I’ve long held that the most overlooked and undervalued feature on a car is, if present, cruise control. It’s probably the last box anyone speccing a new car is likely to tick: it’s boring. It doesn’t look good, give you an extra 20bhp or make you go round corners faster. But on those occasions when life gives you no alternative but to sit on a motorway with no actual driving to do beyond trying not to nod off or mistake traffic Wombles for police cars, it can be a boon, a life-saver and a life-enhancer. On empty stretches, it can be a licence-saver, too – stick it at 120kph and let loose the dogs of war. I’ve even got it on one of my bikes.
But there is another, even more basic feature that has replaced cruise control in my affections: windscreen wipers. Yes, it’s a standard feature, rather than a selectable option on anything built since my 1956 Land Rover, but their recent unbidden deletion from my Discovery brought to me a renewed appreciation of their wonder.
After a recent family holiday, the Hammonds returned to Gatwick some three hours late courtesy of an aeroplane as sturdy and reliable as a Victorian tea set. Indeed, as it would soon turn out, the only machine for thousands of kilometres less capable of getting through a simple journey was my Land Rover Discovery. But I didn’t know that as I picked it up and settled wife and daughters in for the four-hour drive home.
It’s a peculiar and exquisite loneliness, that of the late-night, homeward-bound driver. More especially so when their car is rammed full of sleeping children and wife, suitcases, holiday memories and sunburn. Never mind, though, because after just an hour or so of soulful silence and solitude, I was blessed with torrential rain to distract me from envying my family’s snores. Better still, a mere 10 minutes into a downpour that seemed set in for all of the dark eternity through which I was cursed to drive, one of the windscreen wipers packed up.
Having stirred itself to make a couple of imperious sweeps of the windscreen’s broad span, it skated clean off the edge and wrapped itself around the A-pillar. Pulling over, I assured my stirring passengers that all was well and I had to fix a little problem. Namely, I was briefly blinded and nearly headed into oncoming traffic, killing us all. I didn’t actually tell them this last bit as they drifted back to sleep, but muttered it as, in shirt sleeves, I wrangled the hopeless wiper back into its start position at the top of the bonnet.
This ham-fisted fix clearly hadn’t worked when, after another 10 sweeps, the windscreen wiper once again made a break for freedom. Ten sweeps was, I learned, the wiper’s limit before it leapt off the edge of the screen. I also learned that it is best to pull over gently and not to launch into a sailor’s tirade at such moments, lest your wife is woken from her sleep and says terrible things to you which, unless you are very lucky – which, clearly, you are not, because your wipers have broken in the middle of a rainy night – will wake your daughters who will giggle quietly at their father before going down the slipway to happy, innocent sleep, leaving you alone, hopeless and sad. And damp.
I learned more on that long, lonely drive: I honed my skills at operating a failing piece of Solihull’s best, much as the pilot of our plane must have learned to cope with his aircraft’s growing list of foibles and failures.
If 10 sweeps was the limit before catastrophic wiper failure, then I must ration those sweeps. I learned to drive without wipers at all, finding my way by reading the line of the road ahead from the catseyes and reflectors. If a truck was coming the other way, I would wait until it bore down on us and complete blindness set in before treating myself to a bit of wiper action. Another quick wipe to clear away the tons of mud and crap that followed it, and I could last five trucks before stopping quietly on the verge, hopping out in the downpour, fixing, driving on and listening to my children snore. I encountered many thousands of trucks between Gatwick and home.
Eventually, totally exhausted, I woke my wife, whispered to her that we were home and gently carried my sleeping daughters to their beds. I considered, briefly but very seriously, setting light to the Disco and being lulled to sleep by the amber glow of its funeral pyre. But it wasn’t the car’s fault. And I haven’t finished paying for it yet. And it reminded me that it is the simple things in our motoring lives, as in our broader lives, that give the greatest satisfaction. And are the greatest pains in the arse when they fail.