One reason for our British spinelessness is that we don't like to make a fuss. Which wasn't always the case. In fact, our cars used to look a perfect fright …
Most of us drive cars that are, so to speak, off the peg. Many Sunday afternoons in the late 1950s and early 1960s found me banged up outside Vale of Evesham pubs. My cell was my father's half-timbered Morris Minor estate or my uncle's flashier Sunbeam Rapier. My chief compensations were a bag of crisps with twist of wet salt and a bottle of Tizer – standard issue props, period colour.

A more exciting compensation was the opportunity to watch "specials" race past. Race? I am exaggerating. Most of these oddly bodged vehicles lurched. They coughed a high-tar cough. They wheezed and rattled. Their drivers must have been inured to permanent frustration. But they had nobody but themselves to blame, for they had built the spluttering machines themselves, in a shed in Dudley or King's Norton.

I found them immeasurably romantic. They were tree-houses on wheels, ad hoc constructions assembled by benign Frankensteins: Rootes Group engine, Riley transmission, Lanchester chassis, Alvis bonnet and so on.

No doubt it was increasing affluence that called time on the specials: this was the era of "you've never had it so good". Specials had, after all, been born of indigence, which, as much as necessity, is the mother of invention. If you can afford a second-hand banger, why go to the bother of building an unreliable one-off from scrap and elbow grease? Well, for the sheer pleasure of making something from scratch, something that is entirely personal.

That pleasure was thwarted, too, by the introduction of the MOT test, whose purpose is to determine roadworthiness, a quality that specials did not invariably possess. So it might be said that it was actually the combination of consumer choice and governmental regulation that cleared our roads of these Heath Robinson contraptions. They evinced a spirit that has today entirely disappeared. That lethal mix of increased spending power and legislative proscription has killed off more than the specials. Our wallets may have (mostly) become fatter and the sheer volume of things to buy may annually expand in exponential increments, but are we more fulfilled?

The first price we pay for plenty, for more cakes and more ale than we can possibly eat or drink, is an indifference to governmental curtailment of all choice save material choice. Indeed, we are so inured to this status quo that we tend to think of choice as signifying material choice and nothing else.

They were tree-houses on wheels, ad hoc constructions assembled by benign Frankensteins

The second price is that of passivity, which we, well, passively accept as our lot. The re-emergence of serious industrial action after a period when it seemed to be extinct serves to remind us of that passivity: it is the exceptional strike that proves the rule of our disinclination to make a fuss.

But make a fuss is what we should do, and not just about the appalling wages paid to workers whom government seeks to mollify by describing as vital but is, of course, unwilling to reward. The larger government – any government – gets, the pettier it becomes, for the more rules it can impose and the more agencies it can fund to implement those rules.

I know that the British believe they have little to learn from France, even though they migrate there in their hundreds of thousands. These people tend to inhabit anglophone ghettos, read British papers and watch British satellite TV, not appreciating the quality of life that France enjoys, which their very migration implicitly acknowledges as being unachievable at home. One thing they could learn is that the French regard the state as an antagonistic servant whom it is a matter of pride to exploit and oppose rather than an omnipotent master whom it is pointless to disobey.

A few weeks ago, I was jaywalking in provincial France when there emerged from a tunnel a convoy that was as heartening as it was life-threatening. I leaped onto the central reservation and watched three specials roar past. All open-topped, all bodged, all defiantly nonconformist. They were perhaps more agricultural, more sturdy than the Midlands contraptions of my childhood. But they unmistakably displayed the make-do exuberance.