Driven to extremes

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Don't scoff at the agonies car-makers, like celebrities, go through when deciding what to call their new babies. Be grateful for their suffering as it gives the rest of us something to snigger about. Whoever came up with the Mazda Bongo, for example, deserves our thanks, as do the people behind the Dodge Viper, the Honda Light Dunk, and the DeSoto Firedome.

Volkswagen recently continued this tradition, calling its new luxury car after a reckless boy-racer whose obstinacy and bad driving cost him his life. Phaeton was his name and he was the mortal son of Helios, sun god of Greek mythology.

Phaeton's sad tale can be quickly told. The adolescent boasts to his friends that his absent father is a god. Prove it, they say. So he travels to Helios's home to ask the divinity in person. When he arrives at the glittering palace, all gold, silver and polished ivory, his dad is delighted to see him. So delighted that he rashly promises the lad anything he wants. Phaeton does not hesitate: "I want to have a go in your flaming car, dad."

Helios winces. His flaming car is none other than the sun, which he drives across the sky every day. "Do you think that's wise?" he asks weakly.

"Why, I can barely control it myself and I've been driving it for years.

Isn't there anything else that would suffice?"

However, Phaeton will not be swayed and Helios cannot go back on his promise. The god hands over the reins of the fire-breathing horses, which pull the sun's gold chariot. They sense the presence of a learner-driver and soon the panicking Phaeton is careering out of control. He goes too far from the earth and everything starts to chill. Then he dips too near and everything starts to burn. Most of Africa is turned into desert. With the world on fire, it's time to call an emergency service. Zeus is summoned and ends the crazy journey - and Phaeton's life - with a thunderbolt.

By the way, the VW Phaeton can set you back pound;70,000. Don't make Helios's mistake - never let a teenager drive it.

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