Posted tagged ‘cars’

My own wheels

August 14, 2012

Forty years ago this week, I got my first car. At the time I was a trainee with Dresdner Bank in Germany, and in order to be able to commute between my home (or rather, my parents’ home) and the office I acquired a car. The car in question was the Fiat 500; the exact model and colour that I got can be seen here.

In many ways the 500 was just a biscuit tin on wheels. It had absolutely nothing that we would now regard as standard in a normal spec. It had no radio, back wiper, heated windows, head rests; it didn’t even have seat belts. Its non-synchromesh gearbox required the driver to conduct intricate exercises for every gear change (press clutch, disengage gear, let go clutch, press accelerator, press clutch, engage new gear, let go clutch – every time!). The only instrumentation told you the speed and the car’s mileage, there wasn’t even an indicator for fuel. The fuel tank itself was in the boot in the front (leaving very little room for any bags or the like), and the noisy, air-cooled engine was in the back. But it did have a fold-back sun roof, and a kind of cruise control (you could engage a lever which would hold the accelerator at its current location and you could remove your foot). And it was mustard yellow. And it was mine.

So here I am, 40 years on and with a new car on order. Inside it will feel more like my living room, as these days even basic cars have amazing sound and entertainment systems. It will have the ability, which I promise never to test, to drive at more than twice the speed of which my old Fiat was capable. But I don’t think I’ll ever love it as much as that first mustard yellow car.

German unreliability

October 28, 2010

I suspect that many people, at least in these parts, think of German cars as maybe a little more expensive than others, but to compensate they are better designed, safer and more reliable; whereas Japanese ones, say, are cheaper, less solid and less well made. In fact, advertisements by Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes and others often play on the particular image  of quality and solidity. But is it a correct one? Think again.

One of the consistent findings of car reliability surveys is that Japanese cars are best, and German luxury cars are worst. The latest American one, from consumerreports.org, finds that Acura, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Scion, and Toyota are the most reliable cars, while BMW and Audi do very badly, and Mercedes is the least reliable of all. And just in case you think that might be a flawed survey, the evidence is the same in this report from CNN.

What amazes me is that German carmakers, who have clearly had some quality problems for some time, have still managed to retain the image of themselves as the main quality brands. How long can this last, if they do not improve reliability?

I must now confess that I am a Mercedes owner, and actually a satisfied one (not one of the largest models…).

End of the car culture?

September 22, 2010

I confess – and I suspect a number of readers will regard this as suitable material for confession – I am a fan of the BBC television programme Top Gear. I love the sheer extravagance of the thing, and the political incorrectness, and its ability to elevate trivial pursuits to matters of prime importance. You see, while I now ride a bike quite regularly, I do also love cars. I always have, going right back to my first one, the glorified biscuit tin that was my Fiat 500 in 1972. Since then I have owned 19 cars, some of them true bangers held together by the grace of God, and some really snazzy vehicles that turned heads.

I even owned that Fiat 500 while I was a student. I should explain that I had been a bank employee before becoming a student, and the Fiat was a left-over from my banker days. Back then I was envied for having a car; not a single other student in my class owned one. But now, everything is different. Car parking is the constant crisis on every university campus, not because staff own too many, but because a large proportion of students drive them. A couple of years ago I even had to have a Mercedes S-Class clamped that was causing an obstruction in DCU, only to find that it was owned by a female student who had received it as a birthday present (an S-Class!!!) from her Daddy.

But is all that going to change? In the United States, it is reported that fewer of the so-called ‘Generation Y’of young people now own cars, and they rate them as less important and possibly even undesirable for environmental reasons. They use more public transport and manage to find sex appeal that doesn’t require four wheels and a loud engine.

So will my generation of motoring enthusiasts grow old huddled round a television watching Clarkson and the lads get up to their tricks ageing gracelessly? Will we come to be seen as mindless idiots that didn’t get on the righteous bandwagon of frugal transport means? Or will there be a new generation of technology-driven vehicles that don’t disturb the environment and have the wow factor? Gosh, I hope so. Just as long as people get over the need to park them all on university campuses.

On four wheels

October 21, 2008

Roughly 36 years ago, I got my first car. At the time I was a trainee with Dresdner Bank in Germany, and in order to be able to commute between my home (or rather, my parents’ home) and the office I acquired a car. The car in question was the Fiat 500; the exact model and colour that I got can be seen here.

In many ways the 500 was just a biscuit tin on wheels. It had absolutely nothing that we would now regard as standard in a normal spec. It had no radio, back wiper, heated windows, head rests; it didn’t even have seat belts. Its non-synchromesh gearbox required the driver to conduct intricate exercises for every gear change (press clutch, disengage gear, let go clutch, press accelerator, press clutch, engage new gear, let go clutch – every time!). The only instrumentation told you the speed and the car’s mileage, there wasn’t even an indicator for fuel. The fuel tank itself was in the boot in the front (leaving very little room for any bags or the like), and the noisy, air-cooled engine was in the back. But it did have a fold-back sun roof, and a kind of cruise control (you could engage a lever which would hold the accelerator at its current location and you could remove your foot). And it was mustard yellow, and it was mine.

I was reminded of this glorious car, which I loved more than any car I have ever owned since, when I saw one of the new Fiat 500s last week. Fiat has not done an at all bad job in recreating the styling and ‘feel’ of the original car, and I’ll bet its fuel consumption is good.

Maybe we all need to get off our fixation with large cars, SUVs and other big beasts of the road, and rediscover the sheer fun of driving small cars with plenty of style, like the Mini and the Fiat 500.

Getting the speed limits right

July 26, 2008

All over Ireland – and many other countries – every hour of every day, thousands of drivers completely ignore the speed limit, whatever it may be, and drive at whatever speed they fancy. People are constantly taking the most absurd risks with their own safety, and more significantly with the lives and safety of countless others. Here on the campus of Dublin City University – where we have a 30 km/h or 20 mph speed limit – I regularly see drivers (almost always young men) tearing past at 50 mph or sometimes more. When I stop them, as I sometimes do, and lecture them on this, what they say to me is usually unrepeatable. I let them drive on but occasionally see to it that their cars are clamped…

However, I cannot help feeling that one of the disincentives to careful driving are the speed limits themselves. Today I was approaching a toll plaza well known to Dublin drivers, and noticed again that a speed limit sign requires drivers to proceed for the last 100 yards or so before the toll booths at 10 km/h (about 6 mph). This is walking speed. I tried to do it today, and I can report that the cars behind me were not amused. And I cannot blame them. It is clearly idiotic to impose a speed limit that nobody is even going to consider observing; by having this limit, drivers are actually encouraged not to take speed limits seriously, and the result is that they drive well in excess of limits elsewhere that are rational and essential for safety. The same is true occasionally where there are 60 km/h speed limits on open roads, for absolutely no apparent reason; again, drivers ignore these.

Road safety has become a pressing issue in this country, and we need to stop reckless and mindless behaviour by drivers who seem to become insane once they are behind the steering wheel of a car. But part of the programme for getting this right must be to ensure that traffic regulations are also sensible.