There is almost no end to the myriad pettifogging ways in which we’ve contrived to make the whole driving experience as miserable as possible
A few weeks ago, I borrowed a fantastically powerful beast of a motorcar called the Range Rover Sport XS. It had a 4197cc supercharged V8 engine, TV screens in the back, seats that you could programme to warm both your back and your buttocks; and despite being almost as big as a Tiger tank, it could do 0 to 60 in 7.2 seconds. Driving that monster at full pelt over the Welsh hills made me gladder to be alive than almost anything I’ve done since I last rode to hounds. It’s what 21st-century boys (and girls) were born to do.
The big problem was trying to harbour the behemoth. The holiday cottage I was borrowing had a very narrow driveway, reached by an equally narrow lane, and the only way I could manage my reverse procedure properly was by first trespassing into the driveway of the old lady who lived opposite.
As soon as I tried this on the first day, the old lady came out of her house with the nimbleness of a spider that has detected prey. I reversed quickly, pretending I hadn’t seen her. But doggedly she came chasing after me, at one point actually raising her stick. You can well guess what she said when she caught up with me. Everyone to whom I tell the story thinks they can.
You’re all wrong, though. What she actually said, this dear old thing, was: “What a splendid motorcar!” And then: “If it’s too much trouble for you to park in your drive, I don’t mind at all if you park it in mine.”
Now it could be, I suppose, that this bizarre reaction was merely the result of exceptional niceness. Or old-fashioned rural courtesy. Or advanced dementia. But I think what I was experiencing here was a nostalgia-inducing glimpse of an attitude we most of us shared once, but have long since had knocked out of us by the Health’n’Safety’n’Ecology police: the idea that cars are attractive and fun, and that motoring is a healthy, desirable pursuit.
As a child, I took this attitude for granted. Sure, it probably helped that my family had co-invented its very own marque (a nippy hill-climbing Noddy car called the Dellow), and that both my father and grandfather used to motor-race. But I don’t think that my family’s petrol-headery was particularly abnormal for the era. In those days it was a given that the car was absolutely the essential tool for everything from bird-pulling and (uncomfortable) lovemaking to commuting to pub-going to holiday-making. It symbolised freedom, power, the attainment of adulthood, speed, success, individuality, escape and, near as damn it, the very purpose of life itself.
But look at us now. We drive machines better designed for high-speed travel than any before, with airbags, and shock absorbing bodywork, and ABS-as-standard and none of those deadly, rigid steering columns or slewing back ends that claimed the lives of so many of my father’s mates in their AC Cobras and E-types. Yet we act as if driving had never been more perilous – or more wrong.
We daren’t floor the accelerator on the open road – not even when it’s wide and straight and it’s the middle of the night – because we know for near-certain we’ll be blatted by a speed camera. And we can’t eat or drink or smoke or use our phones behind the wheel, no matter how dextrous we are, because that could easily cost us our licences. As for drink-driving, are you kidding? What kind of an evil, selfish psychopath would you need to be to commit a crime like that?
Truly, there is almost no end to the myriad pettifogging ways in which we’ve contrived to make the whole driving experience as miserable as possible: bus-lane cameras that don’t care if you were only straying across briefly to turn left – they’ll have your £60 just the same; swarms of overzealous traffic wardens paid not according to fairness but by results; ever-expanding congestion charging; a growing array of swingeing green taxes; on-board monitors in company cars (it’ll be all cars next) to check they never exceed the speed limit; motorist-harassing “Mad Mullah” of the North Wales police Richard Brunstrom; even spy satellites.
You’ll protest that most of these annoyances were dumped on us unbidden – invariably by EU diktat – but I still think we must all accept our share of blame. When, little by little, our motoring freedoms were being eroded, we did not protest nearly as much as we should have done. Instead, we allowed ourselves to be gulled by deeply misleading Government safety campaigns like “Speed Kills” (which it rarely does, actually: only 5 per cent of road accidents involve motorists breaking the speed limit). Worse, we bought far too heavily into the green propaganda line that private cars are a near-inexcusable luxury in times of global warming.
Is there anything we can do to turn back the clock to the era of that nice old lady? Probably not. Not with rising fuel prices and ever more overcrowded roads. But we can at least have a stab at it. The fightback must begin with an attitude of mind. It is time to reclaim our inner Mister Toad, and remember that cars still are, as they always have been, about fun, freedom and escape. Poop! Poop!
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