The British are infatuated are with just about anything. Mosey into any WH Smith's and you can see just how many magazines there are devoted to obscure and arcane pursuits, from those that sate the appetites of train-spotters (a peculiarly British obsession), to those obsessed with pets, wildlife, model-making, motorbikes (old and new, British or Japanese: either way there's a magazine just for you), team sports, country pursuits and, of course, cars.
And such is the bespoke nature of British besottedness, there are now car magazines which cater for those with a special interest in Land Rovers, fast Fords, practical classics (as opposed to fast, posh classics), old Minis, modified cars (Max Power, aimed at kids who like tarting and tuning their cars, sells more than 180,000 copies a month) - let alone the more general titles partly aimed at punters in the market for a new motor.
Nowadays, the term "car enthusiast" is non-specific. It is also not very desirable. People who are car enthusiasts rarely admit as much. It's a hobby to suppress, not promote, lest you are typecast as a sad, anorak-type who gets kicks from sniffing four-star (never unleaded) and who harbours a desire to turn Britain into a grey and unpleasant land full of the objects you venerate.
But why are car enthusiasts slowly being driven into the closet? The first reason is that the British are starting to become suspicious of those with a fascination for anything non-mainstream - as though this is wholly deviant behaviour. It's fine to talk and eat football, and it's fine to be interested in film stars and fashion - because they're now mainstream interests, regularly discussed on the telly and in the tabloids, the main arbiters of acceptable behaviour. But admit, at a party, that your particular interest is the breeding habits of the noddy tern, or in "King Arthur" steam locos, or in the Scaglietti-bodied Ferraris, and you're a kook.
This change, from a nation that prides itself on its quirky interests to one unwilling to deviate from the mainstream, is a crying shame and is slowly diluting the British character. As befits a nation so immune from past upheaval, the Brits have enjoyed largely uninterrupted evolution for 900 years. And this evolution, like Darwin's theory, has created people who look different, talk different, dress different and get different leisure-time kicks. TV and the tabloids are slowly pulling us all together, promoting sameness, exorcising the oddball. And car enthusiasm, like other unusual passions, is paying the price. (Not that there are any fewer car enthusiasts: there have never been more car magazines sold, and that's true of most specialist magazines; it's just that these addicts are starting to go into hiding.)
The second reason for the falling from grace is the motor car's social stigma. The British may be the most eccentric people in the world, but they are also among the most hypocritical. Of course they would love to use their cars less and buses more, and they teach their children that cars are bad - while wondering if they'll have their new Clio in red or metallic green.
Contrary to popular belief, most car enthusiasts - unlike the British Road Federation - do not want all of Britain covered with tarmac. My particular sub-species of car enthusiasm (there - I've admitted it!) is one that celebrates beautiful yet practical design, innovative engineering and the joys of driving, a fine car on a fine road on a fine day. Which, given the state of current car design and driving conditions, means I belong to a diminishing breed. None of us welcomes the widespread propagation of the motor car: there may be safety in numbers, but there is satisfaction in exclusivity. Henry Ford may have helped the common man. But he did nothing for the car enthusiast.
In my experience, the other sub-species of car enthusiasts are equally against the widespread propagation of cars. We are no fiends of the earth, despite what the environmentalists and the mass media may allege.
No, the real enemy in the unnecessary use of cars is what I call the car potato. He or she is a growing breed. They have no interest in cars, except in as much as they provide convenient transport. And it's so convenient that actually, they'd rather use their cars than their legs. They'll drive less than a mile to the shops. Drive to the cinema, drive for a hamburger, drive their kids to school, even though it's only round the corner.
When they're home, they change into a closely related species, the couch potato. From there they watch telly and read the tabloids and decide that, yep, it really is time that the government invested more money in public transport so that maybe, just maybe, the neighbour will go by bus.
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