So as I stood under the dripping canopy of Quirky Classics on that Monday morning with memories of steamed-up 2cv’s with inadequate wipers, the dilemma was which way to go.  Should I cut and run, or throw more money at Rob Merivale in the hope that it would re-ignite his enthusiasm for my project?

Quirky Classics was an obvious case of a personal enthusiasm for the deux cheveaux cobbled into a business plan that couldn’t work.  But like so many businesses of this type (my own old company included) it was undercapitalised, marooned in a hand-to-mouth eddy of debt.  As we walked around his bins filled with large and small parts of 2cvs the exercise seemed to re-animate Rob.  He knew everything about every single component: he knew 2cvs inside out.  Soon he was bringing me samples of roof material, matting, various grille options and explaining an apparent gearbox problem that haunts all 2cvs – so-called ‘un-spooling’.  It was clear that a glimmer of enthusiasm still burned.  I decided to proceed.  I described my project as a “quirky conceit”: a relatively new 2cv6 rebuilt to an exceptionally high standard in old colours and with some old details.  But the deal was that he must start now.  I asked him how much it would cost me to jump the queue of customers he had failed.  The deal we came up with was that I should buy a wrecked car from his him complete with registration A2 CVD (This could become, A 2CV D).  He would start to build on this chassis and I would pay a premium for the clever number.  We shook hands and I drove off into the gloom.  From now on it was to be known as Patrick’s Quirky Conceit.  He would email pictures of the progressing build to me and this would release payments.

A month passed and – encouragingly – some pictures arrived showing 2cv panels in a state of being readied for painting.  Rob called asking some questions and in return I sent a cheque to ease his cash flow.  Another month went by but this time no pictures.  Several times I called him.  Eventually he replied to an email.  He had – he claimed – been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  He was depressed.  He had lied.  He was sorry.  And from now on his father, the Reverend Christian Merivale would handle enquiries.  Christian Merivale seemed pleasant on the phone and later wrote a straightforward letter repeating Rob’s claims.  He promised to pay back my deposit in monthly instalments.  In return I offered to buy outright the dismantled car with the registration number I wanted.  In other words to round up the money I had paid for it and just take what was left.  He would simply repay the original deposit.

It was back to square one.  Clearly recycling a car – even a 2cv – is as murky a business as any in the motor trade.  I Googled 2cvtv, a website devoted to the cars and all their variations.  It wasn’t a lot to go on.  There were plenty of bearded enthusiasts in remote parts of Britain offering advice, but nothing solid that I felt trustworthy enough to pay.  I needed someone I could visit – someone I could watch over and advise as the car took shape.  In short, I needed someone in London.

I called a chap in Battersea who claimed to rebuild 2cvs.  He said he couldn’t be bothered.  London seemed to have nothing: no one who could or would recycle a 2cv.  Next I emailed a company called 2cv City in Halifax.  There was no response.  Then I called Frome 2cv Centre (alas in the west country again) and a chatty bloke called Darren jumped at the chance.  We were off again.  He was full of encouraging suggestions.  Yes, he would go and rescue my car from Rob’s abandoned workshop.  Yes, he would collect a vanload of parts from him to offset the cost of building my car.  Yes, he would keep me informed.  Yes, he would do everything to any specification.  It was a far cry from the gloomy Rob and his mumbling reluctance.  But then Rob knew the writing was on the wall even before first I called him.  Being at the helm of a company going bust is a queasy feeling.  You either admit it, or clutch at straws.  Merivale clutched at straws.  When it happened to me I wrote a note.  I called it ‘The End’:

So this is how it ends.  Sitting at a desk in a room waiting for the Inland Revenue to claim their money.  No amount of goodwill, promises or friends will help now.  It doesn’t matter that the company is due almost as much money as it owes.  No matter that it is trading quite well with work underway and more work commissioned.  What really kills in this business is that a previously happy healthy company respected for its craftsmanship, storytelling and skill goes out of favour.  Quite suddenly the era changes and the company and its values are history.  The ground shifts.  The structure wobbles.  No one panics.  After all, the television business is cyclic isn’t it?  But the drift south starts.  No one wants to admit that the company’s carefully constructed resources have changed from something to boast about to dangerous deadweight.  Trying to get people to agree that downsizing is essential is like asking cavalry to walk.  They agree, but not their bit – not their horse (You walk, I’m riding!).  Then the momentum south picks up speed and the bank notices.  Now the downsizing looks more attractive, but the tidal wave of debt has become a towering wave-wall of red ink.  Stay calm.  Think it through.  Analyse the figures.  New commissions are just around the corner.  Turn the suppliers into bankers for a while – make them give us credit.  Put on a brave face.  It’s gut churning under such conditions, but we are used to that.  We know that television programmes are not widgets.  Each programme steals a bit of your soul as you make it.  In the same way the company has stolen bits of our souls.  So knowing what failure feels like, we continue to believe in our souls.  Television is soulful and sure we are heroes: we all know how to rescue a programme and turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.  Being brave about life is what makes television producers good; saying something is going to be great when you know it is horribly difficult.  The company’s journey south is now in the metaphorical Roaring Forties.  No amount of helmsman-ship will steer this.  Ditch the deadweight.  Ditch the shocked, the infirm, the sluggards and the worriers.  Ditch the hope for a turnaround and instead try to anchor somewhere, anywhere.  But there isn’t anywhere.  Just spuming red ink from horizon to horizon.  Now the only question is, are you going to stay on the bridge and go down with it?  Or save yourself…

Re-reading that now I can sense the stress: the gnawing terror that grips you when the obvious is going to happen, but you can’t do anything about it.  Rather, I imagine, like a condemned man feels awaiting execution.  This is why I had such calm patience with Rob.  I knew he was in a hopeless place.  I knew he just wanted to run away, but he also wanted money like I had done and I was there to give it to him.