True love is not hard to find, it’s as close as the nearest steering wheel. By Thomas Falkiner
So I guess it all started back in the ’80s. Probably when my old man took me to Kyalami to see the Formula One cars practising for the 1985 South African Grand Prix.
That was a golden era of the sport. A time of gratuitous tobacco sponsorship and turbocharged rocket ships that could only be tamed by men like Keke Rosberg. And on this day, somewhere in the stands, a man with long hair watched as the toddler on his lap lifted his tiny arm and waved at Nelson Piquet who was at that moment with a raised hand signalling his re-entry to the pits.
Although amusing to my father and those around him, in my two-year-old mind this event was some kind of an invitation: an abstract validation from Piquet that I belonged in this four-wheeled world.
So I dove right in. Soon scraps of paper became wax crayon blueprints for the next McLaren. Bus rides with my mom became a game drive from which I could study all these shiny metal boxes of various shape and structure. Those audio storybooks my grandmother gave me just weren’t the same if I couldn’t listen to them on the cassette player in my dad’s Golf. Like rock music and handfuls of stolen Epol pellets, the car was pretty much the sole focus of my formative years.
The love affair died down when I discovered cricket in 1994 but then flared back up when I reached high school.
You see, even back then I was no good with girls. The opposite sex doesn’t like a skinny, awkward man with a speech impediment. Not now and especially not then when I was faced with the hormone-charged quagmire of grades eight to 12. So to avoid embarrassment and inevitable rejection I chased cars instead of the pretty cricket scorekeepers who loomed lovely on the boundary.
It was easier, man, and way more satisfying. I became an expert on the Golf GTI and could rattle off all the specs and features of the Mk1 right up to the Mk4. While some of my peers got all flustered by an old copy of Playboy, I was more interested in the new Autocar I’d scored from a family friend.
The highlight of my matric dance was not picking up my silk-draped partner from her Northcliff residence but rather, at hour 99, my dad giving me the OK to take his car for the night. Balls to the after party — I was looking forward to owning the predawn streets in the oak-green Astra Estate. To me this was better than any awkward kiss.
I guess one of those overpaid head shrinks would psychoanalyse this admission as a peculiar case of anthropomorphism. And maybe it is. But then, when you take a step back and consider the physiology of some cars, well, is it really that hard to quantify?
The swollen haunches of an original Porsche 911 Turbo. The perfect silhouette of an original Ford Mustang Fastback. The pouting visage of a Jaguar XKSS. Like their creators, cars can exude certain human qualities, some of which are impossible to not fall in love with. I mean I still within me feel the stirrings of some strange, erotic force every time I run my eyes across that aforementioned Porsche.
Yet, of late, I find myself smitten more with what the automobile offers from a spiritual perspective. In this terrible age of cluster housing and open-plan offices that thrust us uncomfortably closer to people, the car offers the ultimate form of solitude.
When sandwiched between its countless parts, you are allowed to enjoy, even for a short while each day, that sweet feeling of seclusion. I know I do. You can talk aloud, chew all the grisly white fat from your thoughts and indulge in your favourite music at whatever level you deem fit. Social media? What’s that? With your hands wet on the wheel that cursed smartphone no longer exists. It’s the ultimate escapism from the trappings of 21st-century life. Not to mention the last true form of dignified travel.
Shove your cut-price, cattle-clash plane ride from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Why endure two hours with sweaty strangers when you can carve through one of the most beautiful countries in the world? Stop for a coffee. Take a photo. Explore a new road. Carve into your brain a new memory as you drive through the fury of a Karoo thunderstorm.
With a car you can experience this all and at your own pace. And while you’re doing it you’re deepening a bond with something many people say you can’t: an assemblage of metal and plastic and glass that can so easily transcend the sum of its parts. The automobile. The jalopy. The best invention ever. So if petrol and tyres and engines and dashboards be the food of love this Valentine’s Day, then I’ll happily keep driving on. (Graphic: Keith Tamkei)