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.


  1. That’s a great link to the Chrysler/SIMCA/Rootes site. We had Rootes cars for years. We had a SIMCA and most other things.
    And then there was the Talbot. Do you remember, Private Eye used to call that magazine NOW! – TALBOT!
    (If memory serves)

  2. Interesting. But Britian’s most popular car is the 1.2 litre Vauxhall Corsa I think. Which means that the Discovery-class folks are hopefully a small minority. It’s the big cars with the “bull bars” that really annoy me though …

  3. I learned to drive in a muddy, ochre-colour Hillman Avenger Estate – driving really fast and out of control around Richmond College car park. Those were the days….

  4. Indeed it is. Anyway – would like to correct myself, it’s not the Corsa that’s the best seller. It’s the Ford Focus 1.3 Electronic . Well it was in 2004. I found this fascinating report from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders which reveals quite a few interesting things:

    1. The “supermini” class has the largest market share (of which Corsa makes the biggest contribution)

    2. The “4×4/SUV” class has a 7% share – which is a lot higher than I thought.

    3. The highest number of 4×4/SUV resgistrations in 2004 took place in Edinburgh, Sheffield and London (in that order)

    4. The number of new registrations took a decrease for the first time in UK 2004. It seems that 2001 was the boom year.

    5. Interestingly: 10 years ago the most popular car colour was red – but now it is blue, by a longer way.

    6. You’re more likely to get killed on the road as a pedestrian than you are as a cyclist or motorcyclist.

    The full report (PDF) can be viewed here:

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