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A Life in Cars by Dominic Cooper

The open road, the dusty highway. It has been the one reality that surpassed the dream. Growing up, I would gaze at the dashboard for hours in awe of the flashing instruments. The introduction of the digital clock on my father’s Renault Gordini, or the moment I was taken to school in the Vauxhall GTE that came with one of the first digital speedometers. Nothing fascinated me more. But more than the introduction of the compulsory headrest or the electric window was what a car represented. 

I understand that some people view these machines merely as objects that fulfill the need of getting from A to B—a term I despise for it is often within these parameters of the A and the B where the best things happen. But to me, it meant the ability to escape. To travel and be somewhere whenever you wanted, in the time you wanted, without relying on external forces. 

Things happen in a car. Our lives are often formed around the family holiday that was a disaster due to the smell of leaking battery acid or the terror of navigating the Boulevard Peripherique. Our lives are bookmarked by the various cars that each represent a particular period in our past.

An ever-changing view of the world, companion at your side commentating on the new arrival at each and every corner. A companion that, like you, faces the landscape, and without the pressure of eye contact, feels much more at liberty to speak their mind either with regard to illogical road layout or your behaviour towards them the night before. 

Relationships are made or broken in the moving wagon. Families have fought, lovers have left, marriages have teetered over the brink as the correct exit was missed for the third time. Things happen in a car. Our lives are often formed around the family holiday that was a disaster due to the smell of leaking battery acid or the terror of navigating the Boulevard Peripherique. Our lives are bookmarked by the various cars that each represent a particular period in our past. 

An early memory was my stepfather returning home having totalled my mother’s split-screen VW camper van we used to travel to the Lake District in. To make amends, he bought another scrap campervan which he cut in half, hoping to salvage the middle section from the write-off and thus creating a stretch camper. He never got round to welding the three sections together so they remained in our garden until we sold the house eight years later. 

Photos Courtesy of Dominic Cooper

This was the same man that supplied us with our almost yearly change of scrap metal from the twins in Brixton, an infamous pair who dabbled in mechanics and waterskiing. It was them that sold us the speed boat on which Dear Stepfather attempted an engine swap with a Jag diesel, having removed the BMW one—why? God only knows. Another failed project that spent the rest of its days perched upon a rusty trailer out back. The boat was called ZEUS, some irony there one feels. We slept in it at the Barcelona Olympics. I’m not sure I ever saw it in the water. 

Perhaps we should have known better after he refitted an engine in my brother’s Renault 4, sadly, backwards—which meant it had four reverse gears and one forward gear. A Lancia came and went, whether it was the rust or my mother’s despair that our home was becoming a local scrap metal dealership. It was therefore no surprise that my first vehicle was an Austin Healey sprite kindly donated by my brother.

The cooling system had failed and I was assigned the job of holding an Evian bottle of water out  the window and feeding the radiator through a tube with coolant. But I was 15 and it all seemed great fun.

I say kindly, but it was something of a death trap. Two pounds maximum fuel—any more and it would reach the gaping hole in the tank. One windscreen wiper controlled by a string through the smoking window. The driver’s seat was made from my late grandmother’s horsehair mattress and it had no roof. But my goodness was it fun to drive. My passengers never quite felt the same sense of joy. Having driven two of the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream down to Stratford-upon-Avon one evening, causing the rear driveshaft to crumble on the M4, it was time for a change. Enter the Golf MK 1 with fake GTI badge glued to the front grill with tile adhesive.

Family holidays were the worst, and it was my mother’s insistence that the six children traveling to the South of France atop a cement mixer in the back of a Renault Traffic were deserving of a window. Not seats or belts nor ventilation. Just a small glass panel mounted in the rear sliding door.

This 57-hour trip was hardly broken, bar a few refuels, as my mother had turned five Hovis loaves into 60 cheese cucumber sandwiches— which rested upon the dashboard and by day three had the texture of wet chamois leather and the taste of diesel. I became quite accustomed to them, and reminisce on these traveling lunches as something of a delicacy. 

One trip in particular stands out in that same van. The cooling system had failed and I was assigned the job of holding an Evian bottle of water out the window and feeding the radiator through a tube. But I was 15 and it all seemed great fun. As one day it would be me at the helm. Greasy wheel in hand, crunching through the gears. A day I longed for.

Dominic’s Cars Over the Years

Photo Courtesy of Dominic Cooper

Mercedes Benz 190 SL

Photo Courtesy of Dominic Cooper

Austin Healey

Photo Courtesy of Dominic Cooper

Ferrari 308 GT4 Dino 1978

Photo Courtesy of Dominic Cooper

Citroen DS 1978

Photo Courtesy of Dominic Cooper

Jaguar F-Type SVR

Photo Courtesy of Dominic Cooper

Ferrari 1978 512BB-2

Photo Courtesy of Dominic Cooper

Jaguar F-Type

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