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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

Vroom womb

Lads, lads, lads, what is happening to your willies? On The Big Breakfast (C4) recently, they premiered the 'wonderpant' - the male equivalent of the wonderbra. It gives you jut, lift and substance. You too can be a Chippendale.

But does the new erotics of the male body really betoken an unashamed, hedonistic self-confidence? And why are they called Chippendales? Is it something to do with furniture? Or is it to do with those two rodents on the cheapo Disney videos? And why 'wonderpant' as opposed to 'pants'? Am I the only one troubled by the use of the singular?

Seeking reassurance, I tuned into BBC 2's slot for willy enthusiasts - Top Gear. It got off to a worrying start with the head of Mitsubishi talking about the 'added value of smallness'. Then it moved on to a reassuring item in which a man with a huge chin and a leather jacket (like Peter Perfect from the Whacky Races) was test-driving the new Jaguar, which has a 12-cylinder engine.

If the car is a penis substitute, this is the equivalent of a whole salami down your 501s. He drove it over the moor with The Doors on the soundtrack. He had an emphatically masculine manner, placing all the full stops a little bit. Too early. He stressed words that didn't need. To be stressed. He also had a thrilling habit of turning every other noun into a verb. Having noted that the car was 'powerfully engined', he 'petrolled' it and drove away. I felt. A whole lot. Better. Especially when I saw 'Mike' - a man who had stripped down a Jag and turned it into a tricycle. The huge, exposed engine rose up in front of him as he straddled its seat. He looked like something from those obscene frescoes in Pompeii.

Of course you can't actually use a 12-cylinder engine in any meaningful way in Britain, unless you hook it up to a steel rolling plant. Executive car design is not about unleashing power, but restraining it, about keeping the wild horses on a tight rein. Think of all those spoilers. What does a spoiler on the back of a car say? It says, we did such a good job on the aerodynamics that we had to bugger them up again, otherwise it would fly away.

Executive saloons are not really for driving anyway, they are for parking. Almost no big cars in this country are privately owned. It is fleet car culture that has given rise to the myriad nit-picking variations that come with every saloon. What is a GLE as opposed to a GTI? Only a GIT would know.

These things are a way of valorising the vehicles, of arranging them in a hierarchy that reflects the pecking order of management. It is also why this type of car is so ludicrously over-priced. Like mid-week in a Trusthouse Forte, it is all on the firm and therefore on the taxpayer. This proliferation of extras and treats has turned the inside of saloons into cosy little nests of self-indulgence. You don't have to pull hard on the steering wheel any more or even wind down the window. Now, I ask you, is this masculine?

All right, I know there was never really anything butch about driving a car. In the traditional family set up, the 'family car' is driven to work by the man, who gets to sit back and listen to Derek Jameson on the way while the woman battles with bus queues and weather. He is as prissy about his vehicle as any sitcom maiden aunt would be about her best parlour - anointing it with turtle wax and hoovering the insides. But this was once presented with a masculine rhetoric of mechanical maintenance. Not any more.

When Peter Perfect moved on from the power of the Jaguar to the 'ergonomics of its actual driving environment', an oddly wimpish tone crept in. Peter was 'saddened' by the interior which, he felt, did not 'cosset' him properly. He all but sucked his thumb as he said it. I would not have been surprised if he had asked for airbags that inflate in time of stress and suckle him. For the truth is, the car is no longer a penis at all. The car has become a womb.

Once upon a time cars were all thrust. Suddenly, they are all regression. The new adverts for Jaguar and Rover and the impending launch of the little yellow MG Midget all promise the driver a second childhood. These are the cars you dreamed about when you were a wean, now at last you can drive them. And they are so well-upholstered you can drive them in the fetus position.

Even in the celebrated VW advert - the one with The Bluebells (more regression) singing 'Young at Heart', the Strong Woman who is lightly shrugging off her divorce allows herself a tear once she has snuggled down in the safety of her padded hatchback. And here hyperreality has done one of its cheery little back flips. The advert has put the single back at Number One, enabling you to pretend that it really is Yesterday Once More every time you switch on the car stereo.

Nowhere is this regression more apparent than in the cars the detectives are driving. James Bond had an Aston Martin, bristling with an arsenal of gadgets; The Saint had the underpowered but slick Volvo sports; the Batmobile was practically a space ship, and even Hong Kong Fooey (Number One Superguy) drove something that was 'faster than the human eye'. Morse, on the other hand, drove an antiquated Jag and his imbecilic replacement Anna Lee (expelled from Hill's Angels for being too dim) drives an Alpine Sunbeam. Back in reality, the latest generation of Japanese cars is round and retro. Of course, cars have always been toys but they used to be Hornby, now they're more sort of Tomy.

Let me assure you that I have never had any need for and do not regret the passing of the phallic substitute. I drive an egg-shaped seven-seater Previa myself. I never pass a Sierra Cosworth or a BMW without keying its paintwork. But there is a worrying sub-text here. Attached to the phallic imagery of the traditional car advert was a promise of freedom, of blasting around mountain bends, over heath and heather before the post-coital groan of the gravel in the drive.

Now obviously this is not quite honest. A car is nowhere near as liberating as cheap public transport would be. It saddles you with debt and plonks you down in a traffic jam. It increases your contact with the forces of law and order and it makes your city uninhabitable. Children, in particular, have been imprisoned by the car. Only 10 years ago, 90 per cent of eight-year olds walked to school unaccompanied. Now it's five per cent. They go with watchful parents, worried about traffic. Or they go strapped firmly into the back seats. We always knew this, but previously we suppressed the knowledge, and were brought into the auto-mart with a promise of liberation. Now the drawback has become the main pitch. The car is being actively promoted as a padded cell, a cosy prison and all our dreams seem to be of retreat and enclosure.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993

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