Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Of Cars and Men
This is a photo of our 13th Volvo. I wonder if this is a world record? I hope number 13 is lucky for us. Number 12 was both lucky and unlucky. With a view to retiring and getting a car that would last 'forever' I bought a Volvo V70 in early 2006. Unlike company cars which religiously had to be changed every four years, this car would last a life time. However I was to learn the wisdom of my philosopher Uncle Frank who regularly says 'men make plans, and God laughs'
On Good Friday 2007, just over one year later I was driving down to our summer house in Wexford. We had just sold it and I was planning to tidy it for the new owners. I thought it would be my last visit. And it very nearly was. It was a beautiful sunny day, the road was narrow put perfectly straight. I saw a big 4 by 4 BMW approach. I pulled over. I expected him to do the same. I at first thought he had seen me and it was just typical big car bad manners. I should have blown the horn. I thought it might be bad manners. Crash. The noise filled the quiet countryside. Fortunately I had almost stopped my car and had brought it as far off the road as possible. The front of the big BMW came apart and the wheel went over my car and stopped less than three feet behind me. The big 4 by 4 weighing over two tons continued to travel in a perfectly straight line and caught the car behind me also.
As I got out of my car both shaken and stirred I counted myself lucky to be alive and unscathed. So I pose the question: was car number 12 lucky or unlucky? The Wexford locals left the fields and gardens to offer help. Within minutes we had tea, sympathy, two fire brigades and one ambulance - or perhaps the other way around. The personnel in the fire brigade commented that if I had been driving any other car I would be dead. Wow!
I explained to my wife later that night that I had been driving Volvo cars for 25 years for that very day. In gratitude to God and to Volvo we decided we could buy only one marque - Volvo - and so we ended up buying Volvo number 13. Car number 12 was a write off. The Volvo dealership confirmed the same. Amazingly and incredibly the insurance company insisted on mitigating their loss and directed me to sell it to some poor crash repair specialist who struggled I believe to sell it. It made me wonder about insurance companies. It was my first time coming in contact with insurance assessors and I certainly hope it is my last.
So we have explained the birth of Volvo number 13. How do we explain baby Volvos 1 to 12? What does it say about us? Our children are appalled by our lack of imagination. They have never known what it is to sit in another car. Do cars say something about our personalities? If pets begin to begin to look like their owners over time, can the same be said of cars?
They say the original VW Golf weighed about half what it weighs today. Have we humans got bigger or is the middle age spread due to improved safety measures? Why is it that most cars look and sound the same? As a five year old I remember at night lying in my bed listening to the cars driving up Landscape Park. I could tell a VW from a Ford and a Citroen from a Rover. Their engines sounded distinctly different. Today all we can hear is the whoosh of tyres. Maybe that is a good thing.
The question was once asked, why do blonde's drive BMW's? And the answer was 'because it is the only marque they can spell'. There may be a ring of truth to it. Have you noticed that people in bigger cars often but not always drive more aggressively and typically rank lower for good manners on the road?
How can we explain emergence of the gas guzzling 4 by 4's? Cars with all wheel drive that never leave the leafy suburbs of comfortable South County Dublin. Driving a big car reminds me of the gun lobby in the States. Driving a big car is a deterrent. It is called getting your retaliation in first.
I try not to pigeonhole people but do any of thse sterotypes ring true? People who drive the new mini (also owned by BMW) must be pretty and sport pony tails and sun glasses that sit on their fair hair. People who dive Skodas are mostly farmers who know a bargain when they see one and want to buy a car that will last for years or at least until Fianna Fail leave Government. Alfa drivers are romantics who believe that life is too short to worry about resale values. Merc drivers fall into a number of categories including petty criminals and company directors, and yes, there is a difference. Saab drivers are would be Swedish military aircraft pilots. Volvo drivers are notoriously boring and wear cardigans. Drivers of white vans are all related to Michael Schumacher, but generally drive faster than him. People who buy Toyota generally want their cars to outlive them, except perhaps recently. Lexus are for people who cannot spell Toyota.
How often do you bring your car for a wash? Do you polish it at the weekend? Do you vacuum the boot? Sounds sad, but in many cases is true, I confess. It has been noticed that young men who would regularly wash shine and polish their car in their twenties suffer a miraculous change once they mature to their thirties and get a company car. They discover that these cars do not need to be washed, can be parked high on kerbs and left with the door unlocked and the keys in the ignition.
I have a terrible habit of glancing into parked cars to see what I can learn about their owners. You would be surprised. Once I was very surprised. I found a pair of twins no more than a year old happily playing with the dog who alone of the three did not have a baby seat. I can tell who is going on a camping holiday, who has come back and who is not sure whether they are coming or going. You can find out what cigarettes they smoke, or indeed don't. You can discover their favourite sweets, Lidl purchase, DVD collection and garden furniture.
My first three cars were VW's. Three Beatles that clocked over 100,000 miles and never saw the inside of a garage. I stopped at a filling station one hot summer's afternoon in Omagh in 1972. The car I had been driving for over a year (I did stop at night) was showing signs of over heating. The mechanic was very attentive. He dropped everything and came to my help. I was in clerical garb at the time. I went to open the bonnet. The mechanic tried to save my blushes - 'the engine is in the back, Father'. He went on to explain that the VW was oil cooled - there was no radiator - front or back. Fortunately I never had to open the bonnet again to display my ignorance. This included a late summer evening when driving through Fermanagh and I was stopped by the local Protestant volunteer force. Insisting on calling me 'Sir' they asked me to open the bonnet. The bloody thing was jammed. They offered to blow it open. With the courage of insanity and innocence I told them in no uncertain terms they would not shoot my bonnet open. On reflection I am not sure who was more surprised - me or the young volunteers. My VW made its way to Cardonagh safely that evening only for the engine to blow. I had to be towed into Derry the next day as a car bomb exploded in the street behind - but that is for another post.
I think we all, well men at least, remember our first car with fondness. My first car was a Triumph 1300 with leather seats and mahogany dashboard. I was its fourth owner and it had officially 120,000 miles on the clock. It would break down on average once a trip. I did however learn how to open the bonnet. Indeed the bonnet spent more time open than shut. My future mother in law was most impressed when I drove her and her fair daughter into town for a meal. She was less than impressed when the car broke down outside Jurys in Ballsbridge and I asked my unimpressed passengers if they had a spare pair of tights to substitute for the fan belt. They made their excuses and made their way home on the 8 bus. I had to abandon the car and walk home to Churchtown. From then on I bought only new cars. As a result I have not looked inside a bonnet for thirty years. I would not know where to find the lever to release it. I suppose this is what we call progress.