A Sociological Autobiography: 38 – Cars!

As I commence this I have just bought a new car. Well, I say ‘new’. It is our first twenty-first century car, and I write at the fag end of 2014. We have actually never before this spent more than £1,400 on any vehicle.

Cars are not what they were when my father, Ron, constructed a Jowett that arrived in pieces at 10 Colebrook Close on the back of a truck. Cars are now assemblages of unfathomable closed systems. I went to university unable to drive, met Annette, and we found car-ownership to be financially incompatible with building a family. But Annette’s dad, Tom Rennie, generously sat adjacent to us as we practiced in turn, getting to know Streatham quite well in the process. We also took lessons, expensive even then. My own ‘test’ was odd. It was preceded by an hour’s practice with a stand-in for my normal instructor. I was crap, but so was he. ‘You have no chance’, he announced, as I compounded error by error. ‘JUST SHUT UP!’ was my riposte. I reported at Sutton’s HQ. ‘Lead me to your vehicle’, said the Stazi-like arbiter. I couldn’t find my vehicle. Moreover when I did manage to locate it he asked me to read a registration plate well beyond my oracular reach (I was just shy of my buying my first pair of spectacles). In the milliseconds when my vision cleared I memorised and announced the plate. So we were ‘just’ up and running. From this point on I was fine.

The first car we splashed out on was maybe the best, although the criteria for designating it ‘the best’ are open to dispute. It was a gray Wolsley 1660, with a walnut dash and leather seats. Another feature was its starting handle, an invaluable resource anywhere around the winter season: you only had to negotiate the rebound. It served us well for many years, even permitting a drive to Carnac, the pioneering Scambler holiday overseas (no spare cash, so we survived entirely on crepes). This was replaced by a Fiat 5. A Fiat 5 may not be an ideal purchase to transport a family of six but we hated searching for new old bangers and coped somehow. I covered/hid the rusty bodywork with criss-crosses of dark brown tape, making it look as if sticking plaster was allowing some kind of healing beneath. I spoke of it in affectionate terms recently, only for Rebecca to remind me that she had to hold up her back window to prevent it from collapsing and herself from freezing. But it did its time, keeping us mobile for several more years.

Mobility is something you reassess when you grow used to owning a car. It opens us options you were simply unaware of previously. Once you have had ‘wheels’ it becomes difficult to do without them. Okay, driving has its drawbacks, not least its contribution to pollution. I have two comments: tackle the capitalistic mode of production of-the-day before you blame the consumers it calculatingly conditions; and provide the alternative of a viable, comprehensive and publicly underwritten transport system! Let me slip in too a sentence of appreciation for the sociologist John Urry who has publicly pondered the parameters of a post-car society.

Anyway, the Fiat died. We sold it on to a guy who wanted to use it for off-road racing, although in the event he continued to drive this un-road-worthy antique on Britain’s roads, a matter we had later to clarify with the police. Next came a Morris. All I remember of it was that we took it off my parents’ hand and it was maroon. It too offered a rusty exterior but served its time.

Now our next vehicle deserves its own paragraph. We bought it as an acceptable family saloon, quite unaware that it was jet-propelled. It was an Escort XR3i. I loved driving it! Overnight I turned into a boy racer. Nobody beat me away from traffic lights or overtook me without prior permission in writing. I am exaggerating; but there is a point here: ‘people like me’ (how many of us are there out there?) tend to drive according to the power at our disposal. Big fast car versus small slow car? I can well imagine a driver doing 120mph without realizing it in an XR3i, on and off our motorways. Overly masculine for a pro-feminist I’m sure.

There is little I need to say about the cream-coloured Ford Orion that succeeded my ‘Stirling Moss’ interlude. It filled in a gap. We bought its successor on e-Bay. Sasha’s husband Darren came across it and advised us. It was a Rover and green and, once again, survived a satisfactory period. Its one fault was that, like the Orion, the engine tended to overheat. This induced high tension at level crossing or other unpredictable halts. We were once caught short shy of the Dartford Crossing, compelled to turn the engine off and summon RAC help in the fast-lane approach. We were more relaxed about this unavoidable incident than were those who had to negotiate their way around us, but … I like the Rover: it had a kind of aesthetic charm. Fundamentally, cars for me have always been resources allowing for efficient access from A to B but I can occasionally be swayed by considerations like power or sleekness.

It was old friend James Thompson who raised my game, at least in my perception. The time had come for him to upgrade, to replace his ageing Mercedes E200 with one of its grandchildren. He was generosity itself. I managed to beat him up from £1,200 to £1,400, the most we had ever paid for a car. I test drove it around his Chelsea pad and later collected and drove it home, conscious all the way of the perk Mercedes symbol(ism) at front of the bonnet. The demise of this much-loved car is worth recounting. It was taxed and the MOT had another six months to run when we took it in for a service. By chance, the sump cover had become detached, so that when the mechanics put it up on the ramp they were able to detect severe rusting of the cross member. Had the sump cover not come off it would have survived its service and quite possibly the next MOT whilst being unsafe to drive. It puts government legislation on vehicle safety into perspective.

As Christmas 2014 approached time was short and we needed to remain mobile. After bemusedly perusing the Internet for a few days we drove to Wilsons in Epsom and settled on – and I have the details in front of me – a Ford Focus Zetec 1.6. Born in 2010, it is the youngest of the cars we have sampled, and has the virtue of integrating us with local communities and further afield. I was nearly seduced by another (larger and more powerful) Mercedes, but … what can you do?

It is not that I am oblivious to the latest Maserati. When push comes to shove, however, a car is just a way of getting from A to the Bs one could not reach without one.

 

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