I was conceived in the back of my grandpa’s Armstrong Siddeley, born in the front of my father’s Austin-Healey 3000 and until I was 14 never trod ground that wasn’t covered in foot-well carpet. We lived in the suburbs, so we lived in the car. And it dominated our lives.
The biggest and comfiest room in our house was the garage: centrally heated, two sinks, big window on to the garden, plenty of room for my mum’s Fiat 127, my dad’s 1965 convertible Mercedes 220SE (he’d had to sell the Healey because there was no room for a newborn baby in it, and he never quite forgave me) and a Ford Cortina he kept just for tinkering. My bedroom was above it, half the size with a strong smell of petrol (five star, leaded). It gives you a sense of your relative place, that sort of thing. To say nothing of infant neurological complications.
But we didn’t look to the downside then. Cars ruled the world. And the city. We drove everywhere: to school, to the park, to get a pint of milk, right into town for the theatre, the cinema, or a party. You could drive anywhere and park where you liked, so you did.
When I was 16 my dad taught me to drive too. Furiously. Unable to understand why I couldn’t already do it – for driving, to him, was innate in the human. It was what separated us from the apes. And from the French, who weren’t much good at it either.
From 17, I drove the Cortina to school every day and then to college (where I parked in the quad), then to my first jobs. Always remembering my dad’s two rules of motoring: speed limits are just a polite suggestion, like ‘drinks: 7pm’; and if you’re sober enough to find your car after dinner then you’re sober enough to drive it. I used to flop into the Cortina at midnight after five pints of Tennent’s Extra, nuzzle down into its furry seats, pull out into the road and then pass out, because as far as I was concerned I was already home.
But opinion turned against drunk driving and then against driving altogether. As traffic volume increased, movement slowed to a trickle (it is slower to cross London by car now than it was by horse and cart in 1500). They took the lead out of the petrol, then quintupled its price, then introduced congestion zones, banned parking and policed it with an ad hoc gestapo incentivised by performance-related pay. The car, which had liberated my parents’ generation, had become our prison, and central government waged war on it.
Quite rightly! As a broadly left-wing, environmentally aware urban believer in anthropogenic global warming, I am all for a total ban on motor vehicles. And even if cars aren’t warming the planet, they are polluting our cities, turning us into fat idle bastards and knocking over our children. Personally I ride a bicycle, travel by train and bus and campaign tirelessly for a car taxation system that will hammer ignorant, selfish, petty, fat, spoilt, stupid car abusers into giving up their addiction and walking.
All without quite managing to get rid of my own car. Somehow, as they make it harder and harder to drive into town, I relish the challenge of trying. I keep a 12-year-old hatchback, dented in every panel, for hairy zips into the centre for lunch or dinner, where, because people are too timid to try it these days, there is often a parking space right outside. And then, with everyone obeying road signs like so many petrol-powered sheep, I zoom home in the empty bus lane because an £80 fine and no penalty points represents terrific value for an extra half-hour of life.
As drivers desert the city I find myself clinging more and more to my father’s belief that a man without a car is not really a man. And so I keep that little hatchback, for old times’ sake. And an estate car for family trips, of course. And, in a lock-up down the arches, that old Ford Cortina. Just for tinkering.
Read Giles Coren’s rules for urban living every week.