Thursday, February 07, 2008

Motorway Madness

It occurs to me that few people actually appreciate driving any more. It has become something of a modern chore. We are no longer impressed by the technology of the combustion engine. It's old hat. No one utters an "oooo" or an "ahhh" if you roll up in a new sports car any more. They just think you're a flash git with more money than sense. Few people still admire the car and a growing minority even go so far as to demonise it.

As if to hammer home my point, I'm sitting in a coffee shop opposite an exhibition stand with a brand new Ferrari parked on it. Now, I'm fairly sure that had this been 1963 there would have been a small, clamouring crowd, all trying to get a look at the Italian racing car with the prancing horse on the bonnet. Not today. There are some glances from casually interested business-folk and that's your lot. The car is spurned, passed over for a frothy bastardisation of a "coffee" and a cheap life-style magazine.

It comes down to one single and, in fairness, obvious observation: there are too many of them! Sports cars, family cars, big cars, mad cars, all cars. Just Too Many.

Excluding those of you who live in Nebraska, when was the last time you actually enjoyed driving somewhere? Just getting about has become such a hassle these days, no one actually considers motoring as a pass-time any more. It's simply a means to an end. A necessary evil.

Every morning for the last two weeks I have hopped in my car at around 0900 GMT and headed for the M25, London's ring road and Europe's most notorious car park. Every morning, without fail, I endure a terrifying battle of nose-to-tail duelling for the fast lane, which is a joke, because the "fast" lane is travelling at 50mph if you're lucky, just like every other lane. It also stops abruptly every few minutes or so for no apparent reason.

I'm writing this piece to kill some time in the airport. I'm at London Stansted and, all being well, in about three hours I'll be in Milan. Well actually I'll be in Bergamo, which any Italian will tell you is nowhere near Milan, but Ryanair aren't too hot on geography, so I will have to pile out of the airport, in to a car, and straight in to the customary thirty-mile traffic jam in to Milan proper.

And neither of these two European examples of a global pandemic can hold a candle to the Washington Beltway at 1800 EST on a Friday evening. People set out to get from New Jersey to Maryland with a month's-worth of tinned supplies, just in case. My cousin's husband set out with a hunting rifle once, which landed him in a lot of trouble, but that's a whole other story, and no, he didn't shoot anybody.

In most of England there is no such thing as leisure driving any more. I take the Lotus out on a weekend for a tour of the country lanes and within two corners I have come across someone who believes their Nissan Micra is hard limited to 35mph. There endeth the fun. There is an endless stream of traffic coming the other way and I am now stuck behind said individual all the way to wherever I'm going. And even if I manage to pass them, two corners later I'm behind another one.

I could rant about the standard of driving in this country (it is a fact that you will fail your UK driving test if you pootle along at 35mph on an open, unrestricted A-road, and there seem to be a crazy number of folk who do this and the old bill seem to merrily ignore them) but I don't think people today are any worse at driving than they were forty years ago. I don't think there are any more bad drivers as a percentage either. We just notice them more because when the roads are as jam-packed as they are, these people cause even more chaos.

Which is why I think I will take to driving at night. My motorway journey to the airport at 0430 this morning was positively pleasant. For the first time in I can't remember when, the motorway was busy, but in a good way. There were plenty of people about but I could cruise at 80mph in the outside lane, effortless pull out to glide by the spattering of 18-wheelers on their way to various ports and depots, not once did I have to brake or even alter my speed because, as was the intension when 3-lane roads were invented, there is always a spare lane.

This is how motorways are supposed to be. It's a far cry from an average journey up the M1, which typically goes something like this: you're just free of the horrific mess that is the M25 when you slam in to the two hour queue to get through Bedfordshire. Then you have about thirty miles of being stuck behind a diesel saloon hogging the fast lane before you're queuing again to get through Leicestershire. Nottinghamshire is no better and your joy at being free of Derby will be almost immediately tempered by a seventeen-mile tail-back caused by an over-turned caravan. At this point you decide to stop for the night, because you clearly aren't going to make the Scottish border this side of midnight.

So what has this got to do with classic motoring? As I drove along the motorway this morning, it occurred to me I was getting a real sense of what the brave new world of motorways must have felt like to the middle-class populous who could afford the cars to use them. Cruising from London to Edinburgh at 90mph in a Jaguar E-Type must've been an absolute joy, and there were no speed limits. (Allegedly, the existence of the AC/Shelby Cobra and the numerous attempts to set land-speed records somewhere between Luton and Leicester in the late-1960s is at least partially to blame for the 70mph limit we have nowadays. Plod was not amused.)

I can't help but feel I was born in the wrong era and I've missed all the fun.

There was a window of perhaps twenty-five years when motorways were a quick and efficient way of getting from A to B, but alas that time now seems to be well and irretrievably behind us. Cars are too cheap and it's a shameful report on our public transport network that in spite of the state of our motorway network, the masses still prefer it to our woefully poor and grossly over-priced railways.

One final musing: in this modern world, why is it the privileged few who still seem to be willing and able to splash a decent amount of cash on their motor seem largely to purchase ludicrous 4x4 "sports utility vehicles", as the American's call them? Range Rovers with silly alloy wheels, unusably low-profile tyres and lowered suspension, rendering them utterly useless for any sort of off-road activity.

And though you sit lording it over the masses, I had to laugh when I read a Clarkson article the other day, where he admitted to rather enjoying the driving position of the Range Rover, but offered the following cautionary advice: "all other motorists will hate you on a cellular level".

I'm sorry, Mr or Mrs SUV Driver, but this is true and if you don't believe me you are simply in denial. Ask anyone who does not own an SUV what they think of SUV drivers and I would be hard-pushed to publish the expletives they produce. And no, it's not envy. It's frustrated irritation. You are looked upon as the pond-scum of the road, for a dozen reasons not even remotely relating to the environment which I can't be bothered to reel off again.