life in the slow lane

It’s hard to comprehend I know but I like my Mercedes Benz estate. Not much to crow about in car terms, I’ll admit. It’s a C-Class diesel and far from being the fasted thing on the road, and despite the metallic blue paintwork and low profile alloy wheels, it is by no means the most elegant. In fact, I am a little ashamed to admit that it is by default the sort of car older men with eye on economy choose. But I’ll say it here, and I’ll say it loud, my four year old Merc is giving me driving pleasure, in spades.

It’s an automatic, of course: Since buying my first ‘auto’, an unloved gold Citroen CX in the early 90s, I have not been able to see the point of manual gear boxes (aka ‘shift sticks’). There’s less faffing around for one thing. Traffic jams – of which there are many on my frequent trips to the west country – are less irksome, and I can hold things like cups of coffee or select tracks on my iPod with relative impunity. The overall drive with an automatic gearbox best summed up as, relaxing. Which is the way I like my driving to be. Calm and measured, with as little stress as is humanely and mechanically possible. 

That may be the reason why I have never been bothered (that much) about performance cars, of any hue. I’ll admit that there are occasions when I do like to get ahead briskly, and with unvarnished excitement press the pedal to the metal. And on the infrequent occasions that I do my actions are such a jolt to the car’s internal combustion system that I leave behind the sort of dark cloud we have come to expect of a vehicle clearing its throat after thousands of leisurely cruising in the slow lane, while unburnt emissions clog the exhaust arteries. Being, for me, a relatively new car those full speed emissions from the C-Class are modest: Imagine a stowaway in the boot puffing on a Cohiba Esplandidos and blowing the smoke through the number plate rivets. This in contrast to my CE 280 coupe, with a 2.8 straight six engine beneath the bonnet the shape and dimensions of the sort of dining table used for banquets. It is likely that the designer of that early 1980s Mercedes, a pillar-less coupe with a sunroof for the sensation of being in a convertible with non of the drawbacks, had spent many happy hours floating effortlessly upon a waterbed. Those wallowing, fluid filled mattresses were to 1970s aspirationals what the ensuite bathroom is today. With the suspension characteristics of a waterbed my CE didn’t so much as corner as drift around, near side always several inches higher than the driver’s side. It sounds unnerving but on those fast sweeping A road bends along the north Cornish coast, where the daring driver is encouraged by clear sight lines for several hundreds of yards ahead, I learnt to relish the challenge of taking a wide line, in the middle of the road a good distance before the apex and just at the moment I could sense the centrifugal forces galvanise to send us all to hell and back in a field of root vegetables, of pulling hard on the steering wheel and flooring the accelerator thereby levelling the car and exiting the bend with the thrust and choking smoke of a steam train. 

In comparison to the silky, to the point of bland, power of a three litre BMW Coupe I very nearly bought from an old school friend some time later, and the howling authority of a Ferrari I drove around Hertfordshire for an article I was writing for a national newspaper on the subject of hiring a supercar for the day, that silver CE’s acceleration was nothing. But for someone prone only to infrequent bursts of aggression that pleasure – the speed, the smoke and above all, the noise – was akin to slipping on a suit that had been in the wardrobe for years only to discover a 50 pound note in the pocket. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does – boy!

I was too young to be a hippie, and even if I had wanted to grow my hair long and look forlorn the prefects who ran my private school in Hounslow, West London, with the sadistic cruelty of Gulag prison guards, might have had something to say about it. Nonetheless that early ‘green’, cool-to-be-kind philosophy underpinned how we thought in the early 70s. Colour advertisements for Citroen 2CV’s, with potted plants poking out of their roll back roofs seemed appealing. As did others for Mini Mokes, a sort of corrugated iron buggy that’s biggest claim to fame was to feature in the television series The Prisoner, conceived by and starring the late Patrick McGoohan. It seems hard to believe now, when cars, despite paying a lip service to the environment and dwindling fuel resources, are objects of lust, but the coolest cars then were the most practical. Luxury models were driven by the old guard, and sports cars either by hooray Henrys or backstreet racers, leaving the dreariest for the caring middle class, of which I was nominally a member. They were different times. Before shopping became the de facto national obsession it is today we simply didn’t lust over stuff the way we are encouraged to today.  The greatest trick capitalism ever played was making the telephone just about the most coveted object of desire on the planet. So much so that young people will kill each other for the newest model, and journalists freely describe the most tactile as ‘sexy’. Our phones were on a table in the hall, by the stairs. The only thing I could remember being sexy was Rachel Welch in a fur bikini in 2000 Years BC. 

Taking all of that on board you can understand why non of my friends looked twice when I pulled up in my first car, a 1969 primrose yellow Triumph Herald Estate. It had a rorty 1300cc engine beneath a bonnet that opened back from the windscreen, two doors, a tailgate and a backseat that folded forward. It was a car, nothing more. It’s only statement to the world was that it was in good condition and would provide safe and reliable service. 

That Triumph was bought at a car auction in Surrey, during a speedy transaction that I took no part in. One of my friends at school was a tall, rather serious boy called David, whose father, a somewhat lugubrious man called Roy, worked in the motor trade. He drove an Aston Martin and ran two petrol stations and used car dealerships in west London. By the time I had grown tired of falling off motorcycles and was ready to buy my first car he had inducted David, reluctantly I suspected, into the family business. With most of the contents of my Post Office Savings Account stuffed into my jeans David took me to the car auction in Camberley, armed only with the car dealer’s Bible, the Class’s Guide; a copious list of suggested car values based on age, mileage, condition and accessories. It meant nothing to me. I didn’t know a front wheel drive from the hide quarters of a cow, and I can remember feeling quite indifferent when David grew interested in the pretty little Triumph. A comparable car today would be five year old Vauxhall Astra, or Honda Accord, something so anonymous as to barely merit a mention. Which, in fact, it didn’t. As far as my friends and I were concerned I had a car, which meant we could all go out together and remain warm and dry. Nobody asked about its performance figures or how many miles per gallon I could expect from it. Nobody even remarked upon the colour.

David and I didn’t discuss cars, or when it might be appropriate for me to upgrade to  bigger and better models.  It was more symbiotic than that. From time to time he would suggest I give him whatever car I had, and in return he would provide me with another. I never looked at the Class’s Guide to see if the deal was a fair one. Why would I? The cars were always in good condition and in good working order. I recall a blue and white Austin Mini van with a small ventilation flap on the roof. It had previously belonged to a tyre specialist in Staines, in Middlesex. I only knew that because whoever did the respray failed to conceal the company name and contact details on the rear doors. There was a two tone – blue and white – Morris Oxford, and a white Vauxhall Victor with a bench seat in the front that could accommodate three people, and a column gear change to the side of the steering shaft. The most memorable  was a two door 1969 Ford Cortina Mk ll. That car was bling long before the term was coined and was the first of my cars to provoke a response from those who came upon it; always negative. It was hardly surprising. Despite being quite a large car there was only an aspirant 1300cc engine beneath the bonnet. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of the modest engine, its previous owner had invested what I surmised to be a considerable sum of money in making it appear to be more than the sum of its parts. They had fitted alloy racing wheels, and a black vinyl roof so that it resembled a cross between a convertible and one of those US ‘sedans’ popular in the 50s and 60s. The bodywork was sprayed in a lambent pearlescent purple, finished off with a white coach stripe from stem to stern about half way up the sides and a black fake fur rear parcel shelf and matching ashtray cover. All these modifications completed with care and precision. The car was flawless in every way, including the manner in which it extracted shock and outrage from all who saw it. 

I enjoyed driving that Mkll. Not because it was fast, or handled especially well: The measured pace at which I proceed prompted a former colleague to remark that I drove like “someone’s grandmother.” No, I enjoyed that Ford because it was comfortable, it soaked up the bumps and potholes like a sponge, and the driver’s window was at such a height as to make driving with it open, and my elbow rested there, with the radio on, almost soporific. More than that I liked it because it almost removed entirely the sensation of moving, which for me was and remains the real test of any car. I do not need to be reminded that I am travelling along a road. The experience should be as quiet, smooth and undemanding as humanely possible. What I had not anticipated though was the Ford’s effect on others. I doubt I would have enflamed any more anger, nurtured greater vitriol, had I shaved my head and tattooed the Nazi insignia on the tip of my nose. With undisguised expressions of bewilderment friends and colleagues repeatedly asked me if the cars was really mine, and I lost count of the times I was stopped by the police. Not, I should add, for any infringement of the Highway Code, but just because it was such a red rag to easily enraged officers of the law whom I daresay still take exception to young men driving the sort of garish vehicle they could not afford themselves. For reasons I have never been able to reconcile, those officers invariably wanted to see inside the car’s boot, as if therein lay the root of its demon seed. Nothing was ever found, and I never received anything more punitive than warning.

All of which was nothing compared to the reaction of my mother. Until that point she and I had shared a kind of familial indifference to cars. I think she viewed them in a similar vein as myself: As practical means of getting around and not to be given too much thought. Her insouciance  changed the first time I took the Mk ll home. I recall her remarking, in an offhand fashion over a cup of tea, that someone had parked the ugliest car she’d ever seen in front of our house. Going on to suggest it may have something to do with the new neighbours whom she insisted had questionable taste. That she didn’t like it was an understatement. She made me promise never to park it in front of the house, and it remains the only car I have ever owned that she refused, point blank, to get inside. After nine weeks of consistent police harassment, the incredulity of colleagues, and my mother’s  unswerving displeasure, oh, and I forgot to mention the countless Herberts in souped up bangers with exhaust pipes wider than  toilet wastes forever taking me on at traffic lights, I traded the Ford in for another Triumph  Herald, a white convertible and possibly the most ridiculous, unreliable and jinxed car I ever owned.  

Convertibles are different now. For one thing, they keep the water out. On a warm sunny day there was nothing finer than that white Herald convertible. There were ignition problems (it didn’t always start), and the previous owner had fitted it with ‘remould’ radial tyres that quite literally disintegrated on the A30 heading west one summer. Remoulds – subsequently  banned for obvious reasons – were half the price of new radial tyres because they came with a speed restriction: Sixty miles an hour. Any faster and they’d fall apart and like me you had to spend hours by the side of the road awaiting a lecture from a recovery team. It was on such a  trip that I discovered how hopeless the car was at keeping the elements out and the occupants dry. I had become accustomed to driving with just one functioning windscreen wiper, and I had constructed an ingenious way of deflecting the rainwater that poured in from the windscreen/roof sill: A 12 inch album cover paper clipped to the visor directed the water on to the offside window, and thence inside the door where it turned to rust. 

My girlfriend and I were a few miles into Dartmoor when we became away of a sloshing sound. It was if there was someone in the backseat taking a bath. When I pulled over to a stop the splashing ceased. We progressed like this for many miles before I could stand it no more and clambered into the back for a closer inspection. The carpets were wet, and there was water dripping off the roof. But more was to come. Behind the seat on the Herald there is a metal compartment into which the roof fits. Mine was completely full of water, to within a couple of inches from the top. Goldfish survive for years in less water.

The only time I will admit to anything like professional corruption came as result of my trading the Herald in for a cheaper, and older Morris Traveller, a car that was far more in tune with my desire for an unappealing vehicle. The Traveller was an estate version of Alec Issigonis’ 1952 Morris Minor. The automotive legend who went on to design the Mini, an icon of the swinging 60s,  had created the definitively British functional car.  Early Travellers shared the indestructible 1000cc Morris Minor engine with turn indicators that flew out of slits between the front and back windows like yellow hands. Taking its cue from American ‘ ‘station wagons’ of the 40s and 50s the rear estate section comprised seasoned English ash timber frames, with aluminium side and door panels. I think mine had been parked on the top of a cliff for long periods because while the driver side was solid as a rock I could push a finger through was remained of the ash on the near side. I wasn’t too concerned with the moss growing in the side window rails. My girlfriend said it had character and it effectively held the sliding glass windows in place.

My first and last attempt at automotive restoration came about by chance after a planning inquiry in Uxbridge I was reporting on for my local newspaper. Local residents (forever ‘up in arms’) were endeavouring to shut down a car breakers yard run by a man with a face so battered he might have been a bare knuckle fighter in a former life. For whatever reason I took a shine to the breaker and a strong dislike to the residents. After the inquiry, that ended with the plan for a more comprehensive assessment f the site, I approach the breaker   to inquire if he had any unwanted Morris Travellers on his site. He did, and the only payment he required from me if I were to remove the parts I required was a favourable report. It seemed a reasonable offer and thus I embarked upon a life of journalistic corruption.

The only thing that Mkll had in common with every car I have owned since, the notable exception being my current C-Class Estate, is it only had just the two doors.  I can’t be certain of when exactly I decided to only drive two door cars but I think it stems party from a conversation with a journalist I used to work with in Uxbridge called Michael Anders, and an article some years later by the sportswriter Richard Williams, then commenting on cars having made a name for himself writing about popular music. Michael was a bearded communist with a voice so low it almost touched the floor and a passion for Disque Blue cigarettes and utilitarian British cars. We never discussed it but I always suspected that his politics, intensely right-on and in tune with the post Paris 1968  revolutionary spirit, an obsession that both irritated and amused our news editor at the time, demanded he could only show enthusiasm for the sort of car most journalists wouldn’t be seen dead in.   Simply put, Michael loved the cars of the working man: Ford Anglias and Morris Minors. Mini vans (he was on his second when we met), and of course practically any MG, provided it was showing its age. Michael derived as much pleasure from keeping an inexpensive car on the road for the minimum outlay as he did from sitting behind the wheel; probably more. During one of our long sessions at a Youngs pub in Twickenham he convinced me that cars shouldn’t have more than two doors if they are to achieve automotive rectitude. Four doors, his theory went, unbalanced the lines that by rights should flow front the front like air in a wind tunnel.  It may have been the beer talking but it sank in.  

There is something about large, two door cars, those modified from what would otherwise be a often dull four door saloons,  above and beyond the fact that they discourage backseat passengers, and that is their name – coupes. What a delightful word for a car loaded with  continental style. A car for adults who appreciate comfort, a smooth ride on the long haul, and room in the back for the hound to stretch out. Not, I hasten to add pronounced, coupe as in a chicken ‘coup’, the way Americans pronounce the word. No, this coupe, is spoken the French way –  from the word meaning ‘to cut’ – with an accent over the ‘e’, signing the word off with a continental flourish. Coupe! 

I have owned three coupes, the first of which was a navy blue 1970 Volvo 121 Amazon, a car born into the era of Austin Allegros with the chrome and pizzazz of a Cadillac.

two doors better than four – the Volvo 121 Amazon

It was 13 years old when I bought it from a Volvo dealership in Twickenham for £550 but it looked like something from another age and drew comments wherever it went. In fact I would have now were it not for one major fault, the clutch. I have never driven a Route-master or a pantechnicon but I cannot imagine operating the clutch was any more arduous. Digging a spade into concrete is easier it all coming to a dramatic climax in Hampstead High Street when crossing ahead of a line of cars my left knee gave out under clutch pressure and I had to get myself home using my right leg for everything: changing gear, accelerating and braking. Next stop an automatic.

The second coupe was the aforementioned Mercedes Benz 280CE, discovered on the forecourt of used car dealership near Worthing. When Sade, whom I worked with for a time in the 1980s, had made enough money to replace her Wolseley she asked me for suggestions in my capacity as motoring correspondent for Elle and Arena. I suggested a 280CE directing her to a stunning pearlescent model I’d stumbled upon in Mayfair. She bought, apparently terrifying the salesmen on a pedal to the metal test drive around the West End. Of course I had to have one too. Passing the one I eventually bought my mother, still in recovery from the Mkll Ford Cortina, remarked from the back seat of the Volvo, “isn’t that one of the cars you like?”

My last coupe, before getting old and sensible was a two litre Peugeot 406 coupe. With less power than a spin dryer I challenge anyone to nominate a better looking car beneath the £30,000 price ceiling? Indeed mine cost much less. 

What all French cars have in style is only equalled by the speed of their depreciation. Cars wear out, like carpets and are superseded like computers. It’s just more startling with French cars. My dark blue coupe, with full black leather interior was a real beauty, 18 months old and still under warranty when I signed the deal and handed over just £10,500 for it. The manager of the Jaguar dealership in Waltham Upon Thames, a thick set man with wavy fair hair, where it had been part exchanged, seemed unhappy to part with such a head turner for so little money. Yet it was the price set by Classes’ Guide, although it didn’t square with him and for a fractious half an hour he and a supplicant junior salesman attempted to sell me a raft of products from exterior and interior to ‘body guard’, and breakdown cover. He became  quite shirty when I declined them all. It reminded me of a time in Istanbul when a weft of carpet salesmen locked the door and made it clear I wasn’t going to be allowed off the premises without buying a rug. Fortunately the car salesmen were less forceful and eventually ran out of spurious reasons for me protecting the coupe’s upholstery and paintwork. If there had been an anti depreciation programme I may have been tempted. I sold it eight years later, still looking a million dollars for £600 to the teenage son of a good friend who took six months to trash it. 

All I have omitted from the list is an orange VW Beetle, and a citrus coloured Mini both of which I wrecked in collisions that were all my fault, a maroon Morris Oxford that I had to start each day with a crank handle (for younger readers this is an iron handle inserted into a slot in the front bumper that with effort turns the engine over in the hope it will

Fiat Panda 4×4 – my expression says all there is to say about comfort

eventually fire) and, a white 4×4 Fiat Panda, possibly the most uncomfortable car ever built despite only having two doors, and a beige Ford Fiesta company car during my short stay at Epic Records. Not a lot of babe magnets there. 

I wonder if my indifference to cutting edge technology, in any walk of life, be it cars, sound systems, or footwear,  is a failing?  Whilst spending the greater part of my working life advocating for others what best to buy in cars, music, restaurants, holidays, gadgets and clothes, I frankly cannot think of anything I would rather do less myself than shop.  So much so I wasn’t even involved in the purchase of blue C200, unquestionably the most expensive car I have ever owned. In Hamburg to see Fulham lose the Europe Cup to Atletico Madrid my former school buddy David texted me a photograph with a simple question. “Want it?” It looked ok so I said yes. After all, it’s only a car. More importantly,  Fulham lost.

written October 2013 updated and revised June 2020

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