Hum, chug, whirr: a life on the open road

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ROBERT KEY, the roads minister, recently scandalised environmentalists with a shameless confession of his youthful and enduring passion for cars and roads. As a young man, he had 'adored and worshipped' his MG, and had lovingly polished the copper pipes on its engine. Warming to his theme, he wound down his limousine window to bellow abuse at the railways for polluting everything, for wrecking the countryside and for blackening buildings.

It was like seeing Virginia Bottomley address a meeting, swaying slightly, her speech slurred, gulping a huge slug of whisky and lighting up to steady her nerves. Ministers of roads, after all, like ministers of war, win enlightened praise only by being against what they are responsible for. Mrs Bottomley indeed is supposed to be in favour of health, but she makes up for that by being against everything else.

Environmentalists rushed to denounce Mr Key, delayed only by their chosen transport: cancelled trains, rickshaws, droshkies, horses, sedan chairs, nags, stagecoaches and the like. The spirit of Wordsworth was with them. They excused his own famous attack on the railways - after all, he had never seen a car, would never have damned the lesser sins of steam to praise the motorised Devil.

I have to confess that in my youth I shared all Mr Key's passionate enthusiasm. Cars now are dull, difficult to adore, just machines to get from A to B - much as I loved, until I retired from the Mail, my Ford Escort convertible, courtesy of the blessed Lord Rothermere.

The cars of my youth were far from dull. They had character, all different, an infinite variety of marques and badges; distinctive radiators, scowling or smiling; eccentric bodies, often hand-built or bespoke. They made different noises, humming, whining, roaring, chugging, pop-popping, or whirring and hissing with quiet aristocratic power.

With what joy on Newmarket race days did I as a child induce our German au pair to walk to the A11 at Great Chesterford to watch the cars go by. Delage, Delahaye, Moon, Arrol-Johnson, Clyno, Jowett, Swift, Pierce-Arrow (in one of these, I think, the unfortunate Kerensky fled from Petrograd), Fraser-Nash, Renault (you remember the old bonnet, like a Victorian sewing machine cover?), Lagonda, Straker-Squire, Willys-Knight (one of which was, I think in 1926, driven without changing gear from John o'Groats to Land's End, there to stand on a white sheet all night without losing a drop of oil), Hispano-Suiza . . .

Even with the inevitable misspellings and omissions, what poignant memories this list brings back] I always got more of the car names than the German girl, expert only in Mercs. One up for the Anglo-Saxon male, I crowed.

My wife, I must concede, perhaps trumps all. She rode to a party in 1945 in occupied Germany with three other Wrens in Admiral Donitz's Mercedes, the biggest ever made, bulletproof, with machine-gun slits. In snow they ended up, alas, in a ditch, pulled out with difficulty by a tank transporter.

Like yours perhaps, my life is marked out by marriage and jobs, by births of children and grandchildren, by the deaths of dear ones, by dogs loved and lost. Yes, and also by cars owned and (mostly) treasured. I remember them all.

Our very first, a Lancia Augusta saloon (pillarless, and therefore at times disconcertingly doorless), with an exultantly singing tenor third gear. I sold it at last, sadly, to an Australian professor, and offered to fix insurance for him. The broker was dubious: 'Oh no, it's not the Australian bit that worries me, it's the professor. Kiss of death.'

The Alvis saloon, next, which I bought at night in the rain, so that it looked under the street lamps alluringly and misleadingly shiny and intact. In motion, you had to keep your hand heavily on the gear lever all the time. If you relaxed for a moment, you'd slip out of gear and the lever would shoot down through the floor. The wooden frame was rotten.

You could alter the shape of the car, like that of an old black soft hat, according to whim. More sporty? Pull the boot outwards. More sedate? Push it in.

Then there was the Allard coupe - real class and style at last? In a way, but recalling more the late Stewart Granger, say, than a pukka grandee such as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Yet seductive in its way, with fanged Jurassic leer and ferociously racy lines, especially when driven open by attractive, headscarfed young women.

How cold it was in winter, with its feeble heater like a pocket hair dryer, its flapping hood, the family all huddled together in the back with the dog - as my wife remarked, a precious source of fetid warmth.

The Allard suffered from an embarrassing but incurable prostate-style leaking radiator. Our back street 'little man' recommended ground pepper and, later, porridge oats. Well, we got to Paris, coughed to a halt at the Arc de Triomphe. I gingerly unscrewed the radiator cap. A jet of rusty porridge leapt skywards. Even Bismarck could not have planned a more striking entry into Paris. The French, however, were unimpressed: 'Ah, oui, les Anglais. C'est leur petit dejeuner.'

The handbrake, too, inspired little confidence. A spindly affair like a metal fountain pen, it looked quite inadequate to restrain such a monster. And so it was. With a soft click, it disengaged itself in a hilly Cornish port. We watched aghast as the Allard slowly gathered speed, demolishing fruit and fish stalls, arrested at last - if temporarily - by a stout bollard just before it plunged into the harbour - or rather on to a swish yacht moored there.

A special favourite was our open Ford Zephyr - white and red. Near the close of its life I gave it to my son, thinking him lucky and myself generous. He sought to astonish some favoured lady. He did. At speed the driver's seat suddenly tipped backwards, so that his feet waved in the air, his head banged on the floor behind. From this position, not recommended by the Highway Code, he managed to bring the car to a standstill. The lady married someone else.

In its earliest days, the motor was expected to hasten the Revolution. At school I avidly read under the desk Dornford Yates, who, for all his faults, did capture the romantic glamour of Arcadian early motoring. Radicals assumed with pleasure that the spectacle of idle plutocrats gliding arrogantly about in their Rollses, gaily knocking flat the old, the needy, the workers by hand and brain, the kiddies, the disabled and the rest, would further inflame the envious rancour of the masses.

The advent of the Ford Model T and later the pounds 100 Baby Austin put paid to all that.

The plutocrat's heirs are no longer a grand but beleaguered minority. They are as the sands of the sea. They queue, happily swapping yarns, in motorway cafeterias and vote (or did vote) for Mr Key.

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