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How cars went from the ticket to freedom to an unaffordable luxury

death of the car gravestone
death of the car gravestone

For at least the last 50 years, owning a car has been something of a rite of passage. Learning to drive was one thing – but until you owned your own set of wheels, and stopped having to borrow your mum’s Nissan Micra, well, freedom wasn’t quite a done deal.

But for the first time in living memory, people are starting to wonder whether their cars really are necessities – or whether, in fact, car ownership is a luxury they can get by without.

With inflation soaring, so too are the costs associated not just with buying a car, but with driving and maintaining one. As a result, some experienced drivers are deciding to ditch theirs.

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Younger drivers, meanwhile, are waiting longer, both before learning to drive, and before buying their own cars. Many, it’s said, aren’t even all that bothered about doing so in the first place.

The pandemic didn’t help, with enormous delays in booking and sitting driving tests.

And that’s led some analysts to predict that car ownership, once seen as an integral part of modern life, is soon to become a luxury. Could the cost of living crisis even spell the death of private car ownership as we know it?

Spiralling costs

You don’t have to look far to establish a reason for car owners to be questioning their loyalty to their tin boxes.

First, there’s the initial outlay. 91pc of privately purchased cars are bought using some kind of finance in the UK, and a combination of inflation and increased interest rates have caused monthly repayments on these deals to increase drastically.

Statistics from the Finance and Leasing Association (FLA) showed that drivers were borrowing £25,325 on average in 2022, up from £23,746 the previous year.

But it doesn’t end there. Fuel costs have fallen compared with their dizzying peaks of last year, induced by the Ukraine war, but they’re still almost 20p per litre higher than they were two years ago, when the average litre of petrol in the UK still costing £1.44.

Insurance premiums have risen, too – by 20pc on average in the last year, according to Confused.com.

And of course, there’s the cost of car tax, or Vehicle Excise Duty. Changes to the tax system means that new cars with a “list price” of £40,000 or more must pay £570 a year (£390 a year extra) in tax for the first five years.

As more and more cars cross that £40,000 threshold, many buyers opting for fairly ordinary new cars are unexpectedly facing huge tax bills.

Buying an older car might therefore be seen as a logical alternative, but even here you have to be careful, especially if you live in or near a big city.

With low-emission and clean-air zones sprouting up across the land, drivers of older cars are finding themselves liable for huge daily charges if their cars aren’t deemed environmentally friendly enough.

 Range Rover Velar - Rii Schroer
Range Rover Velar - Rii Schroer

In London, for example, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) is being extended outward to encompass almost the entirety of the city’s suburbs, a move that will cost drivers of non-compliant cars that live in those areas as much as an extra £650 a year.

Big bills

And it isn’t just the authorities that are out to get you. The servicing costs on newer cars are making them prohibitively expensive for some owners.

Ben Deakin says he and his family have decided to sell their 2021 Audi A5 Sportback because the costs of servicing it are just too high. “The Audi is our main family car – before it, we used to have a BMW 3 Series,” he says.

“But we’ve decided to sell it now because it’s just so costly to service.

“We were just gobsmacked when we called the Audi dealer to book it in – they told us it needs a gearbox oil and filter change at £250, a fuel filter at £240, and both are due at its current mileage.

“Then another £300 for an oil and filter change and a visual inspection, and £169 for a brake fluid change.”

Deakins adds that his car falls into the higher VED bracket, which further adds to its running costs, and has led him and his family to conclude that it simply isn’t worthwhile to keep the Audi.

But a lack of suitable public transport as an alternative means he and his family won’t be kicking the car habit entirely. “Our plan is to purchase a cheaper commuter car instead, and use our classic Triumph more often,” he says.

For some prospective drivers, however, public transport is more readily available.

Owen Glanz lives in Bromley, south London, and took several months’ worth of lessons when he was 17. Now 39, however, he never took his test, and cites the cost of running a car, as well as the fact that trains, trams, and buses are an easy walk from his house, in his decision.

“I work from home, so I wouldn’t be using a car on a daily basis, and I’m very fortunate where I live,” he says. “I’m a two-minute walk from the train station, so when I’ve got meetings in London, I’ll just jump on the train.

“I’m near the tram, too, so I can get into Bromley or Croydon very easily, and there’s even a bicycle rental place around the corner, so I could get around on a bike if I really needed to. To get to most other places I need to, it’s £10 in an Uber.”

Glanz says that he would like to pick up his lessons again, but the cost – not only of learning, but of running a car of his own afterwards – puts him off, and he has higher financial priorities.

Fiat 500 1970s - Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Fiat 500 1970s - Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

“I am a bit embarrassed, to be honest with you,” he says. “I think it is a life skill that you should have, and I don’t have it.

“But for example, my wife’s American; her mum and dad still live in the States, and when we go and visit them, it’s £1,000 for the flights. Our energy bill’s just gone up by £130 a month, our other costs are going up, and owning a car is expensive; I just can’t justify it.

“So at the moment owning a car would be a luxury. But if our life were to change – if my wife and I were to have a child, say – then I might put learning and buying a car higher in my priority list, because it would be handy if I could drive then.

“That’s when it might become more of a necessity.”

Luxury vs necessity

It’s this balance between luxury and necessity that’s dictating whether people opt to give up their cars – or in the case of younger would-be drivers, decide not to learn to drive at all.

Indeed, while the popular narrative suggests young people aren’t bothered about learning to drive, many in fact see driving not only as an avenue to freedom, but as key to their future prospects.

“I grew up in Brixton, so I used to find it easy to get around on public transport,” says Agnes, Nwabia, a 25-year-old engineering student.

“But as I moved further out of London, the London Underground stopped being an option”

“Most of the graduate roles I’m looking at now are outside of London, and for many of them it would be much easier if I could travel there by car.

“Some of those jobs actually require you to have a full licence, too, so if you haven’t got one it means there are fewer roles you can actually go for, as well as fewer you can get to.”

Nwabia has just passed her test, having waited eight years after obtaining her provisional licence before starting to learn to drive. The wait was not out of choice.

“I knew it was something that I would have to be able to pay for on my own, both the short-term lump sum costs of, for example, the car and the lessons, but also the monthly costs of insurance and maintenance” she says.

“I didn’t have any stable income when I was 17, so I didn’t even consider the lessons at that time.”

The problem, Nwabia feels, is not that her generation doesn’t want to drive – it’s that many of them simply can’t justify the cost.

“The part of my generation that’s suffering are the ones that, like me, didn’t get help toward the costs from their parents,” she says.

“They started a lot later because they needed to save up, and by the time they were ready to pay for their lessons, the pandemic came.

“Most of my generation have been trying to pass their test and get a car since then, but there’s been such a backlog that it’s been a struggle.

“And meanwhile, those that were able to pass their tests much sooner have been ready and able to apply for the best graduate jobs and move on in their lives.”

The ability to drive, therefore, remains as crucial as ever, perhaps more so, which is why despite the rising cost of owning and running a car, so few people are actually giving them up.

Indeed, government statistics showed that by the end of the third quarter of 2022, the most recent period for which data is available, the number of cars registered for road use in the UK had actually increased by 0.8pc year-on-year.

Outside of the London bubble

The same period saw a 1pc decrease in the number of new car registrations, suggesting that more people are keeping their older cars on the road for longer, in preference to swapping them for more up-to-date models – or even, like Deakin, changing their newer cars for older ones in a bid to keep costs down.

It’s true that some people, like Glanz, will react to the rising cost of living and either give up their cars, or hold off on buying one in the first place, especially if they have the luxury of public transport as an alternative.

But the reality is that many drivers see their cars as integral to their lives, relying on them for work or simply for their own personal mobility.

Outside of London, 76pc of workers commuted by car in 2022. For these people, giving up their cars simply isn’t an option.

And it’s for this reason that young people are still keen to learn. Many of them understand that the best job roles require it – either directly, or with long commutes that would be unviable on public transport.

But the rising costs involved have forced large numbers to hold off until they’re in a position to be able to afford it, and until that’s the case, their opportunities are being truncated.

The doomsayers have a point, but it’s not the whole story.

The rising cost of living won’t spell the end of the car. But what it is doing is forcing increasing numbers of people to make other sacrifices elsewhere, reducing their spend on leisure activities, and keeping unnecessary journeys to a minimum.

For the time being, then, it seems the car’s place in our affections is safe – but it’ll come at a considerable cost.