School Run Shame Caused Helen to Switch to Electric

Atypical 'School Run Mum' discovers the joys and economics of driving a Reva (G-Wiz) electric car to pick up the kids and run errands in Hampstead.

Published: 04-Feb-2005

HE old days you had to become an estate agent or, better still, a property developer to achieve that icy social death peculiar to Hampstead. Today, all you have to do is drive your children to school, preferably in a 4x4.

School Run Mum is the new social pariah. She teeters, embarrassingly, somewhere between Geri Halliwell and Jackie Stallone on our Richter scale of annoyingly over-indulged women, who by the way - and beside the point - have just too much money and, we suspect, a bit too much fun for someone their age.

Helen John has had enough of the sneers, the guilt and, more to the point, the hassle. She's going electric.

"The school run is not something most of us are proud to be doing, but it's something we have to do if you have children at different schools," she says. Her daughter, Christina,10, goes to Hampstead Parochial School, in Holly Bush Vale, and her son Caspar to Fordwych Nursery in West Hampstead. That was fine when they lived in West Hampstead, but became an hour's round trip in the car when they moved to Roderick Road, Gospel Oak.

Helen loved the nursery and wanted her son to follow her daughter there. They go to church at St John's Church in Hampstead, which is how they came to send Christina to Hampstead Parochial School.

She had tried other ways of getting there: walking took too long, the bus was unreliable. She made a valiant attempt at cycling, only the descent into Finchley Road down Frognal with a toddler on the back of the bike was just too scary to do more than once.

It took her the best part of a year to track down an electric car (those green types can be annoyingly secretive) but last week she test drove her first electric car and she's hooked.

She first considered going electric while stuck in a traffic jam on her way to school. "We used to see this Th!nk (Ford's brief flirtation with electric cars in the UK) in a garage in Back Lane and the children loved it and we'd always turn to look to see if it was there, if it was plugged in."

She tried to find out about getting one, only to find that Ford had stopped selling them here. Undeterred, she hunted around for an alternative- alternative to her second-hand BMW. She came across the G-Wiz, the annoyingly named but undeniably cute just-about-four-seater, which has a plug where the petrol cap normally goes and takes up about as much kerb space as a recycling crate.

"It's such a girlie car, isn't it?" she says, as we admired it outside her house where, compared to the gas guzzlers beside it, it looked like a cross between Fred Flintstone's peddle car and a mobile phone. She first read about it in Vogue. "Women don't read motoring magazines, we just don't," she says. "It's been marketed as a runaround for City boys but I think it's perfect for the school run."

She clicked the key to unlock it and we took our seats. It was cosy but not cramped, with enough room for two small children behind us.

We pulled out into the road in eerie silence. "You can't hear a thing can you?" The only sound was a faint electric whirr, which sounded a bit like a sewing machine.

The morning school run had been a dream. "Usually if you meet another car coming the other way in this road one of you has to reverse the whole length of the road to get past, but this morning I just tucked myself into a tiny gap and anyone could get by," she says.

Hampstead is a particular challenge in the morning now that East Heath Road is closed, but she made the trip in record time. "We go Fleet Road, South End Road, left into Downshire Hill then up a popular rat run up Willow Road which has become a real log jam since East Heath Road closed."

Helen's moment of triumph came in Holly Hill, when she came face to face with a Mercedes.

"The road is so narrow there anyway, but because of the angle of a parked van, this Mercedes was just stuck. It couldn't get through but I could."

The car was a hit with the children. "Christina thinks it's wonderful, but she'd like a purple one. She hates 4x4s with a passion and thinks that people who drive them are selfish show-offs."

In Holly Bush Vale, Helen left the 4x4s struggling through seven point turns while the G-Wiz was able to do a u-turn in time to wave to Christina's admiring friends on the way down. It is a real head turner.

"You get more looks than a sports car," says Helen as she took me for a spin round Primrose Hill. "I was worried that I would feel vulnerable, because it's so small, but I don't. I was worried that I would feel silly, which I don't. I might look silly, but I don't care."

There are so few G-Wizs around that she knows them all.

"There's a purple one and a black one in Primrose Hill and a powder blue one in South End Green, but I don't think it lives there. I think it had just stopped for a coffee," she says.

She may feel emotionally attached to her borrowed G-Wiz but she says the economics make it irresistible. "I was spending £60 a fortnight on petrol just on tiny short journeys. This costs about a penny a mile in electricity. You don't have to pay road tax, the congestion charge is free and you get a 75 per cent discount on residents' parking.

"In Westminster you can get free parking in certain car parks, and charge-up for free, and you can park at pay and display spots for free."

We tootled up Hampstead High Street. "Ooh, we got a sideways look from a traffic warden there - perhaps they've come from Westminster."

She stifled a triumphant crow. It was a bit like being in a 60s movie. "My husband thought that - he wondered if it was going to be delivered in the back of a lorry and be driven out, like in The Italian Job.

"It feels kind of freeing, but you have to be wary of the road humps because you're too narrow to straddle them. You just have to be aware of them.

"The other thing is that being so quiet people can't hear you," she says, adding that she suddenly realised people crossing Flask Walk to get to New End School had no idea she was there because they couldn't hear her engine.

My suggestion, which I've found works for anything connected with engine noise, is to turn the radio up a notch.

Back home, Helen opened up the bonnet, which was practically empty apart from a handy looking storage bucket which contained a long extension lead.

"This is how you charge it," explains Helen. "You stick one end in the car and the other end in an ordinary electric socket. The woman from G-Wiz said she just plugs hers in next to her mobile phone every night."

Her husband, Zareh, a builder, had initially scoffed

at the whole thing, making muttering noises about acceleration and pulling power, but once it arrived he lost no time in taking it to Camden and back for a trip to the tile shop.

"It takes all the guilt out of the school run, because I hate the idea that I'm creating pollution," says Helen. "You can't go over 40mph, but I've only twice been over 40 in the last six months, when I went on the motorway to visit my parents.

"The only drawback was that with two adults and two children in the car there would be no room for a buggy."

But we reasoned, with a car that size you could probably get the car more places than you could a buggy. "You could fit one inside a 4x4 - just drive it straight in," said Helen.

o The G-Wiz electric car costs about £7,000. Find out more



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