19 Apr 2013

The Halcyon Days of Motoring (and why you’ve probably missed them)

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” said Leonardo da Vinci.  A creed that seems to have been ignored by modern car manufacturers and many consumers.   @LeahRebeccaUK wonders if we've strayed too far from Leonardo's observation.

Not long ago in a galaxy not far away, driving in the UK was a fun, stress-free and enjoyable past-time. You’re giggling, aren’t you? No, it really was. Imagine that roads did not have pot-holes large enough to swallow Minis whole, that there was no such thing as a speed camera and, oh yes, that there was about 80% less traffic on them then now.

And no such thing as road-rage. Or traffic jams. Gone. Simply. Didn’t. Exist. Still giggling? Thought not. Now imagine a universe (does that sound a bit Carl Sagan? Never mind) where if you did ever break down anywhere, that the sight of a car with its bonnet up at the side of the road would guarantee that some kind soul would stop, whether you were a fella or a girl - and usually within ten minutes, ask what the problem was and, between the two of you, be able to figure where to put the plaster and you’d be happily on your way again.

Imagine all this, however difficult, because motoring in days gone by was really like this. And I don’t think we’ll see them again. And no, I’m not that old.

I can remember getting a lift into college once a week in a friends Morris Minor (I say my friends, actually I think it was his Mother's, but I digress), which was always a bit of an 'experience’ (the car journeys - not his Mother). I remember him casually announcing one day that the heater had stopped working. To be honest, I didn’t like him enough to offer to fix it, which meant that every winter I had to attack the ice that had built up on the inside of the windows with a lighter and scraper so that he could actually see where we were going. I felt this quite important.

This wasn’t a problem in summer however, which is when he’d usually adjust the windscreen washers so that they pointed sideways, enabling him to soak people at bus-stops (girls, usually), cyclists, other cars (especially the police), and general passers-by without fear of us ever being tasered or receiving death-threats, because everyone took it as it was intended to be taken - which was a bit a cheeky fun. Just that. A laugh. A giggle (please don’t google giggle).

It sometimes feels that ‘having fun’ is something which was made illegal a few years ago in the U.K, but at that time it definitely wasn’t. Definitely. Yes, motoring has indeed changed a great deal in the last thirty years, but maybe not as much as the people, our attitudes, and the world in which we live has.

The Pace of Technology

The first car I ever owned, and indeed passed my test in (six lessons, one test - ha!) was a Ford Cortina MkII estate, and this would be around ‘82. I think it may once have been red. Strangely, and not by design, the next four cars I owned after that were also all MkII Cortinas; Blue. All of them; (a 1600 auto - yuk, a 1600 ‘deluxe’ (I think it had an ashtray), the obligatory 1600E and finally, the much rarer 1500GT - something I didn’t know at the time #bugger) and I remember them all with great fondness.

I miss polishing the chrome most, and that took about three hours. Also that 1600cc crossflow engine was easy to get to and work on, and I never had a breakdown that I couldn’t fix at the side of the road. However, a friend at the time had a yellow (I rather like yellow cars) MkI Escort 1600, and I coveted it badly. I would have swapped them all for it, and it wasn’t just because of the colour.

There was just ‘something’ about how it looked, and I remember how nimble and agile it felt to drive, even compared to my Cortina. Perhaps that Escorts seemed to win everything on the RAC and world rallies at one time slightly clouded my judgement about them, but it honestly felt like you could just throw anything at it, and it’d be able to handle it all with graceful fun aplomb.

Driving it was fun, but then, driving anything was fun! And cheap. Fuel was cheap and insurance was cheap and sometimes, if unable to sleep, I’d jump in the car and drive to Brighton from Surrey, just for something to do and to blow out the cobwebs. At three in the morning. Ok, so maybe Im a bit odd, but there was just something special about driving back then.

Everyone helped everyone else. Motorists had a comradery now only enjoyed by bikers. You had a safety net, and the roads were a safe place to be. I’ll tell you something now, as a young girl driving the roads of Surrey and West Sussex (I’ve always been very independent) I never once felt threatened by anyone or by anything that happened on the roads. I never felt intimidated, and back then I used to drive on my own a lot.

And do you know why? We were all nice to each-other, we all helped each other, and everyone seemed to know how to drive, ride, and have fun. Driver aids? Uhm no, not really. The only driving aids available were a “Smiths” aftermarket stick-on rear screen heater, some wooden bead affair you could tie to the back of your seats to improve your posture (or something), a nasty vinyl steering-wheel cover to match your nasty vinyl seats, and a compass you could attach to your windscreen if you were a scout. That’s it. And know what? We were happy.

Rose-tinted Memories

It’s funny how we remember things, isn’t it? Maybe much depends on how we want to...

A few years ago now I had the opportunity to drive a MkI Escort again (now worth a lot of money). For a weekend no less, and wow was I looking forward to it. Even though it wasn’t yellow. (See? I’m versatile.)

But something went very wrong right from the outset and it was somehow not quite how I’d remembered it to be. I climbed aboard and immediately noticed that some idiot had fitted a steering-wheel from a truck, stolen the dashboard, moved the pedals much closer together, and halved the glass area and cabin space.

Oh dear, oh very dear. I peered suspiciously at a control marked “Choke" and realised quickly that I’d forgotten just how basic old cars actually are. Very soon, I was also reminded how terrible the heating, lighting and ventilation systems are, followed by how very damn loud they are (four-speed box, remember), and finally how much they shake should you try to take them on a motorway. (Just don’t - trust me on this one).

It felt like I was sitting in a steel box that had some windows in it and a washing machine in the boot, full of bricks and on full spin. The steering nimbleness and handling I’d remembered had somehow disappeared into a rose-tinted haze and I actually wondered if the front tyres were flat. Or even present.

Oh yes - no servo-assisted steering, ah. My arms started hurting. As soon did my right leg - it felt like the brake servo was broken too with the amount of effort needed on the middle pedal before much started happening. And my god, did it roll! It almost felt French!

That agile rally-winning pocket rocket from my past had somehow tranformed into a monster whose rear suspension had been replaced with something similar to pogo-sticks and a space-hopper. Oh yes, I remember now. Leaf-springs - hmmm. Let’s just say it was 'bouncy’ at the rear (the car, not me), that it had vague woolly steering, and that it always wanted to oversteer.

It was a proper handful and, without the benefit of servo-assisted convenience and progress, I’d forgotten just how much effort you had to put into simply driving (and stopping) the things, and I was utterly exhausted.

I’d eventually got the hang of it (read, I can be a stubborn cow), but it was the amount of effort you had to put into the controls before they actually seemed to work that I’d forgotten - or that our progress had made me forget. There was nothing really wrong with that Escort, and my observations were in comparison to a more ‘modern’ car (The Puma) #seewhatididthere - that’s just how older cars feel to drive, but the point is I’d forgotten all this because I’d been spoiled by the progress of a technology that we’ve all taken for granted and gotten so accustomed to. Well, that and a poor memory, maybe. Oh, and I don’t want to own a MkI Escort anymore, thank you. No, not even a yellow one.

But where to stop

Most of my girlfriends do, eventually, learn to put up with the fact that I like cars. They think I’m I bit weird maybe, but they put up with it. It does also sometimes come in handy. Lots of them have asked me for advice, which I’m always happy to give. Some of their parents have now also too, which I’m also delighted to give. However, there are some of them who drive, and with whom I’ll never get into a car, again. (You know - the sort of people who’ll happily drive a car while ‘driving a car’ is, apparently, thirteenth on their list of things they should be doing).

People like that behind a wheel scare me a lot, and it was one of these who called me the other month to say her Mum had just bought a new car, and that it was brilliant and that I’d love ‘it’. On asking what ‘it’ was, she said her Mum couldn’t remember (‘it’ is a Vauxhall - I really don’t love it) but that it was brilliant because it would heat the steering-wheel, gear selector and hand-brake for you when it was cold. And this was brilliant, right?

This person had bought a new car and had decided on this model because it had this feature. There might well have been quite a long pause. I think I was biting through my bottom lip, having not quite decided whether to laugh or cry, ergo avoiding having to commit. (This is the stuff of quantum physics, you know!?) “Uhm.. have you never heard of gloves?” I remember thinking later, would have been an excellent thing to say at this point. (I can always think of brilliant retorts - anywhere between five minutes to five days after the event, which does tend to blunt its effectiveness a tad.) But this also got me thinking (and you may want to run).

With modern cars now having more and more technology aboard - seemingly whether we want it or not - is there now not a danger of that technology getting in the way of driving the things, rather than making it easier? Or cosseting us to such a degree that we become numbed to the responsibilities of driving properly or even safely? Now don’t get me wrong, here. I believe that there has been a vast number of improvements made cars over the past twenty-five years or so, that do indeed save lives and also makes our time easier behind the wheel. I need a list here (it’s ok, I’ve got crayons) and it’s not very long.

Dual-circuit braking systems, ABS, power assisted steering, Impact crumple-zones, Anti-dive seats, Seatbelt pre-tensioners, Airbags, and Engine Management Systems.

These are, I feel, THE big and effective changes which made progresses to vehicles over the past twenty-years. And don’t worry - whatever you are driving, they’re on your car right now. (Unless you’ve an Escort MkI). Not a long list, is it? It took me about a year to get used to ABS because years of driving without it rather got you used to the fact that you could brake hard - or you could steer, but not both at the same time.

Very importantly,having ABS, or any of these systems, didn’t change how I drove. Knowing I could be doing an emergency stop while steering never made me drive more quickly or more recklessly just because I knew the system was there. It was just a safety-net. A way to control my car more safely, especially in extreme conditions. Something which made me, and the people around me, less likely to come to harm.

Progress for whom, exactly?

I’m not, but if I were in the market for a new car today as well as the systems listed above, I’d probably find it to have the following fitted too; Parking Sensors, Parking Assist, Electronic Stability Control, Emergency Brake Assist, Traction Control, Automatic lights, Automatic wipers, I-Drive (or similar), Automatic collision avoidance system, Electronic hand-brake, and an In-car Internet and Wifi connectivity system. Oh yes, not forgetting the “keep your handies warm if it’s cold” system, as fitted by Vauxhall on their brilliant cars.

Good bloody grief. I have a problem with many of those systems and I’m going to be controversial now. I don’t want 'em. Not a one. I can reverse park, I can brake, and I know when to turn my lights and wipers on, thank-you (told you I was independent).

The day I need a bloody computer to tell me I’m not braking hard enough not to hit the car in front, is the day I’ll hand in my keys for good. I’d notice that all by myself, honestly I would! I’ve actually got most those systems in my car, anyway. I call them my feet, my hands, my eyes and my brain and they all work very well, thanks (I’ve been tested, and everything).

If you want to check your Facebook page, or update your Twitter feeds while you’re driving a car, I’d really rather prefer that you wern’t on the same roads as me. If you don’t bother to look where you’re going very often - mainly because you know that if anything does get in the way, you know the computer will get you out of any trouble, then I also don’t want you on the same roads as me.

If you seriously want to travel safely about the land with your face glued to your phone or tablet, or if you have the attention span of the lesser-spotted wombat, there is already a very safe transportation system in place for you, and everyone around you. It’s called a train, a taxi, or a bus. Your place really is not behind the wheel of a car.

The closest I’ve come to an accident recently was when I noticed a BMW driving down the centre of a road at me. The driver was not looking out of his window at all, and it took a parp of my horn to promote any change. As he passed, he held up a hand in apology, wound down the passenger window, and said he’d been trying to adjust something, and that he hadn’t noticed me. My car is yellow, looks like a migraine on wheels, and he hadn’t noticed me. Why he felt the need to do this on the fly, I’ve no idea and simply cannot comprehend. But because cars can do stuff like this now, things like this will happen more and more. Progress? Really?

There are a couple more things you’ll get with a new car these days too. If you’re very lucky, you’ll get a spacesaving emergency wheel, and if you’re not, you’ll have a hole where you used to have a spare tyre, and somewhere in that hole will be a can or two of something to squirt into your punctured tyre to repair and inflate it, which the AA says 70% of the time doesn’t work. In what possible way of measuring, is this progress!?

Spacesaver wheels - which are pretty expensive and have a maximum safe speed rating of just 40 mph, came about because manufacturers told us it meant we had more luggage room, and we bought it. Well, you lot did - mine has a full-size spare and alloy wheel. If you’ve not driven on a spacesaver, let me tell you now that they feel horrible and dangerous to drive on - especially on the front. Imagine putting a bicycle wheel on your car, and expecting it to feel the same as it did before. Not going to happen. You can’t help but think that both of these things were driven by costs and convenience to the manufacturers - not for you as a driver, at all. And this is progress, right?

I wonder how long will it be before all new cars are fitted with a ‘black box’ recorder device? Something which will notice you pulled a ‘g’ in that last corner, something that noticed you’d driven at 43mph in a 40, and then decided it ought to inform your insurance company about it? Or the police?

Oh, it’s coming I’d bet, whether you like it or not. So where does all this leave drivers like me? Proper old-school drivers, who learned how to cadence brake, and how to drive in the snow and to control a skid, because our cars had no other way of doing it other than us learning how? Right now, I drive a car which is eleven years old. It has everything on it I need and want in a car, and that’s not much. In the way of driver-aids, it has ABS, it has traction-control, and it has aircon, and that’s about it.

Because it’s a 'modern’ car, its lights, ventilation and heating systems all work just fine. When it rains, I notice it’s raining, and I turn the wipers on. And when it gets dark, I notice it’s gone dark, and I’ll turn the lights on so that I can see. That’s worked pretty well for me for the past thirty-odd years, and so I think I’m happy sticking to what I know, which is to drive a car that doesn’t interfere (or try to help) with my driving of it.

We’ve already got something here in the UK that tells us what to do all the time, and what’s best for us. It’s called “The Government" and I’m not much of a fan of that, either. I certainly don’t want my car to start joining in.