Transports of Delight (Part 2)
23 October 2016 | or 'Technology 4 - Newbury Nil
Despite the obstacles strewn in our path by French culture and practice, we have on occasions been successful in hiring a car. Unfortunately our smug feelings of achievement and self-congratulation that this success engendered were premature. Negotiating the Byzantine intricacies of getting hold of the car was merely the overture to a full grand opera chronicling the titanic struggle between mortal man and his Frankensteinian nemesis, technology.
The last car we successfully hired was in Utrecht. It was a VW, but don't bother to ask me the model, engine capacity, brake horsepower or colour. As I have mentioned before, I am not a proper bloke. My interest in cars is superficial at best and extends no further than seeing them as a means of getting from A to B, preferably without getting wet.
This one was new, having less* than 200 kilometres on the clock, a fact I eventually ascertained once I had managed to decipher the dashboard instrumentation, which put the bridge of the Starship Enterprise to shame. It positively bristled with gadgets. There was a built in gps which magically metamorphosed into a rear-view camera when you engaged reverse. Should you fail to take notice of the camera, an infra-red range sensor started bleeping when your rear end got within two metres of anything threatening or vulnerable, such as Vladimir Putin or Britain's economic prospects. If you ignored this and continued reversing, the bleeps got higher, more frequent and more strident until it culminated in a panicked, continuous screech conveying the electronic equivalent of "Stop, you bloody idiot, unless you want to kiss your 800 euros security deposit goodbye!"
This was all a novelty to me. The last car we owned was already ten years old when we sold it, just before we sailed off in 2006. Even that was getting a bit technologically advanced for me. To put this all in perspective, the first car I owned was a Morris Minor 1000 complete with a starting handle, semaphore indicators and vacuum-operated windscreen wipers that perversely slowed down when you accelerated and speeded up when you slowed down. Now that I could understand, service and repair. Things have gone steadily downhill ever since.
And steadily downhill is how things continued to go when I tried to start the thing. I put in the key (at least this one still had a key) and turned it. Well, the dashboard lights all came on, but the engine remained defiantly comatose. I tried turning it off and on again - no luck. Perhaps the steering lock was stopping the key from fully turning? Nope. I grabbed the key with both hands and twisted it with all my strength, veins throbbing in my temples and my face going a fetching shade of puce. Still no luck.
In the end, I came to the conclusion that either the battery was flat or the starter was faulty. I trooped back to the office and apprised them of the situation. The young man behind the counter looked at me. You know that kind of look. The one that manages to be an insulting combination of superficial and insincere sympathy with arrogant disdain and a smug sensation of superiority. You can almost hear the thought processes of 'Poor old Granpa, he's not safe to be let out on his own - Bless'.
"Did you depress the clutch and footbrake when you tried to start it?" he asked in a tone usually reserved for potty training a two year old. I expressed surprise at this procedure and tried to blind him with a discourse on the use of decompression levers and manual advance/retard controls. This backfired spectacularly. He merely looked at me as if I'd just crawled out of The Ark.
Tail between my legs I slunk back to the car, depressed the clutch and brake and turned the key. The engine roared arrogantly into life. I selected first gear, indicated left and kangarooed nonchalantly across the parking lot with all windscreen wipers thrashing furiously. The assistant revised his judgement of me to 'unexplained relic of the late carboniferous'.
By the time I'd got to the main road I had got the hang of the impressively fierce clutch and brakes. By the first roundabout I had a rough idea how to operate the indicators without washing the rear window. On approaching the first junction my white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel had eased slightly and my expression - bulging-eyed, pale with a manic rictus - had subsided to that of an attractive woman suddenly finding herself sharing a small elevator with Donald Trump.**
Then we came to our first set of traffic lights, which were red.
I pulled up to the line as the traffic stacked up behind me. I slipped into neutral, put on the handbrake and took my foot off the clutch. The engine promptly died. I promptly panicked and tried to restart it before the lights changed. This, of course, failed because I had forgotten to depress the brake and clutch. By the time I had remembered this, the lights had changed to green.
We have generally found Dutch drivers to be a tolerant, accommodating and polite bunch, but even they have their limits. The occasional restrained beeps gathered pace, reaching a crescendo just as the lights turned back to red.
Having taken several deep breaths, I remembered my 'car starting 101' depressed the pedals and turned the key. Sure enough, it started first time. I put it back into neutral and released the clutch. It died. In panic, I fumbled around frantically. I waggled switches, twiddled knobs and randomly stamped on pedals. One of the pedals I depressed was the clutch. Much to my surprise, when I did this the engine started again. All on its own. This was a new one on me.
On reflection I began to see some underlying logic to this. It is all predicated on the assumption that drivers are brain-dead numpties with the collective IQ of a bucket of cold piss. The two-pedal requirement is to stop them starting the engine while in gear and subsequently ramming the low wall hidden by the curve of their bonnet or backing over the crocodile of wide-eyed kindergarten toddlers traversing behind them***. The switching off while stationary is, I assume, a two-pronged attack implemented for environmental and financial reasons. It reduces fossil fuel use and therefore reduces CO2 emissions and associated climate jumbling, while also discouraging the tendency to blanket the aforementioned toddlers and other passers-by in a nice little stew of carcinogens, particulates, carbon monoxide and various unpleasant nitrogen compounds. All very laudable. What it's not very good for, though, is your battery.
This became a factor the next morning when I went to start the car and found the battery as flat as a Bernard Manning joke at a Guardian editorial meeting. I had left the lights on.
Every car manufactured in the last half a century has had a means of stopping you flattening the battery by inadvertently leaving the lights on. Even the most primitive of cars had a warning light or beeper. Most have an interlock system which switches off the lights when you turn off the ignition.
Not this bastard.
It had more gadgets than Inspector Gadget McGadget's Gadgetmobile on World Gadget Day. It had more computing power than the International Space Station. It was impossible to run over a kitten or give a sparrow an asthma attack, but could it stop you leaving the lights on and flattening the battery?
Could it buggery.
I managed to con a jump start and set off, only to be confronted with the prospect of causing traffic chaos at the first traffic light. It was going to take a long time to put enough oomph into the battery to cope with multiple re-starts at every roundabout, zebra crossing and set of traffic lights between Arnhem and Utrecht. Every time we stopped I kept the clutch depressed and revved the engine like some geriatric boy-racer challenging all-comers to an impromptu drag race. I got some strange looks from other drivers.
We managed to get it back to the depot, where I parked it up in the most inconvenient space I could get away with, at the bottom of a steep ramp, and turned the engine off with relish and grim satisfaction. I strolled into the office and nonchalantly tossed the keys to Boy Wonder.
I hope he had to push the bugger all the way up the ramp.
* Note for pedants: less, not fewer. It's a singular noun of quantity, denoting distance
** On reflection, any woman really
*** One of which I have done. You guess which.