Me and my car
THE TROUBLE with being a famous racing driver or theatrical personality is, I have long suspected, that strangers accost you with diffident expectation of some undefined instant magic that you can't deliver.
Yet Rowan Atkinson seemed unfazed by such adulation as we tried to talk to him and photograph his Aston Martin Volante outside London's Aldwych Theatre where he is packing 'em in, playing The Nerd.
First impression was of a man unlikely to fall into the trap of believing his own publicity.
The rubber face, tailor-made for Fluck and Law, remained in repose as he responded politely but distractedly to yet another request for an autograph.
So how does this continuous intrusion to his privacy concern him? "It is a pain sometimes. It is quite fun at other times.
"If you want a quiet journey from A to B, you can't travel by bus or tube because you are sitting with a lot of people. They are going to know who you are, so you have rather a tense trip.
"But driving is a time when, actually, you are fairly anonymous. People tend not to look at others in cars because, usually, they are concentrating on the road.
"The other day, I was bowling merrily along the Marylebone Road behind John Cleese in his Corniche. No-one noticed either of us for the entire journey.
"Travelling by car is undoubtedly the most private way of getting about. Unfortunately, of course, it is a pain in the arse in London - for most of the time."
Rowan Atkinson's interest in machinery began on the farm where he grew up near Newcastle upon Tyne.
His first car was a Rover 2000, bought from his father for £200. A Morris Marina van came next. For, after taking his degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Newcastle University, he went up to Oxford in 1975 to research for an MSc in Engineering Science.
"I used to play a very bad line in percussion in a jazz-rock band at Oxford, and I needed to cart musical equipment about."
As demand for his talents grew, the Marina was succeeded by a Volkswagen van for Atkinson and his crew to tour in.
Two years ago, he passed his HGV1 Class 1 test which is handy if you work in theatre. Bulky, heavy sets must be taken from venue to venue in a large pantechnicon, and this he has done for his own shows as well as friends.
"I'm very cheap as a truck driver because I enjoy it so much, and I can rely on my other income to support me. The larger and more complex a vehicle is to control, the more satisfaction I get from doing it.
"Driving an Aston Martin is a bit like driving a truck, I suppose. It's a similarly responsible job."
He takes it seriously enough to have undergone high-speed instruction on a race circuit during sessions organised by the Ninety Six Club. "They're a bunch of over-rich loonies who have been caught speeding too many times in their Boxer Ferraris, and want somewhere to give them their head.
"I found it tremendously valuable in learning safe control of the car. On ordinary roads, if it is wet, things can get a bit hairy when you want to get somewhere a bit quick, particularly in a 400 horsepower car - unless you have some idea of what to do when it starts moving around."
Atkinson is also a member of the Aston Martin Owners Club, and fancies a bit of club racing. "They have a tremendous calendar, yet it is relatively gentlemanly, not too serious. I keep telling myself I should attempt it while I am still young, but I never find the time. I am always working at weekends, and off during the week. Maybe next year ..."
Of rallying he knows little, but he has become firm friends with Tony Pond since the two were teamed in Driving Force Pro Celebrity on BBC Television.
"Tony is just a great bloke. He gave me a little instruction on an old airfield in Oxfordshire, and I had some fun that day, learning wonderful tricks like handbrake turns."
Back in 1981, Atkinson sold the VW van, and replaced it with his first Aston Martin, a bright red one. "It was a bit of a dramatic leap into the pseudo exoticar bracket. I fell in love with it.
"But they are absurd cars. They are so big, so heavy, so expensive to buy and run. You have got to have a very slightly strange taste in cars to really enjoy them. A lot of people buy one and sell it immediately because it's not what they expected.
"They are difficult cars to get to know very, very British and old-fashioned. And, for that reason, I love them."
Four months ago, after driving the red Aston 63,000 miles in three years, he bought a Vantage, also at a year old and thus benefiting from dramatic depreciation.
Given truly unlimited cash, Atkinson says, he'd still plump for another Aston Martin. Though he wouldn’t mind trying a brace of Ferraris or even a Lamborghini for a while.
"There is something very impractical and flash about them which I don't greatly like. An Italian exotic shouts at the top of its voice.
"An Aston, particularly a burgundy one, is more like a Bentley. That's the reason for buying one, rather than a Ferrari. In the end, it has cost the same amount of money, but it is that bit more discreet. It states in stentorian tones that you have a bit of money in your account, rather than blaring it out to anyone who wasn't listening."
It is also much less provocative to the police, which is prudent. "When you see a bright red Porsche Turbo in the outside lane of the M4, you know the police will be leaping for joy at the thought of pulling him off at the next exit."
Such encounters as Atkinson has had with The Law (for parking, not speeding) must have been studies to watch.
"Policemen and traffic wardens have authority in their uniforms. But this psychological advantage wanes because they know they can't conceal the fact that they have recognised you. For some reason, it's terribly embarrassing to meet a well-known person. You don't know what to say or how to behave. You feel self-conscious.
"You want to hide, and you are continually trying to grapple for your own identity. This softens the relationship, and it's one of the few tangible advantages of being readily recognised.
"If you upset another motorist, he might start honking the horn, and pull in front of you, ready for a real shouting match at the next red traffic light. It's wonderful how flustered he'll become when he recognises you."
Just as a car by no means guarantees Atkinson his anonymity, so it leaves him prey to some pretty eccentric behaviour. While on tour with The Nerd, he was chased all the way across Norwich. “When I stopped to post a letter, this boy racer in a Cortina screamed in front of me, and demanded an autograph.
"On another recent occasion, I saw a driver bump into the car in front of him because he was staring at me. That made me snigger."
1,232 words Copyright © by Anthony Howard