While we’re all one big happy European family right now, it is untrue to say that some national stereotypes refuse to persist. According to an article in last week’s Times the French think that English women are fat, lazy, and fail to take care of their appearance. British men, meanwhile, are rubbish in bed and can’t cook, something which I’m sure would come as a surprise to Gordon Ramsey. Well, the second one would, anyway: I'm not sure what he's like in bed.
The British are as bad as anyone else, mind. Ask us to précis the various European nations and we’ll launch into a travelogue that would put Marco Polo to shame. The Germans are humourless and efficient, the French are rude and intransigent, and the Dutch all speak perfect English in between tokes on the bong. The Greeks are mental, the Italians are anarchists (and in the case of the women, raven-haired beauties who, however, become wizened old crones off the Dolmio advert some time around their thirtieth birthday) and the Belgians are boring. Whether or not he’s ever been to these places, an Englishman will be able to reel you off these definitions without so much as a moment’s hesitation. They’re accepted wisdom. They are facts.
Except, of course, they’re not facts at all. Having been on a hitchhiking mission to Paris last weekend, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a conciliatory French railway official, a Persian (not Iranian) communist in exile, and a Dutch bloke who spoke no English. A Belgian chap who gave us a lift across the channel, meanwhile, was the biggest playboy I have ever encountered – as a pilot and former tank driver, with his own boat on Lake Maggiore, he’s the definition of what a small boy wants to grow up to be. Ask him the definition of the word boring and he’d probably have to look it up in a dictionary. In short, he did not fit into my preconceived Belgian paradigm. Perhaps that’s why they say that travel broadens the mind.
How, though, to broaden the public’s mind with regard to cars? Because the automotive world suffers just as many preconceived judgments as the geographical one, and some of them are just daft. The one I’ve been struggling with the most this week has been the Renault Clio, which is, of course, perceived as the archetypal young person’s car. Ask me to count the number of cars on Warwick’s university campus that aren’t Clios, and I’d not be in any danger of taking my shoes and socks off. Nicole, it seems, has done her job well.
But I’ve been thrashing about in a 1997 1.4 model and I’ve been frankly appalled at almost every aspect of it. It IS a young person’s car, in that a child’s birthday party clearly had a major hand in the design process. The ride was modelled on a pogo-stick, the clutch was harder to depress than the birthday boy on a Ribena high, and the seats were as comfortable as his Little Tyke’s Cozy Coupe. The dash was laid out by blindfolded toddlers as part of a the afternoon’s entertainment, meaning the conjurer could slip outside for a cigarette – the car has no magic, no sparkle, none of the (sorry) joie de vivre I was expecting from a car pitched at the young, enthusiastic driver. It was slow, thrashy, the brakes didn’t work and it wasn’t even all that economical.
Compare this to the overlooked Rover 200, in both R8 and R3 form, which is of course perceived as the car of choice for fans of Werthers’ Originals. Those who carry a tartan rug on the passenger shelf. Those with a predilection for wearing pork-pie hats. Not to put too fine a point on it – old giffers. But why should this be? My old R8 was a tired old thing which set me back just £196, but it was superior in almost every way to the Renault. The dash was well laid out, its 1.4 K-series had the measure of its French cousin by forty horses (whilst sounding gorgeous through its K&N cone filter) and the cabin was light and airy. The boot was bigger, the driving position was superior, and despite a blowing exhaust and a rogered catalytic converter, I’d see over 40mpg on a run – all the things that are important to a young driver on a tight budget. What’s more, there was an air of class, of faded grandeur, like the country house of a family who have fallen on hard times. For first-time buyers, the Rover was a tatty Cotswold cottage to the Renault’s Barratt starter-home.
Sadly, though, the stereotype is self-perpetuating. Whilst the MG Z-cars went a long way to rehabilitating that brand’s image, it would be untrue to say that this halo-effect extended to their Rover siblings, and thusly to the rest of the brand. Old people drive Rovers, therefore more old people buy Rovers, and young people are put off by this. The few enlightened individuals that I know who admit to owning R8s face a similar level of incredulity to if they announced they’d discovered a cracking German stand-up comedian or an Italian business with a correctly filed tax report.
So we are back where we started – the Clio is a young person’s car, and the 200 is for pensioners. In that case, to quote that nice young man Robert Williams, 'I hope I’m old before I die.'