“Here in my car I feel safest of all” – this is what marketers, bless us, refer to as a ‘consumer insight’ – one of the unspoken reasons people buy what they buy, do what they do, crystallised in a one-liner that seems obvious as soon as you’ve heard it. It’s no wonder this track enjoyed such a prosperous second life via advertising: the message is barely even subliminal. Okay, Numan is going out of his way to sound chilly about the prospect of Cartopia, but the gleeful clunk-click of the synths gives him away: compared to the messy, shabby confusion “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” left him in, “Cars” is pure liberation.
Or at least it starts that way, as a song of praise for atomisation, until Numan’s loneliness starts eating him up again. “Will you visit me please / If I open my door?” is one of the most pitifully lonesome lines in pop, a broken android reduced to a kind of social dogging – even if it can’t quite cut through the impression left by that triumphantly gawky keyboard line.
Though the comments may prove me wrong on this, “Cars” must have seemed at the time like the confirmation of a major new star – the cold shock of “‘Friends'” now married to a monster hook, Numan’s futuristic vision given rein to roam beyond whatever limitations his nominal band might have imposed. Whatever you thought of him now – seer, sad sack or sellout – he would surely be making smashes for years to come. But it never got any bigger than this, and beyond his supremely loyal fanbase Numan has become one of those many acts forever defined by a track or two. That can’t take away, though, from the confidence, panache and pop instinct “Cars” exhibits, or from the stab of truth in its lyric.