My love affair with the car will never conk out
They have been demonised and are portrayed as a threat to the planet but, says self-confessed speed-freak Boris Johnson, cars are a force for liberty and democracy
For years after that terrible death, I felt a pang every time I pulled into Oxford station.
Boris Johnson: ‘An Englishman’s car used to be his castle, or at least his mobile fort’
There was the scrapyard. There was the grabber with its evil jaws. Whenever I saw it I remembered the T-Rex aggression with which it lurched down on its victim; pausing and juddering as though savouring the moment.
It smashed through the windows, the windscreen, buckling the paper-thin steel. I heard the whine of the crusher and I turned away.
I could not listen to the death agonies of my driving companion, or see the reproachful look in those loyal headlights. Even today I cannot go past that knacker’s yard without bidding peace to its ghost.
A Fiat 128 two-door saloon, 1.2 litres, the Italian Stallion was the trusty steed that emancipated me from the shackles of childhood.
Inside that happy brown plastic cabin, with its curious fungal growth on the roof, there took place all manner of brawls, romance, heartbreak and general growing-up. Above all, it was the car in which I had my first crash.
No one knew how it came to be in the family. My mother claims it was hers, though other sources suggest that my father bought it in Brussels, from a squash opponent called Sue.
It was sitting in the yard one day when my brother Leo and I decided to take it for a ride. Neither of us could drive, but there is a two-mile dirt track that links our farm to the main road, and we felt we could learn.
We lolloped off, groaning in first gear, until finally we reached the main road where the machine stalled and a cloud of steam rose from the bonnet. We had a problem.
We had to turn round, and we couldn’t go on the metalled road, since neither of us had a licence.
But we hadn’t done a turn before and we were aware of another car about 20 yards away.
This obstacle was probably the only other vehicle within five square miles of this bit of under-populated moorland.
With every manoeuvre, we seemed to arc ever closer to the other machine, as if sucked by some fatal magnet. Now our boot was just feet from its bonnet, and it was necessary to reverse.
I had never reversed a car before. The wheels spun in the dust, we shot backwards and, with a smooth easy grace, we shunted the only other car in the district rapidly and deftly into a tree.
When the tinkling had stopped, Leo broke the silence and said: ”Hey, that was great,” speaking for every human being who has ever experienced the thrill of the automobile – the joy of moving far faster than nature intended, by a process you barely understand, and yet somehow surviving.
When I became a motoring correspondent it wasn’t just because I am a speed freak (though I am, a bit, in a terrified sort of way).
It wasn’t just because I wanted an endless series of beautiful machines for the weekend (though that is a factor, I have to admit).
It was also because, at the risk of being pretentious – and why the hell not, eh? – I am interested in politics and society, and it has always seemed obvious to me that the spread of the car, like the spread of literacy, has been a fantastic and unstoppable force for liberty and democracy.
Take universal suffrage. Men drew only one conclusion from the sight of women at the wheel of a car.
If you let them drive, then you might as well let them vote as well, otherwise the suffragettes would eventually stop hurling themselves under the hooves of horses and start running you down on street corners.
Yes, it was the car that made it impossible and ludicrous to deny women the political equality that had eluded them for 40,000 years and, for that achievement alone, all remaining feminists should go outside now and reverentially kiss the hubcaps of the first automobile they see.
When any invention has such power to promote individual freedom, the state is always driven to respond, to regulate and constrain.
We have now reached the stage where you can be threatened for eating a sandwich at the wheel, for heaven’s sake.
Today the internal combustion engine stands accused of threatening the existence of life on earth, with every thin trail of exhaust curling from your engine helping to quilt a thick tea cosy of carbon dioxide about the planet.
Every time you drive your children to school another poor polar bear gives a bewildered growl as he plops through the melting floes.
In fact our whole future looks so ghastly and stifling that I find myself loosening my tie and mopping my brow as I write these words.
I foresee a sweaty dystopia in which you will have to engage in carbon offsetting every time you make a trip to Waitrose.
The Government will make us have little inboard satellite devices – installed by the state in attack-proof steel black boxes – to verify that we have taken the shortest route and that our engines have parped and puttered no more than their stipulated quota of carbon fart… and… Aaargh.
Will it really be that bad?
The truth is that the state has always panicked in the face of any transport revolution. From the very introduction of the railways in the 19th century, the ruling elite were nervous of mass mobility.
All those people! Moving around! And under their own steam!
As late as 1897 the pathetic male students of Cambridge protested against the arrival of female students; the trouble with these harpies was that they presumed to travel independently, and on complex pieces of machinery that they indelicately straddled, and which they handled as well as men.
When they hung an effigy of a female undergraduate from a lamp post, it was significant that she was attached to that engine of sexual equality, the bicycle.
These alarms were nothing to the shock that greeted the arrival of the first motor car. What happened to the first Benz machine upon arriving in London from the docks in 1894? What do you think? It was stopped by a policeman.
It really is true that during the first few years of the automobile’s existence in Britain, every ”road locomotive” was restricted to speeds of no more than four miles an hour and required to have three attendants, one to walk no fewer than 60 yards in front carrying a red flag.
Even so humanity fell on these machines with greed and amazement and today we have more cars than our roads can support.
When I was at Oxford, you could reach London in little more than an hour, even in the Italian Stallion, a car with all the torque of a bath chair; these days the traffic can start at junction six of the M40.
Before traffic wardens became bonus-hungry maniacs, and when it was still rare for a student to own any kind of car at all, I parked all over the place, my favourite spot in Oxford being the yellow lines by the squash courts in Jowett Walk.
Sometimes, it is true, I got a ticket. But what did I care?
The Italian Stallion had a James Bond feature that was far better as a means of eluding the law than squirting the road with oil or tin-tacks, or rear-firing cannon mounted by the exhaust. The Stallion had Belgian plates.
What could the poor parkies do? Contact Interpol? Ring the Belgian police and ask them to track down my father’s squash partner, Sue? Ha.
I snapped my fingers at the parking tickets. I let them pile in drifts against the windscreen until – in the days before they were even sheathed in plastic – the fines just disintegrated in the rain.
An Englishman’s car used to be his castle, or at least his mobile fort. It was unthinkable that some public authority could simply move it.
Yet, time and again in more recent years, my car has been towed ignominiously away with its rear in the air and without so much as a by-your-leave.
And yet the very person who spends his morning hurling oaths at a tow-truck operative may then recover his car and spend the afternoon in a traffic jam sobbing with incontinent rage because someone else has parked selfishly. Cars make two-faced monsters of us all, and as the number of cars continues to rise, our hypocrisy will grow.
The more there are, the slower we all go and, in spite of the colossal numbers of these whizzing steel projectiles, serious traffic accidents declined from 25,124 in 1992 to 18,728 in 2002. Soon we may reach levels of safety unheard of since the origins of the car.
In 1914 there were only 132,015 cars on the road but the total number of road fatalities – in England, not Flanders – was a stonking 1,328.
What does that tell us? It tells us how much safer our cars have become.
Not that you’d ever guess from the way the Liberal Democrats of Islington go around installing sleeping policemen.
In building those exhaust-scraping flat-top pyramids in the middle of the road, they are actually spending our money to make the roads worse.
I will not now make a fuss about the ban on mobiles in cars, since I don’t think I could win a statistical shoot-out with the ‘elf ‘n’ safety boys.
I merely point out that driving and telephoning is not fundamentally different from using your free hand to pick your nose, hit the children or turn the radio from Magic FM to something less glutinous.
But what about booster seats? When we were children we didn’t have car seats. We didn’t even have seat belts.
We bounced about in the back like peas in a rattle, and although our Renault 4 was a glorified vomitorium we all felt pretty happy and safe.
And now, if we have children under the age of 12, or four-and-a-half feet in height, we must lash out 30 quid on a plastic banquette booster seat, and shove it under our children every time we go out in the car.
Before I am lynched by anxious parents, may I point out that all these safety measures can have perverse consequences, not least in making cars much heavier.
We are all, myself included, much fatter than we were in 1983; in fact 22 per cent of us are obese.
The steel frames of our cars must therefore be ever chunkier to carry our vast butts.
We also have airbags and side-impact protection systems and roll bars and crash frames and new extra-thick shatterproof glass, and not forgetting the extra buckles needed for those booster seats.
By contrast, the Fiat 128 Italian Stallion, a vehicle that afforded no notable sense of security, had one seat belt, a long liquorice strap with no inertia reel, which wrapped cosily around both driver and passenger. It would do no good in a crash but it would fool a policeman.
Its entire body shell probably contained the same amount of steel as one crumple-proof Mercedes bonnet.
But the occupants of other cars, and pedestrians, were at much less risk from the Stallion than they are from its equivalents today.
If Leo and I had reversed at that speed in a modern car, there would have been a much louder thump and a much longer tinkle, and any occupants of the only other car in the district might even have had whiplash.
So we come to the eternal law of unintended consequences.
Making cars safer has made them more dangerous, but no politician in his right mind will call for fewer safety features so who will speak up for liberty?
Our only hope lies in the infinite ingenuity of the human spirit and the history of warfare teaches us that each technical advance will be met with a response.
As the sword produced the shield, and the clamp produced the angle-grinder, so the speed camera produces the fuzz-buster and those handy cans of spray-on mud for the number plates.
However they try to punish the car for its carbon emissions – new taxes, journey restrictions, black boxes – technology will supply the answer.
The scientists now claim to be on the brink of something miraculous, in the form of a working hydrogen fuel cell. After more than a century of global dominance, the fossil fuel-based internal combustion engine is nearing the end.
But not the car; oh no, the car will go on – but with exhaust fumes as sweet and inoffensive as a baby’s breath and with a tread as silent as velvet. And you and I will joyfully buy the wonderful new machines, clean and silent as snow. And each with a red flag before them as a warning to the deaf.
© Boris Johnson 2007
An extract from the introduction to ‘Life in the Fast Lane: The Johnson Guide to Cars’ by Boris Johnson (Harper Perennial). Order this new book from Amazon now!