London - For her 60th birthday last October, Theresa May probably splashed out on some more of those nice leopard-skin shoes. For my own 60th, I did something much more earth-shattering. I bought myself a silver sports car.
It is, for those who care about these things, a £20 000 (R330 0000) Volvo C70 GT Auto convertible with a 2.5 litre engine, capable of 210km/h.
It’s a familiar cliché that when men hit the midlife crisis and existential angst, plus baldness, sets in, rather than contemplate their mortality, they buy a Porsche 911 and have an affair with their secretary. But what about women?
Figures show that soft-top cars are now most likely to be bought by women in their 50s, with seven percent of this female age group driving them. Sales have quadrupled in just 15 years.
A sporty convertible is a status symbol for affluent middle-class women who reward themselves for years of toil - maybe illness, divorce or simply the long slog of bringing up a family.
My car was bought not because I was fretting over grey hairs and middle-age spread but simply because, after a lifetime of ferrying children in battered old people carriers, I thought it was time I had a car for me.
My attitude to cars has always been one of supreme uninterest. Actually, that’s not quite true: when I look at the photo of me taken in the 1980s, during my ‘smouldering period’, all hair and kohl eyes, wearing a red flying suit that matched my red Fiesta, I remember how proud I was of it.
Then there was a photo of me taken in the early 1990s, leaning on my Renault estate — a car I would spend the next decade filling with baby seats, cricket bats, musical instruments (including a double bass) and the contents of several university flats. The car that would follow was a Mitsubishi people carrier, a small bus that no one could possibly love. Sexy, it wasn’t.
So by 60 I thought it was time to get a car that would make my heart zing.
I am, of course, part of the ‘me’ generation, one of those wicked baby boomer beneficiaries of cheap housing and stable employment. Buying a fast car would no doubt add to the list of my sins. But what the hell, I love it. I’m proud to be a silver racer.
So why should a sports car appeal to women, who - unlike men - aren’t trying to compensate for the size of their equipment or ward off the Grim Reaper?
Well, there is nothing quite as wonderful, I have discovered, as putting the roof down, feeling the sun on your skin and actually feeling part of your surroundings. Driving ceases to be a chore and becomes fun; a pleasure.
Is there also an element of vanity? A fellow convertible driver asked me if I check out my reflection in shop windows at traffic lights. No, actually, but I confess I do like putting on my sunglasses and getting the occasional second look.
But, most importantly, it’s about financial independence. Things have changed a lot for women, and I can afford to buy it myself.
I’m not one for Prada handbags or Burberry outfits, but now and then I like to splurge. Because I can. Because I’ve made the money myself. When I went to look at the car in the showroom, the salesman actually asked me if I needed to discuss buying it with my husband! I was so angry, I got out my cheque book on the spot.
When it comes to the technical aspect, I can only repeat what a friend of mine once said: ‘I love cars but have no interest in what happens under the bonnet.’
There is one exception. I adore the sound of my car. When you put your foot down, it has this fantastic throaty roar which would even impress Jeremy Clarkson.
"I didn’t know your mum was a boy racer," said my daughter’s boyfriend when I gave them a lift.
I have to put up with a lot of ribbing from my children. They don’t entirely approve of this transformation from invisible mum into sunglass-wearing sports car driver. My son wouldn’t even let me pick him up from sixth form if I had the roof down.
Another complaint is that there isn’t enough room in the back. My reply is, at least I bought a four-seater. A man in the grip of a midlife crisis would have opted for a two-seater.
What about the environment, they demand. My main defence is that it has a petrol engine - and besides, I argue, I do sometimes travel by train. Women don’t tend to go for the silly cars, the Maseratis and Ferraris. More the convertible Renaults and Saabs, or maybe BMWs or Audis for the more daring.
Hilariously, recent research has shown that men driving fast cars get a testosterone surge, especially in towns when other men might be looking at them. I just get to Sainsbury’s more quickly.
I think it’s great that older women are rewarding themselves with cars they always wanted. But the writing may be on the wall for some silver speedsters.
Car manufacturers, it seems, are worried about the ageing profile of sports car drivers. Baby boomer males, who have been the mainstay of the fast car market, are now getting too old to climb into low-slung vehicles.
One car website even warned: ‘the Sports Car Market Will Be Atrocious After the Baby Boomers Die’. But that is ignoring the fact that baby boomer women are in much better health than their male counterparts. Finally all that yoga will pay off and we can go on climbing into sports cars until we’re 80.
And, everyone knows women are safer on the roads. Sensible, financially savvy, looking for a dignified good time, we older women are the perfect market. We don’t even break the speed limits.
But one factor may put the brake on: grandchildren. I don’t have any yet, but I worry that if I did, I might have to get myself a nice, sensible hatchback instead.
But then I remember the role model of my friend’s mum, Anne, who used to bowl about in an open-topped Vauxhall, the back stuffed with grandchildren. As far as I know, they all survived.
Life, after all, should be about fun. And after all those years of responsibility, that’s exactly what we deserve.