The Wiki Man

Cars weren’t invented for transportation, but conversation

20 June 2020

9:00 AM

20 June 2020

9:00 AM

When I first heard Abba’s magnificent 1982 swansong ‘The Day Before You Came’, I’d never come across the Americanised use of the verb ‘make’, meaning ‘reach’. So the line ‘I must have made my desk around a quarter after nine’ baffled me. Given the Swedish obsession with self-assembly furniture, I even wondered whether Björn was using the word conventionally, and Ms Fältskog was in fact kneeling on the floor aligning Tab A with Groove C, while looking for the elusive Allen key with which to attach the castors.

On the other hand, if you are British, the lyrics to the Beach Boys’ song ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ are like the poem ‘Jabberwocky’, in that you can perfectly understand what the writer is getting at, even though you haven’t the foggiest what most of the words mean. Even ‘Deuce’ and ‘Coupe’: ‘She’s got a competition clutch with the four on the floor/ and she purrs like a kitten till the lake pipes roar.’

For the uninitiated, ‘four on the floor’ means a four-speed manual transmission with a floor-mounted gear-stick. ‘Four on the floor’ is here in contrast to ‘three on the tree’, which denotes a three-speed automatic transmission with the gear-shift mounted on the steering column
(or ‘tree’). And ‘lake pipes’ were the unsilenced, side-mounted pipes to which you would divert your exhaust for extra power when your hot rod no longer had to be road-legal — typically when racing on the dry ‘lakes’ of the Bonneville salt flats.

This argot supports my theory that cars were not principally invented as a form of transportation. Instead automotive technology evolved to give men a nerdy vocabulary over which to bond while avoiding any awkward talk about emotions and stuff.

While I generally downplay the idea of innate gender differences, something weird happens when my wife and I attend the same party. Having talked for only ten minutes to a woman she has never met before, my wife can regale me on the drive home with a complete biographical account of the latter’s life. Her childhood, the places where she has lived since her acrimonious divorce in 1993, even bizarrely tangential personal details such as the names/ages/existence of the woman’s children.

I, meanwhile, have spent two hours talking to a bloke. ‘Who was that man you were talking to?’ my wife will ask. ‘I think he might be called Dave or something. He’s got a Tesla. We agreed it was better to continue on to the A299 at Junction 7 near Boughton-under-Blean than turning off on to the A2. Though he’ll switch to the M20 once the new Supercharging station opens. Eighty per cent battery in 25 minutes. Amazing.’

So here’s my optimistic prognosis for the electric car. It will be adopted not so much for environmental needs as conversational ones. The problem with ordinary modern cars is they are so reliably boring they give you nothing to talk about. But in a year or so, once pub conversation is peppered with phrases like ‘I was down to 23 per cent by Leigh Delamere, and there was no way I could reach the 50kW CHAdeMO at Membury before it hit crawler mode’, we’ll all have to go electric to avoid being left out.

I think Elon Musk understands this, which is why he peppers his cars with talkable additions like ‘dog mode’ or ‘fart mode’ (no, honestly). The autopilot option is really £7,000 worth of bragging rights: ‘I got from Nottingham to where the old Happy Eater used to be without intervening once.’ Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, a complete stranger will be regaling my wife with total irrelevancies — the birth of a child, perhaps, or a life-saving operation./>

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Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.

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