On Driving the Same Car

I have driven the same car for 22 years.

I bought it, new, before Trump and Brexit.  Before David Cameron and Nick Clegg.  Before even Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

Before iPhones.  Before the turn of the millennium.  When the world wide web was not yet 4 years old. 

Before Diana died.  Before George Bush: when Bill Clinton was in his first term.
When James was two and Alex was on the way.

When I was thirty years old.

It’s a car of complex ontology.  It is a mobile sitting room, a reservoir of memory, a symbol of intent, a message, a claim.  It is a BMW.  I was lucky.  It was the 1990s.  That sort of thing happened in those days.

Perhaps I am keeping it out of guilt?  Guilt that it is so wholly and manifestly unsustainable?

This week the T-charge took effect.  (These things tend to happen at half-term, I find.)  The T-charge is of course a totally laudable and important initiative that I wholeheartedly endorse.

My ancient machine falls foul of its circumscriptions and so, should I decide to drive through central London, I shall incur an additional fee on top of the existing Congestion Charge.

So, yes, I drive a polluting car.  To which my riposte is something to do with the embodied energy and resources in my vehicle compared to the alternative had I bought (on the basis of the industry-construct three-year replacement cycle) six or seven other cars in the meantime.  I probably also talk about the employment of skilled engineers associated with the ongoing maintenance of my car, the very fact that maintenance rather than replacement is being undertaken, the fact that it’s not – ahem – a diesel, and so forth.

If I was feeling really belligerent I might start talking about the low-mileage (fewer than 7,000 miles per year) but that’s unlikely.  Normally I’d go all soppy and talk about the fact that you can tip an entire family and its luggage into a big BMW and drive it for as far as you want in reasonable comfort.  About feeling as if I’m putting on my favourite jumper whenever I sit in it again after some sort of break.  About knowing its shape and size and weight and character so well that when I drive it I feel like a cat.

(And it’s built like a tank and it’s got a fuck-off hi-fi and it has a straight-six engine with no turbo and it goes around bends like I’m from Essex and it can – if requested – go very fast.)

Until a tyre destroyed itself.

‘De-lamination’ apparently.  Bloody scary explosive noise from the back of the car while doing 75 on the M1 is what it felt like.

I was, yet again, lucky.  Rear tyre, inside lane, light traffic, no passengers: it could have been much, much worse.

Ironically – I discover – the tyre that failed was the previous spare, put on a year or two back after twenty-odd years in the boot.  A tyre kept at pressure but not used becomes brittle, apparently.  Irony upon irony.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the car keeps going.  A variety of small toys adorn the dashboard: a convoy of die-cast cars, a pair of penguins, a plastic action figure with a rifle.  Partially blocking the speedometer is a Lego Star Wars figurine – a storm trooper, I believe – given me as an angel by a strange lady from Spain.

The flat bit in the back of the car, under the rear windscreen and behind the rear passenger headrests (what is that bit called?) is kept warm by a variety of twigs, bark and pebbles.  The boot contains (in addition to a shredded tyre) sundry shoes, bottles of sunscreen, spare bulbs, a snooker cue, several jars of pickle, a few tennis balls (and a carefully-sized box for catching the tennis balls), oil, rope, string, an old shirt, and so on.

The front air vent is partially blocked by a hazel wand.  (I went into a hazel wand because a fire was in my head and cut and peeled a hazel wand, etcetera.)

A single Kevin minion hangs from the rear view mirror, maintaining order.
The car is bruised and chipped in various places.  I had what Jon called ‘a proper accident’ some years ago.  I’d taken it for a spin, rural roads, light rain, a soft right turn at the top of a low hill, I misjudged the exit and had a profound disagreement with the hedgerow.  The passenger side took a beating.  No-one was around, I was shaken but unhurt, the car limped home and was duly repaired.

Except the electronics never fully recovered.  (I stress electronics – there is no on-board computer, just some dot-matrix monitoring of oil and lights and water.) To this day the car believes that the brake lights are not working and – about three-quarters of the time – thinks that the coolant level is too low.  Recently it developed a new trait, whereby the car will unlock itself when I indicate right.  Not all the time, mind, just occasionally.

The car may have a personality, but it is not a person.  It is not ‘she’ and does not have a name.

It has always been serviced at the same garage and from time to time they tell me, with some delight, how much I have spent so far. It is a lot – but it remains much less than if I’d bought new cars instead.

One day, perhaps, the fine people at the garage (“Hello Mr Fell, lovely to see you again!”) will tell me that no more can be done.  One day, perhaps, the left phalange will finally give up the ghost and the cost of repair will defeat me.  One day, perhaps, I will simply look at the great machine and know that enough is enough: it is time to retire.

Until then – key in the ignition.  We’re off to Wales.  The tank is full and the tyres are tight.  The playlist has been chosen...


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