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#3: Red Volvo V50 Estate.

For years the Volvo estate was viewed by drivers with a mixture of disdain, mockery and fear. Disdain and mockery because it was the car of choice for safe, boring, middle class suburbanites and fear because it was also the car of choice for the incompetent behind the wheel. This was because the Volvo is a “safe” car; it was designed not only to survive a crash if the driver hit a patch of ice and went careening down a ravine, but also to withstand an impact with a moose. There was a story going around a few years ago, one I’ve never believed but nevertheless the people who told this to me were utterly convinced, that the biggest cause of death to drivers hitting a moose or reindeer with their car was drowning in all the blood they gush out when rammed. So the Volvo’s body was designed to eliminate that risk. Riiiiiight.

So your average Volvo driver bought the car not because it was desirable, good looking, smart, impressive, fast or with brilliant handling, it was bought so that people could survive crashes. And who buys a car mostly for crash survival? Incompetent drivers.

But fashions and attitudes have changed since the Volvo’s reign of terror in the 70s and 80s. The incompetent driver, the one who KNOWS they’re incompetent, is a dying beast. Everyone on the road now is convinced they’re a good driver. After all, Michael Winner set the trend by flatly announcing the fact he was a very good driver on TV despite having written off his and a lady’s car in one go. When people buy a massive SUV and then go and do the school run and the shopping in crowded and narrow city streets with it, they say they’ve done so because they’re so safe. It’s not them who are incompetent now, it’s you. Everyone else is the moron and buying a car and soul crushing SUV is a pre-emptive strike against the rest. With the SUV replacing the Volvo estate (because, presumably, the estate car doesn’t inspire fear like an SUV does) as the defensive road weapon of choice, the humble Swedish car has escaped the jeers at last. Also with BMWs becoming the car/weapon of choice for the asshole aggressive driver, this too deflects criticism away from Volvo. The boring tag is still there, though.

So what does this all have to do with me? Well, I own a Volvo V50 estate car and in fact it’s the only car I’ve owned. Since I was 19, I’ve spent most of my days in London and the desire to own and drive a car wasn’t that great. I did the usual things of taking driving lessons, taking the test, failing and then realising that London is populated by nutty drivers making up their own rules in contempt of the Highway Code which I was being assiduously taught. I figured in the end that in that environment, I would put my trust in bus and train drivers…after all, who could match them in terms of forceful driving? I saved a fortune in fuel, tax, parking and insurance bills and in the end it takes you an hour to get anywhere in London, no matter what vehicle you’re in.

This state was all fine except for a few issues that hovered on the horizon. The most obvious that a no-car strategy was great for London, but not so good for getting anywhere beyond it. Increasingly I had friends who all wanted to get out to the country for a day or weekend and that meant touting for lifts from others. The quality of the lift I got (or in some cases, didn’t) served as a barometer of my standing with various groups. If I’d been good, then it was the car share with witty and beautiful people, if I’d somehow crossed the line with someone, then it was the share with a morose tight lipped driver who would mutter “well you can always WALK if you prefer!”.

I also think I lost a girlfriend because I didn’t drive. She was American; the idea of not driving was not in her DNA. I tried to explain that in London it was often worse to drive anywhere but as our relationship went on she clearly felt that public transport was for chumps and she eventually returned to the wide open highways and freeways of her home; presumably to hook up with a monster truck driving All-American boy called Chet.

But the biggest event that changed my attitude to driving was impending fatherhood. Who was going to take junior places in safety and comfort? Me. Busses and tubes aren’t exactly nice and comfortable places for babies to be, especially when they start crying and I get malevolent glares from the other passengers. Better to be in our own self-contained bubble where my copy of Strangers in the Night by UFO can drown out the cries. So I put on my manly garb and went through the whole driving lesson thing again.

When I passed my test, it was some months before I could be let loose in a family car. We had a very old Volvo car which had a temperamental gearbox and clutch. One false move and the car would be immobilised. Only Laura knew the precise balancing point of the clutch and thus only she could drive the car. I tried once but strayed 2mm from the balancing point and the AA had to be called out.

But that old blue Volvo served Laura, Adam and I well until she became pregnant with Daniel. Now we had to upgrade to an estate car in order to accommodate all the baby stuff, Adam’s toys, Laura’s clothes and still leave enough room for a toothbrush for me. We went and chose a red Volvo V50 estate because it was large enough for our needs and handled well (it can turn in a very tight circle). We picked up the car, and no sooner than I was ready to step into the cockpit and take her for my first drive in a car without dual controls than Laura went into labour. Daniel was born and 2 days later I was faced with the prospect that my first drive without an instructor or examiner would be in a new car with a complete family and along the motorways from Camberley into London. That we’re all still here 4 years later with all our limbs intact and the car still driveable is a testament to my nascent driving skill that day. Sure, I’ve crunched the front of the car twice since then and rammed 2 other cars whilst reversing without any damage to my own but that is neither here or there. I delivered my family and newborn baby son safely home without killing any moose and getting drowned in the process.

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