first crash – if you’ve ever had one?

Back in 2000 I was driving a little MGF roadster up the M1. It’d not long been serviced so was good to go as far as I was concerned. During one overtaking manoeuvre the car felt as though it was being buffeted while I was in lane three – the sensation quickly worsened, when suddenly a tyre blew, careering me hard into the central reservation.

A blown tyre caused Culshaw's MGF crash

I eventually came to a stop on the hard shoulder, miraculously without being hit by anyone else. I climbed out and remember the combined stench of twisted metal, burnt rubber and whatever vapours they were pouring from the back of the car. The driver’s side was a mess, all bashed in.

I walked around the other side of the car looking at the sunset behind a field with bunnies and a horse in it. For a moment I thought “bloody hell – is this the afterlife? In Nottinghamshire??”

Which car(s) do you own now, and do you have a favorite?

I have a collection of classic Fords, but I’m very fond of my 1974 Consul – that was the first classic I bought and I had it resprayed that lovely copper metallic. In isolation it’s not particularly special but there’s a lovely atmosphere about it and I like the noises it makes – not just the engine, either. When you put the seatbelt on it makes a sound that I imagine’s like the mating call of a Serengeti antelope.

Culshaw's Ford Consul underwent a full restoration

Is there any car you regret selling?

Not yet, no. Two have recently gone to auction and I hope I don’t regret selling those. I’ve convinced myself that it’s time for them to have a new chapter in their lives and to be enjoyed by enthusiastic new owners. I’ll be happy knowing they’re being used and cherished.

I’m not at all convinced that a Range Rover-esque thing is remotely necessary in cities – just buy a Volvo estate and you’ll be fine

Okay, so have there been any you’ve regretted buying?

Although that Audi had its issues, I think your first cars should have a sense of adventure, so I don’t regret buying it. Funnily enough when I first sat in the MG I had a flicker of gut instinct telling me it wasn’t going to end well. It was handy for nipping about in London where I’d moved to at the time but it’s not the type of car I’d fancy owning again.

What’s the dream car for you?

Oh! I’d like a Mark I Capri – what a design classic! The car you always promised yourself. Yes, an early Capri. Although, if I can have more than one I’d love one of the aerodynamic Audi 100s, the sort that replaced my boxy model. One of those would be pretty good. As would a late Ford Zodiac, one of the wide, square-edged ones. It’d make a lovely contrast to the curvy hips and lips of my Mark III Cortina.

A Mk1 Ford Capri would be John's dream car

What’s irritates you most when you’re driving?

People who drive enormous 4x4s when they clearly don’t really need one. I’m not at all convinced that a Range Rover-esque thing is remotely necessary in cities – just buy a Volvo estate and you’ll be fine. Aggressive drivers annoy me, too. I think driving in that sort of manner reveals much about people’s shallow personality.

Turbo or supercharger?

Neither, I think. I’ll stick with naturally-aspirated.

Straight-line speed or handling?

Handling. With an emphasis on comfort.

Manual or automatic?

Automatic – it’s nice to sit back and let the mechanical devices to get on with it.

Front-, rear- or four-wheel-drive?

I’ve had Audis with quattro four-wheel drive in the past and they were pretty good in the snow and ice.

Culshaw says large 4x4s being used in cities is one of his pet hates

What’s your most memorable experience in a car?

A few years ago we’d arranged to film down at the Millbrook proving ground for a sketch about the ‘Clarkson family’. Four of us were there in dark, curly wigs and plenty of denim: I played Jeremy, Debra Stephenson played Mrs Clarkson and we had a couple of kids playing Son and Daughter of Clarkson. It was great fun [imitates Clarkson]: “Where shall we go on holiday Mrs Clarkson?”, “Germany, Jeremy. The autobahn. No speed limits. Just drive.”

Away from cars, what challenges have you set yourself in 2016?

Well, I’m looking forward to more drama than out-and-out comedy this year. I’d love to work with John Simm and Philip Glenister if the opportunity arose, too – I think they’re both great. Getting involved with more science-based work, such as Stargazing Live, would interest me, too. I already have my column in The Sky at Night magazine and I’m a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Once my Granada Coupe’s restored, I intend for that to become my astronomymobile, transporting my telescopes to dark sky areas.

Jon is currently starring in a new series of Dead Ringers on BBC Radio 4, while his regular Exoplanet Excursions column can be enjoyed in The Sky at Night magazine.

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