Class conscious

I know little about cars, and think of them entirely in snob terms. When I was eight, for example, our family had a Singer Gazelle, a big, handsome car, but I still remember my disappointment on realising that it was made by the same firm that made my mother's sewing-machine. I mean . . . does Ferrari make sewing-machines? I think not. (Maybe it should do, after the Malaysian Grand Prix.)

I learnt to drive two years ago, around the time my wife's VW Golf was stolen and subsequently destroyed - with very little in the way of apology - by a pursuing police car. Secretly I was quite pleased, because the Golf is a nippy car, and I don't like nippy cars. They imply a sens-ible, clock-watching life - a bourgeois life.

The car we bought next was a Mercedes 230. It cost a few hundred quid and was nearly 20 years old, but the good thing about this elegant, low-slung model is that it is almost a classic car, and I hoped people would conclude that we'd bought it for its looks, rather than because we couldn't afford anything else.

But the trouble with posing as a classic car fan is that you ought to have a generally stylish lifestyle to back it up.

I was once climbing into our Merc after a party in Notting Hill, and one of our fellow guests said: "Funky car, man." But I detected a note of sarcasm here, because I was dressed in my Man from the Pru suit, which I hate but which is always uncreased, and therefore eminently wearable, by virtue of its being 110 per cent polyester. It must have been obvious, in other words, that I myself wasn't funky, and that my car must therefore have been funky only by accident, as it were.

Our Mercedes 230 broke eventually and we replaced it with another old Merc, a 190, which is equally battered but in no way classic. We've long felt uncomfortable running this cheap car in our street, which is full of those four-wheel drives that are bringing about the Beverly Hills-isation of north London.

But the other day, a new woman moved in over the road from us, and, watching her arrive, my wife delightedly called out: "She's got an old Volvo!"

We like her a lot already.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Why the old left is wrong on equality