Swellboy on… clapped-out cars

A mink cape provides cold comfort, and inspiration, on wintry jaunts into the West End

Image: Brijesh Patel

The other day, someone slammed into the back of the ancestral Jeep Grand Cherokee that has been in my family since the last century. As an heirloom, I was hoping to pass it on to my children, not least because then they would have the problem of dealing with its idiosyncrasies. I have been unable to get rid of it because it works and has reached an age at which the novelty of ownership has worn off, so I am less bothered about the occasional nick in the bodywork – or the massive dent in the back that looks like a comic-book superhero has given it a whack with his fist.

I did go through a phase of having flash cars that I cared about, but they took a terrible financial toll, crashing into things and running up monumental servicing bills. They also occupied so much of my already limited headspace that I am in no hurry to have one back in my life. The worrying thing is that, even though I know it would be courting ruin, I can quite see myself behind the wheel of an early-Noughties Continental R from Bentley, or a hard-top Corniche from the mid 1970s, or a Camargue, or a Lamborghini Espada. You will notice that I am unduly fond of two-door grands routiers – ludicrous given that I spend most of my time on the two wheels of my Pashley bicycle. It is like cigars: I am always tempted to ignite a Sancho Panza Sancho or a Double Corona when I only have time for a Petit Robusto.

Anyway, the spectre of re-entering the car market appeared after the smash, not so much because the damage to the bodywork is cataclysmic (although there is the inconvenience of not being able to open the boot, but I can live with that), rather that the heating has packed up. To be fair, I don’t think that this was anything to do with the pick-up truck that wrote itself off on contact with the back of my Jeep, as it was already on its way out. But in any case, the arrival of winter in Shepherd’s Bush has rendered driving into the West End a little like travelling in a fridge, and I have to think very carefully about the weather before venturing out of town. Factor in the wind chill that occurs when I leave the windows wound down so that I am able enjoy a Havana en route, and preparation for a car journey begins to mirror an expedition undertaken by Ernest Shackleton – with, I hope, less disastrous results.


The other day I was in a hurry to get somewhere and did not have time to get the blankets, portable gas stove and thermos flask together. Instead, I grabbed the nearest thing that came to hand, which happened to be a mink cape I had bought from Jim the fur man in Portobello. It is a handsome vintage garment but even I had to concede that there were only limited possibilities for its use – or so I thought. As it happened, it was more or less perfect for the drive into central London, notwithstanding the fact that I had to have the air conditioning on so that the windows did not steam up.

So it would seem that the only way I can overcome the lack of heating is by seeing it as a style opportunity rather than a mechanical deficiency, which, of course, is my favourite method of facing almost any obstacle life puts in front of me. Rather like the character in The Moonstone who finds the answer to life’s questions and problems in Robinson Crusoe, if I look hard enough into the history of men’s apparel, a solution (or at least an enjoyable bit of clobber) will present itself.

My icy drive put me in mind of a Dunhill Motorities catalogue from the Edwardian era that advertised a coat of Siberian wolfskin “built from the most carefully matched skins, unequalled for weather-defying qualities. Most distinguished in appearance and luxuriously warm and comfortable.” I put the call in to Dunhill from the car, and the next time I bump into Johann Rupert I will suggest that he puts this garment back into production pretty swiftly… provided I do not succumb to hypothermia on the roads before then.