Tom Hodgkinson: 'My current car cost us £350, but it is not £29,650 worse than a 30-grand car'


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One of the downsides about spending more time in London is that you are surrounded by expensive cars. I suppose they belong to these oligarchs and super-rich Kuwaitis we keep hearing about, the ones who are buying all the houses in London and digging two basements under them. When I wander round the streets near us in Notting Hill, all I see are gigantic black Jeep-type things and low-slung black sports cars with black leather seats.

Opposite our humble bookshop, there is a busy pub. Every Friday evening, gangs of young fops drive up outside our shop and park their Porsches, Audis and other ostentatious motors. They point a device and the cars beep and flash their lights for a moment. Then they slowly walk away from their pride and joy, glancing back every two seconds to make sure it is still there. The fops never, ever, buy a book.

Well, I admit that for a moment these cars produce a brief sting of envy in me. But then I think through my envy. And I realise that buying a new car is the height of folly.

To take out a loan of 30 grand so you can imprison yourself in a shiny black tank seems to me to be dumb, even if you are rich. Also, I think it's embarrassing, owning a new car. It's vulgar, nouveau, arriviste. It's what people with no imagination do with their money. Owning a new flash motor is deeply uncool.

I've always preferred old bangers. My current car is a lovely 14-year-old Volvo with over 200,000 miles on the clock. It cost us £350, but by any reckoning I submit that it is not £29,650 worse than the 30-grand car. OK, it does need the occasional visit to the garage. But most repairs are fairly simple and cheaply done. In fact, my mechanic says he couldn't repair new cars: they are too filled with complicated computers and chips. So you're helping to keep your local independent mechanic in business.

My old Volvo goes just as fast as the new cars. Maybe a flash car would get to Devon from London 10 minutes before me, if we were to have a race. But again, that is not worth £29,650.

I simply do not need anything better. And I am happy that I am not tied down to monthly payments. Down in Devon, most people drive old bangers and therefore there is no status anxiety attached to them. It is merely sensible.

And people who buy expensive cars wrongly think that cars are an interesting topic of conversation. I remember once being stuck on the restaurant car of a train with three stockbrokers, who talked about their cars for the whole journey. "Bought the wife a Golf. Lovely car. Still driving that Lexus?" I thought I was going to have to hang myself.

OK, there are downsides to the old-banger approach. You have to be strong. The forces of mindless consumerism are everywhere. Despite our best efforts to shield them from the worst excesses of the capitalist economy, our children have wholeheartedly rejected our down-at-heel bohemianism. They love the new and shiny. They are modernists.

My eldest son used to squirm with embarrassment when I collected him and his friends from school in our previous old banger, a Peugeot estate. To him it looked awful, even by north Devon standards. Our kids would prefer to see us rolling up in something horrific, such as an Audi TT. Well, they can suffer.

Anyway, I can't stand children. Too expensive. Always wanting things advertised to them on TV. Can't they see that they are merely victims of the overlords' conspiracy to make the poor poorer and the rich richer?

Anyway, I now see that I am an unwitting follower of a very sensible trend. The second-hand car magazine Autocar recently brought out a "Bangernomics" supplement, which waxed lyrical about the joys and the cost savings to be had from owning old bangers. And there is a website called Bangernomics. Even the petrolheads, it seems, are turning their back on the idea that new is good.

As in other areas of life, the old ways bring freedom. In Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (a brilliant and hilarious play), the country-loving Hardcastle, an enemy of the "French frippery" beloved of city people, pronounces to his wife when she complains about the boredom of provincial life: "I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines." To this list let us add "old cars" and let libertas per vehicula antiquos be our motto.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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