In the summer I needed to rent a car to drive to a friend's wedding in Oxfordshire. I collected a car, jumped in and drove off. Ninety minutes later, I parked it in a field with a crowd of others. When it came to offering fellow guests a lift back to London, however, I was unable to find it. The car I had driven earlier that day was so utterly bland that I had no idea what make it was. In the end, I knew it had to be the blue Fiat Punto because it was the only small car left in the field by the time most of the guests had gone.
This is not to say that the Fiat Punto is a bad car. Far from it. Like many small motors used by rent-a-car companies, it is competent, secure and a doddle to drive. Yet this was the first time I had driven a car without remembering what it was. It was not, however, the first time I had driven a car and forgotten what it was like to drive. In fact, I have forgotten the character of virtually every car I have hired in the last year.
Admittedly, in years past, I have remembered rented cars for all the wrong reasons. It would be difficult to forget the Morris Marina 1.3L that not only had a tendency to skid on the most subtle bends in the road, but broke down in foul weather when the heater was switched on with the wipers and side lights on. "The alternator's packed up," said the man from the AA. "You shouldn't have switched everything on at once." Presumably experienced Marina owners had the knack of motoring in driving rain with the wipers parked to save putting an undue load on the vehicle's feeble electrics.
I remember, too, a Fiat Panda with bald tyres and occasional brakes in southern Italy (fun on the hairpins), a Moskvitch with a sticky throttle in a Moscow rainstorm, a Daihatsu jeep hopping with giant tree frogs in Cuba, and a 5-litre Chevvy Classic Caprice in Canada that spun on its lazy axis whenever it encountered snow - handy, as you can imagine, on the backroads of Ontario at Christmas.
But, all these were in another time - the years of big, bad British Leyland - or in countries far away where such gremlins must be expected in the course of a colourful holiday. Today's hire cars are uniformly, erm, uniform. You can jump from the driving seat of one to another without having to relearn the controls. Perhaps this is sensible, safe and efficient - but it is also very boring.
All the cars I have recently hired can be thrashed along at high speeds, all have the same rubbery gearshifts, smelly plastic mouldings and seat covers that look as if they have been pinched from a high street branch of a building society. All are a little ragged if pushed fast around corners, and none is happy on poorly made roads.
The only car of the 20 or so I have hired that has had anything like a decent engine and chassis (the Ford Mondeo V6) was let down by an interior so dull that it would make a Trust House Forte hotel room look like a set from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
I do not want to buy another car. Hiring is cheaper and it makes more sense than owning a car: no problems with parking, resident's permit, servicing, tax, insurance and so on. And yet the numbing blandness of hire cars could be enough to drive me back into the world of precise gears, characterful engines, aromatic leather, responsive steering. And no more of that all-pervading smell of lavatory freshener when you open the door.