Breaking up with cars is hard to do

Cars are fossil-fuel-guzzling dinosaurs. And yet, they meet human needs, and capture our hearts, in ways that public transport just does not…

 In August 1996, I bought a car – out of the box, brand new.

Until that point, I’d owned two second-hand cars, with various idiosyncrasies. The first, a Ford Escort, listed endearingly to one side, and yet made several 1000km trips from Cape Town to East London and back. The car was stolen while I was at a music concert, and found burnt out and ruined.

My second car was also a Ford Escort, given to refusing to start on a cold morning. It also had a leak, meaning that the floor on the passenger side of the car spent most of winter as a small pond, which translated into driving around in a cloud of muggies (small flying insects) when summer rolled round. (My then boyfriend cemented his place in my heart by the simple expedient of drilling a hole in the floor of the car, thus preventing the formation of ponds.)

And then I got a promotion at work, to a new salary grade, which came with a car allowance. That meant I had to generate some car-related expenses to deal with the tax implications of a car allowance. And that meant I had to buy a car.

So I did the research and bought a green Honda Ballade.

The Honda did its duty as our family car for decades, until in 2023 it conked in. A series of visits to our long-time mechanic revealed dire corrosion and rust in her innards. The engine is going to have to be rebuilt from scratch.

We love that car

The initial discovery of precisely how elderly the Honda had become was surprisingly difficult.

My son came home from the hospital as a three-day old baby in that car. Once he turned 18, he learned to drive in it, and had used it for months as his mode of transport (when I didn’t need it). There were a few days there, when we thought the old girl wasn’t going to make it, that we were distraught.

I tried pulling myself together, by telling myself that I was grieving over a mechanical object. But there is so much history in that car.

What cars mean to us

It’s not just the way that cars are there for milestone moments – there’s what they represent: freedom, control over one’s life and movement, a space that is our own.

The end result of the car crossroads we found ourselves at was to buy a newer, smaller, more fuel-efficient car for me to drive, and to get the Honda fixed one more time so that Jack has transport for himself and for his fledgling bee-keeping business.

When thinking about what to do about the Honda, though, it occurred to me that if we bought another car, we would be a family with three different vehicles. This is not the recommended course of action in the face of the climate crisis.

The sensible thing to do would have been to not buy a car at all. I work from home, and the travelling I do could easily (and more cheaply) be done via ehailing services.

But ehailing a car doesn’t work if what I want to do is take a pet to a vet, or buy groceries, or go bodyboarding (all that sand!). And South Africa’s dismal public transport is not conducive to carless living.

More than that, being without a car messes with something fundamental: my picture of myself as independent, as being able to take care of myself. 

That particular emotional attachment to our wheels is common to many people, I think. It’s something that is going to make it hard to get rid of cars completely as we move into our broken future.

It’s a reminder that the idea that giving up our 21st century stuff would get us out of the mess we’re in is just that: an idea. Our societies are going to have to get better at meeting our needs, and we’re all going to have to do some emotional work to move towards simplicity. When it comes to breaking up with our cars, it’s not them – it’s us.

Do you have a car? Could you give it up? I’d be interested to hear your story!

Main picture: david latorre romero

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  1. My cars were ones my husband had had as a company car; once he was eligible for a new one, I took over the existing one, which we bought at book value. But finally we were able to buy my very own brand-new car. I gave her a silly name and I loved her. When we left South Africa to move to England we should have sold her to a stranger for cash – instead she went to live with a friend who paid us bit by bit. It cost a fortune for our pets to accompany us; somehow leaving the car felt almost as if I was arranging for her to go ‘to a good home’. Yes, it is silly to get sentimental about a mechanical object but a car represents freedom to go where you want and a safe space – and of my most serious or memorable conversations have taken place in a car on a long road with my favourite music playing in the background.

    • I so understand about sending the car to a good home! In a dark moment, when we thought it might be best to try to sell our old car, my son said: But they will just strip her for parts. We can’t let that happen!

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