Mary Kenny: 'The era of the car is over but allow me to wallow in a little nostalgia for when it represented freedom, style and status'
In the fight against climate change, it seems the era of the car is over. Remember its glory days!
All these Green political parties gaining popularity across Europe are wonderful, but we know what it means, don't we? The end of driving as we know it. The end of the motor car as we know it. The traditional combustion engine is on its way out, stigmatised as an emission polluter and a criminal cause of climate change.
Driving isn't what it used to be, anyway, and that's not just nostalgie du passé. I had reason to hire a car recently, but I had the impression that it had hired me: with the newest vehicles, it's the car in control of the motorist, not the other way around. The blasted thing had no ignition key - just a button. It had no hand-brake lever either - just another yoke you clicked on.
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When reversing, the car switched off the radio, assuming that I am too feather-brained to listen to Joe Duffy and park at the same time. These latest models are obviously a warm-up act for the driverless car, which will be permitted to a privileged few in the coming age of driving prohibition: there will be cars, but no motorists.
But allow me to wallow in a little nostalgia for a time when a motor car of one's own represented the pinnacle of freedom, style and status. In my Dublin childhood, we lived next door to a flashy, wealthy (and good-natured) family where the glamorous young daughters of the house ALL HAD THEIR OWN CARS. Sports cars. Open-topped. Red. Zipping off merrily to Sandymount, their blonde hair riffling in the wind. Talk about liberated gals!
Yes, the motor car (like the bicycle before it) was a marker and an enabler of women's liberation, although it was, understandably, more a marker of liberation for women of means. Poor women seldom had access to cars: neither did poor men. But oftentimes a woman would gain a new freedom when a car became available.
An aunt of mine who was rather timid by nature was married to a husband who, though a good man, was affronted by the sight of a woman at the wheel. No wife of his would drive, he declared. Then he died, and, as a widow, she needed to know how to use the car. She learned. And how she blossomed in the freedom - even empowerment - that automobile gave her! Those driving years were among the happiest of her life.
Unmarried schoolteachers, with their steady jobs and assured pensions, were envied as they drove their Morris Minors off to the Continent on their long holidays.
Before cars became bossy and over-sophisticated, you had to take responsibility for your vehicle. You had to rotate the wheels, so that the front wheels, especially driver's side, didn't take a disproportionate amount of wear and tear. You had to know what was under the bonnet, and what the choke was for, and how to double de-clutch. You might have to use a starting handle, if the vehicle stalled. Engines left to themselves for too long might need "warming up", which answers the pub quiz question of why a driver, in French, is called a "chauffeur" - a warmer-upper.
Cars needed to be taken out on a longer drive from time to time: it wasn't good for them just to be used for continual short trips. So a car was driven off to Wicklow, say, "just for a spin".
It was a common weekend sight to see a man - seldom a woman - lying under a parked car, tinkering with its underbelly. When vehicles were computerised, out went the tinkering. Henceforth, the machine took over.
Men once talked endlessly about cars, although to intellectuals, this was shallow conversation: note the derision in John Betjeman's renowned poem of invective against soulless suburbia, 'Slough', where he alludes to the dim young clerks who "talk of sports and makes of cars/In various bogus-Tudor bars". Yet my brothers talked enthusiastically about cars, and I thought the conversation sparkling. You could even discern the politics of the discourse: Ford's 1925 Model T vehicle which was built for the masses, while the exquisite Bugattis and the fabled Hispano-Suizas were for the gilded classes.
Conversations that children hear influence them. There was a consensus of opinion, among the brothers, that French cars were tops, "because of the suspension", (whatever that was). These roadsters were tested in rallies in Monte Carlo and the North African desert. That sounded so glamorous. To this day, I drive a French car, and bless it, it's terrifically robust, and, being an older model, still lets me make the driving decisions.
The writing is on the wall for the private car, even if you wouldn't guess it from the congested motorways and aggressive parking wars. But Transport Minister Shane Ross has sounded the death knell: motorists are to be forced out of their present vehicles by 2030. Carbon tax will be ruinous. Excise duty will be punitive. Petrol and diesel prices will be astronomical.
As it happens, younger people seem to be less interested in driving, anyway. For those living in cities, I am told, it has become a status symbol now not to have a car, and not to know how to drive.
Yes, the era of the car is over: people in the future will look back nostalgically on the glory days of the internal combustion engine. Ah, the gluaisteán: the first Irish word my brother James ever taught me!