Is it possible that most cars on the road are new or, at least, look like they’re fresh from a showroom? A uniformity of unbleached colour and gleaming chrome. Is it real? An ever-flowing affirmation of our need to keep up appearances whatever the state of the economy.
This wasn’t always the case.
Look back at an episode of Casualty or Morse from ten years ago and witness the variety of vehicles (and poor haircuts) on show. How did Britain’s road community become so homogenised? Some cars strike me as particularly brash in their perfection, radiating superiority, distinctly belonging higher up the food chain. I’m not just thinking of the predatory SUVs with names like Warrior or Shogun with their implied mess with us and we’ll mess you up-ness. But also the more recent hybrid-style cars with names that scream enigma: Juke, Toureg or Qashqai (a Q not followed by a U?! A name sure to set the English pulse racing).
I notice all this because I have felt increasing shameful about my own car. There is tangible hostility directed by the majority shiny car owner population at those shabby or- avert your eyes- poor enough to foul the roads with their jalopies. Moreover, if you happen to be a neighbour of someone who parks one of these eye-sores close at hand, you’ll probably experience a jolt of nausea each time it assaults your view.
I own a white Golf. It is now twenty years old, has a dent over each rear wheel arch and is missing a piece of black trim on the right side. The wheels are not alloys and are pitted with rust. It has journeyed just shy of ninety thousand miles.
The fact that it starts every time and has never- touch wood- broken down, matters not.
The interior is often messy with kids’ detritus: happy meal toys, car seats, school bags, Megamind stickers over the glove box. The car seats have to be there, even though they clutter the interior space. The stickers are there because my son wanted to put them there. Even as he applied them to the black plastic, I knew I was allowing something wrong to happen. I have sellotaped the words DRIVE SLOWER on the top right of the windscreen. This is not because I want to make things worse, just that I need to economise on fuel. I view my car as my own and am glad to have it. The mess inside of it is my family’s mess, it is not dirt, though there is some mud on the dust-mats. When we get into the car, we have often been walking outside, in the real world and, disgustingly, mud from this outside world gets on our shoes and is brought into the car. I know, the horror.
The shame I feel about my car does not go away. As I have described, not only is the exterior of my car deficient, but the interior also does not match up. The situation is appalling. Look around you. If you’re not reading this while actually driving, look out the window. How many of the cars surrounding you look new? Clean, even pure? How many are likely to have been professionally valeted in the last week? This puritanical trend in motoring is not something I always remember. Our Morris Marina in the Seventies often had comics and bags strewn over the back seat. Several plastic badges in the windscreen (and not just the tasteful National Trust one). The same was true of the Austin Allegro in the Eighties. No doubt, you have construed that ours was not a wealthy family and you would be right. My parents cars were not as nice as my friends’ parents. The knowledge of this had me suitably embarrassed about our car from an early age. Strange to think that this socially imposed shame continues to haunt me.
Those of us with the gall to travel about in unsightly vehicles should know, at least, not meet the gaze of our betters and to park somewhere out of sight, preferably somewhere shadowy. After receiving the most recent dent to the left side of my Golf, the insurance company asked me to drive it to an approved garage for inspection. The place was huge, a nationwide motor repair and bodywork business surrounded with security cameras and, incredibly, electrified fencing (the only time I’ve seen it off agricultural land). About a week later, I received a letter informing me that my car was a write-off and should be scrapped. It wasn’t. There is no structural or mechanical issue. I still drive it. Apparently, this is commonplace not just for my heap of junk, but for most cars over 3-5 years old with scarcely a dent to the bodywork. Thousands of perfectly drive-able cars are dumped in this way every year, their only discernible fault: unsightliness.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a clean car, don’t get me wrong. Although the Sunday car-wash seems a dreary cultural trend, there is something respectable about keeping your car presentable. I get it. What I do not get is the degenerate obsession in ensuring that your car is as new as you can possibly obtain, regardless of crippling debt, re-mortgaging of the house, foregoing family holidays- whatever it takes. We will have the shiny thing regardless of the personal sacrifice. What people think of us is more important than who we are. Not only this, but I want to denounce the dark, unspoken pact that we will be judged by our cars; the understanding that they are, essentially, another layer of branding with which to embellish our sinfully ugly bodies in a desperate effort to look like something off the telly.
For what cars essentially tell us about each other is this: we are all ensnared by consumerism, infatuated by what we are told to desire, caught snugly in the grip of vanity and paranoia. Our economic future depends upon it. Buy or die. We must judge each other by what we have, what we wear and what cars we drive.