As the number of homeless in the UK continues to rise, anecdotal evidence suggests a new popularity for cars as improvised shelters. Simon Hacker investigates ñ and asks if a cheap 4×4 is the wisest choice of mobile home
1 I have form on this subject, so Iíll come clean here: I have lived in a car. Luckily for me, it wasn’t necessity that prompted the move. No, it was more your typical journalist headline-grabbing stunt. Along with erstwhile editor of Diesel Car, Jeremy Taylor, we bagged a broad range of cross-newstand coverage for our attempt to not set foot outside a motor for a (then, and maybe still) record of more than 48 hours. It was 2001 and our stunt was designed to ask if Ford’s new Focus was not the world’s most live-in-able car. All the time the aim of the story was to garner publicity for our new dotcom motoring project.
2 Anyhow, the lessons learned have lasted far longer than the website. A long day in a car, any car, is tough; 24 hours is torture; 48 will have you crying for your mother. So my heart goes out to the growing number of people who, most often out of economic reasons and sometimes by virtue of some bizarre ‘lifestyle’ decision, choose to make a motor their home.
3 For 57-year-old former teacher Hilary Barrows, home for four months this year was a 20-year-old Alfa Romeo 146 in an Asda car park in Kent. Her two rescue dogs meant she was prevented from taking emergency accommodation when her rent ran out, though they have ironically proved to be a benefit for in-car life as a deterrent against thieves and criminals. Hilary was eventually offered conventional digs for herself and her dogs, but not all car-dwellers seek ‘rescue’. Musician Nick Andrew has lived in first a VW Passat and now an Audi A4 Avant since 2006. And far from penury, he’s even been able to record and produce four music albums from the front passenger seat. “I now use a gas stove, pots, pans and can cook anything one would in a normal kitchen,” says Nick, finding that what was once “a brief cost-cutting experiment” turned into a pragmatic and practical way of life.
4 Charities claim a new underclass of young people who can’t afford rent but need to be mobile for their work are resorting to this bijou lifestyle. But legality is the key question: as you’d guess, there is no law to allow drivers to park-up and live in a public area, so council and private sites are the only legal options. Of the former, you’ll be lucky: waiting lists for travellers’ sites are long, and if you were offered space for your estate, you might find the travelling community, in the absence of you owning a large white van, tricky to gel with. On private sites you’ll also be subject to a pitch fee, as much as £10 a night, while if you add service charges the costs escalate further.
5 So being legal can in fact turn out to be quite pricey, while fly-kipping willy-nilly invokes Section 61 of the Public Order Act 1994, which states that the local coppers can move you on if they believe you’re trespassing on land with the common purpose of residing there for any period. All of which points to the need for ditching your conventional tarmac-limited wheels and investing in something that can carry you over rougher ground and out of view of whoever might generally wish to interrupt your night’s repose. So what wheels?
6 A quick trawl of the columns of well-known online sales sites speedily reveals there’s a wealth of choices, many of which cost less than a weekend in your nearest Hilton. Fancy a 1997 Jeep Cherokee with just 115,000 miles, an MoT and just one little disturbing water leak? Yours for £495. Or what of a Suzuki Vitara with just 84,000 miles and no exhaust, but a price tag of £500 all in? Or perhaps a 1996 Ford Maverick looking for liberation from farm life, for a trifling £700? The bottom line is that the only way you could sustain in-car living would be to be highly mobile, so a 4×4 has to be your car-sa mia, so to pun. But always keep it legal: that knock on the window from the police, wherever you pitch, is sure to be coming your way.