Chapter 6: CAR HUNGER AND POWER
Today there are more than 17 million private cars spread among a population
of 56 million but overwhelmingly owned by one car families. In other words
they are psychologically possessed by the dominant male in the family.
Almost automatically this means that subordinate males will consciously
or subconsciously be in a position of car deprivation.
In extreme cases car deprivation may drive a young man to steal or temporarily
'take' a vehicle. A glance at international figures on this shows how frequently
such deprivation gets to the pitch of inducing an adolescent to break the
In London in 1954, 85 vehicles were
taken per 100,000 of population
More than a quarter of a million vehicles were 'taken' in the USA in 1959
(288,937 to be precise). Just over 39,000 people were arrested for the
'takings' and of these 64% were under 18. According to a 1962 German police
report more than 80% of illegal takers of cars in the Federal Republic
In Copenhagen in 1954, 235 vehicles were taken per 100,000 of population
In Stockholm in 1954, 741 vehicles were taken per 100,000
Criminological research shows that a lot of the car-taking is simply
'joy-riding', i.e. a boy picks up a car, drives it round for an evening
and then dumps it. Much of it is not theft in the sense that the taker
intends to make the car his personal property -- he simply uses it for
a time to assuage his desire to sit behind a wheel. Joy-riding would seem
to be extreme compensatory behaviour in young males suffering from car
deprivation and the consequent feelings of inferiority and humiliation.
To be deprived of a car today is as much of a humiliation as to be deprived
of a horse was in the Middle Ages. One of the most radical and 'unmanning'
injunctions to humility that Francis of Assisi bound on his friars was
the prohibition against horse-riding. The Ottoman Turks shared Francis's
view that the horse was somehow connected with a male's pride and dignity,
and so, to cut down their status, the Turks forbade their Christian subjects
to mount horses, with the exception of the Patriarch of Constantinople.
In fact one of the first conciliatory gestures towards the Greek elite
after the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453 was Mehmet the Conqueror's
personal gift of a magnificent white charger to the first Ottoman Patriarch.
Today Gennadios would no doubt have been given a Cadillac.
It is not only criminologists and psychiatrists who see car deprivation
as the root of joy-riding. Some policemen have come round to the same view,
albeit in this case a French one; the Interpol chief, Henri Feraud wrote
It is widely recognized in the so-called economically developed
countries that an individual, be he adult or young, feels himself to be
in an inferior position when he doesn't have personal use of a motor vehicle.
Having a car is certainly no longer a privilege in our day and age, but
everybody doesn't have one, and the individuals who are still baulked of
car ownership feel resentment which is the deeper the more motorized people
there are in the country.
Joy-riders and car thieves are people who feel car deprivation so acutely,
either consciously or not, that they are willing to brave the sanctions
of the law to prove themselves. The joy-riders are the extreme fringe of
the adolescent males suffering from car deprivation. Many of their contemporaries
compensate for temporary car deprivation by hitch-hiking. Clearly this
is a more ambiguous device than taking a car and driving off with it, but
it has the practical advantage, in the British case, of being legally permitted
and infinitely indulgeable in.
The hitcher who is compensating for car deprivation is in a curious
state of mind. Basically he assumes the 'right to a lift', not to a personal
lift from a particular car owner but the right to a lift from car owners
in general. If you questioned him directly on this, he would almost inevitably
deny the existence of such a right. The phenomenon usually only comes to
the surface of consciousness when an apparently normal hitch-hiker is baulked
of a lift for what he feels is an unreasonable length of time. Then he
may well explode into open, violent expressions of envy and anger towards
all drivers who go past him. In All the Time in the World Hugo Williams
describes just such a situation in Northern Australia:
It's going to be a long wait. As night falls the flies drop off
and the mosquitoes start up. They make us feel paranoiac and we hurl insults
at the passing motorists. 'Don't stop,' we growl, 'don't stop if it's going
to strengthen that fearful self esteem, that pride of ownership you guard
so carefully from us. Shake your head at us and say -- I'm sorry boys --
to yourself. Run your hand over the clean empty seat covers. Smile at us
and we will smile back, for we can see the varnish already beginning to
flake ...' It's terribly ungrateful, but that's the way one goes on, even
after a lift of 400 miles. One gets spoilt. One gets to think it's every
car's duty to stop.
Fascinating to see how Williams gives a straight account of his explosion
of anger and envy against men who won't stop, and then somehow has to produce
a gloss on it. The gloss is quite inaccurate: one gets to think it is
every car's duty to stop. The deprivation compensatory mechanism makes
the unconscious assumption of the right to a lift; the assumption is there
all the time, but it only surfaces at a moment of stress like this.
A technical college student, who wouldn't for one second posit a 'right
to lifts' and consciously dislikes arrogance in hitch-hikers, gave this
description of what happens inside him when people fail to stop:
I suppose it's the frustration of sitting there ... standing there
not knowing why they won't give me a lift .... You know I get more and
more frustrated because I think that people have passed me by when they
should have been giving me lifts. It is a question of should -- I feel
as though they should be giving me a lift ... well it's anger I
think ... instinctive almost, if that's the right word. l can be standing
there about ten, fifteen, twenty minutes and nothing will happen -- you
know I'll just be bored really and just hoping ... and then it'll suddenly
come up. It's almost as though I suddenly start thinking to myself: 'Now
why?' and as soon as that happens then it starts building up into anger.
The hitcher just quoted is unusual in that his feeling of a 'right to lifts'
is so comparatively near the surface of consciousness that it only takes
a twenty minute wait to bring it to light.
Sometimes the compensatory mechanism drives the hitch-hiker to choose
only large expensive cars. He feels he has been unfairly done out of having
a car. So when he hitches he is only going to accept the best. Johnny Speight
author of the Alf Carnett TV series, one day stopped his vintage Bentley
to pick a tramp up:
'I prefer Bentleys,' said the tramp, 'a little Anglia offered me a lift
a while ago, but I wouldn't take it. I mean, you meet a better class of
person in a Bentley.'
That story may or may not be true but there is no reason to doubt the
veracity of the Exeter Express and Echo's motoring correspondent
when he quotes the AA (26.8.66):
Today's hitch-hiker seems to be more arrogant and less grateful
for lifts. Only last year the AA reported the story of a hitch-hiker who
would only take lifts in Jaguars. There was once a time they would have
been grateful to travel mile after mile in the back of a smelly old fish
The boy in the report was clearly suffering Jaguar, not fish lorry, deprivation.
By getting a lift in a big car the hitch-hiker suffering from deprivation
enters a kind of fantasy of co-ownership. This fantasy is carried to its
logical conclusion in the TV film Yob and Magog. You see a scruffy
thumber getting himself a lift in a Rolls Royce. Gradually he draws the
owner under his spell and succeeds in reversing their roles, he becomes
the owner of the car and the other man is the outsider. It ends with him
ringing up the police and having the real owner carted off as an escaped
The hitcher may subconsciously want to share the speed and effortless
power of a luxurious car. He may be like this 15 year old London boy, still
too young to get a scooter or motorbike licence himself, but prepared to
have his speed through others:
Perhaps I'd be happier driving myself, because I'd be more part
of something else then, but I'm quite happy to sit there. I couldn't possibly
shut my eyes when I'm going fast. I feel I'm triumphing over time and the
road, to watch it whizz past like that, you know. I might sometimes ask
the driver to speed, I might say:
One of the most interesting studies on joy-riders, by T.V. Gibbens, shows
that teenage boys often pinch cars to prove themselves as men and to achieve
a feeling of power. Gibbens writes:
'Look, I don't know about you, but I fancy a terrific burn up, you
know; if you can afford the petrol, will you put your foot down?'
Clinically the car thieves stand out from the usual run of Borstal
lads in that the offence is more often of the 'neurotic' type in that the
crime has a symbolic significance and is unconsciously motivated from different
sources especially sexual ones .... In the simplest cases the joy-riding
is of the common 'proving' type in which an over-protected lad from a 'good
home' commits an offence to prove his masculinity. The close relationship
with his mother induces a sense of guilt when sexual feelings emerge in
adolescence.... The daring act represents a bid for independence and the
car provides a feeling of power in which he feels so lacking....
Now clearly the boy who copes with feelings of car deprivation through
hitching does not directly experience manual control of the car. What he
does experience is the control of the car through a certain psychological
control he has over the driver. He makes a small gesture and at his command
a car comes skidding to a halt, its nearside door opens and he is asked
where he is bound for. Quite a number of hitchers are aware of the psychological
power they are wielding when they stop a car. One girl says she prefers
to hitch-hike alone because then she feels in total control of the situation:
I enjoy the power of making people stop -- perhaps it isn't the
right attitude -- they are after all stopping out of kindness -- I like
the feeling of willing them to stop, and willing the person who
stops to be an interesting person.
As some thumbers see it, their power over the motorist is one of foreknowledge;
they feel they can look at an on-coming stream of traffic and spot the
car that is likely to pick them up:
And sometimes you don't even bother thumbing people who come by
because you know they're not going to stop. You just thumb this one man
and he stops and it feels really satisfying. (Liverpool scooter shop
Other hitchers adopt a definite strategy for getting a driver to stop:
When you're going it it's more a question of trying to entice people
to stop. I find you've got to use every trick and try, anyway, and persuade
people to stop by standing in the right place in the road which is conducive
to someone stopping, where they may be slowing down or where there's room
to pull in ....
All these three people are very conscious of their power over the motorist.
Apart from hitch-hikers the only external forces that stop motorists usually
are policemen, traffic signals, jams or accidents. The last hitcher quoted,
a Cambridge student, has an almost predatory attitude to the motorist.
Perhaps 'predatory' is too strong a word -- he doesn't so much hunt the
driver, he angles him, tickles him, fishes him. But the object is identical:
to catch him.
All this may seem to be in blank contradiction with the picture drawn
4 of the forlorn hitch-hiker standing by the dusty wayside watching
a stream of impersonal steel boxes go by, and then suddenly melting in
submissive gratitude when a car finally does stop. Both pictures are graphic
descriptions of states of mind that one and the same hitcher may live through
at different times, depending on his mood. I have certainly experienced
both feelings as a thumber.
The notion of the hitch-hiker mentally dominating the driver and compelling
him to stop is one of the key ideas re hitch-hiking in Georges Limbour's
book La Chasse au Merou. He goes into some detail over the importance
of the psychological message transmitted by the visual action of thumbing.
He says that success for the hitcher depends on:
... the rightness of the gesture, the moment it needs to be made,
the distance relative to the car's speed; it depends on an undefinable
something in the gesture which must be both discreet and determined, not
too commanding but not too humble either, a gesture of frank assurance.
For faith is essential -- the doubter never gets anywhere -- the doubt
is transmitted to the driver. The signal, which includes the whole movement
of the body, is so vital that you can say it's as often the hitch-hiker
who picks the driver up as the other way about.
It is awareness of the inevitable self-assertion in the act of thumbing
that makes hitch-hiking distasteful to people who are timid, withdrawn
or particularly sensitive. It is precisely the same thing that satisfies
car deprived teenagers, who by dominating a driver into stopping achieve
a kind of vicarious, temporary, fantasy possession of his vehicle. One
can hardly avoid agreeing with the student who said to me in a discussion
on the out-lawing of hitch-hiking:
If you banned thumbing, surely this would mean an increase in car