Sir William Lyons Award 2008, Article 2: People only buy cars with their heads not their hearts

20 08 2009
Fiat Supermirafiori advert

Fiat Supermirafiori advert

Below is my second article for the Guild of Motoring Writers’ Sir William Lyons Award 2008. This article required me to pick one of four subjects and write 1000 words on it. This was about the fifth or sixth idea I had, and the introduction was written the day before I sent it (I paid £4.20 for next day delivery – that’s how committed I was). It’s unchanged from what I wrote in August/September 2008, so I’ve left in a typo.


The sky is blue, the sun casting its golden light across the expanse of countryside. The road ahead is straight. It’s flat. No junctions. Good visibility. I’m sat in the passenger seat. My dad is on my right. He’s the one driving. It’s Spring 2007 and we’re in our N-reg Renault Laguna. Dad sinks his foot to the floor. The 2 litre engine melodiously reaches up through the revs in third, pause, into fourth, the revs climb again. The countryside is flying by. With a corner fast approaching, Dad eases off, the revs subside, and we continue the journey at a more economical rate.

That was on the day we sold the Laguna. It was one of my favourite memories in a car. Memories of cars are strange. They transform our view of a car. The car rarely matters. It doesn’t have to be a Ferrari, a Porsche or a Caterham. If that car gives us memories, then that’s how we feel about that car.

In his younger days, my dad bought cars relatively regularly. He had a phase of buying Fiat 126s, the successor to the 500, but less of an icon. Why keep buying them? Because of the memories. Because of the adventures.

Even now, over 30 years later, he fondly looks back on he and my mum toured Italy. The car can be more asthmatic and powerless, more akin to the funfair than the open road, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is what we do, where we go, what we share with that car. My dad ventured across the Continent in a car possibly less powerful than a lawnmower, he had to put up with an engine which had the aural presence and magnificence of a generator, he scaled mountain roads slower than it takes a stalagmite to form in a mountain cave.

My dad tells tales of filling up the boot (underneath the bonnet), and how he crammed luggage behind the front seats to block out the sound of the straining engine which sat behind them. Apparently, sound-proofing wasn’t what it is today, and driving up Italian mountain roads in a little car, full to the rafters with luggage, was potentially quite a noisy experience. Plus, the low speed, absence of air-con and soaring temperatures effectively turned the 126 into a sauna on trolley wheels.

It sounds like an unbearable experience. Yet, when it comes up in conversation, my mum and dad laugh about it, fondly looking back at the holiday and the car. Because they had to pile in the luggage to lessen the engine noise, because it was so small and cramped, because they had no luxuries whatsoever, that is why they recall it with such happiness and nostalgia.

If we have an adventure in a car, drive on a brilliant road, see majestic scenery from the driver’s seat, then that is enough for us to look back with a smile at that lump of metal known as a car.

But what if we don’t have an adventure in our car? What happens then? Do we just look back at it coldly and merely see it as a mode of transport? Not necessarily. The simple enjoyment of driving a car is sometimes enough.

After the series of 126s, my dad bought another Fiat. He has that staring-into-the-distance look whenever he talks about his second-hand Fiat 131 – Supermirafiori. He exhibits a fond smile when he discusses the 126, but when he talks about the Supermirafiori he has a grin. Not an ordinary grin, but a grin which is always followed by, “was quite fast, had cruise control, low-profile tyres, vinyl roof”, which is then followed by an instinctive nodding of the head. This was Dad’s fun car. The look in his eyes, the rising of the corners of the mouth, they indicate that he enjoyed driving that car, and when he tells me, “It was quite fast”, I get the impression he’s withholding some driving moments which got the adrenaline flowing. If I try to find out about these memorable motoring moments? “No, Pete, the roads were quieter when I was young.”

The way we look back at cars is defined by our experiences in those cars. Dad discovered the Continent in the 126 and he had fun in the Supermirafiori. But, what if a car fulfills nothing like that? Simply, ‘a box on wheels’.

In the early 1990s my dad had a car that was a box on wheels. It was only a mode of transport, nothing more. If one knows the name, one will understand immediately. Think rust, think bland, think Montego. Yes, the low-point in my dad’s car history was a Montego. Some cars are forgivable for their problems. Many people see some things as ‘quirks’. The Montego had its problems with nothing even close to being considered a quirk; it existed without excitement, without fun. Just a bad car.

If my dad looks back at the 126s with a loving smile, the Montego provokes the facial expression of having eaten a tablespoon of Marmite. Loved or loathed, both cars are very much etched into his emotions.

The cars we own have an impact on how we live and how we look back at life. When we buy a car we make a logical and rational choice – our priorities are getting as much money knocked off it as we can, getting as many extras thrown in as possible, and hoping for years of trouble-free motoring. However, once that car is ours with our name adorning the paperwork, once we actually drive it and it’s part of our life, once man and machine start to share roads and adventures, that’s when the transition between head and heart occurs. We buy with our head; we own with our heart.

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