Longest Post So Far And It’s About Cars?

Victoria Coren interviews a different woman each week about her cars, which got me thinking.

When I was a kid, ours was one of the few families in the street with two cars. Our neighbours resented it. (Plus, we girls got into a good school. Oh, and my parents were foreign.)

My dad had a little car for going to work – a red Triumph Spitfire. It was rubbish really; old and falling to bits, though I never heard him complain. I remember when he eventually sold it because we were moving abroad, it was to a man who said he was going to race it, and we all smirked guiltily.

The family car was a Peugeot 404. It was a source of endless pride to me: I didn’t know anyone else with a car that had three rows of seats. Needless to say, in common with others of my generation, we never wore seatbelts and were all just rattling around in the back, higgledy-piggledy, four kids, friends, and dog.

We went on holidays to the continent. My dad did all the driving. We barely stopped – I have memories of my mother feeding us en route. She always had a kitchen knife and would cut up apples for us as we drove, and pass back Häpchen (small squares of sandwiches made with pumpernickel). We’d get to wherever my uncle was living in Germany for the first night, then stop to visit my grandmother in Munich for a few days, all crammed into her one bed apartment, before reaching Italy for sun or snow. One time my dad was tasked with buying some provisions and came back to the car beaming and bearing an entire wooden pallet of peaches and nothing else. My mother was unimpressed but sat with the box on her knee, cut them up for us and passed them around. There was a damp flannel in a plastic bag for wiping sticky hands and faces.

My sisters were older, so most of my family motoring memories concern sitting in the back with my brother only. His hand used to creep theatrically over onto ‘my side’ and touch me. If I complained (which I did) he would say ‘I just want to be your friend’ in a pitiful, wheedling voice and then make faces at me behind the grown ups’ seatbacks. (He’s much the same now.) My parents would put up with so much squabbling, then my father would reach behind him and with one arm on the wheel, the other flailing and swiping from left to right, would try to beat us into submission. Theoretically we each had a turn to choose the music. My mother never took hers. One year I only ever selected The Talking Heads’ ‘Stop Making Sense’, another it was ‘India Song’ by Carlos d’Alessio. My father’s turn was whenever he wanted and always the World Service.

Later I conceived a love of the Karmann Ghia and used to say I would buy one one day. But I never did. The other day I found a slip of paper from my husband promising me one, but I threw it away.  None of his promises ever amounted to a hill of beans.

As I got older I started to have friends with cars, very often MG Midgets. Hard to imagine naming a car ‘midget’ these days, but stranger things have happened.

‘You’re not going to be able to afford a car until you’re 35’ my dad used to say when I mentioned driving lessons. In fact I was 25 when I knuckled down and got my license.  Both of my parents had cancer and were in and out of hospital, so I quickly got my act together.

By that time I was working long hours as a strategy consultant – it was embarrassing at first that when I travelled on business I couldn’t hire a car. (Until one day one of my colleagues told me that he used to rent a car AND hire a taxi, which he would then follow, because of course he didn’t know his way around and this was pre-TomTom.)

In central London when you are young and single you don’t need a car. But when in Germany for work I now enjoyed renting great big machines and flying down the Autobahn. Covering a lot of ground between meetings and staying in out of the way hotels. (I loved hotels then, and, given half a chance, I would love them now.)

I moved to HK and lived with an old friend. She had a Mini Moke. That car never failed to make me smile. It was like driving around in a sit-on mower. Strangers used to take photos of the two of us in it. We both wore contact lenses at that time and I recall that we often drove around with streaming eyes, full of grit, but nothing detracted from the pleasure of it.

From there I moved to rural France and needed wheels. My uncle got a car for me in Germany so it would be suitable to drive on the continent, and chose a Renault 5 on the grounds that it would be easy to get parts etc. (I went with my mother to collect it the day the Berlin Wall came down.  Such excitement!  My mother and uncle had escaped from the East.)  It was dark green and rattled like mad at speed. I loved bombing around the countryside in it. Within days of my first date in France, my boyfriend, who drove a souped up hatchback, broke his neck in a car accident all by himself. He moved in with me when he got out of hospital and I became the driver.

A friend drove me to visit him in hospital in Paris in his Mazda MR2. In French: ‘em er deux’ which sounds like ‘merde’, the French for shit.

Before he was even out of his ‘minerve’ (leather and metal scaffolding to keep his upper body rigid) he’d bought himself a second hand Merc. The owner obviously saw him coming: the doors on the passenger side didn’t open, as we discovered only when he turned up at my place to show it off, having kept his plans secret from me. It should have been an omen. I remember very well having to push that car the last few 100 yards onto the ferry in Boulogne, and off again in Dover, before calling the AA. One of our classmates (a French snob) once sneeringly said that in that car we ‘looked like the butcher and his wife’. He was probably right.

Back in London, and married, we bought an old Saab 900 in a pale lilac blue. I loved that car. But (to paraphrase Cilla Black talking about a hat) ‘that car ‘ated me’. It spent almost all its time being fixed. I absolutely adored it when it worked. I liked being an old Saab driver, though I was pretty sniffy about the newer models. We sold it after our first child was born, fingers crossed as the buyer drove it round the block.

Now that we really did seem to have turned into the butcher and his wife, with more money than sense, we bought our first new car. We chose the colour, the seats and the number plate. Seeing as how we were now protecting our young, it was a great big Volvo. We were going to drive it into the ground, and it was going to last a lifetime. (I had seen the ads showing Volvos with registrations from the last time they’d gone round the alphabet.) We did drive it into the ground;  it didn’t take long. But we kept it limping on. My husband had stopped earning any money, though he kept assuring me he was about to. I drove the car to fetch and carry the children from school and more often than not it broke down. I would stand at the roadside trying to organize someone else to pick them up for me if I was on the way there, trying to keep them entertained and safe if I was on the way back. I drove everywhere in a state of extreme anxiety because it used to conk out quite often, even when I was driving at speed. Oh sure, we threw money at various mechanics who charged a fortune and said it was fixed. A frequent entry in my to do list at that time referred to the Volvo specialist who’d come recommended by friends: Kill Bill. ‘For god’s sake, buy a new car!’ my husband would say with exasperation whenever I regaled him with the latest. But he still wasn’t earning. We had money in our ‘Nest Egg account’ but I wanted to wait until the big deal he was promising came in before spending a lot of money on a car.

Then late one November I came home to find my husband had walked out on me and the children. It was cold and I was essentially a single parent and at my wit’s end, demented with grief. And the car got worse and worse and was far more trouble than it was worth.  I chose a cheap second hand Volvo to replace it. He cancelled that, and provided a brand new top of the range leased one, which he said was being paid for ‘by the company’. It was unbelievably luxurious and a pleasure to drive. It took me a long time to realise that the company was categorically NOT paying for it. I was. Just as I was paying for him to stay in the Corinthia Hotel for over 3 months, then paying for him to rent a luxury pad in the centre of town. He’d emptied the Nest Egg account, but frankly that was the least of it: he also took the school fees money, cashed in absolutely all of our savings, increased the mortgage and ran up debts left, right and centre.

I refused to renew the expensive lease on the Volvo, though I was sorry to lose it. And started to research my options, since I definitely did need a car. I’d never made such a big purchase decision on my own before.

One day my daughter asked him ‘don’t you ever use public transport?’ and was shocked when he said ‘no’. He used to quote Margaret Thatcher (who was quoting someone else) “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus, can count himself as a failure.”

I bought a new Kia with a 7 year warranty. It’s ugly but I love it. It came in very handy when I was selling all our possessions: we’d put most of the seats down (it has three rows!) cram it with all manner of superfluous stuff, and go to car boot sales, which, actually, were quite good fun. Many, many trips to charity shops and the municipal dump.  I packed it as well for all the trips to and from university with my eldest, and hefted things up and down the stairs noticing that the other students had mummies AND daddies there.

I used to walk to the place where my estranged husband and I had counselling. I was often between cars, and anyway, it was cheaper and healthier. He’d arrive late (if at all) in a taxi. Before the session was up, his phone would vibrate and the counsellor would ask ‘do you need to get that?’ He’d say ‘It’s just the taxi. It can wait’. When he was good and ready he’d go; the taxi would be there with the meter running, and he’d jump in, often with bouquets of flowers from a Mayfair florist for unknown recipients, or a little overnight case for a weekend away. I would walk home through rain or snow, to make dinner for the children. He did not offer me a lift. Not once.

After I’d bought the Kia, one day I did drive it to counselling. It was raining hard, and for once he did not have a taxi waiting for him. He asked me for a lift. The thing is, my children had reminded me ‘Daddy said he would never be seen dead in a Kia.’ I said no, and he set off for the bus stop.

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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

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