There has been much talk recently about the rapidly declining interest in cars in young people, all citing financial and social pressures. Craig however, thinks there is a simpler and more emotive reason - the taxation to death of the cool company car.
Ask a broad spectrum of car enthusiasts what the catalyst of their obsession is and ninety percent will lay the blame at the feet of their father, at least in the case of those who are over thirty. I can still remember it now - the exact way my dad placed his hands on the Cavalier SRI’s three-spoke steering wheel, left hand resting at 6 o’clock, the right at three, both thumbs through the circular holes, elbow nonchalantly grazing the sill.
I may have only been a toddler, but it was on one of our yearly road trips to Cornwall that I knew cars were going to be my life’s passion. I was enthralled by the way the little saloon filled with a family of five and assorted luggage would dismiss other traffic, willing engine barking away. There’d be another bark from my mother as an overtaking opportunity presented itself, the noise peaking as a mysterious lever and foot dance occurred, a knowing smirk on the corner of my dad’s mouth as I leaned forwards to watch the dial hit ninety. That confirmed it as naughty, mischievous, and I desperately wanted a go.
From that moment on I was doomed. Whilst others would play with Star Wars figures, me and a select group of friends would be pushing around matchbox cars, making all the appropriate noises and sound effects as we drifted around the coffee table. In our imaginations everything became an opportunity - patterns within furniture and rugs became circuits with the racing line worn into the fabric - I hereby confirm Eau Rouge has nothing on the curve of an armchair.
On shopping trips my behaviour would be impeccable simply because I knew at the end of the mind-numbing boredom I’d be in possession of a large cardboard box, which I could turn into a car with liberal access to a set of marker pens. I’d scribble on headlights, taillights, a grill, an exhaust and the interior would contain such luxuries as dials, air vents and the all-important pedals. Hours of entertainment.
During the school holidays, I’d be occasionally dragged into my father’s business. I’d never complain because the car park was like the NEC motor show. M sport 325i’s mixed with Quattro’s, GSI’s & SRI’s, XR4x4’s, Astra GTE’s, and even a Honda Prelude with pop-up headlights. I’d spend hours arguing with my brother over which one was best, playing mental top trumps, rattling off stats whilst peering through the windows to find the car with the highest reading speedometer. School tests would be failed and homework eaten by an imaginary family dog because the only knowledge we craved was in the latest edition of CAR or Fast Lane magazine.
"The ultimate sense of freedom provided by a set of car keys has been replaced by one of burden"
One day the SRI was gone from the driveway and in its spot sat a 2WD Sapphire Cosworth, one of the very first on the road in Crystal Blue. Going out for the first spin it felt like I was riding in the Millennium Falcon. Nought to sixty in six and a blink seconds isn’t even at the sharp end of hot hatch numbers these days, but I don’t think any car has ever felt faster - when the turbo came on song the scenery morphed like a scene from The Empire Strikes Back. I can still impersonate the whistle from the Garrett T03 now. It left such an impression on my friend tagging along for the ride he bought one in later life. There was such a buzz about any Cosworth back then, one of the first hero cars, able to humble far more exotic machinery. My street cred skyrocketed - at school the cool kids invited me into their circle. Of course, it was stolen on that very first night it came home.
Fast forward to the present day, and the same car park is now a sea of 2.0 litre diesels and hybrids in varying shades of grey. I often ask the steadfast employees about the good old days and why they haven’t persevered, and they simply state they cannot justify the penalties incurred by driving the car they really want to. The tax man has gotten too greedy.
Of course, there are other key factors in play. A constant barrage of SPEED KILLS, cars are planet killers and the fact for many young drivers, it costs more for car insurance than getting a mortgage. And if you can get insured, Big Brother is probably monitoring your every move. Today, passing your driving test is no longer seen as a rite of passage for teenagers that ranks alongside a first kiss, or convincing the bouncers you really are of legal drinking age. The ultimate sense of freedom provided by a set of car keys has been replaced by one of burden.
I suspect if you subjected previous generations to the same propaganda against the car we’d have still found a way to get behind the wheel, all due to those cherished childhood memories forged on the back seat of a cool car. With the dads of today forced into increasingly mundane machinery, it’s little wonder the number of young people applying for a driving license is at a record low.
Sapphire Cosworth image via Ford Media