People used to joke that when your plane landed at Auckland airport, they announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to New Zealand, please put your watches back twenty years.” And yet it was Australia that felt like that to me when I first arrived in 1997. It was the cars, mainly. I hadn’t seen so many cars from the 1960s and 1970s on the road since, well, the 1960s and the 1970s. But there they were, all shiny and new-looking, plastic upholstery a-gleamin’ in the sunshine. I felt I’d slipped back in time.
And so nobody blinked an eye when we bought a 1974 Mazda Capella. We named her Beryl because her bright yellow paintwork was as bright and breezy as a sundress. She had a metal sun visor across the top of the windscreen which made me think of a French nun’s winged headpiece, so maybe she should really have been Bernadette. She was a total dog to drive but it was hard not to smile as we loped along the road.
The archetypal Australian car at that time was a Holden or Ford with big six- or eight-cylinder engines. Coming from the UK, where a car with a 2-litre engine was seen as a bit racy, I thought it would be fun to have one of those monsters. These were the last days of cheap petrol and mindless fuel consumption and I loved my Holden Commodore with its 3-litre engine although I wasn’t quite so smitten with the 4-litre Ford that followed it, even if I enjoyed the effortless surge of power when I put my foot down.
The cars that I’ve owned might not make it apparent that I’ve always loved cars. It’s an interest I keep relatively quiet about, like my love for film music, mainly because others don’t seem to understand it. Especially my partner. If he hires a car when he’s away for work, I’ll ask him what sort it is and he’ll say, “Blue.”
I spent many happy hours as a child sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car, eyes glued to the road ahead, spotting the things that mattered. Like what made a car an LS and not a GLS (usually less chrome and plainer wheels). I spent time considering the ins and outs of the Austin Allegro’s square steering wheel, and felt a frisson of joy whenever I spotted exotic machines like the NSU Ro80 or Citroen SM. I even had a letter published in CAR magazine complaining about the lack of faces on modern cars (circa 1976) although I haven’t the foggiest why I signed it Cohen de Bizet.
My interest was always about the look of the car, never the mechanicals. I despaired at how British car makers got it so wrong so often, adding clumsy details or making the windows too small. When France gave us streamlined cars like the Citroen GS and CX, Britain offered potato wedges like the frightful Austin Princess. There were exceptions, of course, but mainly in the upper echelons of car production, and a convertible Jensen Interceptor would always make me drool.
As a teenager, I loved the idea of luxury, like armrests in the rear seat and pull-down tables and walnut-burr dashboards. Details thrilled me, like the way a Lancia had a curtain to pull across the rear window to shade passengers. Fabric seats seemed outrageously plush to someone who had spent his childhood sliding about on polished leatherette, although I do remember the crackly brushed nylon in our 1970s Peugeot that was every bit as nasty (and brown) as that sounds. Sunroofs gave me palpitations, and don’t mention alloy wheels…
Ever since that misspent youth, I’ve followed the car industry with interest. The car has always been a reflection of social times, from the Trabant in the old GDR to the current vogue for electric cars. The 1980s saw the proliferation of ‘world cars’ which demonstrated the arrival of the global village. It meant that a vehicle designed, say, in Germany by Opel might be given a few tweaks – a new nose, a different engine – to become a Chevrolet, a Vauxhall or a Holden in other world markets. That made the lumpy-custard British offerings look decidedly individual, and (almost) something to be cherished, although most were soon consigned to the grave.
By the mid-80s, the yuppie had arrived and young men with gelled hair drove GTI’s and BMWs (Beemers). There were superminis that were faster than Ferraris and suddenly Range Rovers didn’t look out of place on the King’s Road. The car became not only an expression of your wealth but a symbol of which tribe you belonged to. Were you a Volvo person (seen as caring and safe) or were you a Toyota person (seen as brand-blind and careful with the pennies)?
Style-wise, the 1990s was a rather limp period with lots of weak-chinned, jelly-mould cars but when the new century dawned, things perked up. Cars looked determinedly different from each other – Fiats reclaimed Italian style, BMWs knitted their headlamp brows to prove the brand was the ultimate driving machine, and numerous little oddities livened up the scene, ranging from the twerky little Ford Ka (a hint of the old Citroen 2CV) to a Bentley that made little boys (i.e. most men) go ‘cor!’ again.
We’re currently in the SUV period where no one thinks it’s the least bit odd to drive around in something the size of an old Ford Transit. Even with a shift towards the electric motor, style remains everything. With all the shiny paintwork, huge wheels, and blinding LED lights, it’s increasingly difficult to tell whether a car is a bog-standard Hyundai or a pricey Maserati.
The reason I’m dwelling on cars is that I feel like a change. My VW has been reliable and does everything with minimal fuss but I never walk back to it in the car park and think: gosh, that’s stunning. It’s got more gadgetry than my teenage self would ever have imagined possible (no curtains, though) but its lack of gorgeousness is keenly felt. It’s hard to know what to replace it with. And as I ponder that, I’m beginning to realise that I don’t really like cars so much nowadays. They’re all so blingy and blobby. They might turn my head for five minutes but I’m soon bored again.
So maybe it’s no surprise that, when I really think about it, the car I would most love to own is one from the past – a Citroen DS. That car stunned the world when it first appeared in 1955 and made me sigh with pleasure whenever I spied one as we drove through France in the 1970s. It still looks utterly gorgeous, which is why advertisers plonk them in ads for everything from jewellery to perfume. It might not have heated seats or be able to park itself but if I could only put back the clock twenty years, I’m sure I’d be able to snap up a real beauty.
Do cars matter to you?
Hi Colin and thank you for a fun post! Yes, cars do matter to me, but mostly because I need them to get from A to B. Canberra doesn’t have the fabulous public transport systems found in other modern cities around Australia and the world. (We are only just getting a light rail system, a century after Walter Burley Griffin suggested it!). If I had a choice now, I’d swap my recent-model turbo Ford Focus for a Smart Car or (for a quirky and fun run around), a pea-green Citroen 2CV.
My head is all for public transport but my heart hankers after the car. I can see you in a racy Focus but I might have to fight you for a 2CV which I simply adore, although that umbrella-handle gearstick would take some getting used to!
Reading this post, I just knew you’d lose your heart to a Citroën! I don’t care much about cars but the little I do is exactly like you: aesthetics. You have inspired me to go with my heart next year when I replace the horribly boring if efficient Audi A3 I leased 3 years ago. The only car I’ve ever owned that pulled my heartstrings was my first Nissan Micra. It had a cute little curvy body at a time when everything was boxy. By the way, I’ve just finished watching ‘Wanted’ a fabulous TV series that set off both cars and your country’s fabulous landscapes to advantage. Australian production I think but much of it set in NZ. Absolutely stunning!
I know, I know, I’m so predictable. I’ll be getting a double chevron tattoo next… And predictable is what our Bauhaus-mobiles feel like, too. I was inspired recently by meeting a friend who drove up in a very slinky little roadster and said: dammit, who cares if it’s a mid-life crisis, I want some fun! Hear, hear! Will compare notes anon…
(And thanks for the recommendation for ‘Wanted’ – for some reason, it escaped under the radar but I’ll seek it out.)
Great post and that Citroen is gorgeous. We have a (dull but) practical convertible Audi. For UK holiday trips, we also have a 1967 split-screen VW Camper called Scarlett who is adorable – quite like the old milk floats – and whose upkeep mainly consists of hooking a large hosepipe back onto an outlet every hundred miles or so, but she doesn’t get out as much as she should at the moment. As I don’t actually drive myself (I never learned) I am relieved of the pressure to choose practicality over beauty and I would opt for a Karmann Ghia over most things, as I’ve loved them since I was a teenager
I can imagine the Audi convertible is very handy for transporting a too-tall Art Deco mirror or chandelier, if one just happened to pass one that was calling out to you. But how glorious to have the split-screen Camper – surely the best sort. I bet you raise a lot of smiles from people when you drive it. Good choice with the Karmann – I used to find them too weird but somehow they’ve become rather slinky and beautiful now…
In short no.. Though I wouldn’t mind a Citroen DS or a 1920’s Bugatti, purely for aesthetic reasons.
I currently drive a ten year old four door Smart and will probably keep it till it disintegrates, like my last car.
I once had an Alfa that gave me no choice – it virtually disappeared in front of my eyes. I think the Smart is a, er, smart choice, though I’m sure pottering down to Collioure in a Bugatti would truly take the cake!
I have never been interested in cars and sitting through an entire episode of “Top Gear” would be torture for me. But it’s funny how the Citroen DS is also my favourite car of all time. Probably because I grew up in France at a time when they were still common and had the kudos of being the ‘voiture presidentielle’ used by different French Presidents. The sleek silhouette is a design classic. And I love the play on words itself: when DS is pronounced in French, it sounds like ‘déesse’ ie. goddess. Very suitable indeed!
Yes, truly a goddess among cars, although the presidential cars were often given some odd tweaks to accommodate greater vision and taller hats. And still an inspiration to designers to do something different.
Not really but I spent a lot of my childhood in a Volvo estate which my father drove until it fell to pieces so I’ve got a fondness for a Volvo. Before that he had a gorgeous blue Rover – that was a lovely car. We’ve got a green Mini but it hardly gets used. The bus stop is right outside where we live and we can be in central London in 40 mins if we’re luck or an hour and a half today if they’re digging up every bloody road there is (closing the Embankment I think) and doing something unspeakable in Oxford street.
The cars of our childhood leave a lasting impression (slippery seats, in my case) that is more emotional than rational, as it should be. I used to drive around London when I lived there and thought nothing of parking in Soho or wherever – times have changed, I think!
Some people still do it but the congestion charge makes things a bit more complicated as does the traffic and the buses have got a lot better.
Clearly cars matter to you very much!
I never really took much notice of cars until I started to drive and even then they were of limited interest. But all the cars I have owned I have loved, to the extent that buying a new one was quite an emotional experience.
I find car design today to be awful. Come back sleek, come back stylish.
Lovely to hear all your views though.
Thank you, Francesca. Like you, hoping for something sleek and stylish!
I have come here, via your quality post on FBK. It strikes me there are threads drawing these two posts together?
Cars that are ‘bling & blobby’ feel to me like quality replaced with features – a trend we see in other industries, right?
That + my age (and yours, I suspect!), means reverting to older models. In my case, that’s keeping a perfectly adequate functioning & beautiful Mercedes CLS from 2006. Not quite as old as your DS but reflecting in quality in design.
Hi David, thanks for visiting. I remember the first time I saw a CLS, thinking i) what on earth is that? and then ii) thinking it reminded me of the sort of coach-built cars of the pre-1960s like bespoke Bentley Continentals with swooping lines. It had that vibe, so I can quite understand your love for it. (And yes, I suspect if I go back over my other blogposts I’ll discover more that criticise the on-going failings of quality in design….)
You’ve summarised it well – swooping lines are ‘my thing’
p.s. speaking of swooping lines:
Wow. I have never seen that Phantom Corsair… What utter beauties!
I’ve enjoyed reading this. I’m now lovingly thinking of my first car a 1965 (year of my birth) white Morris 1100, red vinyl seats, a bent lollipop gear stick, and an enormously wide bus sized steering wheel. Why do they make steering wheels so tiny now? I suppose it was rather a plainly styled English car but sooo much more fun to drive than my current (boring but oh so reliable) Toyota.
I think first cars are always the best, even with gigantic bus steering wheels. But there’s just that small matter of electric windows, power steering and great loudspeakers that they didn’t have… 🙂