My wife glanced up from the morning paper, gave me a weary scowl and emitted a low groan. When I asked her what was troubling her, she hesitated for a moment. But it’s my job to know what’s in the papers and she realised I’d see it sooner or later. So best to get it over with, insufferable though she knew I’d be.
With a look of martyred resignation, she pushed the paper towards me and pointed at the headline: “Greatest car of the last 25 years? Bugatti? Aston Martin? Ferrari? Why the Ford Focus, of course.”
Looking back, I can see that the flash of triumph I beamed at her may have been tactless and ill-judged to promote domestic harmony.
But I hope that my fellow veterans of the battleground of marriage will understand when I say I just couldn’t help it.
I should explain that for a long while now, a recurring theme of our marital disputes has been my strong attachment to our less-than-pristine 11-year-old Ford Focus.
With three of our four boys off the family payroll (though two of them are still in residence, as I write), my wife feels that we ought to have a car that better reflects our improved financial circumstances and status in life.
Nothing too flashy, but something newer and smarter, with fewer scratches and dents - a middle-of-the-range Audi or BMW, perhaps, or possibly one of the latest VW Golfs.
She wants a car less ordinary than a Ford Focus - one that doesn’t proclaim, every time we pull up at the house of a friend or one of her sisters: “Mr and Mrs Suburban-Nobody have arrived!”
Indeed, for a good few years she’s been praying for the car to break down irreparably as her best hope of a change - but of course one of the great things about the Ford Focus is that it never does break down.
Ours doesn’t, anyway, touch wood (though admittedly you won’t find much of that on a Focus dashboard).
It has sailed through all its roadworthy tests without a hint of a problem and, apart from a recent thirst for water that may be due to a leak somewhere, it shows every sign of running as smoothly as ever for a good few years yet.
Nor are reliability and economy its only attractions.
Indeed, every time my wife raises the sore topic of upgrading, I give her the same lecture about the perfection of its gearbox, suspension, steering and road-holding and the sheer, brilliantly thought-out positioning of the controls, with everything just where you want it.
“It’s impossible to upgrade from a Ford Focus,” I keep telling her, “because it’s quite simply the best car in the world.”
And now the petrolheads at Auto Express have confirmed everything I’ve always said, since the blissful day 10 years ago when we finally got rid of our clanking, gas-guzzling, forever-breaking-down school bus of a Renault Espace and took delivery of the Ford.
As my wife so magnanimously pointed out to me, a survey this week to mark the magazine’s silver jubilee has crowned the first-generation Focus the greatest car of the past 25 years, streaking ahead of such automotive marvels as the 380km/h McLaren F1 (third place) and the 407km/h, R13.25 million Bugatti Veyron (seventh).
It never ceases to amaze me why so many of the rich feel obliged to splash out on these absurd machines when, nine-tenths of the time, there is nothing a McLaren or Bugatti can do in today’s traffic conditions that any modest family car can’t do far more comfortably and efficiently.
As it happens, one of my wife’s former employers, the late Mario Cassandro of the Mario and Franco restaurant chain, owned no fewer than three Ferraris, keeping one in London, one in New York and the third in Milan.
I’ll never forget the evening when, as a birthday treat for my wife, he took us from one of his restaurants to Tramp, a hellish nightclub frequented by the mega-rich.
Since we didn’t know the way, he heaved his portly frame into his London Ferrari and told us to follow him (there wasn’t room in it for three - unlike a Ford Focus, which takes five in moderate comfort and six at a squash).
Though the traffic was light, he then drove at a snail’s pace across the capital, never touching more than 30km/h, as I fizzed with road rage behind.
If that was how he drove, I thought, then why on Earth did he want a Ferrari - let alone three? I suppose the answer was that he was very rich (and very Italian) - and the poor old rich don’t seem to have a choice.
But then, to my wife’s exasperation, I feel the same way about most of the luxuries that millionaires seem compelled to possess. True, there have been times when I’ve thought it might be nice to have a second home in the country - or perhaps even in Ireland or France.
But then I think of all the bother and anxiety this would involve and I quickly change my mind.
There would be the constant feeling that we’d have to spend most of our weekends and holidays there, even if we fancied a change or staying put.
Then there would be the pain of losing our glasses or a book - frustrating enough in our suburban semi, but how much worse if we didn’t even know which country they were in. And wouldn’t we be forever worrying over whether we’d locked the back door or turned off the gas?
Similarly, I’ve sometimes thought I’d love to own a Monet or, even better, a Vermeer.
But what if I did? I’d never get a wink of sleep at night for rushing downstairs at every imagined creak of a floorboard, to make sure that no burglars had their sights on my masterpiece.
As for a super-yacht, wouldn’t that have all the drawbacks of a second home - with the added nightmare of being trapped aboard, for perhaps days on end, with a Tony Blair or a Peter Mandelson, who seem to wangle their way into every gin palace afloat?
Even when I set my sights lower, I realise that there’s nothing I really, seriously want in life that my suburban existence doesn’t supply.
A bigger garden? It’s a tempting idea, perhaps.
But think of all that extra work (and don’t talk to me about staff, with all the sacrifice of privacy and extra problems and responsibilities they would bring).
No, what a man needs is a garden no bigger than it takes to keep looking tidy with a couple of hours’ work a week (ideally performed by his wife), and a lawn that takes no longer than 12 minutes to mow.
Which is precisely what my home, along with millions of identical others, provides.
Average? Middle-of-the-road? Ineffably ordinary? If you insist.
But like the original Ford Focus, the way of life that goes with it is also the best. - Daily Mail