The air bag: Is uber-reliability killing our cars’ character?

There’s something particularly character building, especially if you’re a young driver, about being left on the hard shoulder by some semi-comedic fault with your fossil-fuel powered best/worst friend.

In our entertaining rundown of 10 of the biggest clunkers in motoring history in these pages last week, our driving don Kevin Hackett wrote that "some people say there's no such thing as a truly terrible car these days". And that may very well be true.

In times of social-media saturation, a real four-wheeled stinker would struggle to get off the forecourt before being downed by a virtual volley of verbal abuse. But in a weird way, this lack of fallibility has also stripped away some of the character from our relationships with our cars.

Quite aside from the issue of computer-­chip-reliant cars generally proving much harder for the average amateur tinkerer to patch back together in the event of a small repair being required – gaffer tape no longer cuts it anymore, ­sorry – there’s no chance for a love/hate affair to develop.

There’s something particularly character building, especially if you’re a young driver, about being left on the hard shoulder by some semi-­comedic fault with your fossil-fuel-­powered best/worst friend.

I passed my driving test in 1990s Britain, at a time when there were still a few clangers coming off production lines and prohibitive running costs meant that even more bangers were an omnipresent fixture on the roads. My first two cars – Vauxhall Novas – were written off after they met unfortunate upside-down fates before mechanical gremlins could truly get a look in.

What followed more than made up for that, however. My worryingly underpowered 1991 1.4L Ford Escort LX was bought second-­hand from a private seller who, it later transpired, conveniently neglected to mention that it had previously been broken into – a fact that only became apparent when I found shattered glass under the rear seat mat.

That wasn’t the worst problem, though. Once, while driving on a rural road soon after taking the car for repairs at my local garage, there was an unnerving clunk. Another 500 metres along, a second thump; then, about the same distance on, a third, larger, rather horrifying clatter. Apparently my alternator was held in place by three bolts. What I had heard was each of them falling out, in turn, before the whole thing dropped onto the road and my car came to a grinding halt.

It wasn’t the last Ford to suffer at my hands, either. Rolling my underfunded dice into the bargain bin once again, a blue 1995 1.6L Escort LX managed to keep its alternator, but had less luck while stocked to the roof with friends and a stack of musical equipment.

Another sickening sheering noise, another breakdown – this time on the hard shoulder of a motorway. The crime? The rear axle had decided it was clocking off duty, and the left rear tyre almost overtook us. The pal sat in the back seat had to endure half an hour of jokes that they should maybe lose a little bit of weight.

Gallows humour aside, I wasn’t laughing at the time – I was blowing as many gaskets as those cars in question did over the years. But they’re episodes I look back on curiously fondly – after all, an anecdote about how your car didn’t conk out and never did anything that drove you to distraction is scarcely worth repeating.

Granted, nobody wants to break down in 45°C heat on a desert road, so the lack of poorly built, terribly conceived cars has to be championed on that front. Reliability could scarcely be more important in this part of the world. But if to err is human, then the current generation of never-­yielding, Terminator-­esque machines have lost a chunk of what makes them so infuriating loveable in the first place.