Auto(e)motive

I’m not really a car person. I’ll rephrase that. I’m really not a car person.

That isn’t to say that I don’t drive – I do, every day, and I enjoy it and I think I’m pretty good at it. What I mean by not being a car person is that I have no interest in them above having one that works. I couldn’t tell you which car was made by who, when, where or why they’re good or not good. I do watch Top Gear, yet the stuff about cars just kind of washes over me. I really just tune in for the bigotry.

I don’t know how cars work. Somewhere deep in my mind, I have a theory about petrol burning and the smoke pushing the wheels round, but really I don’t know. I’ve worked out where the oil goes but not what it does. I do know what happens when you ignore the oil light for a month. Lots of smoke comes out from the bonnet and I run away very fast shouting ‘it’s gonna blow! It’s gonna blow!’ to amused but indifferent passers-by and call the AA. Who ask me if I hadn’t noticed the oil light has been on for a month and I have to reply ‘isn’t that always on?’ which actually fuels rather than extinguishes my shame.

I can change a tyre. Mainly because last time I had to call the AA to do it (in rush hour central London and protested that the wheel nuts had obviously been screwed on too tight for any mere mortal to remove them, the guy just stared at me blankly. And then removed them) I swore never to be in that position again and am now packing a 2 ton trolley jack and a deluxe tyre iron in the back of my car.

A few years ago, I was on a date with a girl in London and she asked me what kind of car I drove. I understand subsequently that this was a loaded question to ascertain my income and potential bragability but, at the time, I answered honestly ‘a blue one’.  She laughed and asked what kind of blue one, I replied ‘a kind of little – maybe medium – blue one’. What make? I don’t know… a Ford? Maybe a Ford. What kind? I don’t know. How old? I don’t know. Not new.. although, what constitutes new? I get in it, it has wheels, it gets me places and then gets me home.

I’ve since upgraded to a green car. It’s a Renault. I know that cos I got it off my Dad and when he drove it, he always called it ‘The Renault’. Maybe he was just messing with my head and it’s not even a Renault but he has cunningly conditioned me to look stupid in automotive conversations. I don’t care. It’s a big old green estate car and it’s battered to buggery. I like having a battered car (and, no it was never battered when he owned it) because I work in East Oxford. A place where people drive and park like absolute fucking idiots. If you have a car which you don’t care for aesthetically, it means when someone parks in such a way to block you in or out, you can just ram them or scrape against them to get where you need to go. That isn’t to say I cause willful damage to people’s property but if they park on double yellows or directly in front of a sign that says ‘no parking – do not block access to garages’ then I feel permitted to try to get past by any means necessary rather than waste police (and my own) time trying to get them moved.

So, I use cars, I don’t ‘get’ cars and I really don’t love cars. But I’m generally fine with them. And no, this is not about to get ecological. I was driving to work today and I was passed by one of these…

and I thought ‘That’s brilliant! A car with flared nostrils!’ It had such character that it genuinely lightened my mood and once it had gone, I glanced about all the other cars around me and thought ‘well, this is all a bit shit, isn’t it?’

Why do all modern cars look the same? It strikes me you either have a little car, a medium car, an estate or a people carrier and outside of these classifications, they’re generally indistinguishable.

Why are all modern cars so blobby and smooth? No hard edges, no chrome trim, no sticky-out bits, no stripey fabric, leatherette or different materials. Cars have become uniform and boring.  Look at the VW Beetles of old…

it’s all sections and lines and arches and bits fitting together to make a really pleasing object of character. Look at them now…

it just looks like a rubbish blob.  Like it was cast in one piece and assembled by machine. It just looks like a slightly bulbous version of every other car. People consider themselves somewhat whacky for owning something so ‘different’. It just has no character. It has character only when placed nex to the faceless uniformity of all the other smooth cars.

And I do mean faceless. Cars used to have faces. Be it the buck-toothed innocent glow of the BMW 2002 (Thanks to my pal James Searjent for drawing that beauty to my attention) or the wide mouthed cheeky grin of the old Trabant. They had faces. And they looked like they were made by people. And they made real noises and they rattled when driven fast and they bounced about and they were absolutely lovely.

I think of all the cars I’ve ever seen on the road, this one is still my favourite…

The Morris Minor Traveller of the 60’s/70’s. Not only does it have a face (big old grin right there!), it has bits of trim, bits which look likely to fall off, really badly placed wing mirrors and – hey – WOOD! These look so handmade it’s hard to believe they were mass-produced.

I think that’s endemic of what we’re losing as we bomb through into this now not-so-new millenium. Cars, like buildings and so much else, look like they are designed to conform to a non-aspirational accepted convention of modernity. Have we really lost the impulse for beauty? Nobody thinks about gargoyles and decorative stonemasonry just as nobody puts wood or sticky-out wing mirrors on cars.

I just wish I knew enough about cars to maintain a beautiful old one were I to find such a thing. But then again, a thing of beauty is completely impractical in East Oxford.

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Published in: on December 15, 2009 at 3:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

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