Politics and petrol

Kelvin Goldfinch and his Minis.
Kelvin Goldfinch and his Minis.
The Victorian AC Cobra car club makes a show of American muscle.

The Victorian AC Cobra car club makes a show of American muscle.

The Western Victorian Holden Car Club celebrates its 21st anniversary.

The Western Victorian Holden Car Club celebrates its 21st anniversary.

Nick Jacques with his two Jags.

Nick Jacques with his two Jags.

It doesn't take much for it all to end in tears.

A disagreement over the authenticity of a bonnet badge is sometimes all it will take. Or a difference of opinion over what, exactly, constitutes a genuine spoiler, air scoop, head gasket or car-seat cover. Failing that, a derogatory online rant about the shortcomings of the latest president and his mother will probably also do the trick.

Welcome to the world of acrimony and aggro, car-club style.

"There's no doubt that car clubs can be great fun, but there can also be a lot of aggro that unfortunately goes with some of them," one club insider says.

"There was a time about eight years ago where the infighting in the club I was in got so bad everybody basically voted the president and vice-president out at a heated meeting full of yelling and finger-pointing. After that, a group of us actually broke away and formed our own splinter group. We just didn't need all the problems."

While car club members should be drawn together by a deep passion for a particular variety of automobile, it's clear that many car clubs are not immune to the types of personality clashes and ideological struggles that dog just about any other kind of club you care to nominate. For the insider, problems at his former club were triggered when the then president's son invited a friend to take part in an annual car display with a vehicle that was a replica and not the genuine article.

"The rules stated that you could not get into the club unless you had a genuine legal vehicle, so everyone certainly wasn't happy about that," he says. ''It started a major shit-fight. There was so much carrying on. A lot of catfights also started because of the internet forums run by different people in the club. Guys would log on and bag someone else's car - maybe because they didn't have the right sticker kit - or say something unflattering about somebody. Then that person would get the shits and it would just snowball from there. None of it would be face to face because they were all keyboard warriors, but it created lasting effects."

Thanks to the wonders of Google, it doesn't take much effort to find other evidence of online club-related angst. Consider the following diatribe from one enthusiast who was invited to a certain car show, only to find he'd been suspended from the club because he'd incurred a traffic infringement.

"Pretty pissed off right now," he writes. "A good 'mate' of mine asked me down. He is all into a club called [name provided] of which he is a senior member or something. He pestered me ages ago to join up so I did. Anyway, I said my g'days and met some members. After the introductions my mate said, 'Oh, by the way, we've decided to revoke your membership. You're banned for three months.' All this because I lost my licence for speeding! One guy there said, 'Well we didn't really care, but Tim - my 'mate' - thought it would be best to set an example to the others.' What a joke. I got kicked out of a car club I never wanted to be part of and got shown up by him in front of all these club members. Some friend."

While internal bickering and backstabbing are not an issue within the Brock Commodore Owners Association of Australia, the club's NSW representative, Phil Walmsley, says he knows of other organisations where the reality is very different.

"There's certainly not any opposition over who's going to be president at our club," he says. "But there are some that I'm aware of whose members do vie for that political power. You hear about some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on leading up to AGMs, with people doing the ring-around behind closed doors trying to round up numbers and supporters. Just like with mainstream politics, it inevitably ends up with some sort of schism within that club, with the people who wanted person X elected president never coming fully on board with the person who was actually nominated. To me, I don't really understand it. At the end of the day, a car club should be an escape from that sort of thing, where you enjoy the cars rather than bicker about who should be calling the shots."

Another insider agrees. He believes that, while many car clubs start out with the right aims, things can get out of hand as a group grows and more personalities are attracted.

"The problem with car clubs, or any clubs for that matter, is that the dickheads seek out positions of power to make themselves feel important," he says.

"They love all that petty paper-pushing bullshit and most can quote the club constitution verbatim. Generally you'll end up with a good club president, because the most popular or likeable guy will win. But the positions like treasurer and secretary are usually uncontested - one person will stick their hand up - and will typically be filled by those who want to feel important."

Thankfully, not all clubs are beset by such political intrigues and machiavellian manoeuvrings. Believe it or not, some focus their energies strictly on cars and camaraderie. For members of these groups, there may be few greater pleasures than linking up with like-minded enthusiasts and paying homage to the legendary vehicles they grew up aspiring to own.

Kelvin Goldfinch is a case in point. The owner of eight Minis (all classics except for one 2005 Cooper S), the 50-year-old remains as much a poster boy for the defining British motor as he does for the car-club institution itself. A diehard of the NSW Mini Club since 1979, his active involvement remains central not only to his life but also to that of his wife, Lee-Ann (editor of the club magazine) and all their children.

"The whole family's involved," Goldfinch, a former committee member, says proudly. "Son Matt has got a Mini we restored together, daughter Emma's got one in the garage ready for painting, my wife's got an orange Mini 1000 Mk3, and my other daughter Stacey is a social member. Ninety per cent of our friends are Mini car club people. When we're not competing together, we're out socialising together."

For Goldfinch, his patronage is an expression of a passion for Minis that was sparked when he saw the 1969 classic The Italian Job as a seven-year-old.

"I was hooked from that point on," he recalls. "When I was old enough, I bought Minis and have been there ever since. It's just something about their character. It's something about the size, the handling, the way they sit on the road and go round the corners."

Goldfinch isn't the only one with only great things to say about the car-club experience. Nick Jacques, a 62-year-old retired professor of molecular biosciences and membership secretary of the Jaguar Drivers Club of Australia, has a similar tale to tell.

"Our particular club is very inclusive," says Jacques, proud owner of a 1968 Series 2 E-Type and a 1989 XJ-S. "When we have meetings, 40 per cent of the people there are spouses. My wife, Virginia, and I take part in club activities as a joint exercise - she remembers the people's names and I remember the cars (laughs). We do enjoy it. We go to the meetings, go on as many runs as we can and get to go to places we never would have thought of. I don't think we've ever come across any vocal or outgoing disputes, certainly nothing of a personal nature. I think if there were anything like that it would be quashed. Car clubs should be places to celebrate these fantastic vehicles. I've got classic cars. I've always had classic cars. It's a great way to use them, I think."

For others, there can be no denying that a car club is the perfect environment in which to embark on that long-awaited second childhood. That's certainly the case with NSW Corvettes Unlimited, surely one of the ultimate boys' toys collectives.

"We do have a high proportion of members who are on their second marriage," the president, Gary Nelson, says.

"Somebody referred to a Corvette as a finger in the air to the previous missus, sort of, 'I've finally got what I wanted in life!'"

This story Politics and petrol first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.