After this manoeuvre, he was positioned directly behind a Rover, driven by a man. Having gained all of 15 feet, the Corvette driver kept a polite distance from then on, making no attempt to overtake the car in front. The point, it seemed, was to be in front of me.
I was driving a Mazda MX5 sports car, which may have contributed to the Corvette driver's urgent need to get past. In the week I was behind its wheel, I discovered that a lot of men don't seem to like women driving fast cars.
Conventional wisdom about high-powered cars - especially among those of us who don't own one - is that they act as a symbol of phallic potency, a thrusting personality extension for the men who choose to drive them (only 11 per cent of performance cars are driven by women). Nowhere is this more obvious than with sports cars with long bonnets in the E-type Jag tradition.
Women who stray into this metaphorical fast lane by getting behind the wheel of a 'male' car commonly report increased levels of aggression from men drivers, who seem to resent the intrusion into their territory. I had noticed a change in attitude after trading in a Nissan Micra for an Audi 80, to cope with the demands of an expanding family.
It was small scale stuff: a reluctance by some drivers to recognise my right of way; an increase in the number of drivers that cut me up; two cases of obscene gestures from drivers who roared away as the traffic lights turned green (one in a souped-up Astra GTE and the other a Ford Escort RS 2000, whose horsepower meant he should have had no reason to feel threatened in the first place). All pretty
run-of-the-mill by London traffic standards, but treatment that had never been meted out to me in five years of driving hatchbacks.
It was only when a small, insignificantlooking middle-aged man driving a large, significant-looking Ford Scorpio (2.8L, no less) screeched to a halt in front of me on a side road in west London, that I began to suspect something had changed. Having forced me to stop to avoid hitting him, he leapt out. 'Try that again you bitch, and I'll wring your bloody neck,' he spat at me before stalking back to his own car. My crime? I'd honked at him as a reflex action after he had careered past at around 50mph before swerving back in front of me to avoid an oncoming car.
When I mentioned this incident to the only two women drivers I know with fast cars, both instantly claimed to recognise the syndrome. One, a marketing director with a multi-
national company based in the north, had been followed back home by an irate taxi driver. To her astonishment, he appeared behind her as she stood at the garage door and gave two swift kicks to the headlights of her 3-series BMW before driving off, apparently satisfied. She had overtaken him on a roundabout.
The other had asked to trade in her prized company Vauxhall Calibra for a smaller model because of the unwanted challenges it provoked from other drivers.
Since the Audi 80 is only half-way to being a flash car, I borrowed the less ambiguous MX5 and drove it up and down the M40 for a week to test whether our common experiences were the product of anything other than paranoia. The car, it turned out, was not the best-
qualified for the role of agent provocateur, since it is the only sports car to have been purposely designed to look non-threatening.
The company's Japanese stylists had tried to design an indefinable Herbie-like quality, avoiding the aggressive wedge shape and stark lines that characterise other cars in its class. It even has a smile designed into the front grill as a conscious attempt to minimise offence.
Even so, it comes in traditional sports-car red and has an exhaust throaty enough to get up the nose of the average Sierra driver. And so it did: 480 miles later (three round-trips between London and the Oxfordshire village I live in) and I had collected a tally of 11 incidents - around one every 40 miles - classifiable as challenging or threatening behaviour from male drivers. They ranged from the trivial to the downright dangerous.
Typical of the dangerous end of the scale was the BMW sandwich incident: twin BMWs - one driven by a poker-faced silver-haired businessman, the other by an estate agent-type in his mid-twenties, loud tie - hemmed in the MX5 (it was doing a legal 70mph), while apparently racing each other down the two lanes on either side. It seemed to have become a matter of pride as to who should overtake me first. Mr Loud Tie ran into traffic in his lane and gave up. But Mr Poker Face could not resist flashing me an exultant look before speeding off in the fast lane. 'There, girly. Can't keep up with the big boys,' said his smirk.
To add a control element to the experiment, I lent the Mazda to my partner for two business trips into London. After all, it could have been the nippy sports car itself rather than the obviously female head of blonde hair at the wheel that had been acting as a red rag to some drivers. 'Anything to report?' I asked after his second trip. 'Nothing at all. It's a dream to drive; a bit stubby in front, though, for my liking. Could do with a longer bonnet,' he said.
For a lot of male drivers, wherever a woman's place is, it's not behind the wheel of a fast car. But they're going to see more of it: despite the hiccup of the recession, the trend is for women to move up from the smaller cars they have traditionally driven, as their spending power and expectations increase. Already, women make up more than half the buyers (54 per cent) of one category of 'flashy' car: convertibles. Fifty per cent of Porsche 911 C4 Targas, 72 per cent of Golf cabriolets and more than 50 per cent of BMW 3-series cabriolets are now driven by women.
Those who interpret cars in terms of a subconscious attempt by the driver to project or exaggerate a side of their sexuality could have a field day analysing just why this particular corner of the fast-car market is being taken over by women: soft tops that open; easy access; availability; vulnerability; exposure; the sensual indulgence of wind-in-the-hair driving . . . the imagery cries out to be interpreted, or misinterpreted, by Freudian car-watchers.
This aside, the number of women drivers has already rocketed from 27 per cent to 40 per cent over the past decade and is continuing to rise. More women than men currently have a driving licence. An existing tendency towards women driving more powerful cars will be further fuelled by a predicted 50 per cent rise in women's spending power over the next decade, according to the Henley Centre. Male drivers, it seems, are going to have to get used to women in the fast lane.-
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