James May

Illustration of James May in a flying car

Hire education

I have to admit I was not initially very enamoured of the basic Skoda Fabia 1.2 five-door. I honestly preferred the minicab that had taken me to the airport at the beginning of the journey, and as the man driving it was the sort of chap who earned a living getting up at 5am to drive someone like me around, you can assume that his life had not gone especially well and that he therefore had a crap car.

But this seemed worse. I was in Andalucia, southern Spain, for recreational reasons and, as usual, had hired a car at Seville airport. I always go for the most basic bracket, because I’m a bit tight and I prefer to spend my holiday pocket money on tapas and platos combinados. And as a regular customer of vehicle group A, I enjoy the delicious moment of doubt when I wonder if I’ll get a Clio (which I like) or a small Peugeot (which I don’t).

Still – it’s only a hire car and, as P. J. O’Rourke famously observed, few things handle with such aplomb. I would add that there is no other vehicle in the world that inspires less concern for the longevity of its tyres or the condition of its valvetrain. But here’s the first thing that always strikes me. If I borrow the most basic version of a small hatchback from its manufacturer – for the purpose of road testing, say – it’s never as basic as the one I get at an airport. Maybe a special low-spec edition is built for hire car companies whose clients, they know, will always drive it in the spirit Enzo Ferrari intended. Maybe manufacturers always sneak in a few extras that make what is purportedly the ‘entry level model’ seem so much nicer than it really is – optional upholstery in a nice colour scheme, rear electric windows, a nicer gearknob, perhaps?

Either way, no matter how firm you are with the salesman, regardless of how far you’ve stretched your car-buying budget, and even if you’re one of those people who believes a car is just something to take you from A to B, you will struggle to leave a Skoda showroom with a Fabia as boggo as the one I was driving. It looked as though it had fallen off the production line before it had reached the end.

The interior, for example, was finished in the following complimentary hues: grey. The carpets were some sort of underlay. The wheel trims were made from the leftover linings of Christmas biscuit family assortment tins and the tailgate from the tin itself. The steering wheel rim was hard and the facia was the single biggest injection moulding in the long history of plastic. I hated it just sitting there.

Then I drove it. Hated it, because it was, of course, a diesel. Except that at the first refill, when the diesel nozzle wouldn’t fit in the filler neck and the symbol of a green pump mocked me from the inside of the flap, I had to acknowledge that it wasn’t. This only increased my rage. The steering was too light, the suspension was too bouncy, and all the stations on the radio were in Spanish, although this wasn’t necessarily Skoda’s fault.

“You would struggle to leave a Skoda showroom with a Fabia as boggo as the one I hired in Spain” 

So the first hundred miles or so of the trip, from Seville to the ancient city of Cordoba, was really a protracted and largely unprintable first drive delivered solely for the benefit of The Woman, who at the end of it hated me as much as I did the car. At the hotel, I handed the keys and whatever their equivalent of a shilling is to the bell boy and told him I didn’t want to see the Skoda again until it was time to go home.

But of course, after a few days of looking at local historic buildings and admiring the trees, it was suggested that a drive through the Sierra Nevada might be nice. I didn’t think so, but you know how it is, so the Fabia was dragged out and again refilled, no less astonishingly, with unleaded.

Off we went on the main road leading south to Granada, a steady stream of words that don’t appear in the Collins English/Spanish pocket Gem dictionary flowing from the open driver’s window like discarded orange peel. I still didn’t like it.

Then we turned off onto smaller side roads through typical southern European villages, where men sit in plastic chairs on the pavement all day and signs warn of the bandas sonoras, the traditional Andalucian bandit girls, who run wild on the plains and hold up unwary travellers with ornamental souvenir espadas. Finally, and mapless, we entered the mountains themselves.

And now something strange happened. Gradually, imperceptibly, and no matter how I tried to resist it, the Fabia slowly began to endear itself to me. I looked forward to long hills, where I could push the gruff engine and rejoice in its willing grumble. I threw it gaily into tortuous and badly engineered bends that had probably evolved out of the footpaths trodden by Moorish settlers hundreds of years ago. As the day wore on, and we became more lost, the pleasure of simply driving gradually usurped my former dissatisfaction with the car itself.

This happens to me now and then, but probably not often enough; that sudden sense that simply being allowed to have something as amazing as a car is a mind-blowing privilege. How can it be that for such a tiny outlay at Seville airport’s rent-a-car concourse, I can end up as some sort of latter-day caliph presiding over a whole range of mountains and ancient forts? Who’d have thought it, eh?

And I end up thinking that we might have got the whole car thing wrong; that we have turned them into monuments to possession and lost sight of what we can actually do with them, which is climb aboard outside our front doors and, if we keep going long enough, arrive at the other side of the world. Yes, the Ferrari F430 Spider would have been more exciting than the Fabia, but the gap between them is a mere fissure compared with the yawning chasm between the Fabia and no car at all.

The car – any sort of car – is still, and despite what its detractors say, one of the greatest adventures open to us. And to the bored man who picked me up from home in his ancient Rover 600, I’m tempted to say sell everything, chuck in the minicabbing job, and go for a proper drive.



James May, Column, Fabia

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