James May: No car could ever be as exciting as my Vauxhall Cavalier

“In the 20th century, motoring, not religion, was the opium of the people”

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James May: No car could ever be as exciting as my Vauxhall Cavalier
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My first car was a 1978 Vauxhall Cavalier 1.6L. It wasn’t actually very old, but it had belonged to a sales rep, so it had a moonshot mileage and one of the rear doors was stoved in, as if it had been kicked in the immediate aftermath of failure to close a deal.

The Cavalier 1.6L was bog-ordinary even in an era when bog-ordinary was the standard for just about everything. It had only two instruments, no clock, no head-rests, wind-up windows and the usual coat hanger for an aerial. The interior was brown.

These days, it’s no secret that I have a Ferrari. I love it, dearly, but neither it nor any other car I drive now could ever be as exciting as my Cavalier was. It’s not just that it was the first; it’s that I came to it from a bicycle, which I would think nothing of riding 40 miles to visit girls I imagine might be interested in me, only to discover that they weren’t, which meant I’d have to ride it 40 miles back the other way.

The Cavalier instantly broadened my horizons, fuelled my ambitions and invigorated my social life. I could visit several girls in the time I would have devoted to one in the bicycle era, and exhausted my (largely blank) address book within a week, proving in the process that women don’t find you any more desirable just because you can drive. Nevertheless, I drove it with a sense of absolute astonishment. I had a car; a richness beyond the conceit of kings.

Here we arrive at the most basic and obvious definition of “car of the people” – one designed to be accessible to those who never imagine they would have one. Such a car has been the holy grail of the motor industry for more than a century, and Henry Ford said of his Model T that he wanted to make “a car for the great multitude”.

Apart from anything else, it’s good business sense. By the time Ford was working on his moving production line, FW Woolworth had already demonstrated that it was better to sell a lot of cheap things to a large number of people than to push a few expensive trinkets on the rich. He had his own skyscraper to prove it.

More to the point, anything that appeals to the masses can soon be turned into a socio- political instrument, either to buy loyalty or to keep the people in their place. The VW Beetle, still the most interesting car ever made in my view, was an attempt at the former; East Germany’s Trabant remains the finest example of the latter. Both of these cars came good, but their beginnings are mired in controversy.

In the 20th century, motoring, not religion, was the opium of the people, and with it came concerns that we imagine are current ones: pollution, congestion, parking and running costs. All of these things were troubling us in the 1950s, and sent the affordable car down some curious historical cul-de-sacs.

Yes, the “Bubble Car” is recalled fondly as something the odd film star or model might have been seen exiting, through the front. It is, in fact, simply the best remembered of a lengthy microcar movement that produced absurdities such as a car that was the same at both ends and a 50cc French runabout that was intended for use – although it was never officially stated as such – by serial drunkards. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of this curious period is actually, well, a small motorcycle, the Honda C50 Super Cub. That probably tells you everything you need to know.

But I’d like to redefine the car of the people as something that rescues Ford’s “great multitude” from the drudgery of... the car. From the likes of my Cavalier, to be honest. Once car ownership turns into what seems like an inalienable right, then salvation for the people has to take the form of a car that sets them apart. These are what can be called “the people’s cars of hope”. So the Fords Capri and Mustang, which offered the exotic coupé form at the price of a humdrum saloon, are in there. So is a small Japanese sports car, the Mazda MX-5, and so is a dazzling totem of the bloated plutocracy – the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow – that became a blue-collar hero.

I may now drive a Ferrari, but at heart, “my other car” will always be that Vauxhall Cavalier. Which is as it should be – it’s only because of the cars of the people that we have cars at all.

James May's Cars of the People, Sunday at 9:00pm BBC2