Hammond on men in Fiat 500s
Track driving, whatever your level of ability, is as exciting as chasing a tiger that’s stolen your wallet, and we on Top Gear are very lucky to get to do it. A few weeks back, we were invited by Bernie Ecclestone to drive the F1 circuit at Monaco; and even for a numpty like me, it was an astonishing experience. Again, lucky boys that we are, we’ve driven tracks all over the world in everything from humble hatchbacks to full-blown F1 cars, and while any hidden racing abilities I may possess have proven to be quite incredibly well hidden and not likely ever to break cover, I can say with absolute certainty that the experience of driving on any circuit, in any car, is uniformly wonderful. But I would contest that a drive round a circuit can never contain the richness, depth and variety of multi-layered revelations awaiting us on a Saturday morning cruise to the shops.
Having borrowed my wife’s Fiat 500C for a recent shopping expedition into Cheltenham with my two daughters, I drove straight into a non-stop onslaught of bullying and harassment by other drivers. People hassled me from the rear, barged past my little white Fiat, brake-tested me and generally made me feel like a bullied kid in a playground. A man in a Peugeot harried me more or less off the road as we approached town. I pulled into a lay-by in the end, anxious not to get in a shunt with my two daughters on board and watched as he drove past. He was fat and sweaty and wearing a salmon-pink golfing shirt with not many natural fibres in it. He probably had a responsible job. Someone had maybe even been prepared to marry him, despite the looks and the bulk and the sweat. Maybe he was funny or something. But he had just forced another man with his young children to drive off the road and hide in a lay-by from his moronic attack. I wished dreadful things upon him as he drove past; none of which can have come true since, because they were rather special and would certainly have made the news, had they come to pass in reality.
On getting home, I asked my wife if she too was regularly bullied and hounded about the place in her Fiat. Nope, not a bit of it. Turns out that Mindy wafts about in the little Fiat in a serene bubble of happiness, causing not the slightest of ripples on the motoring pond. “But you’re always telling me how a lorry driver nearly ran you off the road or a man in a van cut you up.” Ah yes, but that’s only in the Range Rover. Never, it turned out, when she was in the Fiat.
Running back through the morning, I searched for a clue. The assailants were all men. And they were all men of a particular type: large-ish, balding-ish, sweaty-ish – very male, if you see what I mean. They drove vans, or BMWs or Mercedes or Astra vans or practical Peugeots. I was another man, but I was in a small, white Fiat with a soft-top roof. And two small girls in it. And then I ran through other times when I’ve driven the exact same route into Cheltenham with no such unwelcome attention coming my way. I’ve always been in the Range Rover or any other big, sporty or aggressive car. This was the answer, then; drivers were responding to the whole picture. A man in what they see as a man’s car: fine. A woman in what they see as a woman’s car: cool. But see a man in a girl’s car and lights go off in their heads, and they leap into action like confused guard dogs. See a woman in what they, in their reptilian way, regard as a man’s car, and their tiny minds order them to pounce, because they don’t understand.
Image really is everything out there, and so it works the other way too. Driving to a friend’s house, I was forced to stick my Range Rover in a hedge when a Toyota Prius rounded a corner from the opposite direction travelling at a million miles an hour. A man of late middle age was at the wheel, jaw set grimly. I’ve noticed this happen with more and more Prius drivers. Perhaps conscious that their hybrid car is seen by some as soft, many Prius drivers are setting out to disprove this by driving with a degree of aggression better reserved for tank commanders. So will that mean that now, made wary by experience, I will react to any Toyota Prius I encounter as though it might try to take my head off?
Bearing all this in mind, I’ve decided that the driving test doesn’t cover enough ground. I think get all the easy stuff about learning to operate a car out of the way, and then follow it with a four-year psychology degree.