It is now summer, and a woman must have a cabriolet, specifically the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class to be closer to grass; and further from pandemic, ruin and death. (It is a truism that money insulates you from things it should, and also things it shouldn’t). I cannot say if I would want a cabriolet if I lived in Camden Town – I would probably want a nuclear bunker if I lived in Camden Town – but in an English summer you want nothing else.
I am certain that, if I could only own one car, it would probably be a cabriolet spun from a coupé; and it would probably be this one. What you lament in November you long for in July. Unless you are a petrol-head who seeks the smell of burnt tyres, there is no greater joy than a new cabriolet. I love the Mercedes-Benz G-Class (the G-Wagon) above almost all things but it is not a cabriolet and it is as least £50,000 more. This did not stop someone parking one on a Cornish beach recently and going kayaking. Then the tide came in, to local laughter. Even Mercedes-Benz cannot hold back the sea.
Mercedes-Benz make so many types of car it organises them, slightly joylessly, by letter from A-Class to V-Class, so I can only imagine them tiny, living inside a filing cabinet and hooting at each other. Its rival BMW, meanwhile, uses numbers. Smaller manufacturers can afford to name cars after Norse gods and character defects, but Mercedes-Benz – a name so beautiful it deserves to be typed in full every time- needs no such gilding; and the Mercedes-Benz Vidar sounds objectively insane.
It is the medium cabriolet in the sizing chart of Mercedes-Benz, at about £45,000 – the C is smaller at about £37,000, the S is bigger at about £115,000– and it is perfect in looks, moving even the doughty and responsible What Car? to poetry, when it does not do poetry. It is low, smooth, neat, and beautifully rounded, with what I would call a face poised to laugh, wryly, at a man’s bad joke. The ride is fast but not alarming. You would trust your mother with it if your mother was not functionally irresponsible or drunken. It does 0-62mph in 7.7 seconds. The fabric roof lowers in twenty seconds. The back seats can accommodate adults without squashing their heads. The interior is sleek with leather. This is no Morgan roadster. Mr Toad would walk away unharmed. The drive is idiot-proof.
I imagine people watch me drive the E-Class and think me rich but not profligate; or in possession of careful lovers. The E-Class has a reputation as a mistress’s car, which really means loving husbands buy them for their wives, hoping they will behave like mistresses. If you can imagine a flighty Mercedes-Benz, which means a peculiarly beautiful Mercedes-Benz, this is it.
And perhaps because I fear I will be thought a mistress, when I am actually a carefully constructed drab, I drive it not to Ibiza, or the Sugar Shack in Essex, but to Oxford, and then a selection of National Trust properties in the west country. I finally consented to join the National Trust, and that is the day my body began to age. It is also the day I began to covet beautiful cars; because a fine cabriolet can arrest this slightly. Cars are, among other things, machines for time travel. They can summon any age you seek for a price, like music.
I have changed in looks but Oxford hasn’t. That is why I came here. I drive up Merton Street feeling the throb on the cobbles, consulting Pevsner and looking for the ghosts of donkeys. I am always pleased by the strangeness of parking a 21st century machine near a 13th century door. It emphasises our smallness and our passion for novelty; it summons our end. In homage to this I spend the day posing the E-Class like a stylist for a wacky advert. These cars are more familiar from adverts than from life, and that is their oddness and their charm: Mercedes-Benz with early medieval (weird); Mercedes-Benz with English Baroque (wild); Mercedes-Benz with Modernist (ideal).
I drive to Somerset to see Montacute House because it was in Sense and Sensibility – weirdly, they have no furniture – and have stand-offs with tractors, which I lose, because I am female. Even so, I feel intensely free and happy.