Sunday, June 27, 2021

Cars As Character

Zoë Sharp

The kind of car driven by the main protagonist of a novel is, for me, a snapshot into the mind of that character. And for the author, it’s often a quick way to give information about the type of person your hero or SHEro is, without having to spell it out.


Dashing characters have a habit of driving equally dashing cars, where the quirkier types of detectives often drive classics. Occasionally, they are both. In the first of Ian Fleming’s novels to feature James Bond, Casino Royale, published in 1953, 007 drives a supercharged Bentley 4.5 litre that is already more than twenty years old.


Purely from a practical point of view, I can see the attraction of using a classic. By dint of it already being out of date at the start of the novel, it can hardly become an anachronism as the series goes on. In the three TV series of Spender, shown in the early 1990s and starring Jimmy Nail, he drives a Ford Sierra Sapphire Cosworth. A very In car at the time, but not one that’s stood the test of time as well as the original three-door Cosworth with its huge whale-tail rear spoiler.


Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is noted for the MkII Jaguar he used in the TV adaptations, but in the books, he originally rumbled around the streets of Oxford in a Lancia Aurelia saloon.


Leslie Charteris, on the other hand, decided there wasn’t a vehicle quite dashing enough to suit his debonair thief, Simon Templar, alias The Saint. So, he invented one. In fact, he invented several, but the most notable of these was the Hirondel. The Saint was noted to drive this at speeds exceeding a mile a minute—not to be sniffed at in the 1930s!


(artist's impression of a Hirondel, by Ted Lodigensky)

I suppose this was also a very good way of never being caught out with the technical details about a particular model. 


When I began writing about Charlie Fox, I knew very early on that she would be a motorcyclist, and thought it best to give her a model I was very familiar with. Hence the fact in the earlier books she rides a 250cc Suzuki RGV, which I can promise was plenty quick enough to get her into trouble—and preferably out of it again.


When the Suzuki eventually bites the dust, which it does through very little fault of Charlie’s, she fortunately has another bike waiting in the wings, in the form of a Honda FireBlade. I knew I needed to give her a bigger bike because, quick as the Suzuki was, doing a road trip through Ireland in the company of people riding bigger, faster bikes, she’d need to be able to keep up.


And in the first of the Lakes books, I wanted to give my CSI, Grace McColl, something practical for reaching off-road crime scenes. A Nissan Navara pick-up seemed just the thing. There was even room for her dog in the back.


Whereas her colleague, Detective Nick Weston, needed something that hinted he hadn’t quite grown out of his boy racer years. A Subaru Impreza—the STi WRX model—fitted the bill.


Both vehicles said something about their owners, and using them seemed a quick way to build character. Drivers of certain makes of car do seem to behave in predictable ways on the road these days. (And not always predictable in a good way.)


Are there any types of cars you would or would not like to see a character driving, and what do they say to you about the people who drive them?


This week’s Word of the Week is immane, meaning huge, vast, but also monstrous in character, cruel or savage, from the Latin immanis.


  1. And, then, of course, there's Jim Rockford with his Pontiac Firebird Esprit. The list seems endless. :-) (You're going to use immane in your next novel, right. Right? So right.)

  2. The police (and others) in Botswana like Land Rovers for obvious reasons. Seems you can't go wrong with those. But in one of our books where the bad guy executed a complicated plot to disable the petrol fuel system to strand our hero in the desert, a reader wrote to say that at that time the police used only diesel models. Sigh.

  3. I have that Italian car passion, Zoe. but so far, the only car any of my characters have belongs tonRoberto Leary,, the police detective in Blood Tango. He drives, in 1945, a red Pontiac with great white wall tires. I was careful to explain how that gorgeous machine happens to be in Buenos Aires. I loved being with him while he was driving around the city in that car while solving the crime! Juan Peron has a government issue Rolls at the beginning, which is repossessed when he went to jail.

    The fourth in my Africa series, which is still waiting for publication, also has a car. It belongs to Karen and Bror Blixen and. Several people in the story, including Kwai Libano and an 11 year old boy, are in love with it. Cars were so new then, that almost no one in Africa had them.

    It’s so much fun thinking up automobiles after all the historical settings where people had carriages or rode horses, but I like that too. On top of everything else, one can give a horse a name! That also contributes to the characterization of its owner.

  4. My cops basically run with marked police vehicles, unless operating undercover and then it's generally a beat up Fiat or Hyundai Atos. HOWEVER, I do find motorcyles to be great favorites of my villains. Especially big BMWs. Narrow, poorly maintained island roads restrict what can effectively run on them -- leaving low-slung sports cars at a decided disadvange...though "The Gumball 3000 Rally" made it to Mykonos in 2017 (and again in 2019).