How we learned to stop loathing and embrace the gas-guzzling menace

“Suburban!” I expostulated. “That thing’s big enough to contain an entire suburb!”

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It is a cliché much beloved of the ­British that all things American are bigger. Of course this gee-whizzery doesn’t apply to every standardised object, and ever since the oil crisis of the 1970s there have been plenty of dinky little hatchbacks on US roads. Even so, there are occasions when even I – a demi-
American – am stunned by its embrace of the gargantuan. One such occurred last summer, when Family Self arrived in Los Angeles. I had reserved a standard rental car, but as we waited, bleary-eyed, in the Alamo queue, I reflected on the huge amount of freeway driving I’d be doing and thought, sod it . . . when in Rome . . . so I requested an upgrade to an SUV.

“Will that be a standard SUV?” the Alamo woman asked. I concurred, and five minutes later the biggest thing I’d ever seen on wheels not transporting a Saturn V rocket was driven on to the lot.

Observing my amazement the Alamo woman said, “It’s a Chevy Suburban. They’re real popular.” “Suburban!” I expostulated. “That thing’s big enough to contain an entire suburb!” Needless to say, I sent it back. (Either that or, given the Chevy Suburban’s enormous mass, it could be we managed to achieve the velocity necessary to escape its surly gravity.) Anyway, this incident gave me cause to reflect once more on the plague of vast private vehicles now afflicting our cities. Not so long ago, even in LA, I wouldn’t have dreamed of driving an SUV (or four-wheel drive, as they’re confusingly called on this side of the Atlantic water feature); I passionately concurred with the view that these hypertrophied hunks of death metal were the dernier cri of a civilisation choking on its own tailpipe.

Don’t you remember how they were nicknamed “Chelsea tractors” and their headscarved and gilet-wearing, yummy-mummy drivers were excoriated as pluto­cratic planet-despoilers? The grim joke was that the only reason they were driving these behemoths was so little Barnaby and Charlotte wouldn’t be jolted by the newly introduced speed bumps. I recall quite
continent pundits arguing like the crustiest ecowarriors that right-thinking folk should feel no compunction about running an ignition key along the glossy flanks of these big beasts in an effort to drive them from our tarmac pastures.

A decade on, no one so much as raises an eyebrow when they see a Humvee inching its way into a city-centre parking place – while we share our twisting and ancient thoroughfares with a bewildering array of VW Touaregs, Porsche Cayennes and Volvo XC90s. Indeed, no major car marque is now without its model engorgement, and the British, who usually are among the highest spenders on car flesh worldwide, have embraced them enthusiastically.

Embraced in particular the model that’s the granddaddy of them all: the Land Rover. Once upon a time, a Land Rover was mud-caked, boxy object full of threadbare Barbour jackets, spittle-streaked collies and rolls of wire fencing, to be found only securely off-road. That all began changing with the launch of the Range Rover in 1970; since then, and throughout many iterations, the Range Rover has transmogrified into a vehicle that resembles nothing so much as the gun wagon of a Mexican cocaine cartel. I see them round my way all the time: severe militaristic body; matt-black paint job; tinted black windows; black wire mesh over head- and tail lights; bonnet slightly humped like the nacelles of an aircraft; carburettor intake like the steely gills of a predatory shark. The overall impression conveyed is one of extreme menace and imminent danger.

Which is why I never cease to be flummoxed when, upon squinting through their glass darkly, I see dear little kiddies in their car seats, and perfectly ordinary-looking mummies driving them to school. There are all sorts of ways we externalise the anxieties we are prey to yet can’t accept: we starve and scratch and medicate and exercise obsessively; we booze and fornicate and gamble and count the cracks in the pavement to ward off the bears – but surely these suburban armoured personnel carriers are the strangest reification of our fears there has ever been. Or, rather, the strangest reification of the terrors we inflict on others.

Because when I said they resembled gangsters’ wheels I wasn’t being strictly accurate; what they actually look like are Special Forces vehicles that have been adapted for nefarious civilian use. Yes, their most obvious design affinity is with Predator drones or stealth fighters, and if the average Iraqi or Afghan were to see one come cruising down their way they’d probably leap for cover.

What crazed and febrile people we are! Like the biblical Nebuchadnezzar, we reduce other nations to dungheaps – but then, terrified by our own deathly potency, we pop out to the shops in cars suitable for a war zone. I doubt the average Range Rover Evoque owner would admit to this (not without a little gentle waterboarding, that is), but at least there’s one True Brit who is prepared to speak his truth. As Jeremy Clarkson is on record as saying that the Range Rover TDV8 Vogue is “the best car in the world”, we can only conclude that it’s the best car for menacing those folk Clarkson has a proven antipathy to. People who – for instance – have the wrong sort of paint job, and who are woefully underpowered.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn