Fatal legacy of a lust for speed: Peter Crookston finds the car world selling dangerous fantasies of life in the fast lane

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DID I imagine it, or did brutish and beastly driving really take hold on our roads in the reign of Queen Maggie and her creatures Pushy, Bashem and Greedy? No, I did not. The age that brought us Big Bang and Canary Wharf coincided with the invention of what the motoring press calls the 'hot hatch', small, grotesquely powerful cars driven by young men - and sometimes women - Going Places.

Though the recession has left them with fewer places to go, they are still menacing our rear bumpers on every motorway; four-wheel drifting down country lanes at the outer limits of tyre adhesion; yowling through suburban streets at twice the legal speed. They drew inspiration from advertisements that told them what they were like ('The in-laws wouldn't fit in it. I'll take it', for the Nissan 200SX) or fed their fantasies ('The trigger is under your right foot', for a Toyota Supra shown being fired from the barrel of a gun).

The wealth that was supposed to 'trickle down' from the people who could afford such cars didn't even drip to the people of Toxteth, Liverpool. It was there that two more joy-riders were jailed last week- one for only four months, causing courtroom uproar - after killing a couple of kids collecting for Bonfire Night. On the same day we learned that the chairman of Jaguar France had been accused of driving his Jaguar 'Supercar' - top speed 217 mph - at 106 mph on the M6 but that the Crown Prosecution Service had dropped the case because it was 'not in the public interest'.

Sir Peter Imbert, the departing Metropolitan Police Commissioner, pointed out in his retirement speech this month that the automobile has criminalised many middle-class people who think it fair game to break the speed limit. Such a message is cunningly put across in a current Vauxhall poster campaign showing a Calibra and a police X-ray camera, with the slogan 'It's photogenic'.

Then there is the flattery of our driving skills, as in the current cinema and television ad for the Peugeot 405. It starts innocuously enough, showing a child playing with a model car which turns into the real thing, climbing a mountain road at speed, its wheels scattering gravel at the edge of a precipice. But when you mention ads like this to manufacturers, they appear wounded. 'If you look at it closely you'll find that the car is not travelling very quickly,' said the spokesman for Peugeot. Well, it looked fast to me from six rows back in the cinema. 'I would deny that absolutely. The intention is to emphasise that it handles very well and has active safety.'

Last year the Advertising Standards Authority admonished Mazda for its RX7 ad which began: 'It was designed as a pure sports supercar dedicated to all those who ever wondered what it must be like to drive at Le Mans . . .' The man in Mazda's public relations department thought the adjudication was unfair. 'We were trying to get over a message that there was safety and advanced technology in this car.' Yes, well, the stuff about the safety features was in the second sentence, but surely the main thrust of the ad was on speed? 'Yes, we were particularly proud of that because we won Le Mans in '91 with a car that was powered by an engine similar to the one in the RX7. We now talk (our ads) over with the ASA.'

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has no code of conduct to deter members from emphasising speed. 'It would be acting beyond our duties as a trade association,' said a spokesman. 'I don't think we can preach to our members on this. When there is an advert selling on speed the ASA are quick to jump on it.'

The Automobile Association wants the ASA to be given greater powers. It has found that a quarter of car advertisements ignore the resolution of the European Conference of Ministers of Transport which called on manufacturers to avoid promoting speed. Yet speed seems not to be as important to buyers as the motoring magazines and the manufacturers would have us believe. In an AA survey last autumn, speed ranked only 27th out of 40 features buyers considered important.

Meanwhile, motoring journalists continue to wax lyrical about speed. Mark Bishop, writing in Performance Car, tells us that Citroen's ZX and Peugeot's 205 turbodiesels 'can outsprint many a hot hatch, leaving the white-socked occupants gagging on soot. Step into a Volvo 440 and your neighbours will mark you down as a librarian or, worse, a geography teacher. What they don't know is you're in the Turbo and you're about to go out and humiliate some XR3s.' This aggressively competitive tone is a leitmotiv running throughout motoring magazines. Describing the Vauxhall Cavalier 4 x 4 Turbo, Auto Express reveals under the headline 'Plain on the outside, hairy on the inside' that the car 'boasts a near 150 mph top speed and sub-seven-second 0-60 acceleration . . . a wolf in sheep's clothing.'

The market forces that produced these hot hatches and Sierra Cosworths may yet take them off the roads. They are becoming extremely expensive to insure. Performance Car, in a survey this month, discovered that an estate agent in Croydon with three speeding points against him (naturally) and a two-year no-claims bonus would have to pay pounds 2,026 a year to insure a 1990 Renault 5GT. And in the same issue, its columnist Mark Bishop revealed that second-hand high-performance cars are now going for a song because it is getting impossible to pay the insurance on them. 'I'm feeling frustration, injustice, helplessness. I want to hit someone,' wrote 24-year-old Mr Bishop. Why? Because he can't afford the insurance either. This comes as a relief to the rest of us.

(Photograph omitted)