What you want from your car? Function, Frivolity or why not both?
Is driving an event for you? By which I don’t mean do you enjoy driving, but do you enjoy the whole ritual? Do you have driving gloves, or driving shoes, or a driving hat? Do you have a mental checklist of things that you do when you go to your car? If so, do you do them for safety’s sake (checking tyres, etc) or because it’s part of the game (adjusting a rear-view that’s already adjusted)? I’ve been driving so long that, often, I’m half way down the road before I’ve really registered I’m driving. Don’t worry, you’re safe.
The part of me that matters is in control, I am totally involved and I am even enjoying it on one level. But the part of me that savours the specialness of what I’m doing is often somewhere else. This is a pity I think. It wasn’t always like that. I even once had a pair of driving gloves of my own and, although I’ve become in many ways a jaded old lag, parts of driving remain special for me.
I can’t bring myself to say I love my Citroen. I don’t use that word on inanimate things, but I do view the process of driving it differently from most other cars – partly because it is different. Not that I cosset it, I drive it like I would a modern car, but there is more of a ritual for me when I drive the SM. I unlock the driver’s door and invert my hand to pull the handle. Sitting here typing, I can feel the pull on the hinges and the spring back as the door reaches its first open position. At this point I put my left hand at the top corner of the side window – the door has no integral frames, but the window itself is framed with a stainless steel surround, so do I do that to protect myself from the sharp edge? Not really.
Then I turn and settle down into the seat and since, unlike some work cars I drive, no-one else has been there, I don’t need to adjust the seat. I pull down the seatbelt and slip the end into the distinctive red catch rising up beside the centre console. I put the key into the ignition, move the steering slightly clockwise to release the steering lock and switch on. At this point I watch the oval warning light cluster, not because I’m checking for faulty bulbs, but because it looks good. Meanwhile I listen to the fuel pump whirr and stop. I move the gearlever in its gate a couple of times to check neutral, even though I really know its not in gear, enjoying the metallic clatter. I push in the clutch and twist the key – no throttle.
Except for a spell recently, when I was stubborn about changing the battery, it fires promptly. There’s a rasping rattle from the stainless steel exhausts, and an uneven mumble from the engine which, being an unbalanced 90 degree V6 sounds disappointingly unimpressive on idle. I press the throttle, probably a bit further than I really need, and for an instant, the engine suddenly actually sounds like an Italian thoroughbred. Then I release the throttle and wait.
Now comes the moment known to all old-school Citroen drivers, from DS, through GS, SM, CX, BX and, even, some XMs and Xantias. The Kraken Wakes. Like Martin Sheen coming out of the river in Apocalypse Now. Like Thunderbird 2 rising up from its dock. Like Alien appearing behind an unsuspecting space traveller. Like a Sumo wrestler rising from a crouch. Like a pensioner getting off the toilet.
With a hiss and a whirr, the SM rises slowly on its suspension until it is ready to go. This piece of street theatre never ceases to please me. There are disadvantages. It takes around 20 seconds for all this to happen, so maybe the last analogy is the closest, and if you turn off the engine leaving the doors open, the car will settle after a while, jamming and even bending the door on a high kerb. Alternatively you close the doors and, when you return, they have sunk against the kerb and you can’t get back in. Those are some of the reasons why later oleopneumatic Citroens were designed to prevent them from settling when stopped. All the same, if you told me that I could fit a £10 one way valve in 5 minutes to ‘cure’ this, I’d refuse.
It gives me an inexhaustible supply of amusement, and also entertains passers by in a totally harmless way – I once had an audience of a dozen passing schoolkids so entranced that I carried on taking it to its full height then lowered it again to the ground and repeated the process. They applauded – the car not me.
On a lesser scale, when I turn on the ignition of my motorcycle, it makes a little hum and the rev counter needle flicks round to whatever rev limit you have pre-set, then settles back waiting for you to press the starter. Buttons never really went away on bikes. Again this is a meaningless ritual, but I like it. My recent purchase of a relatively modern car showed me the same trick.
That people crave this sense of occasion is evidenced by the return of the starter button to the car. The Sixties wasn’t a great time for buttons, fly and starter. Both the zip and the twisted ignition key were, without doubt, more convenient and logical, but they weren’t fun. By the 70s, the starter button had disappeared but the relatively recent rise of keyless entry meant that there was justification for a return to the push button and, although it is becoming an irritating cliché for some, it does turn starting a car into an event.
Although modern cars with big LCD display screens can go through the usual “Hello Sean” business that we’ve got used to with computers everywhere, any greater ceremony is usually lacking. That’s why I’m so taken by Jaguar’s rising gear selector and swivelling vents. Whenever people point out that a Jaguar has come a close second to a Mercedes, Audi or BMW in a test I just think ‘but they don’t have swivelling vents to greet you’. I think that’s important. I’d not want a Jaguar for its interior gimmickry if it wasn’t actually a fine car overall, but I would choose it over a competitor just because of the interior theatre. Call me crass if you will. OK, not so loud.
I’ve long been an advocate of interiors over exteriors. Ideally both should be good, but I’d more likely choose an ill-looking car with a great interior over an elegant car with a bland grey one. I buy the car, I drive the car, the inside’s what I see most. I’m sure that many TVR owners regarded Peter Wheeler’s gimmicky interiors as a pain, especially when the electronics failed. But he understood the need to make driving his essentially frivolous cars a unique event
Actually, for me this theatrical technology exists on a knife edge. In many ways cars are becoming unnecessarily complex, as marketing people ask for more and more dubious features to be available. The more serious among you will point out that the need to inform is more important than the need to entertain and, if you’re bearing down on me, concentrating madly on trying to format your speedo to display in Comic Sans, I must agree. We can have both, I think, but where do we stop?
At present, there’s still a fair amount of amusement to be had from a self-parking car though, in 5 years time no-one will give it a second thought and, if the technology never fails, so what? Except that, for me, implicit in a manufacturer offering it is the insulting suggestion that I can’t park properly without it. For that reason I’d be unlikely to tick the option box, even though my stiff neck, legacy of a bike accident, might appreciate it and I’ll begin to seem like those people from my grandparent’s generation who prided themselves on their copperplate handwriting.
And, returning to the Citroen, the thought that the rising ritual is a necessary part of the car’s excellent road behaviour makes me find it worthwhile but, if all cars had behaved like that for the past 50 years, it would mean little and the first manufacturer that had got round it would get my sale. Likewise if all car interiors hid the controls from me like Jaguar’s I would find it hugely irritating and, of course, Jaguar have fitted a set of normal vents to their new model XF. Yes, like a joke heard too often, it’s just not fun any more.