Thanks everyone for sharing enough stories to make me feel comfortable that I was not alone in driving a dangerously unsafe car back in my youth. Like I said at the beginning of the post, there was a time when taking possession of your first banger was a rite of passage for young men. (It may have been different for women: the first car of my ex-housemate was a Nissan Micra that, although in very good condition, was ginger in colour.)
Back around 2001 I had to commute between south Manchester and Warrington, so bought a brand new Renault Clio, 1.2l at the very bottom of the range (I got a new one because I knew it would work and the finance deal was pretty good). It was about as much a girl’s car as you could find, especially being bright red, but having done that job delivering cars all over Manchester I knew what it was like to drive compared to Fiestas, Polos, and the other cars in its class. I went for the bottom of the range of a small car simply to save money. I had that car for about two years and not a thing went wrong with it, it was perfect except for being a little to small for my legs. On long journeys, my knee would hurt.
What I noticed when I lovingly washed it every weekend was how much of it was actually plastic. The front wings were, and the sills covered in a rough plastic coating which didn’t chip easily. Parked outside in Manchester weather, there wasn’t a spot of rust on it even after two years. When I walked to work this morning, I tried to spot a rusty car on the way. I didn’t see one. But back when I was growing up in the 1980s? Oh boy. I read stories about how British Leyland would stamp out car panels in one factory, load them onto an uncovered flatbed truck, and drive them through the rain to be painted and installed elsewhere. Little wonder they started rusting from the moment you took it off the forecourt. It wasn’t just British cars, though. My parents had a VW Beetle which one of my school chums nicknamed “measles”, and we had two successive Mark I Golfs whose wheel arches rusted through in a few years. Back in those days, Halfords used to sell sheets of wire mesh that you’d fix over the gaping holes in the bodywork and cover with a sort of polyfilla, then sand it smooth. If you were lucky, you’d find some paint to match but a lot of people just left it at that. I doubt anyone does this any more, save for those working on classic cars.
What’s changed, aside from the demise of state-run disasters such as British Leyland, is materials technology. The steel will be of a higher quality these days, and I expect all cars are galvanised as standard. Plastics are used wherever possible, and the coating and painting systems will have advanced beyond recognition. The paint on old cars used to be very brittle, and would flake off around a stone chip. Nowadays the paint is more rubbery, and stone chips cause small pitting but don’t usually penetrate to the metal.
In my lifetime, the two massive advances in technology have been the internet and mobile technology. These have overshadowed other advances which are possibly of equal importance in terms of quality of life and wealth. Being an engineer, I have a habit of looking at modern equipment and comparing it to the kit I grew up around. The difference is incredible. Clothing is an obvious example. When I was an army cadet between 1992-1996, we were decked out in Falklands-era uniforms: heavy cotton smocks and trousers, woolen military jumpers, 58-pattern webbing made of a sort of woven canvas. This stuff was only waterproof if you sprayed it, and although it kept you warm even if wet, it trebled in weight and took a week to dry. A few of us got hold of Norwegian army shirts made from towelling, which were very warm but if they got wet the arms would increase in length by about fifty percent. By the mid-90s Gore-Tex was well established in civilian clothing lines, and fleeces were starting their period of dominance which continues to this day. Nowadays when I go hiking or skiiing, I’m amazed at how warm, light, and waterproof everything is, and not just the clothes. Footwear, tents, rucksacks, head torches, straps, buckles, and every other piece of equipment is now made from plastics optimised for that precise application. I’m sure the same is true for other pursuits, too. I don’t know much about sailing and nothing at all about golf, cycling, or motorbikes, but I’m confident the material technology in these areas is space-age compared to what it was in the 1980s.
Back then, when we went on holiday, my parents used to pack our clothes into these brown vinyl suitcases in the traditional style. They were awkward, not very strong, and the straps were splitting. Wander into a Samsonite store now and you’ll see suitcases which look to be made of body armour that weigh nothing. Even the arms of the glasses I’m wearing now are made from carbon fibre. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a piece of equipment whose usability, quality, durability, weight, and ergonomics hasn’t been improved massively thanks to the invention and adoption of new material technologies. It’s something a lot of people probably miss, blinded by the more obvious technological changes around them. We probably ought to give a small nod to the men and women who brought it about though, especially when people start railing against hydrocarbons.