Motoring: BMW versus the Big Mac: Richard Dowden discovers that buying a new car is child's play - of a sort

AT LEAST I got to choose the colour. The Status Control Committee demanded silver or white, but in the showroom at the last minute I suddenly said dark green. 'Yuk,' said Status Control.

I did win that one, but I didn't get much else past the committee. Its members had suffered deeply and consequently took an absolute interest in the choice of car. For the past year they had been forced to travel in what they called 'the crap car', an Escort more remarkable for what was missing than what it still possessed. And before that they had been driven around in their mother's battered Metro, which had passed away from terminal rust the year before.

Whenever Isabella had to be dropped off at school, we had to park a street away. If she was going to a party, the car wasn't allowed within half a mile and she would leap from the vehicle and run as if we were dropping an undercover agent. Sophie used to cower on the floor at the back in the home zone in case a friend recognised her in such humbling circumstances.

I rather liked the Escort. We used it under a pounds 5-a-week car-share agreement with a friend. It had once been grey, but was mostly rust brown now and had two red doors and a white one. It had moss growing around the windows and sounded like a Tornado with a loose exhaust. It went like one, too, after a mile downhill with the wind behind. The police once stopped it and told our car-sharer it was a danger to other road-users, suggesting that if it caught anyone with its jagged wings, they might die of tetanus.

Say what you like about it but 'the crap car' deterred car thieves. Forget locks, car alarms, disconnecting systems and automatic wheel locks - buy an old Escort. At least one morning a week in our street you wake up to find little pools of broken car-window glass in the gutter. The Escort was never touched. My wife once left her handbag overnight on the passenger seat with all her credit cards in it. Perfect protection.

I also found that other cars tended to give way at roundabouts when they saw us coming. I thought for a while it was courtesy - now I know it was fear.

Not that we had never been in a serious motor. One night a colleague brought round a Roller that had been hired by the Independent as part of some stunt. The children piled into the back in their pyjamas and insisted on a tour of their friends' houses so they could beep the horn and wave as we slid slowly past. God knows what the police would have thought if they had stopped us for kerb crawling.

In Africa, I had a BMW and a Toyota Corolla. Both ended in spectacular crashes, although on neither occasion was I driving. And I had a white Mercedes 190 during the Gulf war. I lived in that car, day and night, and I loved it. It would cruise through the desert at 120mph, and once I made it fly. I was coming back along the pipeline road in northern Saudi Arabia at night with no lights (they were banned) and misjudged the T-junction at the end. There was a steep drop on the other side of the road and the Benz flew like a swallow. When we returned to earth the crunch stopped the engine, but it started again first time. Later I took it through a minefield - that was an accident, too.

'Oh, Da-ad, we don't want to know about your stupid war. When are we going to get a proper ca-ar?' A proper car to the Status Control Committee had to be a silver BMW, preferably 7-series, but 5-series would do, with electric windows, ABS brakes, cruise control and, of course, a CD player. Or else a Land- Rover Discovery.

'What about a Lada?'

'You buy a Lada and we're leaving home.'

'Is that a promise?'

But family pressures were mounting. Sooner or later I was going to have to buy my first car. At forty-something, not owning a car was becoming rather chic. It had certainly begun in poverty and had enjoyed a brief period of eco-correctness. Now it looked like designer poverty. I could cycle to work, but my wife had to get across London to work, and we both had to get back to pick up the kids. The evidence of the taxi fares suggested that it was time to buy a car.

The Status Committee was adamant to start with, but we talked them through the catalogues and dropped poisoned hints suggesting that if we acquired a silver BMW with CD player and electric windows, we might not be able to go to McDonald's for a very long time. They were suspicious of the Citroens. ('My friend's dad says frog cars are rubbish.') And how could we buy a ZX when our neighbours had the BX?

Slowly they came round to the idea of the ZX, provided it had all the extras and twiddly bits. In the showroom, as soon as the deal was struck, the committee took over. The salesman came across to show me how it all worked and took one look at them pulling levers and pressing buttons. 'I think they'll explain it all to you,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

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