In 1949, Ford advertised their new car as a ‘living-room on wheels’. I think it came with an ice drawer. All very civilised. But the modern driving experience doesn’t resemble anything else I can think of. The car is a unique society - it has its own climates, rituals, cuisines and behavioural codes.
Rules for the enlightened four-wheelers:
Everyone must adhere to the hierarchy of the seating plan - driver and favoured compatriote in the front, youngest child in the middle seat, in-house serf and other domestic animals in the boot
Middle-seater may not dictate loo breaks, ditto serf and dog
A power struggle must occur between navigator and passive-aggressive Sat-Nav lady
It is the only environment in which it is completely, 100% ok to lose your shit over the tiniest perceived insult or mistake. Something about getting behind the wheel has a wonderfully liberating effect on the British - in a dramatic departure from the usual flurries of ‘sorrys’ and ‘after yous’, the car transforms us all into glorious hooligans. It is the bermuda triangle of self-consciousness, propriety and politeness - people have raging fights in the front seat and pick their noses avidly at the traffic lights. This provides some much needed relief from the stranglehold of our highly intricate social codes.
The snacks are gloriously retro - the gluten-free/raw press apocalypse doesn’t seem to have hit the Welcome Breaks yet. People get great pleasure from the hunter-gatherer aspect of venturing out into the horrible petrol station shop in sheeting rain and coming back with armfuls of peanuts saying gleefully “it was this or a bottle of anti-freeze!” Posh families line up at McDonald’s drive-thrus, people acquire random cravings for Vimto. All bets are off once the car buffet opens.
For jittery, harassed millennials the car provides an unparalleled sense of calm and reassurance. It soothes our need for constant movement and progression by restricting potential activity. You are in transit, you are moving forward - and this silences the restless, obsessive voice in our heads that demands constant improvement. It is time that can’t be spent in any ‘useful’ pursuit - like writing your best selling novel or trimming your pubes into the perfect profile of Emmeline Pankhurst. In the car you are somehow, definitely doing - which, finally, allows you to sit and not do.
It is a space where phones lose some of their urgency and authority, where people can drift back to the campfire mentality of telling stories and gathering around songs. Chatter is easy, following vagues threads that can be put down and picked up again between comfortable silences. When a car is full there’s no need to address anyone in particular, you can simply emit words into the space and let them bob around like balloons gathering in a sports hall ceiling - existing benignly in the atmosphere. People suddenly, miraculously, seem ok with just saying nothing, seeing nothing. Miles of hypnotic phone lines are enough for hours of entertainment. We remember, in our fizzy digital existence, that we are actually rather good sitters. Sitters and watchers.
The magic shape we are belted into also unlocks things that just can't be facilitated by face-to-face conversations. The change in angle, the act of sitting shoulder to shoulder unblocks the staunched confessions and intimate conversations. The sense of finally having some time, some real time for those necessary conversations that can’t be teased out over frenzied ‘catch ups’ in crowded cafes.. You ask a question and this time she pauses, you hear the snag in her voice, the slight hesitancy before she answers. And now you have that magic tear in time. So you gently press and the truth unfolds like a crumpled origami bird that had been crushed into a back pocket, creases smoothed out until the centre is revealed.
The car is therapy. It is escape. It is a portal, a campfire, a society.
Written by Jess Bird
Illustrated by Minty Curci