From A to B

A fly on the dashboard documentary series from the early ’90s captivates your Northern England correspondent this week.

Image: youtube

My excuse for neither seeing nor remembering this program when first shown is due to the fact I was probably out driving most nights after work. Needlessly, I might add, but so full of enigmatic memories; cutting ones driving teeth, investing the simplest form of driving enjoyment, simply because you can.

Therefore thanks must go to DTW reader, John Topley for the mention and my subsequent dip into 1993’s Tales of Modern Motoring from the BBC. Set over five chapters covering the business representative, the family group, the female perspective, the driving couple and the one I could easily have been party to, that of the late teen – early twenties lad. 

The first thing which struck me upon watching was the lack of traffic on the roads. Even the central London shots, where the traffic is busy, but the streets are not choked with enraged motorists. In fact most places, especially those filmed in England’s North look positively empty. How times change.

More sea changes being the lack of mobile phones or roadworks, only the single visit to the Golden Arches (trips to Little Chefs being the order of the day), the youthful outpouring of parental frustrations and next to no Audis. Life on the road nearly thirty years ago looks blissful viewed in relation to the modern aggression we face daily.

But just as there are differences, there are constants too; the image conscious, people watching and characterisation, but fortunately fashion sense has moved on; too many overtly patterned jumpers are on show for anyone’s sensibilities to bear. As for the chap in his Stars and Stripes shirt and driving gloves or the lady in the lime green suit… well, taste has always been relative.

Characterful individuals abound in each episode. The endearing girl with the lisp driving a 2CV that daddy has bought for her which needed “97 or maybe 99 pounds of repair work doing”, the rep who lost it all but was back on his feet in a BMW, the eternally bickering couple and their relationship breakdown over the heater controls, the happy to be driving a Volvo family guy.

It would be easy to poke fun at some of these newfound screen stars (where are they now one wonders?) but that misses the point entirely; many of the traits shown and commented upon are easily applied to ourselves, then and now. 

The cars have changed, obviously. The Metro weighs in with several performances, in basic, MG and yellow painted forms. This particular machine comes in for a lot stick too: a pensioners shopping trolley, a girl’s car, a rubbish one, a mobile target of derision. The Fiesta and deux cheveau also feature quite prominently, but harbouring friendly warmth and for those with a penchant for the tin snail, that excellent engine thrum is an aural delight. 

A family Land Rover 110 is shown with mum driving, dad feeding the three kids Polo mints in the back and the queue of traffic behind stretching well into the distance. This family evidently adore Solihull’s finest suggesting that should everything else fail, they could pack the Landy up and head for Africa. And why not? Though I suspect they didn’t.

The reps with their Cavaliers, Sierras, Astras, BMWs et al: as long as there’s an “i” in the nomenclature, they’re moderately happy. One-upmanship is frighteningly prevalent though. Right elbow firmly planted on the windowsill, left hand fingers lightly clasping the steering wheel and a phalanx of grawlixes emanates from our eternally motorway-bound representative, should a lesser mortal attempt an overtake.

Image: goodshoutmedia

Woe betide their quarry in a base model Belmont, Carlton or, heaven forbid, van driver doing so. The driver of the Clubman Maestro takes centre stage for sheer lack of car enthusiasm; can’t think why as all manner of vehicles pass him with ease. In the rep world, egos are either bloated or crushed by the motorway mile. 

The girls get their two pen’oth in; driving Capris, MX-5s, a bright red Golf convertible with shadowed black accents and a single mum in her BMW 3 series revealing inner strength, rebelliousness and that plain old attribute for both sexes: pulling power. Or indeed misery, dependant on who she might be driving with. The back seat driving husband, forever chastising his poor missus on how she should drive his car.

Should you find the folk on screen to be too distracting, keep a keen eye on the backgrounds for differences such as a poor or missing car stereo, no charity shops or closed shop windows being whitewashed, a similar plethora of petrol stations (prices significantly lower), a picnic literally by the roadside and terrible parking practices.

Personally liking the idea of a modern version to be filmed, one suspects it would have to be sponsored by a pizza company, contain people with whitened teeth, expectant of their own reality show afterwards and egos the size of their Audi SUV. Perhaps not then.

The full episodes last just over forty five minutes each. If the weather proves too rough to take the dog out, get comfy and engage some rose-tinted theories from when car badges with eyes were relevant. You might just spot a road you know. I did. The much missed Tinsley cooling towers on the M1 on the Sheffield/Rotherham border on the Rep episode. Magical. 

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

17 thoughts on “From A to B”

  1. Thanks for digging this up. I saw the one with the woman in the Mini and wanted to see it again but could not find it. The two things that struck me about the Mini film were that the backgrounds seemed so uncluttered and it was “only” 1990. The other thing was the odd statement by the driver when she says she´s old. She´s only 40 something then – was it a common perception for 40 to be called old? I get the idea now that “old” is more a state of mind than a condition, at least until the Zimmerframe become unavoidable.
    And yes, the lack of traffic. It is a simple fact that there are way more people around now that 30 years ago. Tuesdays could look like modern Sunday.
    Just in my post box are two “Car” magazines from 1989, by the way, so this sets up the context for those issues!

    1. Good morning Richard. Yes, the perception of age has changed dramatically over my lifetime. My father was 41 when I was born (and, sadly, he died suddenly in 1992 at the age of 72) but my memories of him are all as an ‘old’ man, certainly older than I perceive myself to be at 60. It’s a strange phenomenon that is only partly explained by better general health and greater longevity today.

    2. The converse of that is the “old” person you see who seems to be dressed straight out 1980 but who is, in all likelihood was only 40 in the year 2002. You see them in Dublin; I was in Lisbon in 2019 and found a pharmacy in the city centre selling nicely packaged Portugese soap. I went in and the interior was from 1983, including the two plump ladies who can´t have been 50 but who looked as if they got dressed in 1983 (when they were probably 15 or s0). Very odd.
      I think our parents aged faster – poorer diets, I suppose. Another factor is just fashion. Many adults in 1985 dressed pretty much as they did in 1960 and that, together with excercise and nutrition, can make a 45 year-old look decades older. The images of 40-something car-executives in 1980s car magazine shows this. Then again, we live in a much more fashion-led and superficial society. When I was in university, doing science, we all wore jeans and jumpers and looked like our wardrobes were bin bags. Today, well, it seems many students (in Dublin and Denmark) have stepped out of a boutique with a fresh wardrobe!

  2. Ah, Andrew, you take me right back there, although I thought gaudy knitwear was an 1980’s phenomenon. Perhaps the strange, unfamiliar lands north of the Watford Gap were slow to get the message?

    As an aside, and nothing to do with matters automotive, have you noticed how ‘reality’ TV programmes have been utterly corrupted by the self-regarding and often bizarre behaviour of the people they now feature? Programmes like ‘Come Dine with Me’ used to feature pleasant ‘ordinary’ people with a particular interest in the skill showcased by the programme, in this case cooking and hosting guests for dinner. Now they are populated by hideous TV wannabes, desperate to be seen as a ‘big personality’ and become a celebrity of some sort. I suppose it’s a function of YouTube’s influence, but it’s no ‘reality’ I recognise. Moreover, contestants seem no longer chosen for their skill in the discipline featured by the programme, but must instead be part of a smorgasbord of diversity. Even as a member of one of those minorities*, I would feel patronised and offended if I were chosen on that basis, rather than for my skills.

    Anyway, thanks for the entertaining piece and apologies for my digression. Editor Eóin is bound to tell me off for this (again).

    *Irish and left-handed, obviously! 😁

    1. Never apologise for a little digression, Daniel – and on this one I’m in complete accord. But as one who began driving on the Queen’s highway in the ’60s, I can clearly remember in the ’90s, when I was covering around 40k miles a year, regularly complaining about how clogged with traffic the roads had become in the last 30 years…. Interesting how one’s perceptions change with age.

      Hang on a minute – age? It’s just a number – nothing else!!

  3. Was this typical of the time? The clothing and hair style (over) brighten the morning somewhat. Not that there’s much left on top now but I can’t remember ever having the inclination to comb my hair whilst driving though I do remember a friend shaving at wheel. I try to do nothing but drive; should I need a drink or fix my quiff, I’ll pull over (sorry)

    And age? Funny ole thing, innit?

  4. Is there more congestion of MOVING traffic than there was in the 1990’s? My impression- at least from the North- is that traffic is no worse/ better but that parking (Call it STATIC traffic!) is an increasing nightmare. Probably a combination of the government in the 90’s tightening up planning rules that made it harder to build edge of town shopping parks- described memorably by a Labour party spokesman of the era as “Closing the garage door after the Volvo has bolted”- which helped return “Retail” to town centres over the following decades and the recent phenomenon of new housing with no car parking; one of the sticks to reduce car travel.
    I have a pet theory that the past starts looking old fashioned very quickly put then the rate of aging slows. About the time these programs were made I saw “Clockwise” for the first time (On a long coach journey that was a school trip to Germany, that’s how I can date it). The film was only about 6 or 7 years old at the time but it looked like a distantr era. The traumatised Morris 1100, which was the real star of the film- having been more or less carjacked by John Cleese’s unravelling Headmaster character, looked much less anachronistic amongst the empty lanes and dusty sunny streets of the East Riding and Shropshire hills than the various “Modern” Maestros, Granadas and Porsche Targas that pursued it.
    Incidentally we are staying younger for longer: I had a double revelation recently that at 43 I am older than “Has been” Mike Hailwood when he came out of retirement to win the 1978 TT and older than Rosemary West was when the Police started taking an awkward interest in her backyard. Yet they both looked to be in their late 50’s and I am still almost a teenager.

    1. Congratulations to everyone looking like this and in their late 50s at the same time

  5. I loved this at the time and as a cultural document it’s just amazing.
    My favourites have to be the Vitara family, desperate to be different and sacrificing comfort to do it.
    Or the sales rep mortified by being given an Maestro.
    The woman with the Capri is the epitome of cool as I recall.

    Just classic television.

    If I was a commissioning editor in TV I’d do a series of this every seven years like the famous ‘7 UP’ documentaries —tracking habits, social behaviour, the same (or new) drivers, the general carscape and the also the wider world.

  6. I think I saw an episode of this in the 90s… I had forgotten about it entirely but it was fascinating, if I recall correctly.

    The way our concept of ‘being old’ has changed in recent decades is also fascinating: I recently registered with a new doctor and the receptionist said I didn’t have to make a getting-to-know-you appointment unless I specifically wanted to as they didn’t standardly do that for ‘young people’. I will soon turn 43, an age that in my childhood would have been very much middle-aged.

  7. As a barbarian from the continent, I have no f….g idea what you are talking about, but it is always a peasure reading.

  8. Just caught up with this Andrew, grandad duties today. I don’t remember the series on tv, but will watch when I get chance. 👍🏻

  9. I had a look at the last XR3i episode. Can anyone place the accent? I get to the Midlands and not much closer. As per the Mini episode, the world then is a lot more sparsely populated than now though it´s as close to 1961 as 2021. It looks closer to 1961 than to 2021.

    1. I don’t think it’s a midlands accent. It has an almost Australian twang to it, which means it’s more likely to be from the south east. It’s actually a bit like Sybil Fawlty’s accent.

  10. A great article Andrew and as someone who lived through those days I wish to formally record that I did not have a jumper like the one featured! Nor did I ever own a red comb..

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