When I was in my second or third year at secondary school in the late 1980s the subject came up amongst my classmates one day about what would be our dream car. And along with the obvious things, like Roger Moore’s gleaming white amphibious Lotus Esprit from the movie ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and the now VERY politically incorrect General Lee from the TV show ‘The Dukes of Hazard’; one of the lads said something so bizarre in the moment that we had no choice but to not only laugh hysterically that afternoon but also to slag him repeatedly about it for the rest of the year.
It was only three words but I have never forgot them or the boy who said it. He stated with no sense of irony or intent at humour that the vehicle that he would most like to have was a ‘chauffeur-driven-Ferrari’.
At that time the most famous Ferrari driver we all knew was not Nigel Mansell but another moustachioed-motorist in the shape of on-screen celebrity Tom Selleck who appeared as wily Hawaiian detective Magnum P.I in an extremely ostentatious 308 GTS Quattrovalvole.
I’m guessing that nearly all who heard the idea that had come from our schoolfriend’s mouth to our incredulous ears had pictured Thomas in a garish flowery beach shirt with an attractive blonde bikini-clad model in the passenger seat and wondered which one of them would have to get out and walk so that Higgins could take over the steering duties.
Why would you want a super-fast - super-red - super-car and not also want to drive it yourself?
Was that not the point of owning the car of your dreams- so you could enjoy the experience of being in control of it and guiding it to where you wanted it to go? On my fifth wedding anniversary I hired an Aston Martin DB5 to come to the house as a surprise to take myself and my wife out to our celebratory dinner in ‘The Parson’s Nose’ in Hillsborough. My wife does not like surprises. I was excitedly delighted all week in advance thinking about the treat that I had organised and wouldn’t my wife be overjoyed when the ‘taxi’ arrived and it was a 1960s motoring style-icon that had pulled up out front of the house.
As it turned out, no, no she wasn’t. She really doesn’t like surprises and never mind the restaurant - her nasal proboscis was fairly put out of joint by the gesture. After a few tense looks she eventually got in the back and I joined her. When we got on to the dual carriageway I was allowed to drive the classic car for about twenty minutes of the journey from Banbridge to the destination. It was of course under the close watch of the owner and there was no way he was going to let me pretend to be James Bond and race the car, fire the machine-guns or otherwise be left alone with it. On the way home I was too over the limit, (Bombed, Johnny Bombed), to have been let anywhere near the wheel anyway so the way up was my only experience of pretending to be 007.
At a Charity dinner and auction a few years later that my firm had been the lead sponsor of we had bid on and ‘won’ a weekend away at a remote romantic-looking country house on a lake that also included a chauffeured limousine from a wedding car hire company.
A couple of weeks later we organised with the hotel the dates that suited us and called the car company to make arrangements. All was going well. Yes they were free that Friday at 3pm and could of course collect us from our home and take us to where we wanted to go. Then the conversation took an unexpected turn when we tried to arrange the pick-up and return home for a similar time on the Sunday. ‘We don’t do return trips!’
‘What do you mean you don’t do return trips?’
‘We’re a wedding car service - we drop the bride and groom off at the reception and that’s it. Its up to them to have onward transport sorted. That’s nothing to do with us.’
‘But, we bought a weekend away with chauffeur car service. We’re not getting married. How are we supposed to get home?’
‘None of our business. We told [charity name redacted] to be clear with people it was only one way. We’re not doing a return journey. That’s not our business.’
Well ‘neither is customer service’ I thought but didn’t say.
‘You may take it up with the [charity name redacted] if you’ve got a problem with this.’ We were told. ‘WE KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN THAT’S WHY WE TOLD THEM TO MAKE SURE PEOPLE UNDERSTOOD!’ We were roared at. And the ‘conversation‘ pretty much ended there.
We thought about what we should do and whether there was any point in ringing the auction organisers. We figured we’d ring them in a few days when we thought about how to approach it or even see if we could go back to the limousine company and pay them to pick us up as separate charge even though it sounded like money wasn’t the issue.
As happenstance and misfortune would arise, we never got the opportunity to call either because a couple of days later the hotel burned to the ground in a mysterious fire and never reopened.
I’m not saying who was involved but I am pretty sure it wasn’t a guy in a grey uniform and peak cap - he’d have had no way to get home afterwards! We did toy with the idea of booking the car anyway but we couldn’t think of any one-way trip we wanted to take that badly!
On my wife’s 40th Birthday we had decided we would go away for the weekend to the luxury Merchant Hotel in Belfast to celebrate in real salubrious surroundings. As well as organising flowers for our arrival I decided to really push the boat out by hiring their Rolls Royce service to come and pick us up AND return us home - I wasn’t going to get caught out twice!
I wanted the weekend to be a really special and exciting time so I decided not to tell my wife about the transport arrangements, feeling it would be a nice surprise for her to enjoy a bottle of champagne en route and us not have to deal with rush hour traffic around the city.
The car was awesome and so clean and shiny when it arrived- an hour earlier than expected- on a sunny Friday afternoon and my wife was still getting ready.
I discreetly went out to see the driver and explained we’d be as quick as we could but as he was a bit early I hadn’t been expecting to be leaving just then. That was all fine with him so I went inside and upstairs and my wife knew immediately from my expression that something was awry.
‘What’s up? What have you done?’ She asked suspiciously.
‘Nothing..emm..taxi’s arrived early...’
‘What taxi - you’re driving? Did you not book a parking space?’
‘Well..I booked something...and its outside now...’
Did I mention that my wife doesn’t like surprises?
I am taking out the expletives but let’s just say she got up and walked to the window overlooking the driveway, saw what was there and advised me in no uncertain terms that I would be driving her to Belfast and that the man in the quarter-million-pound vehicle out-front would be slinging his hook.
It’s probably one of the most cringe-inducing moments of my life- knowing on the one hand that I was facing a near death experience if I stayed in the bedroom and yet how was I going to tell this kindly gentleman that he’d be having to leave and head straight back on his own - sans passengers!
It was my version of Dr Johnson’s ‘..when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ There was no time for a glass of Dutch courage or to psyche myself up for it which was probably a good thing as overthinking is a trait that I would suffer from at times which has held back my getting on with what needs done and tackling tough decisions.
The driver was incredibly gracious about it even reassuring me that this wasn’t the first time this had happened to him, later when I got to the hotel (after several hours of peace talks) under my own steam I saw him and a couple of the concierge staff at the entrance. He nodded reassuringly at me on the way in and I tried to discreetly acknowledge him back without my wife seeing so she wouldn’t know it was him. I am not sure I believed him that this was a on-off occurrence for him, but I was still glad he had said it was.
I still arrange surprises for my wife but I do them less often - I’m learning but I still haven’t learnt.
The reason for the reminiscing about chauffeurs this week is that I was asked by my sister-in-law if I wouldn’t mind doing her the favour of being her driver for her Wedding that took place at the third time of trying last weekend. When I say the third time of trying I mean because of Covid-related postponements - it wasn’t her third fiancé, even though it was her third dress!
As a result of the ongoing restrictions there were to be around fifty people at the socially distanced ceremony and the reception. I was happy to be a more integral part of the proceedings in light of the different considerations for the event.
I did my best to polish the car up as well as I could for being a total amateur in that regard -ever since starting my working life I’ve never seemed to have the time or motivation to wash my own car. I tried not to drive at my normal speed so as to be more respectful for the occasion that it was and I think I did a decent if not completely professional job, including getting out to open the door for her at the church.
Sadly my loudmouth let me down and I probably talked too much to the bridal party on the trips to the venues, luckily they were quite short! It’s not that I don’t know the adage that we have ‘two ears and only one mouth for a reason’, it’s just that I don’t always remember to be respectful of other people’s need for quiet or desire to contribute their own views as appropriate to the situation.
I never took the time to find out why my Ferrari-loving friend wanted to be driven rather than drive the object of his desire. And as these things go, I don’t think any of us took the time to stop and ask him so that we could find out - we were too pre-occupied with the jokes we were coming up with at our friend’s expense. So self-satisfied were we with how clever we were and how witty our put-down’s were that we suppressed any opportunity to learn and maybe actually agree that this was indeed a better or noble aspiration than our own.
It is to my eternal guilt that I never got to find out the solution to the enigma he had planted in my mind. The young man sadly lost his life a year or so after leaving the school, to train as a doctor no less, in a dramatic and successful effort to save two drowning university colleagues at a Caving-Club excursion. I think that’s what makes me regularly think about him to this day. I like to think that he just wanted to have someone to share the experience of being conveyed in a rare and beautiful machine that so few get to do. That he didn't feel the need to have it exclusively for himself. This moral and ethical colossus took the verbal ‘pile-on’ that happened with quiet dignity and he plainly never let it change who he was as a person- caring and selfless was he to the very end.
A true example of what it actually means to be standing-up to peer pressure, and indeed propaganda of all types. You can listen to it but not absorb it. He will be an ongoing inspiration to me forever.