hen I was 17 years old, I passed my driving test (third time) on British roads in my trusty secondhand VW Polo, which I named Alfie. Me and that bright blue machine went powering down country roads and dual carriageways on all sorts of exciting expeditions, leaving a trail of the greatest hits of Rihanna and Death Cab for Cutie in our wake. Alfie was there when I dropped off my boyfriends’ drunk friends after pub nights, when it was my turn to shuttle my friends to and from the shopping centre, and when I went on long nights “to the cinema” with sixth form admirers. He was small, reliable and his 1.2 litre engine and manual gearbox was everything I needed. His CD player was bang up to date for the times as well (I presumed iPods were probably a passing fad.)
I knew a few people when I was 17 who chose to learn to drive in automatics, and I considered them fools. “Not proper drivers” was my stepdad’s summary of the situation and I believed him: what if I was suddenly forced to jump into the driving seat of a car in some kind of nebulous emergency situation and I was too freaked out by the clutch to save the lives of everyone relying on me? It never crossed my mind that, quite a few years later, I might be living in a country when driving a manual is considered oddly niche, the domain of “motor enthusiasts” and the over-80s. And even when I did move to New York City, I laughed at people who kept a car in a place where public transport was abundant and the pavements easy to traverse.