Car slavery insensitive? Which planet was he from?

Last Friday a judge in Cape Town ruled that it was ‘insensitive at best’ for a man to consider himself ‘a slave to Mercedes-Benz’. He has no idea. Absolutely no idea. In fact, so little idea that he must drive a Toyota; worse, a Tata. Or, perish the thought, not drive at all.

Man (and woman) has been slave to the car since it got up off its horse-drawn haunches and became self-propelling. And that was over a century ago. And a certain Herr Benz was involved. Right at the start.

So the judge, as I say, had no idea. Of the long history. Of the enduring love affair. Of the entrenched addiction. Perhaps he is one of the few men on the planet that has not heard of Top Gear. Definitely not a petrolhead then. But equally definitely, a man with his head in the automotive-free clouds - or sand. Take your pick.

I write this because I, too, am gripped by an automotive addiction – a very particular one and one that would quite clearly equally disturb the learned judge. For I am enslaved to cars in general – and BMW in particular.

Now there are marques that are – in some circles, possibly most circles – moderately socially acceptable as enslavement generators. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins are desirable objects, leave alone machines, in most people’s eyes – wherever they hail from. In many cases, they are objects of undeniable beauty. Such that, whether or not you can afford to drive or own or insure one, there is a general consensus that they are socially acceptable fantasies.

BMW, however, stands in that curious no man’s land between object of desire and object of derision. Neither an out and out supercar name like Ferrari, nor an established luxury car brand like Bentley but somehow not a mass market brand either…

The sign of the Ultimate Driving Machine: enough said...

What, then, is the essence of the attraction of the Bavarian propeller – the blue and white quartered logo that is most certainly as popular in the South African market as many others (though Mercedes-Benz’s equally enslaved waBenzi surely run them close). Technically, year on year, BMW wins the game… often due to its commitment to performance-enhancing technology. Not for nothing does BMW market itself as The Ultimate Driving Machine in some countries and as offering Sheer Driving Pleasure in others.

But let’s come back to the particularity of the Beemerphilia I seem to be addicted to and look harder at where it comes from.

My mother tells me that I knew the marques AND models of every car on the road by the time I was five. Before I could read. Since then I have devoured every book, magazine, model car, motor show and movie about cars that I can. I have helped countless friends find their dream machine. I even, when I worked in France for a while, started reading motor magazines in French. I have won competitions identifying cars from their radiator grilles. I have sought out mindless memorabilia and bought acres of accessories, I have a deeply prized collection of Polistil 1:25 scale model cars in a cabinet in my front hall. I have a motor magazine constantly by my bed. It is bad. It is very bad. It is more than an obsession. It is an addiction. A compulsion even.

So where does this thing come from? I expect I have asked my mother – and in the cause of research, dear reader, I promise to again. But I have an idea. It is part learnt, part genetic – like all good nature vs nature arguments – and being gay, I know that dialectic well.

Petrol in the family veins

My uncle is a racing driver and still, at 70, builds them. Yes, he both builds (present tense) and occasionally drives his own racing cars. This, dear reader, is no mean feat. He is a chemical engineer by training and worked for the first manufacturer of pneumatic tyres in the world – Dunlop. He invented the plastic exhaust manifold, amongst other things – and, no doubt, many other car parts I wot not of. That’s just the one that sticks in my mind. He also, unsurprisingly, always had the latest, sportiest car – apart from Beagle Racing’s latest projectile – in his precision tool-bedecked garage. Well, actually, his “everyday” car never got near the garage as it was always and is still filled with countless bits of racing car.

Banter Beagle, leading the pack as ever (not).

Then there was that name – Beagle Racing. Named after the beagle my parents had before I came into the world – and for seven or so years after I came into the world. That Beagle was called Banter. Don’t ask. I never have. Partly alliterative, partly World War One Flying Ace, the name has excelled as the first moniker in my Porn Star Name – Banter Yardley is a corker, most people agree. Professional and lucrative careers have been launched on far less. So Banter was the inspiration, I seem to recall, for Beagle Racing and, indeed, the cars were called Beagle Mk 1, 2, 3 etc. I remember Mk 4 most clearly as that was the one I spent most time with – testing at Donington Park and Silverstone, holding up that board at the end of each lap, inhaling the smell of Castrol, burnt clutch and scorched rubber. Heady, almost primal stuff.

Beagle Mk 4 in 2011, going strong 30 years on.
Beagle Mk 4 in 2011, going strong 30 years on.

Then there were the road cars. Ever since I can remember, with very few lapses, my uncle has had a road car that is one of the sporting icons of the day: a Mini Cooper (visceral ‘60s forebear of today’s yuppie icon), an MGB GT (enough said), a Triumph Dolomite Sprint (the first production car to have a 16 valve head: believe me, I could bore you far more if you ask…), a Bristol 406 (so very British, so very bizarre), a Ford RS2000 (RS for Rallysport), a Toyota MR2 (second ever affordable mid-engined sports car), a Ford Puma (shall I stop now?) – for the list goes on. All deeply impractical but absolutely suited to the confirmed bachelor he appeared to be for most of my youth: he did eventually get lassoed by my now Auntie June, who has a deeply quixotic love/hate relationship with Beagle Racing and driving – as she would have to. But that’s another story…

So Uncle Jim, for it is he, was and is a petrolhead. And has been all my life. As he is my Mother’s only brother, and the family is close, he was a significant influence. His own father, my maternal grandfather, drove Jaguars and had a magnificent pale blue metallic E Type, which he apparently drove at 40mph in the middle of the road. A slight genetic blip, there, then. By the time I could speak, said Grandpa Yardley was alas down to a rather embarrassing Hillman Imp Californian: not the stuff little boys’ car dreams are made on… But it was all petrol in my engine, as I wouldn’t have said at the time…

30mph in the middle of the road: strong men wept.

This was all further exacerbated by the fact that my father either had a similar gene or somehow caught the bug from my Uncle or his father. You see, my grandfather and grandmother – on my father’s side – also had a bit of a thing about cars. Not for them the traditionally staid Austins and Wolseleys of the era – don’t the names just sound staid? No, my grandmother, who died when I was only 5 or 6 (interesting that I don’t rightly know: note to self and therapist), drove cars like the Sunbeam Rapier and the Triumph Vitesse, cars whose very names spoke of raciness and speed (vitesse is French for speed, if I may be so patronising to those who know – and riveting to those who don’t).

And my grandfather had Bristols – as above, quintessentially and unapologetically British and built by an aircraft manufacturer. Remember the Bristol Beaufighter, the Bristol Brittania or even the ill-fated Bristol Brabazon? The very same company. And all Bristols – to this day, I think, as they are still, very oddly, built and bought, despite their deeply anachronistic design and eye-watering cost – had their spare wheel secreted in their driver’s side front wing, under a hatch. Marvellous. Well, it was to me aged 5 and, I’m afraid, still is forty years later. An addiction, as I said. Some would say an affliction…

The Bristol 411: eccentric, powerful and oh so British.

So my father, too, let’s get a bit more umbilical here, had sports cars. His obsession, mild compared to my uncle’s but pretty hard-wired nonetheless, was Alfa Romeos. Anyone who knows anything about cars knows that to own an Alfa Romeo is an act of love, pure and simple. Not for nothing is their strapline Il Cuore Sportivo. They are not sensible – too much to go wrong, too much to tune at too regular intervals, too much prone to electrical meltdown. NO ONE buys an Italian car, or an Italian anything, for its reliability or its longevity – I challenge you to counter that assertion. BUT what Alfas and Ferraris, Maseratis, De Tomasos, Innocentis, Oscas, Lancias, Autobianchis and even Fiats have in abundance is a thing the Italians call brio.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta, just like the one my dad had.

Allegro con brio: the spirit of it all

What exactly is brio? Well, my fairly basic 1980s Cassells Italian dictionary says: n.m. vivacity, sprightliness, spirit, animation. I’d go for spirit and vivacity. I’d then add adjectives like sporty, rorty, fizzy and revvy. A whole other side to the affliction emerges – an entire vocabulary learned of car magazines from a very, very early age. I suspect I learned to read from car magazines. My adjectives – when I’m allowed to use them – are undoubtedly coloured by the automotive world. How could they not be?

So brio. What Alfas have in abundance and so, from aged 0, I knew about it – smelt it, heard it, felt it and most probably vomited at it. And all those cars my uncle had – and most certainly all the Beagle racing cars – had it too.

To cap it all, my only other uncle and aunt drove sports cars and motorbikes too – MGs, Capris, Sciroccos, even a Bond Equipe (I could bore you, but I won’t). And, nail in the coffin here, my mother even strayed into the sporting camp (what hope did she have?) with the odd Alfa (when my father’s company Hilllman Hunter dictated it) and a deeply fondly remembered and very stylish turqoise Fiat 124 Coupé. But what my mother really wanted – and only got once she had remarried many years later – was a BMW. A pastelblau BMW 1602 Lux, to be precise. I remember endless discussions about its colour and trim before it was bought, brand new, in 1975: LOC 416P. And I didn’t even have to look that number up to tell you.

Just like Mama's, complete with tennis-elbow-inducing driving position.

At this point, clearly, the Bavarian umbilicus becomes particularly taut… Freud would have had a field day. Sempé, a particular fine and erotic French cartoonist that I discovered ten or so years later, most certainly did. The car as Oedipal surrogate, as penile expression and extension? Women have known this for years. Why else are cars called she?

Four wheels of my own

By the time I was a teenager, I was smitten – by cars. I had been subscribed to the best motoring magazine in the world – Car magazine – for many years via the services of my stepfather’s medical practice (it was supposed to go into the waiting room after I’d read it: it never did). Passing my driving test first time shortly after my 17th birthday meant my very first car – a clapped out Morris 1300 Traveller called Egbert. The cast-off of one of my stepfather’s practice partner’s wives, it had had a hard life in her inexpert and aging hands, but my mother and stepfather deemed it the perfect vehicle – in all sorts of senses – for us youngsters to learn on. And indeed it was. Not fast enough to get us into trouble but capacious enough to get us into it, it absolutely has a fond and famous place in family and personal memory. The day we sold it at auction for the princely sum of 400 pounds sterling is indelibly and sadly stamped in my memory.

Almost identical to my own iconoclastic Innocenti abberation.

And thus we get to my own motoring career – an epic in itself. Morris 1300 Estate (Egbert), Saab 99 saloon, Renault 5 GTL hatchback, Toyota Starlet hatchback, Innocenti De Tomaso hatchback, Volkswagen Golf I hatchback, MG Metro hatchback, Citroen Visa GTI hatchback, Vauxhall Nova SR hatchback, BMW 2002 Cabriolet, Volkswagen Passat hatchback, Mazda 323 hatchback, BMW 320i saloon, Volkswagen Caddy pick-up, Land Rover Freelander TD4 4x4 hatchback, Honda CRV 4x4 estate, Honda Jazz hatchback… and, if Lady Fortune allows me… but I don’t want to jinx the next one…

I have been reminded since writing this that I have omitted one extremely rare and exotic car from the list above, namely my much-ridiculed but surprisingly long-lived, despite its tendency to turn into rust, 1967 Fiat 600D. The D was not for Diesel (it was quite slow enough with its 767cc, 29bhp petrol engine as it was) and history does not relate what it did stand for… but it was truly a car of character. Being a Fiat, its mechanicals were pretty well unburstable and, indeed, the very same Uncle Jim later drove it on hillclimbs, of all things (it must surely have been the slowest car there).

But most were rude about it, including a friend who nicknamed it The Ashtray, not because of any anti-social habit I might have, but simply because of its diminutive size. Alas, it didn’t have a full-length sunroof as many of its 500 sisters did, which was probably just as well, as it would surely have filled up with water pretty fast in the Folkestone weather it had to endure. But it was a great town car and, of course, Spanish holiday rental car (which is why I knew what it was, after several childhood holidays in Ibiza, some being carted about in a SEAT 600). For those who have no idea what it is, a picture follows.

Just like mine: same vintage, same colour as Mum's 124 Coupe - spooky.

The observant amongst you will notice that there are lots of hatchbacks but only two BMWs in that mix: one middle-of-the-road 1989 E30 320i 4 door saloon and one much-loved classic 1974 2002 Cabriolet.

The former was my first and only foray beyond four cylinders (so maybe I’m greener, or could that be just meaner, than I thought) and only got as far as six; but a glorious engine it was and is. If BMW stands for nothing else, it is for the supreme craftsmanship and performance of its six cylinder engines - and many engines of the year awards attest to that. Pre-owned by an Italian thug, its engine had been more than mauled, but I was seduced by its deep blue colour, its flash alloys and, quite possibly, its good-looking owner. Rough but always ready, it survived dirt roads and even, to celebrate the Millennium, shed not one but two tyres at once on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere… and survived to fight another day.

Gretel clone, sister to GTL 604N, my much missed 2002 Baur cabrio.

The 2002 Cabriolet was another matter. Linking back to that first BMW of my mother’s in 1975, it was pure nostalgia and bought at the absolute height of the classic car market. Still, it only lost R10,000 in value in the five years I owned it, having cost the princely sum of R70,000 in the first place. GTL 614N (Gretel) was one of the last right hand drive Cabriolets in the country and now lives in Scotland, pampered, I hope. She made the most fantastic sound, handled superbly, looked great and was everything you would ever want in a Beemer. Classic looks, peerless engineering and surprisingly reasonable economy for a 100bhp 2 litre engine. Sadly, BMW SA believed it unwise to import from the UK as there were no parts for it here – or it might have been with me here today.

Instead, nudging 50, I’m at the stage of my ongoing mid life crisis where NOT having a soft top sports car feels like not living. This is sunny South Africa, after all, and the roads are still good enough – in the Western Cape at least – to have some top down fun. Cancer be damned. Planet be damned. Guilt be damned. I need to inject some joy into my life – if not every day, at least occasionally. And anyway, BMW’s advertising tells me that BMWs are all about joy. And the pessimists tell me there’s only another year till the world comes to an end. What further excuse do I need?