The other day, I was driving along in my old Mini when the gearknob suddenly came off in my hand.
You know how it goes: a snappy change down to third on a tight left-hander during a rare moment of sporty driving, and my clenched fist, still gripping the plastic ball, simply continued on its way until it made bone-crunching contact with the cast-off BL switches on the facia.
Fortunately, though, it wasn’t the first time this had happened to me. Back in my youth I had another Mini, and the gearknob came off that one as well. So I knew what was required; all I had to do was stop at one of those countless high-street car-spares shops called something like ‘Top Gear’, ask for a new gearknob for a Mini, and pay a few quid for a piece of tat in a Unipart box. Screw it on to the threaded end of the gear stick, and I’d be on my way. Simple.
Well. In the first shop, I had some difficulty convincing the fickle youth behind the counter that there had been another Mini before the one he knew about, and that it was a cheap car on which no small spare should ever cost more than a fiver. So the manager stepped in.
“I’d like a gearknob for an old Mini,” I said. So he led me, while extracting a huge bunch of keys from his pocket, to a triple-locked glass display cabinet of the sort normally used to display ancient manuscripts in the British Museum.
There were leather gearknobs, suede gearknobs, two-tone gearknobs, a silver gearknob with an enamelled naked woman on it, and a contoured gearknob for extra gearshift pleasure. One of them cost over £60. I began to wonder if he kept the really hardcore gearknobs tucked away behind the counter.
“It’s just an old Mini,” I explained. “I’d like something simple, and plastic.”
So he led me to a lesser cabinet with only one lock on it, and showed me a gearknob shaped like the grip of a Schmeiser machine pistol. It was truly preposterous. This man really couldn’t understand that I just wanted something that enabled me to change gear without sustaining an injury from the threaded end of the stick. To him, the knob was at the core of the enthusiastic motorist’s entire being.
Obviously, I didn’t buy anything, for fear that my Mini would look like a gearknob with an aftermarket car fitted. And since that day I have been driving around with a bleeding left hand determined to find the £3 knob of my youth.
But all I have discovered is that there are whole communities out there being supported by hordes of people doing dreadful things to cars. And gearknobs are just the beginning...
“I didn’t buy anything, for fear that my Mini would look like a gearknob with an aftermarket car fitted”
Obviously, I am familiar with the alloy wheel craze currently sweeping across the country. I accept, also, that what I know about being cool could be written on the label in the seam of my cardigan. But I still wasn’t quite prepared for the scene that would greet me at the wheel depot where I met my colleague Richard Hammond and his new Dodge Charger.
There were people here with quite ordinary machinery buying wheels at a price that I still think of as the budget for a whole car. There were three-spoke, five-spoke, dished, flat, chromed and split-rim wheels going on to humdrum Fiestas and old Hondas. Builders were turning up to fit £1,500-worth of wheels to panel vans. Where they find the money I don’t know, since none of them ever turn up for work.
And then there was Hammond’s Charger. Personally, I rather liked the original pressed-steel wheels for their comedy value. Here is a car with over seven litres of V8, but with pathetic little wheels inset like the ones on a Commer camper van. It would have been fun watching them disintegrate, especially as Hamster has decided to have the lump uprated to give it the same torque as a diesel shunter.
But no. He wanted some phat alloys: 21 inches and chromed at that. While the car was up in the air having them fitted, I seriously considered having a quick shave. Needless to say, the list price for these things is not far off what I paid for an entire Range Rover.
But it could be worse, because he could go for this so-called privacy glass next. This stuff really baffles me. What sort of person honestly needs privacy in a car? Not anyone genuinely famous, I’d wager. The other day, driving down a dual carriageway, I was overtaken by no less a comic luminary than Rowan Atkinson driving a McLaren F1. He’s the sort of person we might want to look at, and yet the glass in his car appeared to be the same as the stuff in the window of my office.
Similarly, we had two of Nick Mason’s Ferraris on the show the other day, and they were both fitted with normal see-through glass allowing us to view the ageing rock legend and author in complete clarity. And then there’s the queen, quite probably the most famous woman in the world. She’s actually had a car built with extra glass, so we can see her even better as she makes her way to the hat shop. I can only conclude that people fit smoked glass so I can’t see just how unremarkable they are; so I can’t go into the pub and say, “Hey, you’ll never guess who I saw driving a 5-Series BMW today. A normal bloke.”
It would be harmless enough if it didn’t cause such problems on the roads. Near my house, for example, there is a junction that demands considerable skill to negotiate safely. As I sweep through it, there’s a good chance I’ll meet someone else vying for a place on the same four-lane stretch that the three feeder roads join.
Obviously, I indicate. But it’s not enough. In that instant when the two cars come together, I need to be able to look the other bloke in the eye, so we can converse with those subtle nods of the head that mean ‘after you’ or ‘hang on, mate, I’m just moving left a bit’. But, of course, he’s driving a 4x4 with privacy glass and for all I know he could be doing the crossword.
Still, let’s look on the bright side. At least I can’t see his knob.
This article was first published in January 2005.