THE comedian Bill Bailey, in one of his clever escalating riffs, suggests that the English love of open cars is a particularly egregious example of optimism, at its most absurd! (OK, he didn’t actually say “egregious” but you could tell he meant it).
As a nation we have a higher proportion of cabriolets and what the Americans call “rag-tops” than any other. And given our famously unreliable weather, Bill Bailey thinks this is a somewhat idiosyncratic passion, at which much fun may be poked.
Apparently the biggest single group of open top car owners in the UK is women d’un certain age – by which the French elegantly indicate women who are no longer young but have not lost touch with their interest in style or fashion, or life perhaps. So, while not pretending either to fashion or style, we fit right in, well past middle age, and both with cars with tops that go down, which we open as often as possible.
It’s not a Thelma and Louise thing, which is what some of our (male) friends think – neither of us has any interest in picking up a Brad Pitt lookalike in a supermarket carpark.
My theory is that the affinity of women with convertibles is entirely about freedom – freedom from carting children and teenagers from hither to yon and back again, often way past their (and your) bed-time; and freedom from the requirement to conform to some norm of society, whether it is the workplace, the street you live on or the expectations and judgements of your social circle.
In the Daily Mail in 2017, the novelist Maeve Haran wrote: “For her 60th birthday last October, Theresa May probably splashed out on some more of those nice leopardskin shoes. For my own 60th, I did something much more earth-shattering. I bought myself a silver sports car.” She goes on to describe her pride and joy, a high performance Volvo with a top speed of 130mph.
It is a cliche that when men hit the midlife crisis, lose their hair and start looking anxiously over their shoulder at work, they ditch the loyal wife, buy a Porsche 911 and start an affair with their secretary or PA.
Maeve Haran, author of the best-selling Having It All and other witty, romantic novels, identifies a different explanation for her decision to go topless.
“My car was bought not because I was fretting over grey hairs and middle-age spread but simply because, after a lifetime of ferrying children in battered old people carriers, I thought it was time I had a car for me,” she says.
Reports in recent years, including an AA survey, have shown that convertible drivers aged between 45 and 69 are most likely to be female. Some of these reports suggest that the owners are “affluent middle-class women” rewarding themselves with a status symbol, perhaps when the children have flown the nest, after divorce or getting a job with a level of salary to give them financial independence.
That’s all fine and dandy, and statistically it’s probably true, but Maeve Haran’s point is that buying her silver Volvo convertible was something she did just for her, for fun. I’m sure she’s still enjoying it.
Some critics, perhaps secretly thinking women really should know their place as practical home-makers, suggest that convertibles don’t have room for back-seat passengers or that the boots are too small for the weekly shop let alone holiday luggage.
This is true about some sports cars, but not all – we have a small convertible and a medium sized one, both with retractable hard roofs (necessary since we do not have a garage), and both with roomy boots large enough for any holiday packing. One of them has a small back seat, which is fine for the dog and one small child, but the other comfortably accommodates four people – and the dog.
The truth is that driving a convertible is the most fun you can legally have on our overcrowded roads. It’s not so much the grumpy resentment on the faces of company car drivers as you accelerate past them on the motorway, or the cheery wink you get from your car mechanic – enjoyable as both are – it’s the freedom, the wind in the hair, the birdsong in the hedgerows, the smells of fields and flowers, hot food and farmyards.
For years we had sensible cars, big enough for children, dogs, suitcases, shopping, guitars, feed for the pony, equipment and supplies for our food film festival, even a futon for the supremely uncomfortable bed in our French gite.
Now we have cars that are still big enough for us and the dog, cars that are surprisingly economical but have a snappy turn of speed, cars that turn heads as we drive up the High Street or swing into a pub car park, and best of all, cars that we love to drive.