Won't someone please think of the children?
If David Bowie's 'Starman' ever popped down to Earth for a quick visit, there are many things that humans do which he would probably find totally bewildering.
We drink and smoke, knowing full well that it could kill us, we eat fast food when we know that it will make us fat, and some of us even jump out of aircraft flying at great heights with nothing but a sheet of nylon, some string and the theory of air resistance to stop us from hitting the deck at 120 miles per hour. Can you imagine the look of incredulity on the face of Mr. Starman if he were to be presented with this behaviour? Well that's nothing compared to the contorted face of total incomprehension worn by most people younger than me that I meet when I ask them if they can drive.
"Drive?" You can see the little cogs in their head turning as they struggle to get to grips with the concept. "Why the hell would I want to do that?" they say, and you have to admit, these days that's a very good question. If you were a 17-year-old today, would you want to have to deal with all the expense and paperwork that comes with owning and driving a car of your own?
First, you've got to have driving lessons, which will cost you at least £20 per hour. In Britain, the average number of lessons taken is 45, so that's £900 please. Then you've got to do the driving test itself. This comes in two parts, a written exam which is £23 and then the practical test where you go out in the car, that's £62, unless you need to take it at the weekend, in which case it's £75. So, if you're a responsible young person with a job, you get shafted. Nice.
It doesn't stop there because once you've passed your test, you'll need to get an insurance policy, and as a reward for all your hard work the insurance broker will help himself to all your money, all your parents’ money and if the family dog has a couple of quid stashed away, they'll have that too.
I'm not joking, as an experiment I got an online quote for a 17-year-old who had just passed his driving test. I chose a respectable area for him to live in, I said he was an under-graduate student, and I didn't give him a BMW M5 or something daft like that, I went online and picked out a sensible, but not embarrassing, 2012 VW Golf 1.4 SE. Would you like to guess how much they wanted to insure it for a year?
Nope, the cheapest quote was for over £2,000, and that was with the proviso that I had a little 'black box' fitted which monitors how you drive. If the electronic box thinks that you are driving in a sporty fashion, or that you’re out past your bedtime then it will report that back to the insurance company who will then jack the price up even further next year. Regardless of the fact that you were, oh I don’t know, rushing your unwell Mother to the hospital at 4AM. Don’t think that you can get around this by choosing an insurance firm that doesn’t require an electronic nanny either, the cheapest quote that I got without one was over £5,800. That’s nearly six grand, for one year. It’s also £1300 more than the purchase price of the Golf.
Even if our young friend can get a bail-out from the IMF to pay for insurance, then he’ll still be faced with the bills that we older motorists have to pay. The fuel, the road tax, the parking...
Small wonder that an 18-year-old I know spent over £1200 with Uber last year. She’s still way better off than she would be if she had used her own car.
The biggest problem of all though, is the cars themselves. Look at any of the models on sale today that would be even remotely feasible propositions for a new driver and tell me that you can get excited about any of them.
You can’t, can you? When your Dad started driving, he could’ve had an Alfasud, or a Mini Cooper, or a mark two Escort. These weren’t fast cars, but they were simple, cheap and above all they were bloody good fun. Even when I started driving, we had the wonderful Peugeot 106 Rallye, a genuine stripes-and-stickers motorsport homologation special which cost less than nine grand. Cars like that meant you could be young and still have a car that was fun to drive, they made the concept of driving appealing.
What do we have now? The Kia Picanto? The Hyundai something-or-other. They’re just pile-em-high white goods intended to be nothing more than assets on a finance company’s spreadsheet. You get the feeling that for most car firms these days, manufacturing cars is very much a side-line, most of their people are employed in the leasing department
The other week, I saw an advert on TV for the latest Vauxhall Corsa, and all it told me was that the car had a Wi-Fi router in it. As though the only interesting thing that you might want to do with this £13,000 car is browse the internet. Is it fast? Nope. Is it economical? No idea. They even filmed the whole thing at night so you can’t tell what it looks like.
And that’s where the problem lies. The government, the local councils, the insurance companies and the Islington environmental lobby, when they aren’t jetting off to Tuscany twice a year, are doing their level best to destroy the idea that owning a car could possibly be fun or desirable. But the car manufacturers, the people whose livelihoods depend on this, don’t seem to want to fight back. Sure, you can still buy a sports car, but only if you can pay for it. Even a basic Fiesta ST is £18,000, and because it has 200 horsepower, the insurers will crucify you.
Kids are growing up today who simply can’t comprehend that there could be any joy to be found in motoring. You and I may still day-dream about tearing down the Col de Turini at full chat in a Ferrari 488 with your Ray-Bans on and Natalie Dormer in the passenger seat, but unless car manufacturers start making their basic models more appealing to your son or daughter will that dream live on in them? Nah, they'll get an Uber, or a train, or anything else.
Volkswagen are on the right track with their up! GTI, but where’s the Ford SportKa? Where’s the Peugeot 108 Rallye with a fizzy little engine and close-ratio ‘box? Small, cheap cars don’t need to be boring. In fact, they need to be amongst the most fun cars you can buy.
So, my message to car makers is simple. You need to start looking at the people on the bottom rung of the ladder guys, otherwise when they reach the top, they won’t be looking at you.