Future drivers will miss the thrills and skills of the open road


My usually calm dad started to smoke again while teaching me how to drive. He hadn’t smoked a cigarette in 20 years, but I crashed so many gears trying to double the clutch that he hissed “Stop tobacconists!” And grabbed a pack of Capstan Full Strength. I passed my test three months after my 17th birthday.

Young motorists today may never experience the joy of balancing the clutch, lowering the revs and shifting gears. Electric cars have no clutch and already a third of more young learners choose automatic over manual, according to the president of the AA.

Future drivers will learn to save their battery and drive with just one pedal. It all sounds as skillful and exciting as rolling a golf cart around the greens.

I don’t want a car that does everything for me. Driving should be a skill and a challenge. And in the old days, the first challenge was whether the car would start.

My first had a starter grip – not because I’m 100, but I was a member of the Vintage Sports Car Club and owned a 1932 open-top Riley Gamecock with running boards, which Al Capone would have envied.

As I drove my friend Lyndy through Richmond Park, we imagined passing strollers waving at the sight of two cute girls in a fabulous vintage car. But when we stopped, the smoke engulfed us. The brakes were on fire! I had not fully released the ratchet handbrake.

My RAF pilot / navigator father instilled a love of maps in his four daughters; asking each visitor about the routes they had taken, plotting a shorter route for their return. Even now, typing a postcode into a GPS is not enough. Before any long trip, cards are invariably scattered on the table as I fully commit to the meaning of the trip.

I loved my red Morgan 4/4. Nothing to 60 in five seconds. There was an ash frame – a hysterectomy on every bump – and a hood so long you had to drive in the middle of the road to see what was to come. I drove friends to a wedding in Birmingham with the hood down. Their heads were above the windshield. They never spoke directly to me again.

Some cars had names. My Triumph Herald Cabriolet was inevitably called The Ark – ‘Ark the’ Erald – and when my waters broke I almost gave birth in Blodwen, my Morris Minor.

The cars had a distinct look and personality – from the eternally fashionable Mini to the unique silhouette of the Jaguar E Type. But now…. Can you tell a Hyundai from a Qashqai? No one really likes their car anymore because they all look and sound the same.

So, aside from the obvious environmental benefits, what are the benefits of modern driving? Well you argue with the GPS instead of your other half; you will probably arrive at your destination without having to exit to push; you’re hot ; it’s quiet – and no danger of the clutch pulling in.

The disadvantages? Your car will simply be a characterless way to get from point A to point B.

But not mine. I keep my glove box full of maps and my manual gearbox – I turn the radio down so I can hear and time the perfect double clutch. And, as Frances McDormand said in the movie Drifter, Nomadic country, “I’ll see you on the road”. You will hear me coming.

Conversations from a Long Marriage at Christmas, by Jan Etherington, is available on BBC Sounds


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