Sunday, 14 September 2008

Automatic but not intuitive

I drive a manual transmission car but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy automatics. In particular, I look back with nostalgia on the first automatic I ever had.

In those days, I was working for a company that had been spun off from British Leyland, or Rover, or whatever that constantly reinvented organisation called itself at the time. Because my company retained its connection with the car maker, it had the most generous company car scheme I’ve ever come across: not only were employees entitled to cars but so were their spouses (funny word that, 'spouses': I always think that that the plural should be ‘spice’. ‘Putting spice into their lives’ might be an amusing way of referring to marriage).

But back to the subject. The company announced at one point that they were keen to get a number of new cars out on to the second hand market. I was one of the many employees who was therefore offered a car well above my pay grade for a few months, so that it could then be sold second hand once it had a few miles on it (they were less pleased with the few knocks I managed to put on it at the same time, but, hey, I was much younger then).

My knowledge of car brands or marks or whatever they’re called is pretty limited. I’m like the proverbial woman who when asked what sort of car she wanted next, replied ‘a yellow one.’ This one was a Rover, of course – there was no choice on that – and it was big, black, and powerful. It also had automatic transmission.

I was delighted with it. It performed beautifully. And I loved the way I could kick down on the accelerator and get a burst of power as it dropped a gear. Wonderful.

Falling in love with the car was a much quicker process than getting familiar with it (and what a powerful metaphor that could be). The very next day I set off on a relatively long journey down to Cardiff. I had the misfortune to arrive on one of the 280 or so days a year that it rains in Wales. I parked the car and dashed for the hotel.

The following morning, it was still raining pretty heavily and I ran for the car, my briefcase on my head, since as usual I had forgotten to bring an umbrella. I turned the ignition key – and nothing happened. My wonderful, brand new car wouldn’t start.

After trying several more times with no better success, I decided there was nothing for it but to brave the elements. I opened the bonnet and stepped out into the rain.

Under the bonnet there was clearly an engine. There were also various holes through which one could no doubt introduce appropriate fluids, each in due quantity and season. There was one connected to the radiator. Another one seemed to be to do with windscreen washer fluid, a third for oil. I gave the engine my most knowing look, but to no avail: nowhere could I see a button marked ‘if engine fails to ignite, press here.’ Eventually I was forced to admit defeat and called the breakdown service.

Fortunately, and unusually, a mechanic arrived within twenty minutes. He also took a look at the engine. I observed him closely and I’m convinced that my knowing look was just as good as his.

Eventually he fiddled with something, a tube or a connector or something.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that didn’t seem to be particularly well seated. Do you want to try her again?’

I climbed back into the driver’s seat and suddenly realised that, in my hurry the previous night, I had left the car in ‘Drive’. Those who know more than I did then about automatic transmissions won’t need to be told that cars don’t start if left in ‘Drive’.

Fortunately, I'm reasonably good at improvising my way out of trouble. It was a matter of a split second to slip the car into ‘Park’. I then tried the ignition again. The engine fired immediately and settled down into deep-throated rumble that I had come to love.

‘Oh, well done,’ I called out, ‘everything’s working again.’ Note the absence of anything in that statement that could be called a lie.

His face lit up, his chest swelled with the honest craftsman’s pride at a job well done.

‘Great,’ he said, ‘I’m glad I could help.’

So the story ended on a happy note. He was able to drive off to his next appointment with the pleasure that comes from a job well done, and I went to mine with the pleasure that comes from avoiding detection.

Today I drive a car I like a lot. It’s a blue-grey one and Japanese. It has a manual gearbox.

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