Matthew Parris

The era when you could love a car is over

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

There are four of us in this relationship: my partner and I, his horse and my truck. His horse is 12, my truck 18. I’m jealous of his horse. He’s beastly about my truck. In our household Julian has only to say ‘nitrogen dioxide’ over dinner and my jaw tightens. ‘Particulants’ saps my appetite. ‘Scrappage scheme’ will drive me from the table.

But, yes, I cannot dispute it: my beloved machine is a filthy polluter. The grey 1999 Vauxhall Brava five-seater ‘king-cab’ pickup illuminates every red light on the Guardian environmentalist George Monbiot’s dashboard. It’s noisy, smelly and smoky, and it’s older-generation diesel. But it’s my faithful friend and has barely done 100,000 miles. The biting rattle of a heavy-duty 20th–century 2.5-litre Isuzu engine is sweeter to my ears than any serenade; and I love that car with an intensity only matched by my first love, a long-deceased 1958 Morris Oxford, and my second, a 1959 Series II Land Rover which passed away, chassis riddled by rust, shortly before I acquired the Vauxhall (second-hand) in the year 2000.

An old car can return affection as no living, breathing creature can. But the era when you could love a car with all its faults, a car could love you back despite all yours, and you could grow old together and fall apart together, and face the graveyard and the scrapyard together, is passing. I peer into a future of lease cars, and rented cars, and city car-share schemes where they all look the same anyway, with only sadness.

Dad bought me the Morris in Africa when I was 16. The Oxfords had ‘-Traveller’ estate-car versions and mine was one of these: two-tone navy blue and grey with 80,000 miles on the clock. In Rhodesia you could drive at 16, and my father wanted me to learn mechanics by the immersive method, reconditioning and re-boring the engine and fitting oversize piston rings. These were among the happiest weeks of my life. A friend gave me an old snakeskin and we re-upholstered the top of the dashboard in python, thereafter calling it my vindscreen viper. At 19 I acquired a sump-guard that set my pulse racing as no girl could, and set out overland across Africa for Cambridge, driving though Yugoslavia in midwinter with no heater: exports to the tropics lacked this luxury.

That car twice drove the bed-pushers’ relay when we boys pushed a girl in a bed overnight from Cambridge to London for the annual charity event, and this may have contributed to the gradual demise of clutch, gearbox, universal couplings and differential, but I don’t mind telling you that when the garage telephoned my desk at the Foreign Office, where I’d just started as a trainee, to tell me the Morris was beyond repair, I wept.

There had been (I admit) a short but intense romance with a white, second-hand, long-wheel-base Land Rover, ‘-Stanley’, which with fellow students from Yale I drove back across Africa from London to Kenya, fracturing the chassis in an accident in Cameroon; but we had to sell Stanley in Nairobi to get our air fares home, and I never kept in touch. That valiant car had struggled on through the Congo with a broken chassis, never once letting us down. I still feel a bit guilty about letting Stanley go, but the sale in East Africa taught me that my approach to machines was closer to the African than the European mind. Prospective white buyers grew cold as we confessed to the accidents Stanley had survived. Prospective black buyers grew hot to possess this legend of a vehicle.

My second Land Rover, the 1959 Series II, graced a whole epoch of my life. On being elected for West Derbyshire in 1979, I quickly learned that an MP’s car said a lot about you. A battered Ford Cortina was hardly what Tory supporters wanted to see crunching up their gravel drives. But a smart new Rover three-litre would raise hackles on the council estates. And anything foreign was bound to upset a certain kind of British voter. My wonderful, slightly battered, green Land Rover ticked all three boxes, perfect for the pheasant shoot, the working man’s club or the demo against the imports of foreign steel.

The vehicle outlived my career as an MP and survived into post-political Derbyshire life. Happy memories — for instance of a trip back from the pub in Monyash when I was the only sober one, and a friend (I’m not naming you, Nick) climbed over the cab roof as we were driving and peed down the windscreen from the outside, supposing I’d think it was raining. Or the time when an electrical short-circuit caused the dashboard to catch fire, and everyone had to bail out while I ripped wires from their sockets.

The first cut — my Morris’s demise — had proved the deepest, and as the century turned I faced without tears the mechanic’s verdict that the Land Rover’s chassis was beyond further welding, but the news was hard. In a way, I bought the Vauxhall on the rebound. My late father had accompanied me to Chesterfield to find a used pick-up, and we liked the year-old Brava — but as the salesman pattered, I became desperate for the loo. ‘We’ll take it,’ I interrupted, not least to end the discomfort. And the pickup has served me faithfully since then. I’ve told my partner that I’ve never disposed of a car that was under 20 years old and I’m not changing now. We stay together for the sake of our Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV electric hybrid.

But on Monday, back in Chesterfield to drop off the Mitsubishi for a service, as we sipped the complimentary coffee in a shiny showroom while smart chaps in suits glided around, and the men and the suits and the cars all looked the same, I saw the future, and it hurt.

Doubtless this weekend we’ll be mulling the Chancellor’s whizzbang promises of driverless cars and an automated future. But I pine for a rust-bound, fix-it-yourself past, and the marriage of one man and one machine. Something is lost.

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