Vroom, vroom, swoon, swoon

2008-11-28 00:00

WEEKEND Witness Motoring columnist Alexander Parker has written his first book — 25 Cars To Drive Before You Die. ESTELLE SINKINS dragged him away from the wheel for a few moments to find out why he decided to write it and to get a few other motoring-related thoughts.

Have you always wanted to write a book, and were you surprised to get this gig?

I was quite surprised to get this gig. The publishers originally asked David Bullard to write it, but his packed schedule was to my advantage. David suggested they give me a call, and I pretty much bit their arm off. I’ve always wanted to write about cars in one way or another, so I was delighted, obviously.

How many cars did you consider before whittling the number down to 25 and was it difficult?

First I established that I wanted to avoid writing about 25 multi-million-rand supercars, which I thought would be boring, and instead focused on 25 unique driving experiences. After that, some of the 25 were blindingly obvious to me. The 1964 Mini Cooper S, for example, the old Land Rover, the Rolls Royce Phantom, the Birkin S3, the Aston Martin DB9, the 1970 Lamborghini. They all pretty much made the book immediately because they’re all so completely different to drive. I did wrestle over some of the cars. I wanted to put a BMW 135i coupé in, for example, because it’s an astonishing car to drive, but with the M3 also being in the book, I eventually felt that it wasn’t unique. Brilliant, but not unique. So it didn’t make the cut. So, as you can see, I thought long and hard and my editor and I had many, many arguments over e-mail about the list. I’m happy with what we ended up with, and obviously no two people could ever agree on a list of 25 cars, which is what makes it so much fun.

If you had to choose your favourite car in the book, which one would it be and why?

Easy. It’s the Rolls. It’s motoring taken to the edge of what’s possible. There’s no compromise. If they can find a way to do something better, no matter what the cost, they do it. The result is a driving experience that’s almost religious. I am a complete Rolls Royce nut these days. I used to think they were wobbly old barges with terrible handling and stupid engines, but after driving a few I can only say that when they claim to make the best cars in the world, I for one won’t argue the point. I put the Rolls Royce Phantom last in the book, largely because I wanted the last word in the book to go to the last word in motoring.

How long have you been a motoring enthusiast and what prompted your obsession?

Ever since I could sit up straight enough to watch Knight Rider and the Dukes of Hazzard. Back then, I just loved the cars and the car chases. I even know off-hand that the good ol’ Dukes boys drove a ’69 Dodge Charger. How sad is that? As an adult I’ve felt that someone needs to defend private transport and personal mobility from people who seem to want to put us all onto public transport for re-education. The car has freed millions of people around the world and the liberty it’s given us is something I feel strongly we need to protect.

What do you think of the proposals to crackdown on left-hand drive cars in South Africa, and what effect do you think it will have, especially on the classic car fraternity?

To be honest this one had passed me by, but it sounds pretty silly. Driving a left-hand drive car on the wrong side of the road is unpleasant and overtaking is difficult, but thousands of British drivers cope in continental Europe every year without widespead carnage. It just sounds like politicians attempting to seem relevant. They should build roads and then leave us alone.

If you could sit down with the Minister of Transport to talk about motoring in South Africa, what would you say to him?

The future of mobility is not some collectivist nirvana in which we all take buses and trains to work. The future must cater for the car as well, because it will never die. So, we need more, bigger and better roads — especially in Gauteng — and they need to be policed not only by fatties hiding in bushes with speed guns, but also patrols that have zero tolerance of any minor traffic offence. When they build these roads, can they also please build in proper bus stop lay-bys for the taxis and the buses? Also, the government needs to avoid falling into the trap of treating motorists as easy tax targets. Given the parlous state of public transport, the truth is that a car is not a luxury in this country.

Do you think governments should be bailing out automakers in the United States and Europe?

As I understand it the European manufacturers are in relatively good shape, and it’s the American Big Three — Ford, Chrylser and General Motors — who are in trouble. This is a tough question. The libertarian in me says they must be allowed to fail. They printed money by building huge and stupid cars when oil was cheap and did nothing to comtemplate a more frugal future, unlike the Europeans and the Japanese. They are a victim of poor management and I don’t see why the U.S. taxpayer should be forced to buy shares in bad companies. However, the car nut in me would be very, very sad to see the end of such brands as Chevrolet, Ford and so on. There’s a terrific heritage there, and it’d be sad to see the end of it.

What's the scariest thing that has happened to you when you've been driving a car?

Eish. I think the spin I had in a Ford GT40 at Kyalami might win it. That, or driving a rare Rolls Royce at night in downtown Johannesburg, which I did recently …

What do you currently drive and why?

I drive a Subaru Forester because I’m a dad now, so I had to sell my Mazda MX-5. It’s a good family car but it’s also got a lovely 2,5-litre flat four and it handles brilliantly. I couldn’t face getting a boring MPV. Urgh. You don’t have to resign from the human race just because you have a family, you know! My wife drives a Fiat Panda, which is a brilliant little car. It’s tiny and slow but such fun.

If you could have any car in the world, which one would you choose and why?

If it’s allowed, I’d have a Rolls Royce Phantom Coupé. If not, I’d take the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. It’s completely and utterly mad. A huge 6,2-litre V8 in a C-Class Merc. It’s insanely fast, ridiculously loud and it irritates the right kind of people. Perfect, in other words.

• 25 Cars to Drive Before You Die by Alexander Parker is published by Two Dogs and is available in bookshops.

alexander parker

ALEXANDER Parker went straight into media when he left university in England, initially running the editorial side of two Internet bookshops. When the Internet exploded in 2001 he went and hung out with his girlfriend in Paris for a bit. Then he came to join his family in South Africa and soon got a job as a sub-editor at what was then The Natal Witness, where he learned to spell. After a little while he went to Johannesburg where he has worked on publications such as This Day, Business Day and FHM. A couple of years ago he took the plunge and went freelance and he’s still at it. He writes for FHM, The Times, Business Day, The Weekender and, of course, the Weekend Witness. Parker is married to journalist Aneshree Naidoo and has a young daughter, Olewyn.

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