When I'm road-testing a car, I often take it up to Liverpool: partly because it gives me a chance for a long drive and to visit my mum, but also because the things people up there say about cars are often very interesting.
When I'm road-testing a car, I often take it up to Liverpool: partly because it gives me a chance for a long drive and to visit my mum, but also because the things people up there say about cars are often very interesting. I remember a kid outside an Indian restaurant describing a Lexus LS 430 I had as a test car as "a beast".
However, until recently I had a more ignoble motive for taking new cars to the North-west. It had always seemed to me that expensive cars were a rarity there. In central London, Porsches, BMWs, Lexuses, Mercedes were as common as builders' vans; not so on Merseyside.
I recall when I was a teenager there was an incredibly cheap and very badly constructed saloon car called a Moskvitch, which was made in the Soviet Union, probably in the gulags. I only ever saw these crap boxes, usually painted brown, being driven very slowly and erratically on the roads of Merseyside and north Wales; certainly I never saw one anywhere else in Britain.
So when I got my hands on a BMW 7-Series or a Jaguar S type or a Maserati, if I was cruising around Merseyside in it, there was an extra frisson of pleasure that came to me from knowing I was one of the few people for miles around who possessed such an expensive thing. After all, that is partly the point of luxury cars, isn't it? When they come to power, African dictators don't drive around in Mercedes S-Classes simply because they need the extra legroom and the climate control -- it's a display of power and status.
I'd be more impressed with the democratic instincts of Yasser Arafat (when he was allowed to move anywhere at all) or those US satraps such as Alad Alawi or Mohamed Kharzi if their convoys consisted of cars that their subjects drove: armour-plated Skoda Fabias, perhaps, or camouflage-painted Ford Mondeos, instead of the usual black Mercs.
But politicians won't go for ordinary cars because that is not the instinct that drives them. Politicians want to set themselves apart from ordinary people, and their fragile sense of self means that they use power and the trappings of power to make themselves feel better about themselves.
In fact, I think cars are an excellent indicator as to the temperament and humility of a politician. There was a fascinating documentary on Radio Four a couple of years ago about British ministerial drivers. There were a couple of things that stuck with me from that excellent programme; first, that floppy-haired David Owen who, as minister for whatever he was, was only allowed a Rover but kept trying to get an upmarket Jaguar (usually only provided for the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer) on the grounds that he had a "bad back"; whereas Michael Heseltine did have a Jaguar, though he was only Trade and Industry Secretary -- but only because he paid for his own, along with paying for his own driver.
Until recently, however, the paucity of expensive cars in Liverpool allowed me to indulge the little Robert Mugabe that exists in all of us. But these days that situation seems to have changed utterly. I was in Liverpool a couple of weeks ago with the new Mazda RX8 ready to do some serious posing and generally act in a thoroughly obnoxious way, driving slowly round the poorest neighbourhoods, parking outside restaurants and waving my car keys about.
On the way into central Liverpool from the motorway, however, I seemed to pass an enormous number of BMW 6-Series, Porsche Cayennes and Mercedes CLKs and when I parked in a small hospital car park to visit someone, there were two other identical Mazdas in the place. I don't know what's going on there, but everybody seems to be getting rich.
As I cruised through the terraced streets of Toxteth and Everton, I seemed to get a lot of pitying looks for only having an RX8. The final humiliation was when an old man came staggering from a pub outside which I was parked, then leant into the window and said: "There you go, son. Here's a pound so you can save up for a nice Porsche 911 Carrera 2."Reuse content