Tainted Love: There wasn’t a lot of glamour to be found in 1970’s Ireland. Not too many coupés either. (Originally published on 23 February 2014)
The coupé evokes a variety of adjectives in our automotive lexicon, most of which we broadly aspire to; words like glamour, sophistication, affluence. As an ideal it’s suffused with images of impossibly salubrious locations; languid cocktails on the shores of Lake Como, nibbling swan canapés on the Croisette, driving west on Sunset. So from the foregoing it’s fairly safe to assume that Ireland is not a place that readily springs to mind when the subject of the coupé is raised over the hors d’oeuvres.
Growing up in the Republic during the 1970’s, there wasn’t a lot of glamour to go around. We were impoverished, downtrodden and inward-looking. We had fierce hair, windswept teeth and sandblasted completions. We were ground down by emigration, unemployment, governmental corruption and an interfering clergy. The weather was shocking, particularly when it wasn’t raining. All we had were the pubs. So to our sensitive, light-averse eyes, the sight of a coupé was both rare and thrilling. It spoke of unfettered yearnings, improper desires and the promise of the sort of dissolute, champagne-drenched lifestyle that was only available within the pages of sales brochures, or at a pinch, Cosmopolitan magazine. Where, I might add, it never rained.
Despite all documented evidence to the contrary, the Irish are a conservative people. Stepping out from the crowd was something of a defiant gesture in the 1970s, so for an native to drive a coupé, he was making a very unambiguous statement to his peers. One which said; ‘I am not bound by your narrow parochial notions of decorous behaviour. I will wear clothes that don’t really suit me, the wearing of which will not necessarily make me happy.’
Irish coupé-man was likely to be an unmarried commitment-phobe who had done sufficiently well (usually abroad) to splash out on a style statement to attract the birds – and possibly the bees. But for some dark unspoken reason, he would never take the next step to convention and fulfilment. Behind his outward veneer of louche conviviality, lay a melancholic streak that only large quantities of malt whiskey could assuage. Coupé man wore stylish sports jackets, smoked expressively and exuded a crumpled yet rakishly dangerous appeal.
Yes, he might be a success in the bedroom, but you couldn’t escape the impression he wasn’t too discerning as to whom he chose to accompany him there.
On the other hand, on the odd occasion you might see an Irish married couple at the wheel of a coupé, the aura of betrayal and tears over the Blue Nun was almost palpable. It spoke of barren marriages, shattered promises, phials of Valium and quiet desperation, all to a soundtrack of Elkie Brooks. The coupé you see has always been the embodiment of automotive ennui: Abigail’s Party on wheels, if you will. Because a dark undercurrent lies beneath its siren appeal. Seductive lines luring the impressionable with the promise of pleasures, hitherto unimagined and thrillingly illicit. However, like all Faustian pacts, a price must be exacted.
Now on the other hand all this could equally be dismissed as nonsense. No doubt, and you may have a point, after all the very idea of the 2-door coupé, as indeed that of a doomed romantic is a somewhat vain and self regarding one. But where would we be without the occasional dose of amour fou. Into every life a little rain must fall, and let’s face it, if you live in the Republic, you’re guaranteed a good facefull – both of precipitation and thwarted romance.
Coupés on the other hand remain rather more thin on the ground.
25 thoughts on “Theme: Glamour – A Very Irish Coupé”
The only vaguely similar experience I can share was Finland of the 1980s. Men in tracksuits, supermarkets with not an awful lot of culinary delights on offer, Saabs, Volvos, Ladas, the odd W123 Mercedes. But no coupés. Maybe someone in Helsinki owned one back then, but farther North they were as rare palm trees.
Mind you, the country’s changed since than. Thanks to Nokia, a general technology-savviness and what is supposed to be among the world’s best educational systems, the supermarkets are now selling balsamic vinegar, men are wearing shirts once again and, on one of my most recent visits, there were even two wealthy chavs “racing” their BMW M3s. Long gone appear the days when I spotted my first “exotic” car in Suomi: that was a Lincoln Town Car, circa in 1993.
I quite understand this prudishness about the Coupé. Where did it originate? There was a pre-War bodywork known as a Doctor’s Coupe which, although it might conjure up images of a lascivious Leslie Phillips as Doctor Dingdong, was normally quite an austere conveyance. I think this style might have originated in the USA and it underlines the need to distinguish between the American Coupe and the European Coupé. The first, the Coop, is reasonably practical and workmanlike, the second, the Coopay, is rakish and decadent. We really have to blame the French pre-war coachbuilders for the coupé’s descent into decadence. I mean, Figoni et Falaschi sounds like something you could still get arrested for doing in some American states.
This essay reminds me of a teacher we had at our city centre school in Dublin. The time was the early 1980s and this was an unusually bleak time among four centuries of bleak times. The school car park featured such vehicles as a blue Toyota Corolla saloon, a Renault 14 and a bright green Mini. Imagine then the impact of the teacher of English and Mathematics when he rolled to a halt in his metallic bronze Toyota Celica fastback. I have no idea what happened to the fellow but, looking back, his preferred attire of cashmere overcoat (worn over the shoulders), suits and Tom Selleck-style moustache suggested he wasn´t really cut out for teaching. Rumour has it he wanted to be a Fianna Fail politician*. It was the car that really underlined the extent to which the chap did not conform. Today (and maybe more so between 2000 and 2006) such a motor car wouldn´t really raise eyebrows. The distinctiveness of the coupe has been lessened enormously by the sushi slicing and blending of vehicle genres. And there are a lot more cars too. And finally, for better and worse, people noticed other people more in what were more integrated communities or perceived communities. Now they don´t. We are anonymised. This leads me to the paradox of individualism in a consumer society. If one has the freedom to stand-out by means of your consumer choices (let us say, the car chosen) so too is everyone else. The effect of the individual choice is lessened because many more around you are also following their own path. At the same time in a permissive, individualised society I contend people care a lot less about what you do so you really must like trying to be different for its own sake to make it worth bothering with. No-one cares apart from you so your odd choices had better carry some clear advantages such that you´d do that thing even if you were the last person on earth. In the little world of the 1980s people were watched but if you could stand the pressure, a small choice like opting for a bronze Celica in a landscape of Corollas was all it took to emerge from the crowd.
*Fianna Fail is Ireland´s populist right-of-centre party, holders of power for the majority of time since the Republic´s beginning.
My physics teacher stood out from the rest c1976 -1979, he too drove a Toyota Celica – the earlier better looking version with a boot. As a 13 year old he seemed quite dreary but a good teacher, perhaps he was “a catch”. Eventually caught my German teacher and I understand married and I think he still teaches at my old comprehensive (though that seems implausible).
I now counter my anonymity by driving a bright white SAAB 900 (and it’s a coupe), it won’t be long before a large chunk of the population have no idea what it is – a little like seeing a Humber or a Studebaker.
The teachers at the school I attended drove the usual rag-tag of contemporary pedagogical conveyances, but one fellow stood out from his peers by driving a bright green Triumph TR-7. He also had a habit of leaving class mid-lesson and driving off to the pub for a swift pint. Or so it was said. But he fatally blotted his coupé-man copybook as far as I was concerned when he replaced the (probably disastrously unreliable) Triumph with a Fiesta. It might have been a be-striped 1.3S, but for me it amounted to heresy. He subsequently went on to become head teacher…
As an aside, we’ve clearly been robbed of a whole series of highly amusing 1960’s British innuendo-laden comedies – come in Dr. Dingdong – we’ve been expecting you.
Stephen: the same thing occurred to me with my XM. People won’t have a clue and when I speak I will sound to a 25 year old like those plummy BBC geriatrics sounded in 1980.
What a wonderful article Eoin. During the 70’s the South (as we like to call the Republic) was viewed from the North (as you may like to call, well the North) as a country bordering on wild hedonism, only kept in check by diligent church and state; after all we had read The Gingerman. You had pubs that stayed open after 10.00pm, barmen who spoke to customers in a friendly manner and had parks that you could play in on Sundays. A far and beguiling cry from our own Calvinist society. Dublin is where you went for the proverbial “dirty weekend”.
We were traveling en famille from Rosslare to Le Havre when an Opel Commodore Coupe parked beside me on the car deck. German registered and driven by a silver haired man with his well preserved and beautifully dressed partner it seemed to epitomise “continental” chic and left me feeling a bit, I suppose, Irish.
My father in law who was a country GP, interested in cricket and gardening, and who had no interest in cars inexplicably traded in his Triumph Dolomite for a bronze Opel Manta Coupe. He kept it for about three years and then bought the first of a series of small Volvos. We never knew why. I envied his choice because I had just bought a Fiat128 on the basis of its design and engineering but it did look rather dull beside his manta.
A fine article indeed. The character of “Irish coupé-man” immediately put me in mind of Bunjy Kennefick, the central character in early ’70s BBC sitcom “Me Mammy”. Bunjy actually drove a Mercedes-Benz W113 SL, but then he was “London Irish”.
Not many remember the series. The State Broadcaster is thought to have consigned it to their Cupboard of Shame, as it depicted Irish people in a negative manner. Quite how they can justify their hand in the godawful “Mrs Brown’s Boys” is beyond me.
Hugh Leonard created that series. And quite a few Irish actors appeared in it. Without knowing this the name Bungy Kenefick woyld seem to be the creation of a non-Irish person determined to makeup as bad a pseudo-Irish name as possible. The series ended in 1971. Series two of three has been deleted.
Kennefick is an actual Irish surname. I had to check that. Surprised.
‘Hugh Leonard’ is the pseudonym of John Keyes Byrne, Dublin born and bred. It’s not clear why he changed used a pseudonym. The other play writing John Byrne, the Scottish one who also did at least one cover for pre-Boring Boring CAR, arrived on the scene considerably later.
On which matter, it’s been suggested that the Setright name is of irish origin, I’ve yet to see convincing evidence, but I’m more readily persuaded that “Kensell”, the ‘K’ in LJKS, is an Anglicisation of Kinsella.
It’s odd if Setright was a name with Irish origins as Setright was Jewish and his talmudic reading of things informed his erudition.
Judaism is matrilinear, so it’s perfectly possible for a Jewish person to have the surname of a Gentile father. In LLWT, Setright states that his parents were not particularly observing of their religion. I’ve met people who have researched Setright’s ancestry in some depth, but I find a certain discomfort in raking over the past of someone who was very private, to the point of cultivated mysteriousness.
Better to judge the man by what he wrote, rather than his complex ancestry. Shame on me for bringing this up.
Yes, matrilinear as is mitochondrial DNA, which I am sure Setright would have found interesting.
I think Setright may have cultivates his privacy. It’s part of a fascinating character in a world where they are in short supply.
From what I’ve read, Setright was surprisingly shy and, like anyone, there were aspects of his life he would have kept private. But shyness has little to do with self-effacement, and if you cultivate mysteriousness, that tends to be because you actually want people to notice you. So he was a contradiction, but I don’t get the idea that he’d be disappointed that we were still discussing him.
My own reason for discussing him would be to wonder why there aren’t more motoring writers with a breadth of knowledge around? I’d buy more magazines if there were and, as long as the throttle jockeys were still indulged, I can’t believe that the other punters would be frightened off.
The answer is possibly because it’s a relatively poorly paid job and, if you’ve got a broad intellect, it might be better placed elsewhere. At one time James May seemed to be shaping up as a successor, but he took the Top Gear shilling and I’m sure doesn’t regret it. Handing in your copy to a bunch of interesting Aussie iconoclasts and being poorly paid is very different from handing it to some tool of the Bauer Empire and being poorly paid.
Are they that badly paid?
The question of breadth of knowledge is answered by an education system geared to training and not accumulating knowledge. The current crop of writers are a product of their times.
I may be making assumptions, but I get the feeling that staff writers are relatively young and move on when they get older, often becoming freelance which allows them to have other sources of income (books, etc).
And by ‘poorly paid’, I’m not talking about minimum wage level, just that people who are obviously as intelligent as LJKS could probably earn a lot more in other fields. That doesn’t mean that a passion for the subject wouldn’t mean that they’d not be willing to put earnings into second place but, today, I’m sure that working for a large, impersonal, leaden publishing house would soon become intolerable.
My Dad had a Monza (facelift version) company car between a CX Prestige and an Audi 100 Avant. Looking back at his life at that time, it’s now clear that it was a bit of a stereotypical life crisis thing. He was certainly not a man of unblemished morals but, in fact, I think he was disappointed with himself that he never managed to blemish his morals more. One of his favourite literary heroes was John Le Carre’s lightly disguised crook of a father, Rick from A Perfect Spy, played beautifully by the Irish Ray McAnally in the BBC TV adaptation. I think this was the man he would have liked to have been, had he not been born with a conscience, and the Monza fitted the bill well.
The 1978 Dublin pic is actually a 1980 pic by Tommy Ward. Source: http://www.dublin1850.com/old_and_new.html
Thanks for that Frenzic. Duly noted.
Eóin, I just happened to stumble across this excellent piece of writing this afternoon and must compliment you on your acutely observed portrait of Irish life in the 1970’s, which brought back some mixed memories for me. That was the decade of my teenage years and I became increasingly aware of the dismal state of the country as I approached my Leaving Cert, and the uncertainties thereafter.
Unemployment was high and even the middle classes were relatively impoverished because of punitively high levels of taxation. This encouraged the black economy to flourish, exacerbating the problems for legitimate businesses and the public finances. Anyone displaying obvious signs of wealth was assumed to be on the fiddle one way or another, and this included some of the country’s most (in)famous political figures (you know exactly who I’m thinking about!) This would certainly explain why expensive coupés would be regarded as frivolous and extravagant, especially by an older generation that had grown up accustomed to privation. My now brother-in-law wanted to buy a secondhand Capri as his first car, but was promptly disabused of the notion by his parents (and the cost of insurance) and ended up with a VW Beetle instead, the same as my first car.
Even signs of modest success could provoke jealousy, vandalism and petty theft. My first new car, a VW Polo, attracted the attention of a gouger* who, er, gouged a deep scratch along both flanks one night when the car was parked in Dun Laoghaire. On another occasion, my Pioneer aftermarket radio/casette was stolen from the car when it was parked in Merrion Square. It was bad enough losing the radio, but the miscreant smashed the dashboard to pieces getting the unit out!
How different Dublin, and Ireland, is now, after three decades of extraordinary economic growth and huge social change. It now has proper first-world problems to deal with.
* Gouger was (is?) an Irish term for an anti-social youth, as well as an accurate descriptor for the act of vandalism he performed on my poor Polo!
Daniel, I’m pleased to see the piece getting another airing. It dates back to the early days of the site, when the world was young, when I had time to write more considered pieces and DTW hadn’t become the insatiable beast it is now.
I think everyone who grew up in Ireland then knew somebody who fitted the profile as portrayed in the article – I certainly did.
It is easy to forget how utterly grim and impoverished the Republic was in the late ’70s and well into the ’80s. Car thefts and acts of vandalism were widespread. When we would leave the house unattended for any length of time (we would frequently travel en-famile to Wicklow back then), my dad used to remove the rotor arm from my mother’s Renault 5 and take it with him. I can still picture it sitting in the centre console cubby…
Some things, however, never change, the stakes just get higher. Here’s an entertaining home movie, filmed earlier this month at 4.45am outside my sister and brother-in-law’s home in North Co. Dublin:
The would-be car thieves broke into the house and grabbed the keys to My brother-in-law’s nearly new Skoda Kodiaq. They didn’t count on the house burglar alarm, which was set, sounding off and waking the family. My brother-in-law and nephew saw off the pair who, thankfully, weren’t armed . Apparently, there’s been a spate of thefts of high-value cars in the more prosperous suburbs of North Dublin, related to drugs and inter-gang rivalries. Gardai enquiries are ongoing.
Fantastic article and a great piece of penmanship. Growing up in the late 70’s in Bristol I have vague recollections of the weather, the concrete and the street scene of a typical post war city still bearing the scars of the blitz.
My recollections of Ireland obviously come from the telly and this article seems to capture the sights, smells and general tone of the time.
As a boy I viewed the coupe as a thing of desire, a piece of exotica, a big step up from the humdrum saloon equivalents. I’m thinking Monza, Granada Coupe, Manta, Capri, 504 Coupe, Gamma, 100S, 124 Sport.
I thought they were a statement of success, style and individuality. I didn’t realise that they smacked of desperation and caddishness!
As a 50 years old man I now own an Audi A5 Sportback. I get the good looks of a sporty Coupe combined with the practically of a 5 door hatch for my family. Am I fooling myself, should I just give in and go buy an SUV like everyone else has?
James: Thanks for stopping by and for the warm words about the article. The Coupé for me at least was always an act of (elegant) rebellion. A rejection of the herd. We’re all fooling ourselves, I would suggest, just some in a more convincing manner than others. Why not do so in some semblance of style – a concept the SUV seems to be devoid of.