When I watched my 17-year-old son Jonathan set off on only his third driving lesson, oozing confidence as only a 17 year old can, I had mixed feelings.
“You youngsters don’t know how lucky you are” clashed with “It was far better in our day”.
Teenagers everywhere hear these phrases endlessly from their parents, but for a farmer’s son just tiptoeing out into the modern world of motoring, they are both equally true.
Charlie Flindt is a tenant of the National Trust, farming 380ha in Hampshire
Almost 40 years ago, when I started my first lesson, I’d been driving for years. Like most farming children, I was in a tractor as soon as my feet could reach pedals.
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You could thunder around Hampshire’s country lanes in a Super Major/Weekes 3t trailer combo in full confidence there would be no other traffic, no trophy wives in massive 4x4s (“sticks in boxes”), and all the while learning the basics of clutch control, brakes, and spatial awareness. Too dangerous now.
Jonathan has “driven” a lot – on a video game – and even if he had been in a tractor, the controls are completely un-carlike.
If he sails through an early test, there’s the insurance. Once again, I was lucky: we had “blanket” farm insurance, which covered a lively Alfasud in Newcastle for three years.
“Fronting” is the name for it, and you can’t do it now. But insurance quotes for a 17-year-old often come out in the thousands.
The message is loud and clear: the insurance companies would rather he wasn’t driving. You can’t blame them – statistics don’t lie.
Mind you, today’s youngsters are blessed when it comes to the cars themselves. A grand will get you a respectable runabout.
Ask Mum and Dad to contribute, and you can get something with proper airbags and better safety features. Rust is almost unheard of these days. Perfect bodyshells litter the scrapyards. Jonathan will never know the fun of bodywork repair with fibreglass patches, or trying to rustproof an underside with Tetroseal.
He’ll probably never learn DIY. Open a modern car’s bonnet, and more often than not, there’s another bonnet. Servicing your own car is becoming a lost art.
Filing and setting the points and plugs, replacing a fuel pump or tweaking a carburettor – all slightly difficult if you can’t find the damned engine.
Using a Gunson tuning strobe will soon be as rare as choosing a route using an atlas.
Perhaps the saddest loss is the actual driving. Take my local main road, the A272. In 1981, I would hurtle home after rugby training in Winchester, with a one-speed limit to worry about, and very few other cars.
Now, we play speed limit bingo, the road is clogged with speed-limited lorries and vans, and every other lay-by has a Speed Fine Harvester pointing a camera at you.
For those who enjoy the mechanics, the chemistry and the physics of making a machine go where you want it, the darkest days are looming: “driverless” electric cars are coming.
Externally controlled vehicles, constantly tracked by telematics, will mean that someone somewhere will know where you are, where you’ve been. And you’ll have had no fun on the journey.
But I don’t want to rain on Jonathan’s parade. I want to get him through the test, get him on the road (and into a tractor) and hope that he gets to enjoy the simple act of driving before it’s too late. Giving me a lift to the pub will be a coincidental bonus.