Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The best car in the world

The best car in the world is a Toyota. Fact. The highest build quality, most reliable, safest, least likely to rust. The man who told me this did so with the air of one who could hardly believe that I was so stupid as not to know it already.

I remember the conversation vividly, even though it must have taken place 15 years ago. We were at a corporate dinner in a top London restaurant and, in a desperate attempt to make conversation. I had mentioned that I was about to take delivery of a new car.

In those days I still had ambitions and aspirations, and was quietly chuffed about trading up to a Land Rover Discovery, a vehicle I had coveted for years. I told my neighbour and he performed the nose trick with a glass of extremely expensive claret, before spluttering “Are you mad?”

He then regaled me with a long series of stories about the appalling quality and unreliability of my dream motor. Tales lent a touch of credibility by the fact that my informant had been, until recently, the managing director of Rover. Oh dear.

Still, it was too late to cancel the deal so I just hoped I might strike it lucky. And I did. There was a worrying moment on my first outing when it began accelerating up The Peth in Wooler, despite the fact that my feet were nowhere near the pedals, but after this minor cruise control glitch was sorted out it gave me years of trouble-free motoring. I even managed to replace it with an equally unproblematic Range Rover, before trading that in for a newer model that finally conformed to my informant’s stereotype of wholly reliable unreliability.

I have been with the Japanese ever since, though not with Toyota. I knew by chosen marque was second best, but Toyota did not run to a dealership in Alnwick. I always believe in going for the best of what is available locally, whether I am shopping for groceries or a car.

It undoubtedly takes a heart of stone not to laugh because it now turns out that Toyota is “the car in front” because the accelerator pedal is jammed fully open and the driver is screaming blue murder. While there is no shortage of smug smart alecs eager to point out that it is still perfectly possible to control a vehicle under these conditions.

However, many years ago precisely the same thing happened to me in my very first car, a magnificent 1956 MG Magnette, after a botched service. I knew that I could still bring it to a safe stop with the aid of the clutch and brakes, but while I was working on that it piled into the back of an Austin Allegro that had inconsiderately stopped at some traffic lights. It made a small dent in my radiator, and shortened the Allegro by about three feet. It was not an experience I would care to repeat. Nor, I dare say, would the other driver.

So my heart goes out to all you worried Toyota owners today, as it does to all those disillusioned Labour voters who saw 1997 as the dawn of a new era. You both did your market research and went for the best available. How can it all have gone so very wrong?

You may not instantly spot this parallel, but it is screamingly clear to me. Not least because, in the slow and fuzzy response to the little accelerator pedal difficulty and in the swiftly released first line of defence for those Labour MPs charged with expenses fiddling (“You can’t touch us, mate, we’re above the law”) I feel sure that I detect the hand of the same, inspired public relations adviser. Unusually, for once, when things are going horribly wrong, it isn’t me.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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