One of the biggest bonuses of my job is that with a quick phone call to the car manufacturers you can borrow pretty much any car you want, at any time you fancy. At first this was a real novelty and, like most other people, I already had a long mental list of the cars that I wanted to try, most of which had large engines and big price tags.
But, as the years have passed, I’ve become a bit more relaxed about my motoring demands. Lend me a car with air con, a decent stereo and a comfy seat and I am a happy man.
As a consequence, I’ve sampled the delights of around 280 different cars in the past five years, making notes about each one of them as I’ve gone.
It’s a bit like homework, albeit rather nice homework, keeping up with the latest models and all the new technology that appears almost on a weekly basis.
Features like automatic headlights and wipers have started to become commonplace, together with really clever stuff like adaptive cruise control, that not only maintains your speed, but also applies your brakes when the traffic slows up.
But perhaps the biggest changes have been in the introduction of features like satellite navigation, Bluetooth phone technology and DVD screens. What I have begun to notice is that, whereas in the past you could jump into a car, turn the key and be off, the pre-start-up checks on modern machinery are becoming more akin to the pre-launch checks on the space shuttle.
Typing in your destination, pairing your mobile phone and loading your toy story DVD to amuse the kids seems to take longer each time! Then you have your four-zone climate control that can adjust the environment for each passenger, the heated, vibrating seats for the front passengers and the pre-driving checklist that checks tyre pressures, engine checks and bulb integrity.
Last month all this stuff came to a bit of a head when I slipped behind the wheel of the latest VW Phaeton.
Now the Phaeton is a lovely car and with the new V6 diesel engine it’s also a relatively economical one, but as I cast my eye over the dashboard I was confronted with over 100 buttons, dials and screens to consider. Tuning the stereo took forever, the air conditioning was a complete faffing and the complexity of the integrated phone system meant that, in the end, I turned it off.
In the end I wasn’t sure if I was driving the car or the car was driving me.
To add insult to injury, a few days later, I slipped behind the wheel of a new Ford Mondeo only to discover that my collection of favourite CDs had been left in the multi-play CD unit tucked away in the Phaeton and I was now sans music. Unfortunately the ‘clever’ Phaeton had failed to remind me to remove them when I handed the keys back.
Whilst I have never thought of myself as a technophobe, this latest experience was starting to change my view. I found myself lusting after an altogether simpler way of life, a time when fridges did not have TVs built in, airlines issued tickets and fax machines were still cool.
With a fire in my belly I decided to simplify my life, so I made a call to Caterham the ‘cottage’ car manufacturer from Surrey, whose cigar shaped motors appear to have barely changed since the 1960s. Within the week, a low-loader arrived on my drive, sporting a brand new 1.6 litre model.
Sat by the house, I was immediately struck by the car’s size, or lack of it. The thing was tiny. Parked next to an old Bentley 8, I had kicking around the place, it looked positively comical. Both my wife and I wondered if I would even fit! With the roof removed, a simple case of unclipping a few reassuringly old-fashioned poppers, I figured that by stepping into the car I could probably manage. And I did, just.
1 | 2