Some families spend their Sunday evenings at church. Some gather round the kitchen table for homework. Some have a nice family meal, complete with conversation, before sharing the washing-up.
But for many British families – and I would have to include my own in this category – the Sunday evening ritual is Top Gear, in which we slump on the sofa to watch Jeremy Clarkson and his fellow petrolheads as they celebrate the motor car in all its glorious forms.
So when the invitation came through to make my second appearance on this landmark of our national culture, I did not hesitate. It is hard to do justice to the richness of my emotions as I revved at the start of the famous Surrey circuit, helmeted and trussed in my aviator’s harness.
Ahead of me was the bonnet of my Chevrolet Lacetti, the “reasonably priced car” that I had to flog around the former aerodrome. Ahead of me lay ridicule or triumph – and in a few minutes I would find out which.
Arum-arum-arum went the Chevrolet, straining against the clutch like a greyhound in the traps, and now the chap was counting down with his fingers: five, four, three, two – and I had to make my mind up about how to handle it.
Was I going to try my hardest – and risk absurdity – or was I going to play it cool and just lollop round the track like Terry Wogan?
One of my top City Hall aides had come down with his son to watch and, on the whole, he counselled a dignified detachment. “No one is going to mind if you just drive sensibly,” he said.
But my own son took a different view. “You’ve got to try,” he said fiercely, and I knew he was right. The last time I was on the show, in 2003, I turned in a lap time significantly slower than almost anyone else.
I was slower than Tara Palmer-Tomkinson; I was slower than Michael Gambon. In fact, the only person I am sure I beat was Richard Whiteley, and he is no longer with us.
It was, therefore, with a keen sense of an endangered family honour that I finally let that clutch all the way out and with smoking wheels howled off towards the first bend. And at first I thought I had it licked.
As you know, guests on Top Gear have the benefit of coaching by “The Stig”, a mysterious white-uniformed driver whose visor is never lifted. After a few warm-up laps, the Stig had been getting almost complimentary.
He’d shown me how to do the chicane and how to charge flat-out at the tyre wall, and once he’d hopped out of the car I was naïve enough to believe I could repeat it without my tutor.
Well, I don’t know if you stuck your head out of the window on Sunday, but it was raining, and it was raining with particular vehemence in Surrey. The water lay on the track in pools and – to cut a long story short – I spent the next hour in a total skid-fest.
I ploughed repeatedly into the grass. I took out one of the runway lights. I span like a bar of soap on a wet bathroom floor, and my course was so unpredictable, I was informed, that there was some risk to the health and safety of the camera crews.
Finally I completed a lap. I had a time to enter on the board, and though they refused to tell me quite how laughable it was (the full humiliation will be revealed on Sunday), I prised myself from that sweaty Lacetti with a sense of accomplishment, a sense of relief – and also a certain wistfulness.
Top Gear. The very name is a tribute to a technology that is increasingly archaic.
After I had finished my skidathon, I was allowed to drive the track in a vehicle owned by James McAllister, the proprietor of the circuit.
His vehicle was a Mercedes; it had good acceleration and a decent top speed, and yet it had no gears. It was an electric car, and it cost him about a penny a mile to run.
It is that single factor – the relative cheapness of electricity – that makes me think we are on the verge of a huge change in our motoring, and a change that is long overdue.
As they have discovered on Top Gear, electric cars are not just glorified milkfloats these days. There is already something out there called the Tesla, which can apparently do 125mph and go for 250 miles without needing to have its batteries recharged.
With zero emissions, no noise pollution and no dependence on foreign oil, what is not to like? This Tesla can apparently do 0-60 in four seconds, which makes the Chevrolet Lacetti look like a golf buggy.
I know there are those who say that electric technology is a blind alley and that we should wait for hydrogen engines. There are those who complain that the batteries are bulky and take hours to recharge.
But think of those brick-like 1990s mobile phones and compare them with the power of the wafer-like gizmos today. It strikes me that, after years of false starts, the electric market is on the verge of triumphant maturity, and all it needs is the encouragement of consumer demand.
So here is my proposal to the motor industry, now languishing in the credit crunch. My Toyota people-mover is so old and tired that if it were a dog, you would have it put down.
But I intend to keep it on the road for another year, for two years, for three years – for however long it takes the car manufacturers to produce a zero-emission electric family car.
Come on, folks: you must be able to do it. I don’t want to buy another internal combustion engine; there is a market waiting to be satisfied, and if that isn’t an economic stimulus I don’t know what is.
Of course it will be sad for us petrolheads to say goodbye to the vroom-vroom of the 120-year old technology. But then I am sure Clarkson and Co can just tweak the name of the show. Top Spark would do. Or Top Plug.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph 02 December 2008 under the heading, “Top Gear sways Boris Johnson to electric cars.”]