Read any website or newspaper these days and everybody is looking for that elusive automotive silver bullet – the mode of transport that will carry us all forward with minimal environmental impact and maximum efficiency. Will it be electric vehicles that unlock a Thunberg-friendly future? Perhaps it’s hydrogen? Or maybe the delicate balance of a PHEV will immediately allow the icecaps to magically reform and the polar bears to rejoice. I happen to think it’s the 1992 Renault Clio 1.2 and its brethren that might hold the key.
I arrived at this epoch-changing thesis whilst enjoying a warm and welcome week in Greece. I flew, by the way, so this is a very wobbly soapbox that I’m espousing from. There, instead of a plethora of school-run parents and busy executives thundering around in oversized SUVs, almost everyone was driving a small 1990s hatchback. And it struck me as just another moment of genius on the part of our Grecian cousins. Clearly not satisfied with bestowing us with almost all modern Western philosophy, the Olympics, cartography, and, bizarrely for a country that enjoys 250 days of sunshine each year, the umbrella, this great nation now has the answer to the next era of modern motoring. Thanks, guys.
As I observed these brilliant people, going about their everyday travels, it dawned upon me how this philosophy works on every level. Firstly, any older car paid its carbon debt a very long time ago. The energy required to press those panels and plastics into life is a distant memory, and these miniscule marvels, all 12 feet of them, take very little space to park, meaning that everything from supermarket carparks through to roadside spaces can do so much more. A modern-day SUV like the Discovery is over 16 feet long, meaning you can easily park four Clios in the same plot of land where you can only fit three Discos.
Keep it serviced well, and those teeny little engines, running through a nice, fresh catalyst should easily see up to 60 mpg, which again, means fewer carbon emissions, less fuel used, and hordes of happy climate protestors. Tyres are another win. There are only 6.5 kilos of rubber and steel needed to make a 13-inch tyre. But a 20 inch one? They’re around 15. So a whole 34 kilos of additional resources used, every time you step out for new shoes. Multiply that by every SUV in the world, and you can see the issue here. Because where does a lot of that extra rubber go? Into the atmosphere and down the drains, that’s where.
Similarly, brakes are smaller and pads are smaller. Bulbs and lights are simply replaceable, inexpensive parts that take moments to renew, rather than being immediately unrepairable LED units that need expensive replacement. If an engine or gearbox fails, it can be easily and cheaply fixed. Or, if it can’t, it can be exchanged with a secondhand unit out of a recycled car. And when everyone else in your town drives the same model, that’s not as hard to achieve as it sounds.
What about electrics and electronics? These all use precious resources too, so the bigger – and fancier – the vehicle, the greater the number of body control modules, ECUs, cables, and screens it will have. They all require myriad precious metals and rare minerals, a whole mass of refining, and then a simply terrifying amount of energy and carbon to create. The Clio? It has a brain that wouldn’t trouble anyone at MENSA anytime soon, and if you’re very lucky, a stereo. So much less to replace. So much less to go wrong.
Smaller, older cars have diminished impacts in other ways, too. Roads surfaces will take less of a pounding, as the 1265kg mass of the lightweight French fancy barely makes itself felt. The Disco? Well, that’s almost exactly double, meaning that the tarmac has a lot more to deal with.
The Clio isn’t fast, but it will break the speed limit in almost any country you care to mention, apart from the German autobahn, perhaps, and in this Gatso-ridden world, there’s a lot to be said for that. As for all the Evo readers huffing and puffing that it wouldn’t be fast enough to clip apexes and shuffle treads, take it from someone who rented one as a hire car for an Ibiza excursion in 1995… when there’s an Avis keyring attached, this thing would outhustle any supercar down any country back lane you care to mention. Well, it certainly felt that way.
You’ve seen the flaw in my plan, of course. Seeing as we don’t enjoy 250 days of sunshine here in the UK, the chances of you picking up a mint, low-powered ’90s hatch are pretty slim. But what if we all changed our philosophy, going forward? What if we all bought, smaller, cheaper, and simpler cars that we rustproofed, refurbished, and replaced items on as they aged? The arms race of safety that sees you needing to buy a bigger and heavier car each time, just to feel safe on the roads, would soon melt away and we’d all still be driving to work, picking up our kids and going on holiday in just the same way we were before, only using far fewer resources to do it.
To a degree, I’ve tried it myself this year. As my recently acquired lease Volvo S90 went back, I replaced it with a £200 1998 V70. While it might not be the ‘hair-shirt’ the Clio is, the V70 has managed to provide a year of flawless service and 15,000 totally trouble free miles – all for the all-in cost of just another £700 – and that’s including a full service and four brand new 15-inch tyres. Modern classics aren’t just wonderful things to own, they really can be pressed into service as totally useable, reliable, and practical cars. Add in 15 quid’s worth of Bluetooth module and a tenner’s worth of phone holder and even an old Swedish workhorse can play your podcasts and display Waze as you drive. In other words, apart from a hefty monthly cost and dealer-level bills, it does exactly what its modern descendant did.
As we look to our motoring future, it’s time to be more Greek and ask, ‘What would Aristotle do?’ For my money, the wily old fox would have hit the classifieds, bagged a bargain banger, Waxoyled it within an inch of its life, and run it for the next 10 years while saving a small fortune. Even if you tire of the environmental benefits, you’ll never tire of the tyre bills, or lack thereof. And it’s worth it to know you’ll always find a parking space.