I love cars. I love their complexity, their style, their power and their function. I was lucky enough to have a car from a young age: while I was still learning to drive my parents very kindly bought me a slightly dilapidated 1970 Volkswagen Beetle, which I proceeded to clean up and respray (following the application of copious quantities of filler), and fit with a series of ever-more Heath Robinson-esque stereo arrangements.
This fabulous transport became the group taxi for my friends for the next few years, and took me down to Cardiff and up to Manchester, as well as on more prosaic lunchtime trips to the nearest drivethru McDonalds. I think the fact that it also allowed me to ferry my younger sister from place to place encouraged my parents’ generosity, but I was no less grateful for that. It was an incredible thing to have that degree of freedom at such a young age.
I’m not sure I truly appreciated the freedom a car brings until a few years later. After University I went without a car for a few years, following the sad, quiet collapse of the Beetle’s engine/bodywork/chassis/suspension, and the passing on of my next car, a hand-me-down Metro Mayfair that had belonged to my Grandma. While I didn’t have a car I coped fine, getting the train to work and everywhere else. But after working for a few years I decided I wanted a car again — as much, I confess, out of sheer consumerism as a real need. I set my heart on a BMW 3-series coupe.
What a revelation. I started driving out to a local watersports lake just outside the centre of Reading where I was living at the time. It was only miles from my house but it was totally inaccessible by public transport and the cost of a taxi would have been prohibitive. Having the car enabled me to participate in a sport that was otherwise closed to me, and through which I met a great new set of friends. The car also made me more valuable at work: with it I could travel to client meetings without the help of a (usually more senior) colleague, which meant that I was let off the leash to handle more client contact on my own. Once I had the car again, giving it up would have meant giving up my major social activity, and becoming reliant on colleagues again at work. There was no going back.
Unfortunately the BMW was neither the cheapest car to run, nor the most environmentally friendly. A few months after moving to Manchester I sold it and bought a rather more eco-friendly turbo diesel.
I can’t imagine not having a car now, especially with the arrival of a baby. I know people can and do manage, but our whole society is built around individual transport to specific destinations. I could say I wish that it weren’t the case, and certainly I would like public transport to provide a more viable alternative. But the honest reality is that I like the freedom and individuality that the car offers. The ability to go exactly where I want in a manner and environment that I have defined.
So does that make me a bad person? I don’t think it does. The things I love about the car do not make it a bad thing. I’m not wedded to the petrol engine: I’d love there to be a real and environmentally friendly alternative. I know a lot of the carbon footprint of a car is laid down in its manufacture rather than its use, but again this is a challenge that can be addressed, if not totally overcome. I don’t think it is the car per se that is the problem: it is just today’s cars.
Likewise I don’t think being a car lover necessarily makes you a planet hater. The environmental impact will always be a factor in my future choice of cars and I think anyone for whom it’s not should rightly be pilloried (that means you in your Chelsea tractor). Wherever it is most practical I will continue to use public transport (I’m sat in Euston station typing this).
But I will continue to love cars, and I confess, will dream of driving a V8 monster when I’m chugging along in my somewhat more eco-friendly diesel.