The kind of temporary structures created by and around automobiles provides some of the most fascinating forms of architecture, such as the canvas and steel city of trucks, engines, oil drums and plastic sheeting created around the pit area at the Santa Pod dragstrip. Last month I encountered an interesting form of temporary structure while on my way back from Santa Pod in the backseat of the gold Chrysler PT Cruiser that belongs to Roger and Izabel Burton of the Horse Hospital. As we approached the end of the motorway just outside of North London the car started to lurch and falter: warning lights started to came on, illuminating the dashboard. Roger managed to keep things functioning long enough to steer the car to a stop in a runoff area edged with a long concrete crash barrier. The sun had almost gone down and there was a cold wind blowing: we were going to get to know this crash barrier very well over the next two or three hours.
A repair service was due to be with us within 20 minutes, but until then the call centre handling the recovery also asked that we leave the car and stand behind the crash barrier as a safety precaution.
‘We’re not really going to do that, are we?’ Izabel asked from under her NHRA baseball cap, huddled in the passenger seat.
‘I don’t know,’ Roger replied. ‘I think we’re supposed to…but we can stay if you like. It’ll be Ken who gets it first if anything runs into us.’
‘Well, I vote we wait behind the crash barrier,’ I offered brightly. ‘Who’s with me?’
Standing together behind the concrete barrier on an isolated strip of concrete, being buffeted by the slipstreams of lorries, 4x4s and coaches as they came roaring down a three-lane motorway is a far stranger experience than you might at first imagine. The forces involved in the large vehicles travelling at speed are extremely disorienting. You begin to appreciate how much we take being mobile for granted – who ever stops unless they have to? To find yourself suddenly immobile and stranded while being passed by moving lines of traffic is also to find yourself in a mild state of shock. With the sun completely set it grew colder still: there is little warmth to be derived from the motorway lights, which seem to be much higher on their poles when seen from ground level, and the illumination they spread is bluer and less forgiving than when seen from the window of a speeding car.
Dark trees twitched overhead and the dazzling smeared lines of car headlights broke up the darkness. Across the motorway, separated from us by six lanes of traffic, was a small cluster of post-war apartment blocks: with the lights on in some of the living room windows it was possible to see the occupants moving around, their wall-mounted flatscreen TVs silently flaring and flickering behind them. If this didn’t already feel like a scene from a late 70s J G Ballard short story, the three of us were startled to hear what sounded like a gunshot and a woman’s scream coming from somewhere among the blocks. Both sounds were so distinct they had the sharpness of a hallucination: guns in real life rarely sound like the ones we hear in movies in TV shows – not that there was much we could do about it separated as we were from the buildings by six continuous streams of traffic.
Finally a mechanic pulled his van in behind the Cruiser. There was nothing he could do fix the car right there and then, but he said he would wait with us until a tow truck arrived, which would be about 40 minutes. It was also safe for us to get back into the car again. As we walking back towards the stricken Cruiser Izabel grabbed my arm and tugged me away from the white line dividing the motorway from the off-road area. ‘You can’t go that close to the line, Ken,’ she said. ‘You’ll get sucked in behind a passing lorry if you’re not careful.’ Her point was well made when a Megabus roared by leaving the car shaking and bouncing in its wake. We listened to whatever we could pick up on the Cruiser’s FM radio (who knew Donny Osmond was a DJ now?) until the tow truck finally arrived. Now there was a repair van, a stricken Cruiser and a tow truck all pulled in against the crash barrier in a small bleak oasis of stillness. With hydraulic gears, steel cables and the tow truck’s tilted platform, the Cruiser was slowly hauled up off the concrete: Izabel and watched the whole thing from the rear window in tow truck’s cab.
Something like an assemblage that was part machine, part animal and part human shelter, the scene being played out was perhaps one only its participants could appreciate fully. Everyone else was moving way too fast. It took a while to winch the gold car up onto the back of the truck but then we were roaring and juddering our way through the outskirts of North London. ‘See how close we were to London?’ Roger muttered as we came off the motorway about five minutes later. ‘Yeah, but just be thankful we didn’t break down around here,’ Izabel replied, indicating the complicated junction of ramps and roundabouts ahead of us. The ride through central London in the back of a tow truck, high above all the other cars and pedestrians, was fantastic.
Pictured above: Izabel Burton making her way towards truck’s cab as it prepares to winch up the Cruiser; two shots of the Cruiser mounting the back of the tow truck taken through the cab window; Cruiser and tow truck locked in a mechanical embrace – note the NHRA badge on the radiator grill.