Option freedom

For long an inveterate driver of a gas-guzzling eightseater, Hugh Pearman gets a whiff of true liberty at the thought of ditching his car altogether

I have driven the same car since 1996. Or to be more exact, I have driven two identical cars since 1996, one after the other.

The car in question is a big, egg-shaped, eight-seater thing called a Toyota Previa. Trouble is, my V-reg example – one of the last made to the original, mid-engined, cab-forward design – is finally showing its age. And the original design concept was late 1980s, so it’s old in other ways too. I need to think about changing it.

But what for?

When you have spent the past 13 years driving a streamlined van where you sit on top of the engine, have no bonnet in front of you, three rows of seats inside and a large sliding door on one side only, then your driving habits will differ from most other people’s. Apart from anything else, this is an old-fashioned automatic you manipulate by means of a large lever sticking out the side of the steering column. It works fine, but this is an auto transmission of the kind Americans would have been familiar with in the 1950s. Chevrolets probably still have it.

Naturally, it burns vast amounts of petrol. This is OK when you’re tootling along with eight people (that’s two families) on board, not so fine when it’s just me. When this car was conceived, petrol was cheap – especially in the American market it was designed for. I can’t help noticing that Toyota doesn’t make an equivalent car any more. It makes hybrid-drive Priuses and ultra-compact IQs instead.

And yet, I like it a lot. Built before the current spaceconsuming obsession with safety devices, it is almost absurdly roomy. Then there’s
the matter of its longevity. It doesn’t go wrong much. And the longer a car exists, the longer you are spinning out all the energy and raw materials used to make it. Fine, but the day-to-day economics of it now make no sense for me. It’s time to turn it in.

But what can replace it? Well, having driven a very big car for so long, there’s a certain appeal in the idea of a very small car indeed. All the best automotive design involves getting the maximum amount of usable space out of the smallest possible dimensions. There are some brilliant examples to choose from.

But other factors come into play. There’s not much fun in being a motorist these days. Spied on by a million cameras, fined for minute infractions, jammed on gridlocked roads, used as an easy revenue source by all governments – and of course wracked by guilt about destroying the environment. If you’re not bothered about the car as a status symbol – and given the one I’ve got, I obviously can’t be – then there’s another option.

I live in London. And I cycle around the place a lot, and use the Tube if I’m not cycling. So just as tempting as buying some sweet little baby car I won’t use much is just not to have a car at all. How liberating it would be not to have to pay for and worry about the lump of metal and plastic in the road outside your house – because it just isn’t there. Right now, making that choice seems positively glamorous.

Cars are very recyclable, but that again uses a lot of energy. I’ve got a better idea. My old Previa is essentially a glasshouse on wheels. Realglasshouses are surprisingly expensive. But somebody on an allotment somewhere could easily grow tomatoes in my old motor. Any offers?

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