Tag Archives: Cars

Message to whingeing motorists: shut up!

Jeremy Clarkson driving too fast
Did you notice the unsavoury emergence of so-called ‘motoring advocates’ into the pop media after last week’s letter bombs? Their disreputable message: “what did you expect? You pushed us around for long enough. Sooner or later one of us was going to crack…” makes me feel slightly sick. I’m a motorist. I drive my kids around in a an over-sized people mover. I even laugh like a drain at Clarkson and his exploits from time to time. Maybe I should identify with these ‘advocates’ and their hermetic worldview. Don’t feel like it, though.

Driving a tonne or more of steel around too fast is a bad thing. Can’t really find it in my heart to object when police forces and local authorities skewer speeding drivers. Can’t really think of a good reason for painting speed cameras yellow and putting them on maps either. I’d like to see them concealed in trees and switched on randomly. As to avoiding the fines and keeping your license, I’ve got an idea: slow down you jerk!

BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House picked up on the motoring advocates’ intervention and ran a heartbreaking interview with a driver who blames his own speeding for the death of his five year-old boy. Click to listen to the show. For balance I feel I should link to the nutty Association of British Drivers which is a sort of catch-all protest group for old blokes in car coats.

Intelligent, just not very interesting

Is it just me or is there something paralysingly boring about these ‘cars of the future‘ presented at this week’s grandly titled but presumably equally boring World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems and Services in London? They can… er… park themselves and… well… follow the car in front. Oh, and one of them will wake you up if you fall asleep. No wonder the biggest car manufacturers are in such trouble. A marked absence of the big idea, if you ask me.

Big, stupid cars

A 1970 Hillman Avenger Estate
If you do the school run in a Land Rover Discovery 3 you’re hauling fifty times your own weight with you (maybe twenty times the weight of your whole family). The car weighs nearly three tons. Just getting the thing moving consumes enough expensively-acquired energy (think Russian pipeline) to cook your dinner for a month.

One of these days it’s going to occur to us that obliging mums (usually mums) to haul fifty times their own weight with them everywhere they go, just to provide an illusion of safety and the kind of brutalist road warrior aesthetic that matches the handbag and the shoes represents some kind of apex in the increasingly stupid and decadent recent history of the car.

Cars, almost everywhere, are bigger and more over-specified than they’ve ever been. A decade of continuous, happily-compounding economic growth has reduced our resistance to excess, softened us up for a generation of consumer products – and especially cars – that pay no heed at all to the fate of the planet or of its less fortunate occupants.

When I was a kid my Dad bought, for our A-B pleasure, a Hillman Avenger Estate, a big, ugly red car that charmed no one but worked hard for its keep and wound up, for instance, hauling a huge, twenty year-old half-timbered caravan to and from Ireland many times. The thing is, it had a 1250cc (1.25 litre) engine that produced less than 40 horsepower (absolutely the worst card in the Top Trumps deck). It was a truly dreadful car but it made good use of those horsepower and hauled us (and that stupid caravan) around the country with something approaching grace for many years.

You can’t buy a family car with less than 100 horsepower now and, at the fancy end, engines of four, five and even six litres are now commonplace (there’s a sports car made by Daimler Chrysler subsidiary Dodge with an eight litre engine). At showrooms in Berkeley Square you can buy cars the size of buses (made by Bentley and Rolls Royce, Volkswagen subsidiaries) that cost more than a nice semi-detached house in Reading).

Cars are going to need to get smaller and, possibly, vanish all together. In the meantime they need to get down to Weight Watchers.

Slowing down

A Soviet-era Zil Limousine
Don’t get me wrong. I like cars (I think I’ve told you before about my perfect, photographic recollection of every car made anywhere in the world before the Clash’s third single). But I’m also the crazy fuck standing on the kerb outside his house in his pyjamas yelling at the ladies in their black-windowed 4x4s (because you need absolute privacy on the school run) as they speed up the hill, gunning their torquey five-and-a-half-litre V8s to overcome the nasty 1-in-40 incline. Because I am prematurely old and because, when behind the wheel, I already so pathetically hug the underside of the applicable speed limit as to make even my smug self feel slightly sick, I want cars to slow down.

They go much too fast. We’ve surrendered our streets to speeding half-guided weapons, armoured shrines to luxury, seclusion, individual liberty and generalised disregard for others. I’m no knee-jerk green or slow-witted communitarian (really, I’m not) but we’ve got this seriously wrong. Cars are now so large, so heavy, so powerful and so lethal on contact with anything softer than, well, another car, that they’ve caused us to suspend centuries of fragile urban civility in favour of a kind of low grade warfare – and we barely notice because we know no better. We can’t imagine our streets and lanes without nose-to-tail Vectras and Freelanders and Mondeos.

The balance of power on our streets is now so uneven that a walk to the shops for me and my kids is a miserable, stressful ordeal when it could be a rewarding interaction with our otherwise-quite-nice semi-rural environment and an opportunity for conversation, play and friendship. No such luck. Roads are important – they make possible trade, movement of labour and ideas, communication between communities (which is what keeps the inbreeding under control) but in their present, terrifying form they’re rigid and divisive and socially unhelpful. The stream of over-specified, over-powered and over-weight cars that fills them needs to be slowed down: we need calmer, more friendly and usable streets and a change to our attitude to getting around. If we can adjust to travelling more slowly (at least by car), I imagine a generation of cars built to a different standard: a capped maximum speed of 10 or 15 mph will mean there’ll be no need for Euro NCAP ratings, airbags or safety cages.

Cars will change radically: the dominant design metaphor won’t be the bathysphere or armoured car or cruise missile on which most cars are modelled but something lighter and less forbidding: cars will be made from folded waxed paper, parachute silk, porcelain, lacquered wood, wicker. Temporary cars of papier maché, spun sugar, ice or woven reeds will come and go like Mayflies before being folded into the recycling bin. The dead art of coachbuilding will be revived: your hydrogen-powered chassis will get a new body once a month – something seasonal, perhaps something you knitted yourself or grew in the garden or whittled in the shed. We’ll be less precious about our cars, too: jamming your squashy, wipe-clean, Liberty print motor into a parking space that’s actually a bit too small will cause no stress at all and nobody driving a blue plastic car (purchased from Ikea) at 5mph can succumb to road rage. Of course, a big, cultural change like this would probably cause Jeremy Clarkson to emigrate or throw himself from a bridge but there’s probably a downside too…

A car

Because I am basically a small boy I find myself linking, almost automatically, to this preview of the 2007 Ford Shelby GT500. Like many men of my age, I retain an almost perfect photographic memory of every car made anywhere in the world in the years up to and including my fourteenth birthday. For some reason, after that, everything gets a bit blurry (“is it a Chevette? A Scimitar? A Capri?”). The Shelby Mustangs are an early Seventies highlight of my personal photographic record (take a minute to remember just how grey and boring things were in suburban Britain thirty-five years ago) so Ford’s retro clone caught my attention – I reckon it’s something to do with that top stripe (Oh. And Bullitt). Forgive me.

High water mark for 4x4s?

In the news pages of yesterday’s Independent the ‘jump-suited environmentalists‘ from Greenpeace are chaining themselves to the Range Rover production line in Solihull and in the Motoring pull-out John Simister is embarrassed to be seen driving its latest product, the impressively ridiculous Range Rover Sport.

I’m still pretty sure that the 4×4 era is nearly over – these extreme examples of the form (Hummers and Navigators and Cayennes) are the final, ultra-decadent expression of the gas guzzler gene line. The market will switch its attention to new forms. The next big thing at the school gate might just be a hybrid.