Originally published March 16, 2008
Last weekend I was driving through one of those junior-executive, Tory-stronghold housing estates — the sort where they have wife-swapping parties every Thursday at No 22 and everyone has baggy-knickers curtains. And I was staggered because just about every single man was out on his drive, washing the car.
What a meaningless way of passing the time. You don’t wash your vacuum cleaner or your television set, you have a machine to wash the dishes and you employ a man to clean your windows. So how much do you have to hate the sight of your wife and children before you think, “I’d rather go outside into the cold and spend a couple of hours burnishing my wheel nuts”?
I am aware, of course, that many men do hate the sight of their wife and children. Doctors even have a name for these people: “anglers”. But even the concept of sitting in the drizzle by a canal for six hours and then throwing everything you catch back into the water is not as daft as washing a car.
First of all, it’s very hard work. You have to do all the exercises favoured by people in gyms. Bending over, stretching, rubbing. But at least when gym bunnies finish, they have glistening, toned bodies that make them look good. You? You’re just going to put your back out. And the more you clean, the more you’ll notice is dirty. If you’re not careful you’ll end up polishing the inside of the tyre valves and then not wanting to use your car if it’s raining.
This behaviour is called “being a concours enthusiast” and it’s very dangerous. Many “concours enthusiasts” go on to be murderers.
And have you ever actually tried those cleaning products that are available in supermarkets? There are any number of sprays, creams, waxes, shampoos. It’s like being in Richard Hammond’s bathroom cabinet. Except, as far as I can tell, they don’t actually do anything.
“Simply spray onto the glass.” it says on the tin, “Then, after two minutes, wipe down with a clean cloth.” Rubbish. You can never trust any instruction that begins with the word “simply”.
I’ll give you a little hint here. When your windscreen is completely covered in dead flies, the best way of seeing where you are going is to buy a new car.
Why are you washing the car in the first place? A car will not get smelly armpits or a cheesy groin. Bathing it will not increase its life expectancy or decrease the chances of a breakdown. All it does really is demonstrate to others that you have a tiny mind and an empty life. I want you to think carefully about this. Can you picture in your mind George Clooney washing a car? Quite.
The Germans have realised that it rots the mind and that’s why it is illegal in most towns to wash your car on a Sunday. There is simply no place for such useless nonsense in an industrial powerhouse.
Oh, and here’s another thing. Washing a car is the only time you ever get up close and personal with all of its panels. Which means you will find a million depressing little dings and scratches that you would never have spotted had you left it caked in grime.
2008: the year in cars
Volvo’s XC60, the first car that can automatically apply the brakes if it senses a crash, is unveiled. The Sunday Times drives it towards an inflatable obstacle. And crashes into it.
18 Met Police officers are told off for boasting on Facebook about crashing into cars while on duty.
Mind you, cleaning out the interior is even more silly, because I can absolutely guarantee you will remove something that next week you will need. Everything I have ever bought is in my car. People say it’s a skip and disgusting and refuse to get in there. That’s one advantage. Another is that last week I needed a headache pill and it was simply a case of rummaging under the seat until I found one. Because it’s so full of junk, I always have everything I could conceivably need. A Biro, a refreshing drink, lots of loose change, all sorts of maps, an iron lung and so on. I kid you not. There’s even a wetsuit in there.
Finally, we must discuss the chamois leather. And here I have two more tips. No 1: if it is imitation chamois or a leather made from another sort of animal, it will not work. And No 2: if it is a real chamois hide that has been crafted by walnut-faced men of the mountains, it will not work either.
You have to feel very sorry for the goat antelopes whose skin is used to make these things. No, really. Had they been native to Africa, they’d have been eaten by lions. Had they been horses or cows, they’d have been turned into burgers. And had they been native to Spain, the locals would have dreamt up some bizarre torture that would have involved their being flung off a tower by a man in pink satin trousers.
But no. They had everything going for them. They were cute and tasteless and they lived in Alpine meadows with nothing to disturb them except nuns singing. They even had a kindly Swiss man who came into their field once a day to play with their teats. Life was blissful. And then one day the world got it into its head that their skin could be used to clean cars. And that was it for Johnny Chamois. Now, and for no reason, the poor things are on the endangered list in some places.
Only the other day I set off in my car on one of those crisp winter mornings when the sun is low in the sky and, because I never wash my car, I really and truly could not see where I was going. The inside of the windscreen was caked in gunk and, for reasons I couldn’t fully understand, iced over just as thoroughly as the outside.
So, breaking with the tradition of a lifetime, I went to a petrol station and bought a scraper. Sadly, because it had been made in China, it was about as good at getting ice off a windscreen as the back of a dog. So, having made the situation much worse, I bought a chamois leather. What this did was remove all the moisture, mix it with the dirt … and put it back again. Honestly, I might as well have tried to clean the windscreen with a muddy stone.
I’m running out of space, so I’d better move on to the car I’ve been driving for the past week. It is a mainstay of the car-washing classes. A Tory-stronghold car. A car designed for the Barratt junior executive who dreams one day of going on his own. “The bank’s with me. John’s with me …” In my mind everyone who has a Renault Laguna is a wife swapper.
I liked the old model very much for reasons that are now lost in the mists of time and I wish I could say the same of the new one. I tried the hatch version a few months ago, and honestly, when I sat down to write the road test, I couldn’t remember anything about it. Except perhaps that it might have been brown. Fearing that you may need more information than this, I’ve just tried the Sport Tourer estate, and that was definitely brown, and quite ugly.
Ooh. I’ve just remembered why I liked the old one. It was the first car ever to be awarded a Euro NCAP five-star safety rating, and of course the new model is similarly blessed. But most cars are, these days. That’s no reason for choosing the Renault over anything else.
In fact, I struggle to think why you might even want to buy a five-seat estate like this. For the same money every month you could have an Audi or a BMW. Or, if you are mad, you could have one of the smaller four-wheel-drive cars. The list of other things that would be better is long and includes rickets.
If, however, you are determined to have something boring and brown, buy a Vauxhall Zafira or a Ford S-Max. At least that way you get two extra seats thrown into the mix. But if you absolutely insist on a boring brown car with only five seats, I’d go for the Ford Mondeo. It’s more spacious and, though I doubt you’ll care, nicer to drive. Certainly, I found the new Laguna’s steering a bit clattery. I also felt the trim was rubbish and that some of the softness I usually like in French cars had been replaced by an unnecessary German firmness.
To conclude, then, this is a car I’d rather wash than drive. And it doesn’t get worse than that.