Is owning a high-end car really worth all the social pitfalls, asks Sam Leith
I’ve bought a new car. Very excited I am, too. My previous cars have not been the sort to trouble Spear’s target readership: a half-share in a second-hand Suzuki Swift; an ancient BMW acquired for £500 whose main feature was spontaneously catching fire on the autoroute; a Skoda Octavia estate which was soon scratched on the outside and fragranced on the inside (courtesy of my three young children) with a piquant blend of well-fermented mashed banana and crumbled rice cakes. Nothing to cause the faintest flash of envy in the whispering-Lexus set.
Thanks to the aforementioned nippers and their jam-faced little friends, a seven-seater was the next step. So we’ve sold our grannies off for spare parts and bought a Land Rover Discovery Sport – still no Lexus, but a step up from the Skoda.
It is, in short, an automative step – at least by East Finchley standards – into Conspicuous Consumption. And what a strange, windy and pitfall-pocked path it is. Already the friends who are poorer than us – suffused with the moral certainty of the North London liberal – are tut-tutting and sneering about yummy mummies and Chelsea tractors, fretting about the environmental impact and sarcastically asking whether the four-wheel-drive will be adequate for the journey to Muswell Hill. While, I suspect, the owners of Audi Q7s and weapons-grade Range Rovers will be smirking for the opposite reason.
Anyway, the problem is not so much adult to adult as child to child. You can practise a level of modest discretion among adults. But the kids are going to nail you every time. When they heard we were getting a new car, my six- and four-year-old boys were especially excited. It seemed impossible not to milk it a bit, by feeding their excitement.
‘Is it going to have heated seats, Daddy? Is it really? Oh WOOOOOW! A “panromic” roof – a what? SEE-THROUGH!?? HOW many brake horsepower, Daddy? What’s a brake horsepower, Daddy?’ And so on. It didn’t occur to me until later that all this in-family boasting might have wider consequences.
The first hint of a dropping penny came with the follow-up questions. ‘How much does it cost, Daddy? Is it more than £10? More than £20? REALLY? How MUCH more?’ Inside my mind there spooled forward an imaginary highlights video of conversations between Max and his friends, in which figures would be bandied about and see-through roofs innocently offered for admiration. This video in my head fast-forwarded to the friends wondering aloud to their parents why they drove a Skoda, and said parents then taking to the WhatsApp group through which all the gossip about local show-offs is conveyed, and our becoming the subject of cold looks in the playground.
‘Christ,’ I found myself thinking, ‘am I going to have to park the damn car three streets from the school? Am I going to have to change my entire lifestyle in order to live up to my slightly aspirational set of wheels?’
My kids have now become really interested in cars. School runs involve questions such as: ‘What’s the most expensive car in the world? Is it a Lamborghini? How much is a Lamborghini? Can we get one?’
I have had, in other words, my first taste of what it must be to have a car that people judge you on. It is not comfortable. I know there’s a subcategory of HNWs for whom the gold-plated Lambo is exactly what you want to crawl down the Brompton Road in. But I understand, too, for the first time why the unmarked Lexus, the discreetly styled Bentley or even the high-spec but normal-looking Range Rover is the motor of choice. Me, I’m going back to a Skoda as soon as the chance presents itself.
Sam Leith is the literary editor of The Spectator