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?