I don’t know about you, but as time passes (and I get older), those moments of sheer joy behind the wheel seem to be getting fewer and further between. It was a thought that hit me today sitting in the passenger seat of my new Bangernomics purchase (an old Mercedes-Benz, by the way) and being wafted along by my son.
I was happy, comfortable and, most significantly, relieved that it was he who was driving and not me. It’s a far cry from the younger me. Back in the 1980s after I passed my test, I impatiently counted down the moments between drive. More often than not I’d be inventing a reason to go somewhere – anywhere – in the car, and enjoying the feeling of freedom and empowerment that it brought me.
Yes, I loved my cars, and even in those formative years, I drove some very interesting (by today’s standards) motors that amused, entertained and fascinated. But I think as much as I adore mechanical pieces, the real magic in driving was reserved for travelling. And freshly unleashed on the roads, armed with a new driving licence, it felt like the world was at my feet and every journey delivered something new and exciting.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s and into the 2010s, that excitement never dimmed – because, along the way, I discovered banger rallies. Pan-European driving, and the friendship with others who shared the same passions were quite a thing. It was another chapter of my driving life that kept me sane in an increasingly chaotic world.
Fast forward to 2023, and everything seems different and a whole lot less satisfying. Perhaps it’s because there are few corners of our little island that are left undiscovered, while European travel these days – as wonderful as it is – has become more difficult and costly due to this and that. But I think more than anything else, the trouble I’m finding is that it feels like everyone out there is just as grumpy as I am, treating driving like a means to an end and not the wonderful gift that it really is…
The state of our roads doesn’t help. Constantly dug-up and potholed, if we’re not swerving to avoid gulleys and craters, then it’s a sense that we’re being kettled by millions upon millions of cones into ever decreasing spaces. Narrow lanes, badly designed slip roads and junctions seemingly designed to set drivers against each other, while speed limits seem to have been decided by non-drivers from an office with a random number generator.
These days, I prefer to drive overnight, and although traffic volumes are mercifully light once the sun has gone down, road closures are a constant issue. Again with the cones…
Other drivers don’t help. I don’t know about you, but since the pandemic, people seem grumpier and more combative than ever, and either fighting irrationally for their tiny place on the road or bimbling along national speed limit A-roads at 43mph. Woe betide you if you pass them on a clear straight, though, because they’ll be aggressively tailgating you come the next 30mph village, where they’ll resent not being able to do their same self-imposed 43mph.
I despair, too, at the increasingly fortress mentality that many drivers seem to have. The depressing rise of SUVs is probably responsible for this. Drivers feel safe and cocooned from the world around them, and with that seems to come a lack of regard and thoughtfulness for those around them.
Yes, climate control, double glazing and a high seating positions can be wonderful things, but you cease to be part of the world around you, observing what’s going on outside with a disinterested lack of engagement. In an older car without those creature comforts, you drive with the windows open – you hear the sounds, smell the fragrances, and feel part of things. As such, you lose that imperious sense of isolation that leads you to lose sight of the wildlife and humanity that surrounds you.
I dread driving in town, too, and maybe that’s why in looking for somewhere new to live right now, my internet search leads with ‘isolated farm houses’. Enduring roads that are choked up with large and unweildy vehicles filling spaces designed for Austin 1100s and Cortina Mk2s is no fun at all. More than ever you need to co-operate with your fellow driver to make your way. Instead of helping us in that aim, they are happy to just glower down at you from whatever SUV they’re PCPing for £700 per month.
But more often than not, you can’t fit between gaps, feeling imprisoned by the machine that was designed to liberate us. There are parking restrictions everywhere, and if you do admit defeat and head towards a public carpark, you’ll need to load in some clunky app on your smartphone in order to pay handsomely for the privilege. In this more than anything else, I feel we’re being gouged by the greedy. Fuel prices – yeah that’s tough and hitting us all – but compared with the parking companies, those who set the price of unleaded are like a benevolent grandparents.
Getting out onto the motorway offers a temporary respite – and it really is fleeting. There’s little joy in hustling down the three-lane blacktop these days. ‘Smart’ motorways strictly monitor speeds, while the drivers around you, who’ve long since forgotten the ‘keep left unless overtaking’ rule, travel in 67mph closely-packed convoys in the outside lane, minds in neutral, thinking about anything but the grind of the damned motorway.
There are more annoyances I could come up with, I’m sure, but for now, I’ll just contemplate the day when we get autonomous cars that actually work, and do away with the rubbish bits such as commuting and going into town. It’ll never happen, of course, and any carmaker that tells you otherwise is living in cloud cuckoo land. That’s a shame, because taking away the boring stuff might well just allow us to enjoy those special occasions where the road ahead does clear, and we can once again go somewhere for the sheer hell of it, rather than because we have to.
For now, however, I think I am going to let my son do more of the driving while I plan and save up for a nice road trip away from this small and crowded island of ours…
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