Car Culture: The Safest Place

A weekly look at car culture as it affects us, plus some good bits


For all our war on cars, environmentally noxious, noise, parking, good land concreted to serve them, they are currently the safest place to be to avoid the coronavirus emergency, or Grim Reaper’s scout, as I call the nasty bug.

Media pundits are forever telling us we indulge ourselves in ‘social bubbles’ (their bubble is never a negative space), but a car with one driver is a social bubble, and my wee Smart car the  best of all. So, I take a daily drive and back when needed, most journeys not engaging others bar one trip a week to the supermarket, every two to the nearest petrol station.

The coronavirus is the worst attack on the automobile manufacturers existence since Brexit. If they were mad at the stupidity of the blundering, xenophobic Tory party and its blind followers, they have no one to shoot over a virulent virus striking down all human activity caught out of house doors.

They are in no position either to blame the Chinese. Not only is there no evidence the virus originated there, but almost all Britain’s major car manufacturers decamped to China to make and sell their vehicles to prosperous Chinese.

The small and the strapped for capital are particularly vulnerable, Morgan Cars and Aston Martin come to mind as the obvious ones, but there are many more specialists who will not survive the crisis. Small manufacturers face a double whammy having to compete with large car makers for Treasury subsidy cash. (What we call welfare, car makers call incentive grants.) Just as you did not vote to ensure the existence of corrupt banks, neither did you vote to hand wads of dosh over to car makers.

If that sideways rebuke sounds too harsh, remember there are no car manufacturers in Scotland and yet our taxes go to subside their activities in England and Wales. Scotland is at the mercy of whatever they choose to sell to us. Had we our own industry we could at least create something more fitting for the 21st century. Anyhow, I digress,

We don’t have power over what we are sold. For years auto makers have been making their vehicles bigger and bigger. Logically, it’s the only way they can describe their latest model as ‘better’ than the last, that and a few new gizmos, such as Sat-Nav, or parking assist. I doubt that attitude to making cars will alter with the advent of electric cars. Far too many manufacturers are tied into producing thousands of cars a year to keep their  bottom line fat.

Gone are the days when a a car buyer went to a company that made chassis’s, chose an engine from another company, and handed both over to a coach builder, the name a hangover from horse and carriage, today a Carrozzeria, to give it its Italian moniker. maker for a bespoke design. In a lot of cases all today’s automakers do is modernise design to fit fashion. Renault cars are the best at that dodge, Ford a close second, essentially the same car as last time with a different set of body lines and colours.

Nissan, probably the largest car manufacturer in England, decided it should not chuck away all its past investment after Brexit by closing its Sunderland plants. Instead, it shifted some new cars abroad and, much to the relief of all their workers who had voted to leave the EU, announced a £400 million investment in its English plants, spread over a few years. That is now been shelved. What a mess.

While Brits cheer at dumping the EU, car manufacturers are still obliged to comply with EU safety rules in car design for passenger and pedestrian safety if the intend selling their cars outside the UK, which of course, 80% of their entire output is constructed to do. Irony is plastered all over Brexit.

What we have not done is place constraints on size. Cars are produced bigger than ever year by year, the more bulky they are, the more the seem like a safe place to be. Our streets cannot accommodate them, or parking base useless.

The big SUV as a safe way to travel is a myth. The higher the centre of gravity, the greater the chance of a vehicle overbalancing if a tyre hits soft ground and rolls over, or gets hit by strong side winds with the same result.

Three of the worst offenders for producing army tanks on wheels are Volvo, BMW, and Land Rover. In many cases SUVs are saloon cars with jacked-up chassis offering only a few inches more of headroom than a conventional vehicle. We keep buying SUVs because the appear to be bigger inside, they help us see over the tall SUV in front, and because their suspension is often better than conventional cars at soaking up a thousand potholes, that and travelling over washboard surfaces that trash our roads. They are sold as able to tackle rough ground, but few rarely see more than grit or sand.

Will the latest crisis to hit car makers and their workers do anything to force them to rethink what they are doing and why? I doubt it. The big manufacturers will keep churning out tin and plastic, the small ones price their supercars as high as possible to  appeal to the residents of Monaco and others with fat offshore bank accounts.

Meanwhile, all car makers in the UK have shut down. Car showrooms follow suit. Our own Scottish car organisation, the SMMT, estimates that the shutdown could mean the UK produces 200,000 fewer cars in 2020 than in 2019 – a drop of -18% (sounds a good thing to me), but warns the impact could be “far more severe” if the shutdown continues for several months. And as predicted, the conversation turns into the begging bowl:

“If we’re to keep this sector alive and in a position to help Britain get back on its feet, we urgently need funding to be released, additional measures to ease pressure on cash-flow and clarity on how employment support measures will work.”


Static statistics

Coronavirus lock-down means cars sit idle. On the subject of keeping safe in your own motoring bubble, classic bubble cars best of all, cars don’t like sitting in one place for long. Tyres get flat spots, leak air, batteries lose power, paintwork degrades if sitting in all weathers. The occasional journey has to be a must, even if a wide circles, or to a remote area to walk the dog and your legs, unless you want to switch on the car one day only to find nothing does. The smaller, lighter the car, the smaller the engine and therefore the more adapted the vehicle is to sitting doing nothing for days on end. 

No go areas

Readers who live in Aberdeen will remember the city’s autumn 2018 experiment to ban cars for a weekend from the city centre. In place sprang up social events and food stalls selling local produce. (That happens every weekend in selected Los Angeles streets, year round.) Edinburgh followed suit, at least I think it was that way around. With the Grim Reaper’s corona scout seeking out likely victims, police have set up road blocks in various English cities to stop drivers and question where they are going and why. To my knowledge there are none stationed on the Scottish border. There should be. Keep alert for draconian powers retained by authoritarian administrations planning to control our activities for their sinister reorganisation of our rights. And send me incidents you’ve been involved in, or witnessed. Use my twitter account if you like.

Bus virus

Spare a thought for bus drivers. Though passenger numbers have fallen dramatically, and consequently bus schedules reduced, drivers have to drive the buses to carry those of us without a car. Luckily most new buses have a plastic or glass partition between them and the scruffy, hacky coughing public, us. Black taxi drivers have a safety glass too between them and passengers, assuming the twenty pound note you pass to the driver doesn’t carry the ugly bug, or the receipt they pass to you. I wish them well and a safe journey. Uber taxis are no go areas for me for some time to come. 

Happy (as possible) motoring!

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