The author regrets an increasing antipathy towards a pleasure that was very much a part of his earlier life experience and remained so until recently. There are, however, grounds for hope and optimism.
I have been driving for over forty years. In that time, the automotive landscape has changed in ways that were simply unimaginable when, as the proud owner of a newly minted driving licence, I took to the road in my first car, a second-hand VW Beetle.
Owning a car gave you freedom to go wherever you wanted, discovering and exploring places that were largely inaccessible otherwise. Having a car became central to my social life and leisure activities involving friends and family. One staple of this was the Sunday ritual of going for a drive.
My sister, her boyfriend (now husband) and I would regularly head off together in his or my car to wherever took our fancy. The pleasure in doing this was as much about the journey as the destination, which was often randomly selected and quite incidental. As relatively new drivers, we were still honing our skills and enjoying the novelty of driving, while chatting happily and listening to music on the radio/cassette player.
Together, we explored Ireland’s east coast to the north and south of Dublin where we lived, and even ventured into Northern Ireland, a strange, unfamiliar and troubled place at the time. I well remember the frisson of excitement mixed with anxiety we felt crossing the border, largely invisible but for the British Army checkpoints that would randomly appear. (The Irish government did not, at least overtly, police a border that the country’s constitution did not recognise.)
We visited places like Warrenpoint, a very pleasant coastal town overlooked by the Mourne Mountains in Co. Down. We eventually got as far as Belfast, a handsome Victorian city which struck me as quite alien to the Ireland I knew, feeling more British than Irish.
Going for a drive remained a staple of my leisure activities after I moved to Belfast, then on to London. Here, freed of the responsibility for transporting family members around, I bought my first convertible, a second-hand MG Midget 1500. It was eight years old and hid the usual horrors under its gleaming white bodywork, freshly prepared for sale to an enthusiastic but gullible buyer. I loved it! Its diminutive size made it feel ridiculously fast, even at 30mph. Moreover, I now had the new and unfamiliar territory of the Home Counties to explore.
The Midget engendered in me a passion for open-top cars that continues to this day. Later, I was lucky enough to enjoy the privilege of being part of a ‘user-chooser’ perk company car schemes in my City employment, so an E30 generation BMW 320i convertible, followed by a 325i equivalent, were my cars of choice in the early and mid-1990’s.
Inevitably, however, life’s responsibilities intervened: home ownership, settling down with my partner and the typical routine domestic duties took up more of our time. We still enjoyed going for a drive, but things were beginning to change. Living in central London, it often took more than an hour’s slog through heavy and slow-moving traffic before we could enjoy the freedom of the open road.
We persisted, however. One of our most spontaneous and memorable Sunday outings was on a beautiful late summer day. We both woke very early, feeling energetic and keen to get out of the city. We found ourselves in Portsmouth at around 9am, and driving around the peaceful and pleasant Isle of Wight less than an hour later after a short ferry ride. I still remember the beautiful sunset we saw from our return ferry.
The growing demands of work and other commitments meant that such al fresco trips were becoming increasingly infrequent. The ever more congested road network in the South-East made such trips less and less pleasant. The 325i was replaced with a much more practical Land-Rover Discovery.
Retiring to East Anglia reignited our passion for going for a drive. The rural roads here are, by London standards, mercifully free of heavy traffic congestion. A Mercedes SLK, Mazda MX-5, Audi TT and two Porsche Boxsters have sated our open-top addiction over the past two decades. However, another concern began increasingly to preoccupy us in recent years, that of Climate Change.
We now consciously try to limit our car usage to journeys we cannot practically make by other means. There’s a good, if expensive, bus service to and from Norwich, our nearest city, just eighteen miles away. All our shopping is done via the Internet or locally on foot (which stops you buying stuff you don’t need, knowing you will have to carry it home!) Consequently, we do no more than a combined 4k miles a year, which I think is laudable for a couple living in a rural area.
Where does this leave going for a drive? Well, I still enjoy an occasional blast in the Boxster on the wide, open A-Roads around here on a sunny morning, top down, with my iPod playing my favourite tunes, which often has me grinning like an idiot. However, in the back of my mind, there is a nagging sense of unease about my apparently cavalier disregard for an existential threat that faces us all.
This brings us back to where I started, contemplating the changes to the automotive landscape that I think were unimaginable, or at least were imagined very differently forty years ago. We might have expected now to be driving around in highly sophisticated futuristic vehicles, possibly amphibious or even capable of flight, such as have been imagined in numerous science-fiction movies set in the near future. Great distances would be covered quickly and effortlessly using virtual motorways in the sky. Instead, driving has largely been reduced to a tedious chore on these crowded islands and private car ownership is regarded by an increasing number of people as selfish and anti-social.
Modern cars, for many well-intentioned reasons, are disempowering their drivers and disconnecting them from the sensual experience of driving. Lane-guidance and anti-collision systems are wresting control from drivers. Fully autonomous vehicles are likely to be a practical reality within a decade, notwithstanding some widely publicised accidents involving such vehicles recently.
Even where such systems are not in play, the modern car is a hermetically sealed air-conditioned isolation chamber that tries to insulate its driver and passengers to the greatest extent possible from the outside world. This includes the sensations of driving, which have been supplanted by increasingly sophisticated and intrusive infotainment systems. It’s all a very long way removed from my MG Midget, which was so noisy as to make the fitment of even a radio pointless.
While there are still many young people who are car enthusiasts, the majority of millennials seem increasingly to regard private cars as a necessary (or even unnecessary) evil. They have no real experience of the sensual pleasure of driving and either shun cars altogether or regard them merely as personal transport appliances. The concept of going for a drive must now seem rather quaint and idiosyncratic to them, which is, I think, a great pity.
The Covid-19 pandemic that has dominated our lives for the past year has restricted our freedom and movements to a degree that was previously unimaginable. Home working, Zoom meetings and internet shopping has considerably reduced commuting and what car insurance companies rather quaintly term driving for social, domestic and pleasure purposes.
There have been some incidental benefits in terms of (temporarily) improved air quality in cities, but Covid-19 has been a potentially deadly threat and a compelling reason to stay close to home. Recently however, there has been heartening news of Covid-19 vaccines that appear to be highly effective. Hopefully, these will enable our lives to return to normal in the months ahead.
I am by temperament an optimist and believe that, if we could bring that same concerted global scientific effort to addressing the existential threat of Global Warming, we will find solutions there also. There will be no single magic bullet but a combination of solutions involving renewable and nuclear energy, carbon capture technology and so on.
The move towards EV’s will accelerate and, even though I am usually a late adopter of new technology, I have little doubt that our next new car will be electrically powered, and will hopefully have autonomous capabilities for routine journeys where driving would be a chore rather than a pleasure. I remain hopeful of being able again to go for a drive in such a vehicle purely for pleasure and without any feelings of guilt.