One of the more compelling conceits sold to us by car manufacturers is the idea that at any time, we can simply get into our cars and drive.
According to this romantic vision, the roadblocks to pleasure (both actual and metaphorical) are swept aside. There are no roadworks, nor glum-faced commuters, nor mechanical frailties. Nagging spouses are rendered mute; grizzling children are placated. The grind of day-to-day existence, the obligations and the toil, are airbrushed from the picture. It is a warm and fuzzy bubble in which the road is an unimpeded silvery thread winding away to a blue horizon of endless possibility.
Such a notion plays to our dreams of freedom, of decadence and of fulfilment. In the USA, personal freedom and car ownership have long been entwined. Detroit in its heyday span a uniquely American vision of self empowerment with their products at its heart, reshaping the romantic iconography of the American west into new tales of latter day adventurers and their faithful mechanical steeds.
As Detroit told it, car ownership was the pinnacle of self-determination, the American Dream given form in metal and chrome. Give me car, lots of car, and the starry skies above. Don’t fence me in.
A simple truth
I do not need to say it, but of course I will anyway. The dream was and is a lie. In reality we are all weighed down by our obligations, monthly car payments being just one of them. And the roads are choked with metal boxes piloted by people sold the same dream or, worse, who regard their cars as mere conveyances, an Audi washing machine on 20-inch castors. Animals driven insane by our mobile cages, we re-enact the same journeys over and over and over again in the expectation that our responses will be different.
The blue horizon of endless possibility is obscured by a grey curtain of drizzle. And yet, somehow, the romantic ideal is never quite crushed by the monotony. The dream remains persistent.
One of the more notable pieces of automotive advertising in recent years is VW’s ‘Night Driving’ advert. Featuring Richard Burton’s baritone voicing of an extract from Dylan Thomas’ radio play ‘Under Milk Wood’, the advert montages various shots of a Golf GTI piloted through empty night-time streets. “When was the last time you just went for a drive?” the closing card asks. When indeed?
Ever since William Bernbach’s ground-breaking early campaigns for the brand, VW advertising has striven to capture a simple truth about the product. In the case of ‘Night Driving’, the advert underlines the pleasures inherent to driving a well-developed performance car (i.e. a Golf GTI), but tacitly acknowledges that our enjoyment is actively impeded by others. The advert seeks to offer us an answer, our titular driving hero circumventing the dreary hoi polloi to get his kicks when the roads are at their clearest, in the dead of night.
Unusually, the advert is not purely an effort to sell Golfs. It is also a mood piece, an attempt to rekindle our romance with the car. In recent years that ideological flame has been left to wax and wane whilst the industry fights rearguard actions against safety legislation and the environment.
Caught in the act
‘Night Driving’ serves to remind us of one of the oft forgotten pleasures to car ownership, the act of driving itself.
To drive is to indulge in the tactile pleasure of mechanical interfaces, mastering the physical co-ordination needed to synchronise accelerator, brake, clutch and gearbox in a machine designed to multiply inputs into thrillingly greater forces.
Concurrent to this is the thrill of speed and the dance of the ever-changing road; turning into a corner and feeling through your bottom and fingertips the sensation of the tyres biting into the road surface; the sudden weightless sensation of cresting a hill, the suspension unloading then reloading and settling. There is also the frisson of fear felt whilst overtaking, or entering into an unexpectedly tightening corner, unsure for a sickening moment whether the tyres are going to stick, then the rush of thankfulness when they do.
And let’s not forget the sounds and smells: unburned hydrocarbons, brakes and oil; the revs rising and falling, the patter of the suspension, the rush of wind around the wing mirrors and the squeal of brakes. Then finally, silence and the tick, tick, tick of a cooling engine as you walk away, heart beating a little faster than before, despite not once having left your seat. That to me is the romance of driving. And it is all set to change.
Embracing a robot
Sometimes I wonder what the car owners of tomorrow will have to look forward to. Google, Tesla and by all reputes Apple are intent upon eroding driver control, making the role of the driver akin to that of a ship’s captain who only takes direct action when bits and bytes no longer compute. No doubt those same people who regard cars as automotive appliances will be happy to surrender control to the machines, the quid pro quo being time freed to do other things on the daily commute, like catch up on phone calls, pick their belly button fluff or stare into space.
But how much romance can there be in embracing a robot? The grand dream of car-actualised fulfilment and self-determination does not seem to marry with punching a postcode into a touch screen, then sitting back and thinking of England whilst a server in California does the work. Despite the endless traffic and the speed cameras, the truth is that, right now, we are living in the last great age for drivers and driving.
On my daily commute, there is a country lane with a long rising left-hander. The bumpiness of the surface and the speed that can be carried into the corner make it an intimidating section of road to drive in a committed fashion. I look forward to driving it every day. I can replay it in my mind now, right down to the mid-corner bump that can launch my car half way across the road when (not if) I get my line wrong. In a Google Car, that same corner would create no such excitement or lingering memory. The bump would only serve to spill my coffee, or distract from composing my latest Facebook post.
5 thoughts on “Theme: Romance -The Romance of the Road”
Richard, you’re right. The open road isn’t what it used to be. Neither are daily commutes.
And yet. In September I drove cross country (the US) on, mainly, Interstate highways. There was indeed construction. I encountered rush hour traffic in and around a few largish towns. But I encountered very light traffic — at times no more than three other cars were in sight — on I-90 from a little east of Seattle to, more or less, the Mississippi River. In a few places I-90 is steep and winding and one has to drive at more than 2/10 at the speed limit. The speed limits are low (the highest was 80 mph) and well enough enforced that going much faster than the limit is a bad idea. Low speeds notwithstanding, in many places the scenery is grand. All in all a pleasant long drive.
East of the Mississippi there’s so much congestion that driving is a chore.
I can’t claim credit for this, Fred. Thank Chris.
The I-90 is a long old road; did you cut south somewhere after the western mountains?
I drove from DC to Cinncinatti one time. I think I left the highway and drove local roads. Was it ten hours at the wheel? To compound the gloom I was listening to Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss. Rather better was a trip from NJ to upstate New York, at night just before Thanksgiving. I was in my Buick Century 3.0 Custom. That was an adventure.
Looking forward I owe myself an Aarhus-to-Paris trip so I can have a coffee and croissant in Chantilly.
Thinking about it for a moment, there is a reason to think some driving can be good still. It’s not the routine trip. Take a local road from anywhere to anywhere else that isn’t your MonFri commute and you’ll be sated after six hours. I did a random drive across the Ardennes once and though I only covered 350 miles I had a great time. I visited Prum and not many can say that. Another time I went from Basel to Ulm across the Black Forest (in a Polo, dammit) in 1998. I’d say it’s still a plausible trip.
My own often expressed opinion on these pages is that the Golden Age IS over, in Europe at least, but you are right Chris, in reality we are still living in the tail end of it and pleasures can be found. On the few occasions it happens, I quite enjoy being driven, but it is a different pleasure from driving. I admittedly drive faster than I need too, even on holiday when there is no need, and I should relax more, both for my own and my passenger’s sake. Actually, I should savour things more across the board (I eat too quickly too).
Just over a week ago, I repeated a drive I’d done about 18 months ago, up to the Welsh border, across the Shropshire Hills. The last time I did it was in my Citroen, enjoying the curvy roads with enough straight sections and visibility to overtake, and with the windows down to enjoy the sound of the engine rising through the revs. This time I was in a Fiat Ducato panel van but the drive was still a pleasure. As Chris says, the satisfaction comes from doing it all right (well most of it).
But although the autonomous vehicle usable on a wide range of roads might still be a way off (though not as far as some think), much of the technology being developed can easily be installed into new cars to monitor our driving. Of course in a basic form it already is, on a voluntary basis. Cheap black boxes installed by car insurers decide whether you are a good driver or not, and easily detect if and when you break limits, or even corner too fast. Using the same argument used to justify internet surveillance (if you’ve got nothing to hide, why not?) why shouldn’t all cars carry a black box and a videocam to monitor your and other’s road behaviour?
I do worry about black boxes for insurance purposes becoming mandatory. Also, as autonomous cars become more common, their manufacturers will no doubt begin to decry the lack of metrics available from non-autonomous vehicles, where the two have a coming together.
Richard, yes, I-90 goes south from Billings, MT, where I-94 goes east. I-90 turns east again at Buffalo, WY. The two meet again in Tomah, WI. Billings to Tomah is a little shorter via I-94, but I-90 avoids the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, which is usually quite congested.
There’s much to be said for avoiding major metropolitan areas or crossing them when traffic is light, i.e., well before or after rush hour. Seattle is a special case, has near perpetual rush hour. I drove across Seattle eight times (six times from/to SEATAC and twice from/to home) this year, managed to avoid heavy traffic six times. When I was outbound from home I drove through Seattle to the north, entered just as morning rush was starting, exited as it was building and was very happy to be driving north away from the city instead of south towards it.
I don’t know when you drove from DC to Cincinnati. Nowadays its all interstate, much of it — but not I-70 in Ohio and I-71 — with light traffic much of the time.
Thinking of your NJ to upstate NY trip, eves of major holidays and the holidays themselves usually have light traffic everywhere. Easier driving than usual.