“Fire up the Mexico” Philip Glenister presents For the Love of Cars
I first became interested in cars when I was four. That year my father got his first company car, an Austin Maxi. I can’t remember too much about it but it was brown inside and out (it was the 1970s after all), had leather seats which I stuck to in hot weather, and it had a long walnut (probably faux-walnut) dashboard. It was comfy, it was safe, and above all, it was, to a four year old at least, rather cool.
That love affair dwindled as dad’s company cars rotated, first to an equally fine Mark IV Ford Cortina, and then to an ever decreasing set of tin monstrosities, with dull, dark coloured functional fabric for the carpets and seats. Dashboards stopped being wood and became plastic, bumpers stopped being chrome and became plastic, so did wing mirrors, door handles, steering wheels, radios. Anything of beauty was replaced with the purely functional. Which is perhaps one of the reasons why, in 1983, I was so taken with Stephen King’s novel Christine, and the accompanying film by John Carpenter.
Christine was mean, she was homicidal, but she had lashings of chrome, red leather seats and those tailfins that seemed to go on for a mile. In case you don’t know Christine is a 1958 red and white Plymouth Fury. King describes the car as being a four door, but in fact the ‘58 Fury was only ever a two door. The car, a rusting wreck, is bought in 1978 by nerdy teenager Arnold Cunningham (named after the restaurant and key family surname in Happy Days) who proceeds to restore it to its former glory. The car is also however an example of what Stephen King calls ‘The Bad Place’, not a haunted house but a haunted car, possessed by the evil spirit of its previous owner, Roland D. LeBay, a dysfunctional misfit who simply hates everyone and pours his loathing of mankind into the car, like sugar into a petrol tank.
Christine: Fury by name and Fury by nature.
Christine spawned, in me as well as others of my generation, a love affair with 1950s American cars. ‘58 Furys are highly sought after, especially Christine clones, which are very expensive mainly because they are custom-made – the ‘58 Fury was never available in red and white. Yet King’s story remains fundamentally ambivalent, if not outright opposed, to this lionisation of Detroit’s 1950s output. Christine allows Arnie to step out from under the bullying which has dogged his entire life, and even to date the prettiest girl in high school, but from the outset the relationship between man and machine is just plain wrong. Even the outstanding restoration job he does turns out not to be his own work. Christine restores herself. All Arnie has to do is drive her around and the damage done by time and/or Arnie’s persecutors is magically reversed. This is because King is, at heart, a working-class guy. He chose to settle in Bangor, Maine because it was a blue-collar town, and despite buying a Cadillac when he achieved financial success as a writer, he was more likely to be seen driving around town in his old Dodge Dart, wearing off-the-peg jeans and a crumpled T-shirt. He is deeply opposed to the consumerist love of ‘things’, even writing an entire novel around this premise, Needful Things (1991). Christine isn’t a love affair. It’s a warning.
One of the more subtle aspects of the novel is a critique of the relationship with car ownership and hyper-masculinity. The narrator of the story, Dennis Guilder, points out that while you learn ‘good hard-headed practical advice’ from your mother, what you learn from your father are ‘the talismans, the words of power. If the car won’t start, curse it…and be sure you curse it female’. While Arnie becomes, at first, the perfect boyfriend, as the car takes hold of him he becomes increasingly infantilised, prone to seismic tantrums and stroppy sullenness, as well as being defined by an ever more problematic masculinity, finally crossing the line when he quotes LeBay by stating “There’s nothing finer than being behind the wheel of your own car…except maybe for pussy”.
Consumerist. Infantile. Hyper-masculine. All epithets that could, in various forms, be used to label Top Gear (2002-), the BBC’s flagship automobile programme. Led by TV’s most unreconstructed male, Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear, despite its enormous viewing figures makes for deeply unsettling viewing, certainly for me. Regardless of the various issues floating around outside the programme at present, as a car lover I am put off firstly by the macho tone of the show, and second by its determined focus on a particular type of car. At no point does it tell me whether I can get better mileage from a Honda Jazz or a Ford Focus. No, it tells me that the latest £100,000 plus super-car does 0-60 in eight seconds and will make the hairs on the back of my arms stand up. This is car reporting which more than anything sells the fantasy of a particular lifestyle. I make no value judgement, not here anyway, but I find the show to be completely alienating, being sold something I could never have by someone I would never want to be. I had a similar reaction to the recent ‘Good to be Bad’ Jaguar adverts. Featuring Mark Strong, Sir Ben Kingsley and Tom Hiddleston riffing off the fact that all baddies in Hollywood movies are British, I find the ad to be certainly eye-catching, but the car in question, the Jaguar F-Type Coupe, starts at a cool £51,000. What good is that to most of us?
Which brings me, via an admittedly circuitous route, to Channel Four’s current Sunday night car-lovers show, For the Love of Cars (2014). Each episode is designed around the restoration of an icon of British motoring, from the Ford Escort Mexico to the Land Rover Mark 1, to the Mini Cooper. An example is found, purchased and fully restored by car designer Ant Anstead, while its history, and the enthusiasts who keep that history alive, are introduced by Philip Glenister. Glenister is undoubtedly one of several key elements to the series’ mainstream broadcast. After all, to a large extent For the Love of Cars is barely distinct from Wheeler Dealers (2003-), currently on hard rotation on Discovery Turbo, in which Mike Brewer and Edd China purchase and restore a classic car for under £5000 each week. But while few have heard of Brewer and China, or indeed Ant Anstead for that matter, Glenister is of course Gene ‘Fire up the Quattro’ Hunt, the legendary tour-de-force character at the heart of Life on Mars (2006-7) and Ashes to Ashes (2008-10). Like Jeremy Clarkson, Gene Hunt represents unreconstructed man, but unlike Clarkson Hunt is most definitely post-modern, a self-reflexive caveman from whose attitudes both the show and the audience maintain an ironic distance, particularly in Ashes to Ashes in which the edges of his character are slightly softened to reflect the character’s popularity.
In For the Love of Cars Glenister basically plays a version of Hunt once more, albeit in a hybridised form tied more to his own personality. In reality Glenister is much softer spoken than the harsh Hunt, but here Hunt’s speech patterns are reconstructed with a South London accent. Likewise there’s an irony to his narration that whispers ghostly echoes of the scurrilous and irreverent Hunt. Most importantly perhaps the inclusion of Glenister ties the series into the element of nostalgia that, in part, made both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes so successful. While Wheeler Dealers focuses more (literally) on the mechanics of car restoration, both in terms of the workshop and also the purchasing and sourcing of both cars and parts, For the Love of Cars is, at heart, an archive-based documentary that uses the restoration of a particular car as a hook on which to hang an exploration of the impact of that car on a period in British history. This was particularly the case for the fourth episode in the series, in which the car in question was a Mark 1 Mini Cooper. The Mini of course became an icon of the 1960s but it was the Mark 1 Cooper, manufactured from 1961 to 1967 that really made the Mini brand sexy, having taken the original Mini and upped the power of the engine. Footage of Peter Sellers presenting a Mini to Britt Ekland, and of Pat Moss winning the Netherlands Tulip Rally in a Cooper, (accompanied by an interview by Glenister with her brother, Stirling Moss) alongside general footage of families trundling around town in their Minis perfectly conjure up an image of Britain in the 1960s. This was an era that swung for many, but not for all, in which the small car with the big personality played a democratisingly ubiquitous role. The Mini was born out of the humiliating Suez crisis in 1956, when fears over the availability of oil led the British Motor Company to investigate the possibility of creating a small family car. While Suez in many ways marks the decisive end of the British Empire, from out of the ashes came something that was sassy, quirky, economical, fun and downright British, a bit like the programme itself.
There’s still a laddish quality to it of course, but it’s not a programme for petrol heads, but rather for nostalgia buffs, for fans of the archive-based documentary that was the staple of British television documentary, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, but is rapidly disappearing from our screens (although it is experiencing something of a minor renaissance around the centenary of the First World War). As a former archivist myself, who spent ten years at the BFI’s National Film and Television Archive supplying footage to production companies for archive-based documentaries, I have a particular affinity for them, from the BBC’s millennial documentary series The People’s Century, to TWI’s ground-breaking The Second World War in Colour, to the personal histories explored over many years by Steve Humphries’ Testimony Films. As a historian the archive documentary has, for me, a nostalgic immediacy that conflates past and present. Hearing someone talk about their experiences of a particular historical moment, accompanied by footage of that moment, brings past and present into coexistence in a way akin to drawing two dots on the edges of a piece of paper and then folding the paper so they touch. The distance between them disappears. For the Love of Cars adds another dimension to that nostalgia, first showing us a barn-found wreck before stripping away the layers of years worth of dirt, rust and decay to finally reveal the pristine showroom car it once was.
Past and present collide. A Mark1 Mini Cooper before and after in For the Love of Cars.
Christine contains a similar idea. When Arnie drives Christine to Darnell’s garage one of her tyres goes flat, and Dennis goes off to buy a new one. Having put it on he looks at the brand new tyre on the otherwise rusting hulk and says ‘I shivered a little – but to convey the sudden weirdness I felt would be impossible. It was as if I’d seen a snake that was almost ready to shed its old skin, that some of that old skin had already flaked away, revealing the glittering newness underneath’. Of course here this is precursor of bad things to come, an eruption of the gas-guzzling, misogynist, bad old 1950s into the 1970s. In Christine’s world it doesn’t pay to be nostalgic. Yet while Stephen King may warn us about this alongside the dangers of covetousness and of desiring things more than people, For the Love of Cars, stripped of course of supernatural elements, celebrates Britain’s automotive past in open nostalgic reverence. It also tries very hard to be inviting and open to all. While both the Mini Cooper and especially the Ford Escort Mexico were souped-up, they were souped up versions of family cars that many people owned and loved. While the Mexico may have been a boy-racer’s car, it was nevertheless an Escort at heart, and in the 1970s Escorts were ten a penny on British streets, and the show takes great pains to emphasise both cars’ humble origins.
Ultimately what I respond to is that this is car TV which doesn’t sell me a lifestyle I can’t have but only dream of a la Top Gear, but rather a memory that many of us of a certain generation share. I’ve never owned a Mini, but my friend Rob did and in school we would slip out of General Studies and drive around smoking Silk Cut 100s. I wasn’t around for the swinging sixties, but I remember that rather perfunctory attempt at rebellion as if it were yesterday, and the car’s a key aspect of that memory. Not many of us perhaps aspire towards the ownership of a classic car but For the Love of Cars does what a particular type of good archive-based documentary should do, it reminds us of what we’ve lost or forgotten, not in a way that provokes sadness or longing, but which instead provides a nostalgic reflection on the past and on our own experiences. In this case there’s an added frisson, as it evokes nostalgia for bygone Britain, for the car and, as an added bonus, for the great Gene Genie who, like the Mini, the Ford Escort, the Land Rover and the television archive documentary, is a particularly British success.
Simon Brown is Director of Studies for Film, TV and Media and Cultural Studies at Kingston University. His main research areas are early cinema, British cinema and contemporary American television, and he has published pieces on shows as diverse as Dexter, Alias, Supernatural and The X-Files.