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.