The Love-Hate Nature of Car Ownership | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 04.03.2005
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The Love-Hate Nature of Car Ownership

Is a car just a means of transport or is it much more than that? Surely it's just a machine which makes some aspects of our lives easier. Or is it?


Sometimes happy, sometimes sad: car ownership is a complicated thing

A car is something different for everyone. It could just be a means to an end, the most convenient way of getting to where you want to go. It could be your work; it could be your life. But whatever a car represents, it can be a reference point to a certain time, a reminder of days gone by just as a song or a place can take you back years.

A first car is like a first love. It is something you see others enjoying as you grow up and something that fills your heart with longing, expectation and a little trepidation. You see the amount of time some drivers spend with their vehicles and you crave that connection; you see the exhilaration on their faces as they drive and wonder if you will ever feel that joy. In short, you just can't wait until you're old enough to enjoy those same pleasures.

In that way, owning your first car is like a coming of age. In Britain, where I spent the best part of 17 years preparing for the day I was handed the keys to the car door, the age at which you can legally drive comes amid the whirling maelstrom of late adolescence with all its raging hormones and soul-crushing melodrama.

But in the eye of this hurricane, you have this proof that you are considered an adult. You are allowed on the road with all the other grown-ups. All of life's troubles at that point can be solved as long as you have a steering wheel to grab and an accelerator to gun. Girlfriends can come and go but as long as you have a tank of gas at the time, so can you.

My first getaway car was an Austin Mini and, I freely admit, I gave myself entirely to that car. It was bought in a storm from a coastal village for the princely sum of ₤70 (€101, $133). I had yet to pass my driving test and my extremely nervous but charitable mother agreed to co-pilot our return with me at the wheel, despite the sheets of rain and booming clouds above. It was love at first sight. Royal blue flashed with sea air rust, it would be my escape route throughout my mid-teens.

The curse of the boy racer

Or so I thought. As with many young drivers, the car in its purest form was never enough. In went the sunroof, on went the wide wheels and straight box double-shotgun exhaust and racing steering wheel. And the stereo? If the gurgling pipes at the back weren't enough to signal my arrival, then my soundsystem would be. But the love affair was not to last. I got greedy. I wanted more.

To exchange one love for another always seems like a good idea at the time. You're moving on, older and wiser, to new horizons. You feel you have outgrown your past. But you soon realize that, as with all first loves, the cars that come after 'the one' have the problem that they must always live in that shadow.

My Ford Fiesta was an affair of the head, not of the heart. The larger engine, the glossy red exterior, the boxy maturity it exuded in comparison to the bubble-shaped go-kart I had exchanged it for -- I was seduced. Buying the Fiesta felt like I was moving up the driving ladder. I had been a fully licensed driver for a year and it was time to get serious. However, I was left cold -- literally.

Refrigerator on wheels or status symbol?

Purchased during the waning weeks of autumn, the Fiesta seemed an ideal chariot for the busy life I was now leading. People with cars had a certain standing within a group of friends and the responsibility of being the designated driver at times was an added ego boost. People wanted to drive with me.

That is until winter hit and I found out that I had to do a steady 70 miles per hour (112 kph) for at least 45 minutes before the heater would even begin to blow anything other than an icy chill into the car. Driving with me had turned into a recurring scene from the Keanu Reeves movie Speed. If the needle dropped below 70, those on board were in danger of freezing to death. However, negotiating roads in December at that speed was also life-threatening and the Fiesta was soon in the classifieds and out of my life.

But I had not learned my lesson. Again my head was turned. This time a slinky German number caught my eye. The Teutonic charm of the Volkswagen Golf was too much and I took the next step up the auto evolutionary ladder…into a nightmare.

The breakdown of a relationship

Within a day of ownership, she'd died on me. After suffering the ignominy of being towed back into town, we tried again. This time the failure was more spectacular as we disappeared in a boom of black smoke which would have made James Bond envious as we accelerated away from a roundabout and limped onto the hard shoulder.

Like any man caught in a destructive affair, words meant nothing. I was convinced it would all work out. My hard earned cash went on a new engine and for a while we were happy together. Until the breakdowns started again and I knew it was over. I managed to get her running long enough to sell her but she was cursed. A few weeks later, I saw, from my hiding place, the new owner pushing the car along a street.

What a fool I'd been! How could I have been so easily swayed? My next car would be a return to those warm and happy memories of my first love. This time, the Mini was newer, more sophisticated and considerably more expensive. She was a dream to drive and I honestly felt sad to see her go as I departed for university some 18 months later.

Maybe it was the realization that you can't turn back time or that public transport is much cheaper than owning your own. Whatever it was, I haven't owned a car since.

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